If you’re an SME considering investing in SEO services for your website and you’re wondering if it’s worth the money, this post is for you. I start off by explaining what you shouldn’t spend your money on and why. I’ll then try and help you make the most of your SEO budget and explain what you can do yourself to help your website to rank better, without any technical knowledge.
The trouble with SEO…
If your business has had SEO help in the past, I’m guessing you’re in one of two places: either your website rankings have plummeted, or your efforts aren’t getting you the results that they used to. This might be as a result of poor SEO practices in the past, or not enough good SEO being done, or a combination of both. It’s a lot harder to get results than it used to be. When I’m given a site to evaluate, common problems I see are:
- Over optimisation – e.g. keywords used too much, or a lot of interlinking between pages.
- Under optimisation – e.g. slow sites, or not enough content relating to desired search terms.
- Spammy links – e.g. lots of links pointing to the site from low quality directories, forum profiles, mass duplicate PR links etc.
- Lack of content – it’s almost impossible to rank with the core business pages alone – e.g. ‘home’ ‘about’ ‘services’ ‘contact’ etc.
All of these issues have been tackled by Google’s changing algorithms over the past few years and that’s why it’s not as easy to get quality website traffic as it used to be. So on that note, I’ll move on to the subject of SEO cowboys.
Avoiding the cowboys
Since there’s no organisation that regulates the provision of SEO or marketing services, there are a lot of cowboys out there that charge for services which will do little for your website, or will cause it a lot of damage. Invest in these guys and you don’t just stand to waste the money you’ve spent on the spam SEO. Once your site has been hit by a Google penalty, you’ll have to pay someone to clean up the damage. This can be costly and you can take months to recover. In fact, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Web Spam team, has confirmed that sometimes it is better to start afresh – in other words, your site may never recover.
Let’s take an example of a service I wouldn’t personally recommend. For under £50 a month, ‘Click Submit’ promise to get you noticed in the search engines with their ‘SEO strategy’.
So what does this include?
First, they promise to “submit your site to every search engine in the world” – yep, thats a whopping 150,000 search engines. Well, if you’re a UK company, frankly, there are only 3 search engines you should really be concerned with – Google, Yahoo and Bing – with Google being the most important. If you’re international, there are a few more to add to that list that are country-specific but the vast majority of their 150,000 search engines are absolute crap that nobody ever uses or cares about. You can submit your own site to Google easily, and you don’t need anyone else to help you.
Second, they promise to “build relevant inbound links” (backlinks) to your site, claiming that “the more backlinks your site has, the higher it will be ranked”. Again, to be frank, this is also a load of crap – it is quality that counts, not quantity, and a site can rank at the top of Google with just a handful of quality links. A site can equally be delisted by Google even though it has thousands upon thousands of links. Links are essentially votes for your website, and the powerful votes count – those that Google sees as trustworthy, relevant and authoritative. On the flip side, bad links are like negative votes. So links from Click Submit’s “database of around 150,000 link partners” which are made up of “directories, link pages, blogs, forums and general websites” are most likely to count for nothing and may cause more harm than good. Given their promise to build you between “100 and 300” of these backlinks every 3 months, you’re almost certain to get hit by a Google penalty before the year is out.
If you want your website to rank well in Google, naturally you’d expect that you need to follow Google’s guidelines as to what it views as a good website. Its webmaster guidelines are pretty clear as to what links are unacceptable – these include:
- Low-quality directory or bookmark site links (very few directories are not ‘low quality’)
- Links that are paid for
- Links embedded in widgets
- Links in paid-for posts (articles)
- Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”)
- Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns
- Links that aren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner
- Text advertisements
- Paid advertorials or native advertising including links
- Links with optimised anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites
- Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites
- Forum comments with optimised links in the post or signature
In other words, Google advises against pretty much everything Click Submit offers. But, you might ask, “what of all their claims as to their satisfied customers“? Can you trust them? Well, if you read the site carefully, you’ll see that they only have 120 testimonials out of a claimed “3,500 customers”. And although those 120 reviews give them an impressive high Trustpilot rating, there is no way of knowing that these are genuine – I have around 50 email addresses myself and I could easily register on Trustpilot send out testimonial requests to each of those as ‘customers’ and give myself an excellent rating. Most are from quite random names like ‘Ken54321’, and this is the only review they ever wrote. So this tells you nothing. Some reviews are a little more telling though, like Greg Clark from Islington who has clearly been slapped by Google for spammy links. These are the sort of services you need to avoid – and there are plenty of them. Yes, they are cheap, but in the long run, they could prove very expensive for your business.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t follow that because an SEO service is expensive, it’s good either. I’ve had a number of clients that have been previously ripped off by big agencies, having little to show after a year’s investment costing them thousands. They’re often tied in for 12 months minimum, and the contracts are watertight – offering at very best a few months more of crap SEO for free if they haven’t got the results they were looking for. So how do you find a good SEO expert?
