After dealing with many clients, hearing horror stories from around the web and generally seeing the poor quality campaigns and terrible customer service that some marketing 'companies' are putting out there, I decided business owners could benefit from a concise 'how to buy SEO' thread. In the past years, there have been other similar threads with great advice for business owners on this topic, but considering the ever changing game that is 'SEO', this thread will focus on what to expect and what to demand in 2015 and beyond. This post aims to answer the most common questions surrounding buying SEO for business and e-commerce, while also offering a 'checklist' that details the most important questions you should ask when buying SEO, so without further deliberation, let's check out the contents: What is SEO...really? BlackHat SEO and its purpose ? the past & present. Why you should demand WhiteHat SEO for 'real' businesses. What does WhiteHat SEO entail? What price can you expect to pay? Why is WhiteHat SEO expensive? How long will it take to see results? What happens after the results are obtained? Which company should I go with? (Checklist) And in conclusion.. Before we begin, let me introduce myself.. I've been working in this industry since 2007 and currently run an SEO company based in London, UK, specializing in corporate SEO. My client base consists of large brands and businesses in a wide range of categories and niches, all with slightly different demands and aims. Working in this field has taught me a lot about what business owners need, how to deliver it and the absolute importance of keeping their brand name as clean as a whistle, while still delivering excellent results. Unfortunately, while working in this industry, I have come across some online marketing companies that infuriate me; from their phone manner, to their lack of dedication to client results. It really puzzles me how some firms manage to stay in business. Having said that, there are some really fantastic companies out there that really do impress me, and even have the capabilities to make one a tad jealous from time to time! If I can direct your course away from the pathetic, money guzzling time wasters and towards the companies that will provide you with fantastic results, this thread will have served its purpose! Before we discuss how to buy SEO, we must first agree on what exactly SEO is! So without further ado.. 1. What is SEO.. really? Since the late 90s people have battled out this question on forums, in dingy bars, in the back of New York taxis and in bustling Mumbai restaurants.. To put it bluntly, SEO is the course of action that results in improving the rankings of a website in a given search engine (mostly Google) - First you find the 'keywords' that when searched for should make your website appear. Keywords are chosen based on the type of traffic you want to drive and users you want to target.. then when you're good and ready you get started with the SEO procedure itself.. But this 'procedure', and the 'how to' has been the fuel for heated debates (and even fiery arguments) around the world for nearly two decades. And to be honest, no one is backing down.. Everyone believes they have the 'golden ticket' to success, and to make matters worse, certain techniques and tactics have worked for periods of time, before being 'shutdown' in the following months ? however this doesn't stop a thousand people from swearing on Aladdin's underwear that a method still works.. So let's clear the fog, hose down the windows, and take a look at what criteria is really needed to gain those sought after search engine rankings! Firstly, let's talk about 'on-page' SEO. This is something that the majority of people do agree on (for the most part!). This basically requires that your website contains the elements it needs for good rankings ? think keywords correctly placed in pages with a favourable density, meta tags, meta descriptions and good linking structures and menus.. People will still argue these specifics 'till the cows come home, but in general the SEO community agrees somewhat that these factors are important and should be carried out in a fairly uniform way. Okay, get the guns, artillery and Sherman tanks out.. we're about to talk 'off-page' SEO.. This is the real 'meat' of SEO where men will kill their own brothers for failing to concede that one type of link is better than another.. This is the dark magic that occurs outside the walls of your website and in the battlefield that is the world wide web.. or for a less dramatic description, 'external elements'. 'Off-page' SEO is all about connections. When Google decides which websites to rank highly on its search engine for specific terms, it is generally agreed that it takes a look at the 'connections' and 'associations' that different websites have. That is to say, if you are trying to rank for the keyword 'best microphone' it would be beneficial to be linked to by other websites that discuss this topic, and for best results you'd want links that are from websites that only focus on this niche. Oh, and if you can get a link from the homepage of one of these sites, or even better if the anchor text mentions 'best microphones', then you're really in business (relatively speaking!). But this is all very vague.. we could sit here for hours and debate the best anchor text variety, or the optimal link velocity, or how to correctly manage social signals.. but you don't care about this! And you shouldn't! Your job is to run your business, and the job of whoever you hire is to figure out these annoying, tedious questions (we love it really!).. Hold on a minute though, for you to make the best decision, we need to look at the two distinct factions of SEO ? WhiteHat and BlackHat.. 