If you have a website for your business, you’ve probably heard about search engine optimization (SEO), but if you haven’t, here’s a brief overview: SEO is an important marketing tool that helps organically (unpaid) expand your site’s visibility in search results.
Showing up prominently in search results for a set of targeted key search phrases is essential for a business to succeed online, but understanding how to achieve those higher rankings isn’t something most business owners have the time to learn with their busy daily schedules.
That’s where SEO agencies come into play. With search engines updating their algorithms almost constantly and with more than 200 factors that determine why a website shows up where it does for a given search, though, it’s common for even the most well-meaning agencies to provide inaccurate information about what is necessary to meet your goals for your site.
Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind when you’re deciding on which agency should handle the optimization of your website:
Content is King
The number one goal of search engines is to provide each user with the best possible answer to the question they’re asking. Therefore, making sure your content is original, engaging and answers the questions you want to show up for (or the questions you hear most often from your clients) should be a major priority.
Even if the code of your site is optimized to display the perfect page title (the clickable link in a search result) and description (the text below the clickable link) for a particular search, you’re not going to keep people on your site if your content doesn’t adequately answer their questions. Search engines take this into account when determining where to rank your site the next time somebody asks the same question, so you can expect the sites with the most helpful content to show up highest in search results.
Mobile-Friendly Sites Rank Better
In March, Google announced they were making an important change to their ranking algorithm to make it easier for users to get “relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices.” With mobile web users now exceeding desktop users worldwide, having a responsive (mobile-optimized) site is becoming a necessity for showing up well in search results.
While sites that are not responsive will not technically be punished by search engines, those sites that are mobile-friendly will receive a rankings boost for searches from mobile and tablet devices. If your site isn’t already mobile-friendly, you should be aware that its potential to rank at the top of search results will only decrease over time as more and more web traffic comes from mobile devices.
Keyword Research vs. Keyword Application
Even if you’re only marginally aware of SEO, you’ve probably heard about the importance of “keywords” in determining where your site shows up in search results. There are a lot of misconceptions around keywords, and a lot of that can be attributed to the difference between keyword research and keyword application.
As recently as a few years ago, search engines relied heavily on SEO specialists to help them determine what a particular site should show up for. The easiest way for an SEO specialist to do this was to take the keywords a website owner wanted to show up for and put as many of them as possible into the code of the website.
If somebody searched for “website design richmond va” and the website code included those keywords, that site would be included in the list of search results, regardless of whether it actually had anything to do with web design. You can probably imagine the issues that arose due to this, but you can read more about the black-hat SEO tactic of “keyword stuffing” to get a better understanding of why this wasn’t a sustainable solution for search engines.
The important thing to focus on now is keyword research, or identifying which key search phrases people will be most likely to use when trying to find the information your site has to offer. Try to think of the questions people ask most often when you deal with them in person, over the phone or via email, and incorporate those questions—and their answers—into the content of your site.
If an SEO agency tells you that keywords are essential to showing up in search results, see if you can get clarification from them on whether they’re talking about the code of the site or the research that goes into the content. This is an important distinction to make when determining whether an agency is using the best practices or likely to be “gaming the system” with harmful tactics.
Building on that last point, the complexity of how search engines work means it’s unfortunately very easy to convince people who are unfamiliar with SEO best practices that certain things are necessary or cost a certain amount to make happen. There are several SEO tricks Google warns against, so be wary of the following when you’re conducting your research:
- Any company guaranteeing a #1 ranking in search engine results: There is no way with organic search engine optimization to guarantee any sort of placement in search results. This is especially true if the company promises results within a specific time frame. Following best practices will help your site to improve its ranking potential over time, but with the ranking factors changing on a regular basis, search engine results are subject to change as well.
- Unpaid SEO vs. Paid Search Engine Marketing: While there is no guarantee of placement in the organic search results, you can pay to advertise your site in pre-determined areas on search engine results pages. These advertisements are typically pay-per-click, meaning you set a budget for how much you are willing to pay over a given period of time for your ad to show up in the ad positions, and money is taken from that budget each time a visitor clicks on the link to your site. Most web users also recognize these as advertisements and tend to skip over them despite their placement at or near the top of the page. Make sure you know how your money will be used with the agency you move forward with, and ask what their primary focus is (SEO/SEM).
- Any agency that seems secretive or will not explain their work: Be sure to ask questions if you are confused or if anything seems unclear – SEO is a complex process and it’s natural to have at least a few items you need clarification on. If the company isn’t willing to provide answers about their process, explain past successes or detail their reporting/communication process, you may not be able to get a solid answer on what you’re paying for after you’ve begun working with them.
- Extremely high prices for ongoing SEO services: While each agency will likely cater their SEO plans and services to fit the primary ranking factors they’ll focus on, there is no way for any company to dedicate enough time to cover all of the 200+ ranking factors each month. Organic SEO is a long-term process that should evolve over time and be modified to reflect recent updates. Unfortunately, a lot of agencies and consultants are out to capitalize on business owners’ desire to get found quickly and will state they can do so if they pay a high enough price. The market for SEO service prices is variable, but you can review our SEO Plan Pricing for an idea of how much you should be spending for measurable results. If a company is suggesting it takes thousands of dollars a month to optimize your site, you’re most likely overpaying.
Bringing it all Together
While navigating the world of search engine optimization can seem daunting or confusing, it isn’t as mysterious as many companies make it sound. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand what your SEO company will be doing to help your site show up in search results.
Remember to write content that clearly and accurately describes your products or services, and focus on the keyword research to incorporate questions and answers into your website. Keep in mind that the longer you wait to go mobile-friendly with your site, the lower its potential to show up above sites that have been built to respond to tablets and cell phones.
Finally, make sure you are aware of the potential scammers that are out there to capitalize on people who don’t know what to expect or what questions they should be asking. If you keep all of these things in mind when researching companies to optimize your site, you’ll be in great shape to start climbing the ranks for your targeted search phrases.