Choosing a good SEO expert
Just because the world of SEO is full of cowboys, doesn’t mean there aren’t any good SEO experts. There are plenty of really great people out there who are extremely knowledgeable and experienced and who can do wonders for your business (and who, by the way, usually prefer to call themselves something different these days, thanks to the spam associations attached to the term ‘Search Engine Optimiser’, also shortened to SEO – ‘Inbound Marketing Consultant’ is my preference). It’s true that many work for the big reputable agencies like Distilled and command high fees – albeit justified from their proven track records, but there are plenty who work for smaller, more affordable agencies or work alone. If Distilled and the like are out of your price range, here’s how I would recommend you go about finding a good SEO expert.
Start with the people you know in your professional network and put the feelers out for those that know a SEO expert or have solid SEO experience. Local SEO and online marketing groups can be another good place to find the right people, and you’ll often get the chance to listen to what they have to say in the form of a presentation. Looking around some of the best SEO blogs is another place to find good people – I recommend:
- Search Engine Watch
- Search Engine Land
- SEO Book
- The Moz Blog
- The Moz Q & A Forum (look at the answers)
- State of Digital
Looking at the comments can be just as helpful as the articles themselves as you’ll get to see the good marketers reason and debate over topical issues and give really good answers. Of course, if the expert you want is beyond your budget, you should still be able to get a recommendation from them. The good marketers within the community are always recommending each other and swapping projects.
Look for someone with experience that they can back up, and ask them for examples of what they’ve done for others – not just of what results they’ve achieved but how they went about it. In addition, ideally they will have no clients within the same industry as you, and will at least be in the same country.
To vet your shortlist, don’t simply ask for references. It’s very easy for any of us to give you references from happy customers but it doesn’t mean we’re any good. Instead, ask them questions such as how they will approach the project, and what their values are. Here’s a great list of 12 questions that should help you.
It’s also worth looking around online to see if they’ve written or contributed anything, if that’s not how you found them in the first place. Most good marketers contribute a lot to the online community and it gives you a good idea of their knowledge and expertise.
Finally, following up on name dropping is a good way to see if they really have happy customers. Ask them who they’ve worked with and then get in touch with those people via social sites or through Linked In to see if they’re happy with the work that was done. (Thank you to the lovely Rand Fishkin for these tips on finding a good Search Engine Optimiser – you can watch his Whiteboard Friday video on the subject here.)
So let’s talk about what their strategy should look like for your website.
The ‘SEO’ that works now
The SEO strategy that works best for pretty much all websites is as follows:
- Good content.
- A well optimised website.
- Relevant, trustworthy links.
This applies to nearly all sites across the board, with the exception of websites selling pills, gambling, mortgages and X-rated content. Those industries are much harder to get results in and you’ll need a specialist SEO expert if that’s where you are.
So far as good content goes, it’s a common misconception of small businesses that you can just ask for a link to your business website and people will give you one. People don’t link to business website ‘services’ pages unless those people are your mum, your friends or your staff – they’ve got no reason to. People do link to interesting content though, and a good SEO expert will help you create a content strategy that will get people visiting your site, linking to it, as well as sharing it socially. This can be tough for many businesses that are frankly not very interesting to the rest of the world, and sometimes you have to get pretty creative. For example, if you’ve got a telecoms company, talking about industry news might be at best mildly interesting to other telecoms dealers, but on the whole, it’s not going to prompt many people to share or link. Talking about some amazing new technology that will change how we communicate and slash the cost of telecoms by thousands, just might. Here’s a great post by Shelli Walsh on being more creative with your online campaigns – and I really recommend her free eBook too.
Keep in mind that link building should never be easy. If a link is acquired easily (like via a directory that accepts any business listing), it’s probably not worth having. So try to have realistic expectations of your SEO expert, and remember that quality counts: 1 authoritative, relevant link to your website is worth far more than 1,000 low quality irrelevant links.