2. BlackHat SEO and its purpose ? the past, present & future. After people figured out that SEO was based on connections from other websites (in the late 90s, when Google incorporated this into its algorithm) things got a bit out of hand.. In the early days, it was as easy as creating a few links from a few websites, and bob's your uncle, you had rankings. Then people realised, 'hey, wait a minute, maybe if I make more links, I'll get better rankings' ? and this worked! Before you knew it people were creating thousands of links, using 'link farms' and other shady techniques to propel their sites to the top of the listings. This was the birth of 'BlackHat' SEO. As Google grew smarter, it devised ways to root out these methods and the sites that were benefiting from them in what became a back and forth battle between online marketers and Google that is still raging today.. BlackHat techniques also grew stronger and more widespread as programmers started to develop software and 'tools' that would create thousands of links (often in just hours) that would shoot websites to the top of the rankings.. At the same time, WhiteHat SEO was also being employed across websites with other webmasters receiving fantastic results. While others would use software and build thousands of 'spammy' links. Those using WhiteHat SEO would only have to make a few connections to high quality related websites, to see the same results. As Google, knocked other sites off the listings left, right and centre, those using WhiteHat techniques didn't experience any penalization and continued benefiting from high rankings.. As Google got better and better at catching out the BlackHat spam techniques, the BlackHatters improved as well. Fast-forward to the late noughties and BlackHat techniques were starting to mimic WhiteHat more and more.. turning into what some would start to call 'GreyHat' (but what is still, in essence, BlackHat). While a WhiteHat campaign would focus on building up quality links over time and making real, lasting connections, BlackHat/GreyHat would copy this procedure at twice the speed, making connections that at first glance seemed high quality, but when looked into with further scrutiny, would unravel, exposing the spam that lay beneath. In recent years, GreyHat has evolved, where in some cases it can be difficult to decipher between GreyHat and WhiteHat campaigns. Private Blog Networks, or PBNs have been at the forefront of this complication, as connections from websites within these networks can be extremely hard to tell apart from legitimate websites. The problem here is that entire networks would be discovered by Google who would then 'shutdown' the entire PBN(deindex all sites from their search engine). (The Checklist section at the bottom of this post should help you decipher between the WhiteHat and GreyHat firms out there!) The BlackHat motto, past, present and future has always been the same, 'Cheap, fast results, that make money in the short term, but fade away fast'. This is why BlackHat marketing and methods will always have a place and there will always be demand for such services. A quick, spammy campaign is launched that holds together just long enough to grasp some quick rankings before the whole thing falls apart and you're back at square one (or worse). The aim here is to profit as much in this small window as possible, before the house made of straw comes tumbling down. Obviously these techniques have no place anywhere near your 'real' business! At the same time they have their function and shouldn't be 'poo pood' in general, horses for courses and all that.. 3. Why you should demand WhiteHat SEO for 'real' businesses. When you choose WhiteHat SEO for your business, you are choosing results that last, from a provider who cares about high quality marketing, and bringing the best results, not the fastest or cheapest. In most cases, those that perform WhiteHat SEO will be more reputable by nature. They are the organisations who will want to go the extra mile with your company for years to come and are passionate about delivering the highest quality SEO available. For the most part they aren't interested in quick results, quick sales and then never to speaking to you again. They want a lasting relationship that is beneficial for both parties over a long period. Real businesses last for a long time, they are not a flash in the pan operation, and their marketing shouldn't be either. Beware 'GreyHat' firms who fly the WhiteHat flag and lead you to believe you're getting a high quality campaign. The 'Checklist' part of this post will help you to avoid such organisations. 4. What does WhiteHat SEO entail? We've been over most of the elements of a WhiteHat campaign, but let's recap: High quality connections with other related and authoritative sites. Steady, slower results. Results that will last. Results that won't harm your business in the long term. Work is manually performed, without software. All content used in campaigns is written by a skilled writer. No auto-generation software is used for written content. 