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Should You Hire an SEO Consultant?

What to know, what to expect and what you can do yourself

Having a successful online business requires quality products, customer demand, good customer service, plus one other not-so-minor detail: the ability for shoppers to find the items you sell.

The Internet is filled with millions of products, and you may have found that your items or Web store are not among the top search results on your favorite search engine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it is important to position your site and/or listings on search engines as best as you can. Many shoppers won’t look past the second page of search results to find what they need.

We know optimizing your listings or site can take a lot of time and know how. You have to research the keywords potential buyers are using and then you have to incorporate them into your listings or site. If only someone could do it for you.

Actually, someone can. They’re called an SEO consultant. We wanted to know a little more about what it’s like to work with a consultant so we did some research and talked to one. Read on to see what we learned—and whether hiring a consultant is the right move for you.

An SEO consultant provides expertise

You may be wondering what exactly SEO is. So let’s start there.

“SEO, or search engine optimization, is the practice of making adjustments to a website’s content and obtaining links to a website in order for the site to come up higher in the results when prospective buyers are entering terms into search engines that relate to products available on the site,” says SEO consultant Kent Hinesley, who works for online women’s clothing retailer LuLu’s.

“Consultants identify opportunities to improve search engine rankings for words that are most likely to be used by prospective customers”

You can assess your site or listings on your own after researching keywords. But this can take a lot of time, as does figuring out what adjustments you should make to your site to make it more search engine friendly.

As if that’s not challenging enough, you also need to be aware that search engines are “dynamic” and continuously change, according to SEO Consult, a company that helps businesses optimize their sites.

Working with an SEO consultant takes that stress off you, and puts it onto someone who knows SEO inside and out. Consultants know multiple techniques to help merchant sites and product listings rank higher on search engines. They know how to research keywords, incorporate them into sites and get backlinks to obtain higher rankings. Plus, they know that not all techniques will work for all sites or merchants. That’s right, there isn’t an out-of-the-box, one-size-fits-all solution.

Consultants will look at their clients’ sites and “identify opportunities to improve rankings for words that are most likely to be used by prospective customers in search engines,” Hinesley adds.

Do you need an SEO consultant?

Hinesley says smaller online businesses can improve their search engine rankings on their own with free SEO tools like Google Webmaster tools.

“[However], the larger the website and number of products being sold, the larger the list of potential keywords” you’ll need to target to get a higher ranking on search engines, he tells us.

“At a certain point, tracking rankings and links, and making improvements for thousands of keywords in a competitive environment requires constant attention and is best accomplished using paid services,” he says.

And yes, SEO matters. Without it, Internet users or customers will not be able to find your website or blog, unless you advertise offline using traditional methods like radio, TV, print media and word of mouth, notes ProfitWorx, an SEO consulting firm that began in 2008.

What to expect from an SEO consultant

When you work with a consultant, he or she will review your site and make recommendations about what you can do to improve its content—that is, the words and links that fill the pages of your site. This is because Google and other search engines “crawl” sites for content, and use this information to rank them based on their relevance to the words and phrases people type in when they search for things. (Images aren’t really an important factor in search engine ranking—although, visual content is a key ingredient for keeping visitors on your site).

“SEOs that buy links or use sophisticated software to place links can often get their clients in trouble”

Consultants will then provide clients with a list of keywords that represent the “low-hanging fruit,” based on relevance, search popularity and competition, Hinesley says. These will be the words they’ll want to target to make sure you pop up when someone enters these search terms.

Consultants will likely also have recommendations to rewrite the meta titles and descriptions for a website to increase rankings, he continues. They’ll also identify opportunities to get relevant links to the website on other sites and may work on getting those links.

As this work is going on, you should expect monthly reports on the current rankings of the keywords being targeted to ensure they’re the right words to go after.

Benefits and drawbacks of working with an SEO consultant

A good SEO consultant will help merchants get good rankings for important keywords in their niche, helping them draw traffic to their sites without using tactics that could cause a site to be banned for violating Google’s terms and conditions, Hinesley continues.

“A drawback that could occur would be paying for the SEO to obtain links that are contrived and only offer temporary gains, or could result in a penalty from Google,” he says. “SEOs that buy links or use sophisticated software to place links can often get their clients in trouble.”

So, if you decide to work with a consultant, ask how they will get links to your site.

Another challenge you may discover is the cost of working with an SEO consultant. Some charge more than $200 an hour. Others charge less, so it’s always a good practice to get quotes from at least three consultants if you decide to seek one out.

And don’t be afraid to negotiate fees, notes Michael Essay, blogging on Intuit.

“You can always negotiate price based on the number of keywords being targeted,” Hinesley agrees. “The fewer the keywords, the smaller the project for the SEO [consultant].”

Assessing SEO companies

As you research consultants, be sure to ask for references and testimonials of past clients, writes Lee Odden, of TopRank.

Also look for testimonials on the site to see what type of businesses the SEO companies you are considering have worked with in the past. Are they names you recognize? Does the company work with smaller businesses?

“Anyone promising ‘guaranteed results,’ or such, mostly likely doesn’t know what they’re doing and is worth avoiding”

Don’t be shy about doing a Google search for the firm, either, to see what others are saying about it. Consider the good and the bad. And be wary if a company promises you the moon and the stars. Though it may sound appealing—who doesn’t want to rank No. 1 on Google?—odds are you’d be better off looking elsewhere, our research tells us.

“Anyone promising ‘guaranteed results,’ ‘submissions to thousands of engines and directories,’ ‘instant results,’ ‘permanent top positions,’ or such, mostly likely doesn’t know what they’re doing and is worth avoiding,” SEO Consult notes. “It is impossible for anyone to guarantee that your site achieves No. 1 placement unless they run the search engine results.”

SEO you can do on your own

There are things you can do on your own to improve your site or listings’ ranking on search engines. For example, you can ensure that your product pages are well written and include relevant keywords.

“Well written item descriptions are crucial for proper search engine optimization,” notes Mirna Bard, an SEO and social media expert. “They should be composed in a natural style, while still including a good number of important, relevant keywords.”

She notes that descriptions should include what the item is, where and when it was made (if you know), the material it’s made of, its condition, dimensions and any distinctive marks that make it unique. This information will provide all the pertinent information on an item, answer questions shoppers may have and include good keywords.

There are lots of free SEO tools, too, that you can use to optimize your site or listings, Hinesley tells us.

Google Insights, for instance, helps you see what terms people have been entering on Google, so you can find good keywords and pick up on trends. Google Webmaster Tools is another good free tool.

“Also, having an AdWords account is very helpful in getting access to Google’s keyword tool without needing to enter the capture code frequently while doing keyword research,” he continues. “SEOmoz and SEO Book provide lots of useful free and paid information and tools.”

Need more ideas to get exposure for your listings? Read about four easy and free marketing techniques for online sellers.

About the author

Olga Munoz
Olga Munoz is editor of TheOnlineSeller.com. In addition to writing news and feature articles about e-commerce, selling trends, online marketing and other topics of interest to online sellers, Olga manages the site's social media efforts. A journalism graduate of Chico State, Olga says her favorite part of being a journalist is learning interesting facts that help put stories into perspective, attending industry events and meeting interesting people "that leave you smiling, even in tough situations." Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.



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