Working with a small budget
Most small businesses who approach Angel for SEO services have a budget of around £250 a month in mind, and any SEO expert reading this will chuckle at that because that’s a very tight budget to get anything done. Hourly rates vary a great deal in the industry as you can see from this graph with £45 ($76) – £118 ($200) per hour being the most common rates (Angel’s standard rate is £35 per hour).
With such a small budget, can anything really be achieved? It certainly can but if you’re working with that kind of money, you can’t just sit back and let it happen. My advice is as follows:
- Target locally: It’s easier to get your website ranking in your local area for competitive terms than it is to get it ranking for the same terms across the UK. So start local, working on a local strategy with your chosen SEO expert, selecting perhaps 2 or 3 nearby areas that you get most of your customers from. If you have more than one branch, make sure your SEO expert has plans to optimise for each branch.
- Do some of the work yourself: Work with your SEO expert on a strategy that includes you writing content and press releases or sharing things socially and building up your social following. If you’re willing to write content for your website and campaign, you’ll achieve a lot more for your money.
- Pay for training: Training time with your SEO expert is a great way to use some of your budget as you can take away what you’ve learnt and do more work yourself. Alternatively, there are plenty of great guides you can read yourself on the net to get you started – I recommend starting with the Moz SEO beginner’s guide, followed by Neil Patel’s Advanced Guide to Link Building and the Distilled University. Update: On Blast Blog’s link building guide is a newer worthy resource to add to your must-read list.
- Stretch your budget to cover some up-front work: If you can afford a bit more as a one-off, ask whether you can pay to get any website optimisation work out of the way first, if it’s needed – rather than spread this over a few months. This might include adjusting things such as on-page optimisation, internal links and website speed. It’s also worth making sure all the content on your website can be easily shared through social channels at the start, as this will help you build traffic even further. These extra hours paid for at the start will give your later efforts a better chance of success. Make sure you check out any government grants available to you, as these are great for covering up front work.
- Consider also stretching your budget to trial a Pay Per Click (PPC) campaign while your SEO gets going: This might not be as expensive as you think. At Angel, we manage campaigns for some small businesses with a PPC budget of just £150. We charge a reasonable set up fee (depending on what you want), and then an ongoing management fee of £37.50 with the rest going on the cost of clicks. Through landing page optimisation and local targetting, we can get some very good results in many sectors, even on this shoestring budget, which can help generate a revenue stream for you to fund your ongoing SEO.
- Don’t be afraid to invest in one really good piece of content from time to time: Many SMEs don’t realise the value of one fantastic piece of content, i.e. a ‘linkable asset’ – it might take hours to plan and prepare but it has the power to attract hundreds of links and shares that will boost your rankings far quicker than writing a lot of mediocre articles.
- Use any in-house staff: Make sure you know about any talents they have, especially copywriting or editing, and make use of them if they have any free time. Staff may also be willing to share any new website content socially – there’s no harm in asking.
Finally, there are a few jobs you can get on with yourself to help your budget and efforts go further.
Jobs you can do yourself
Although a good SEO expert will guide your efforts to ensure they are aligned with the overall strategy (and these will probably include a lot of writing…), here are some jobs you can do yourself starting right now:
- Get on Google places: Get your business on Google places for business and get the website verified – it’ll take 2-3 weeks for the card to come through so you may as well start now.
- Use Twitter: Create a twitter account and start building your following. Here’s a great guide by Neil Patel on doing this.
- Build relationships: Consider whether there are people within your industry that aren’t in direct competition to you – e.g. if you offer piano lessons, a piano tuning service or piano shop are two good examples. Another example is people who offer the same service as you, but in a different territory that you don’t cover (such as abroad). Reach out to these people, connect socially, and retweet and share their stuff. Build as many of these connections as possible. There’s opportunities there to feature on each other’s websites, share each other’s content and link to each other which your SEO expert will be able to help you develop in a Google-friendly way.
- Contact your customers: Start getting in touch with people you’ve helped in the past and ask if they’d be willing to offer a case study or testimony. This will be great content for your website, from a sales perspective and from an SEO perspective as you’ll find happy customers are usually willing to link to and/or share a case study that features them.
- Don’t forget you can also grow your business without SEO: Here are 15 ways.