5. What price can you expect to pay? WhiteHat SEO is expensive, let's not pretend it isn't.. But at the end of the day, you're hiring a digital marketing firm, capable of bringing highly targeted users to your website who will convert very well.. so to be blunt, it's worth the cost. It's strange, sometimes people assume that because this type of marketing is 'digital', it's going to be cheaper, and isn't too important.. With major markets such as consumer electronics retailing nearly 50% of products online, 2015 is definitely the time to get serious about online marketing.. If you're looking at 30%-50% of your products being bought and sold online, your marketing campaigns should mimic this. Yet it still surprises me how little time, effort and money some companies are willing to put into this area of their business and how unwilling they can be to spend the extra bucks while they spend thousands in offline campaigns that often won't bring the same results.. If you're not looking to spend a decent budget on an online campaign, then simply don't bother.. It's better for your business to have no online campaign, than a cheap one that will waste your money, bring poor results and in some cases even damage your reputation and lose the existing organic results that you had acquired naturally. WhiteHat SEO for business is normally worked out on a monthly fee, with the shortest contracts usually sitting around the 6 month mark. The minimum you should expect to pay is around $1,500 - $2,000 per month. This should be expected for lower competition keywords, with higher competition keywords coming in at around $3,000-$10,000 per month. For large multi-national brands or corporations who have many keywords in highly competitive markets, $50,000+ per month can be expected. Again, these campaigns bring thousands of targeted visitors to your business who are ready to buy and engage with your service. A good marketing company should know your business and advise you if it's worth the spend after calculating a rough ROI. For example, if you can make $100,000 per month from traffic delivered to your website, a monthly spend of $40,000 is justified. Your market, keywords and aims all factor in to budget costs, so make sure to get a quote if some of these numbers make your head spin, the real thing to bare in mind here is that the absolute minimum you should expect to spend will lie around the $1,000 - $2,000 per month mark. 6. Why is WhiteHat SEO expensive? You're probably wondering why WhiteHat SEO comes with such a high price tag.. I'm sure you've seen other 'ranking/SEO' services for a fraction of the price at merely a few hundred dollars, if that.. Well, WhiteHat SEO is expensive because it uses expensive 'ingredients'. It's perfectly feasible to create an online marketing campaign for under a few hundred dollars: Auto-generate some content: $10 at most, free if you already have the software Blast this auto-content through your software and make some link: $30 (cost to run software based on 'proxies' and 'captcha solvers') At under $40 cost, you could be charged $100, netting the marketer a $60 profit.. not bad.. However this is 'BlackHat'. It does have its purpose for those who want to benefit from cheap short term rankings, make some cash then repeat the process on another site. But again, if you want successful long-term online marketing for your real business, you'll want to steer clear.. So let's look at where your money goes with a WhiteHat campaign: Content A huge amount of the budget is spent on creating high quality engaging content. Remember a minute ago we discussed building 'connections' from high quality websites? Well placing your link in a body of high quality text, does wonders to establish that connection. High quality writers aren't cheap ? you're looking at anywhere between $7-$25+ per article.. so to take an average of $10 per article, $100 will only get you 10 articles (or 10 bodies of text to put your connecting link into).. starting to see why it's so expensive? Press Releases WhiteHat SEO usually includes a press release of some sort or another, again the content for these press releases isn't cheap, and combined with the cost of syndicating this content across big players in the online media world comes in at several hundred dollars a piece, and that's only on certain networks.. Long term media partners are just one of the tools in a WhiteHat SEO company's arsenal. You're budget goes towards keeping those connections, and often submitting content to their networks and allowing your website a 'soapbox' to relay your brands message (and ultimately increase rankings). HQ Partners As mentioned in the press release section, quality partners and networks make up a good deal of WhiteHat SEO, finding placements for your business and ensuring maximum benefit from these connections takes time and effort. You are also paying for exclusivity, gaining access to authoritative websites that others are not able to make connections with. Company Overheads When dealing with a real marketing company there are substantial costs involved. The company has full time, qualified staff, researchers, web developers, programmers and many other overheads to consider. There is a huge difference between hiring a digital marketing firm who will go through your campaign in careful detail, offering advice and guidance through the years and hiring a one off freelancer, who'll go in do the 'job' and leave. 7. How long will it take to see results? This is a complicated question to answer, since the results are based on so many factors, unique to your campaign and market. For a very general answer, between 4 to 8 months is considered fair for average campaigns using WhiteHat techniques. The aim is to build the website's popularity up naturally over time and create the conditions necessary for it rise organically in the search engine results. I advise all my clients that if they are looking for results sooner than 3 months, they are better off refraining from any SEO campaign.. There are hundreds of companies that will promise you results in this time, but you can guess the type of tactics they will employ to achieve this.. In most cases, it's not 'natural' to rank this quickly and the procedure necessary to see results like this will almost always harm your site in the long run.. You may experience great results for a few months, but once the string starts to unravel, it can take just days before you're standing there naked, with only one sleeve of your sweatshirt left and a whole lot of wool in a heap beside you.. To be blunt; slow, steady results last. Quick results fade. (In most cases). 