A bit of insight can help you to choose a good SEO consultant

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Search engine optimization is a hot topic — and a confusing one. There are many misconceptions and preconceived notions. In a recent column, I discussed in greater detail the so-called secrets of search engine optimization, or SEO. In short, it is the process of sculpting your pages so they have more topical relevance and authority to the search engines so you will outrank your competitors.

If you want to invest in SEO, there can be a significant payout. However, it is easy to get taken because there is so much confusion around the topic. Additionally, although some service providers have good intentions, they might not have enough experience or understanding, especially in more competitive markets.

Although you don’t have to really understand how SEO works to hire a consultant, it does make sense to be knowledgeable enough to hire a really good one. It’s easy to be fooled by tech-speak and make the assumption tech-speak equates competency.

Here are four questions to help you find a consultant who has integrity and knows what they’re doing.

1. Can you guarantee my business will be ranked No. 1? How long will it take?

Bad answer: Yes, of course. It will take 60 days.

Good answer: It’s difficult to know how quickly you will get results, specifically how high you’re going to rank and how soon. The SEO process is about outranking your competitors by being optimized better than their sites, and the competitive landscape varies significantly per topical niche. In some cases, high rankings might be achieved in as little as 60 days; in tougher cases, it might take years to achieve a No. 1 spot.

Based on our track record, we can predict what your outcome will be, but we can’t guarantee it. We can guarantee a set of deliverables and evidence of work completed.

2. How do you get results? What is your methodology?

Bad answer: We have a proprietary system, and we can’t disclose it.

Good answer: We have a systematic approach to optimizing your site. Our work includes keyword research to identify the keywords best suited for your business. We consider both search volume and the commercial intent of each keyword. We perform an analysis of your current on-page SEO factors and make recommendations for improvement based on SEO best practices. We look at URL structure, title tags, body copy, internal linking and your content production, among other things.

After your on-site factors are improved and we’ve helped you implement a content generation strategy, we work on getting quality links to your site in high quantity. Link-building has the greatest impact on your rankings in the long run.

3. How do you get links?

Bad answer: We buy some, we get links in forum threads and we comment on blogs.

Good answer: We never buy links. Buying links is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Our link-building campaigns are ‘white hat,’ meaning they are aboveboard. We seek out sites within your topical niche to acquire links from. Our link acquisition strategies include guest posting on blogs, listings in authoritative directories, partner sites, vendor sites, badges and widgets, etc.

4. What kind of work reports do you generate? Can I see one?

Bad answer: We tell you how many links we acquired in the previous month.

Good answer: I would be happy to share a sample report with you. Our monthly reports include what we’ve done to date, what results were achieved and what we’re going to do next. We include any insights we’ve gained or uncovered opportunities we find while looking at your analytics. Additionally, we are very transparent about the links we’ve acquired. We give you link reports including where links came from and how many we’ve acquired. You can see them for yourself.

Travis Smith is president of Lift Division, a Columbia-based search marketing company. He is author of “Lift: Discover How Your Local Business Will Grow With Google” and teaches search engine marketing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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