8. What happens after the results are obtained? Any good marketing company should have a well thought out action plan to be rolled out after results are achieved. Often referred to as 'maintenance campaigns', these aim to keep the current rankings where they are by sending continued positive signals toward the site and maintaining withstanding connections. Again, with BlackHat SEO this is rarely factored into the equation, since it is rare for a website to last this long when such techniques are employed and often 'maintaining' results is the last thing on the marketer's mind ? simply achieving them is viewed as the goal. You can estimate spending a fraction of the initial monthly cost of your campaign when in 'maintenance mode' since far less work needs to be done. The main reason for this further campaign is to show Google that you are still relevant and deserve the position you've been given. It's a bad sign for a site to receive a lot of activity surrounding it, shoot to the top of the results and then go completely quiet. Google sees this as very unnatural. This is of course another benefit of WhiteHat campaigns, they are carried out in such as way as to stimulate real interaction in the first place, so a maintenance campaign furthers this work. 9. Which company should I go with? (Checklist) There are tons of great companies out there who can work wonders for your website and business delivering excellent results and even doubling or tripling your income! But.. there are also thousands that will do the opposite, eating up your budget then spitting out your website.. Here's how to make sure you're in the first camp, with my handy checklist! Do they immediately quote you a price, or do they need time to review your needs? Have they researched your niche/market? Have they built a campaign around your needs and aims? Do they talk about on-site SEO and changes that must be made to your site? Do they offer these 'on-site' changes as part of the campaign? Are their promises 'too good'? Is their time frame too quick? Do they have a plan for after you rank? Do they even mention this? How secretive are they about their campaigns and the actual work they do? Do they use 'buzz' words and 'waffle'? Are they a 'legit' business? Are they registered? Do they have an office? Are they easy to contact? Do they have a receptionist? Are they easy to contact? Are they pleasant to speak with? Do they require you to sign a contract? Do they say 'no' if your demands are unrealistic? Do they quote realistic prices? Below are the questions that you should ask yourself and/or the potential marketing company ? if they haven't covered something below, or you feel there answer is a bit strange, it may be time to search for another organisation.. If on the other hand they pass with flying colours, you may have just found your digital marketing firm! Do they immediately quote you a price, or do they need time to review your needs? Be alarmed if a company is able to instantly quote you a price! Unless on the rare occasion they have just finished an extremely similar campaign, they shouldn't be able to quote you an exact price straight away! This is because it takes time to research the market and niche before the cost can be calculated. A rough ball-park figure is okay, but an exact price is a warning sign! Have they researched your niche/market? Continuing from the point above, they should have thoroughly researched your niche before going ahead with any proposals from their side. If they don't take the time to look into your specific market and needs then they can't truly know how much it should cost, or what they'll need to do ? you are dealing with a company whose ethos is based around a 'one size fits all' mentality! Avoid! Have they built a campaign around your needs and aims? They might have researched your niche, and they may know what they will need to do to rank a website highly in your market. But do they understand you? Do they understand why you want to be ranked? Good digital marketing companies will go the extra mile to find out what it is you're selling or what service you provide, this will enable them to not only bring you traffic, but ensure relevant, targeted traffic that is more likely to convert. Fantastic digital marketing companies will go the extra mile and make some rough calculations to see if such a campaign will be profitable.. There are many scenarios where the ROI will be negative based on the cost of the campaign vs the possible profit from products/services sold.. Does the marketing company mention anything about possible ROI? Have they gone this extra mile to learn your business and understand what you're trying to achieve? Do they talk about on-site SEO and changes that must be made to your site? If they ignore your site, and purely focus on 'off-page' elements, something is wrong. Unless, in the extremely rare case, your website is already perfect, they should go through necessary changes that should be made. These are SEO basics. Do they offer these 'on-site' changes as part of the campaign? It's all very well talking to you about these changes, but will they implement them for you? If a company doesn't really care about the state of your website, then it can't really be concerned with the success of the campaign since these two elements go hand in hand. Are their promises 'too good'? Be suspicious of any company that promises you 'the moon'. The adage, 'if it seems too good to be true', comes to mind, and should be considered when reviewing proposals. Is their time frame too quick? Again, if the time frame is too quick, alarm bells should sound. They are either performing some techniques that you don't want associated with your business, or they are flat out lying to you. Do they have a plan for after you rank? Do they even mention this? It's important to understand how they view you as a client. Do they want a long-term business relationship, keeping you on top of the SERPs for years to come, or are they after a 'wam, bam, thank you mam' type deal. Have they informed you of what happens after the results are achieved? If they have not, then perhaps they don't want any long term commitments, or they haven't thought about this element; two reasons to say 'goodbye'. How secretive are they about their campaigns and the actual work they do? Online marketing companies aren't going to lay down their exact plan for you, this rarely happens, after all you could be a competitor looking to benefit from their hard work and tried & tested models. However, they should be open with you about what they do and happy to have a chat about what work is carried out and how they achieve results to some degree. Beware of companies who just want to take your money, while snapping at you if you ask too many questions. Firstly, it's just bad etiquette, and secondly there may be something more sinister behind their silence.. such as lack of real understanding themselves! Do they use 'buzz' words and 'waffle'? Watch out for companies who try and palm off your questions with 'buzz' words and meaningless descriptions. They may 'talk the talk', but you run the same risks as mentioned in the previous point. Are they a 'legit' business? Are they registered? Do they have an office? Are they easy to contact? Do they have a receptionist? Are they easy to contact? If you're running a legitimate company, you want to do business with a legitimate company. Do a little background research and find out who you're dealing with. You might be dazzled by the first few conversations you have with them, but then find it increasingly hard to contact them after you've paid. Do they have a phone number? You'd be surprised what a receptionist can tell you about a company. Are they professional and happy to answer your call? Or does it sound like you just caught them with their trousers down halfway through microwaving a mini calzone? Someone who only wants to communicate via instant message or email is also a huge no no! Are they pleasant to speak with? If you're going to be using this company for a long time, you'll probably spend a decent amount of time on the phone with them. It makes for a better business relationship if they're pleasant to speak with, you don't want to feel like you're annoying them every time you call or have a question. They don't have to be a barrel of laughs, but someone you enjoy discussing your business with is a definite plus! Do they require you to sign a contract? If there's no contract, then it's very strange. There are some exceptions to this rule, but as a whole you'd expect a legit company to operate with a legally binding contract. This is for your security and theirs.. Tread carefully if there's no contract as you could find yourself with no legal recourse. Do they say 'no' if your demands are unrealistic? A good company will not take your money if your demands are unrealistic. If you ask for a golden spaceship, lunch with the queen and an unlimited supply of cherry flavoured limited edition Star Wars candies, you should be turned down. Be very wary of a company that nods and smiles at your every request. They're most likely trying to get your money as fast as possible without a single intention of doing what you ask.. If you think what you're getting is too good be true.. you know the rest. Do they quote realistic prices? Again, based on the rough pricing figures I mentioned earlier on, do their prices seem realistic? There are very few circumstances where you'll get legitimate WhiteHat SEO for under $1,000 a month.. You've seen what this stuff costs, so if you're able to get a campaign for $500, question how they're able to do that while still making a profit.. Simple answer; they're cutting corners at some point. 10. And in conclusion.. Well that's the end of my 'How to buy SEO' guide, I hope you've found it useful! At the end of the day you should work with a marketing company that you feel comfortable with and are happy to trust with the reputation of your business. After all, the work they do will result in how your brand is perceived online by millions of people. If you think the marketing company you are dealing with is a good reflection of the quality and standing of your business and that they truly understand your aims, market and business model then they are the right fit for your organization! Along the same lines, make sure you understand how they work too. There is an old saying, 'never invest in things you do not understand' and it definitely applies here when contemplating this important business decision. And my final piece of advice: Buying no SEO at all is better than buying bad SEO. If you have a quick question, feel free to PM me or leave a reply here. Good Luck!