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Search Engine Optimization

How to hire the right marketing firm for your business

It’s tough out there today. We material handling companies have to keep a tight rein on our marketing dollars over the next several years. We need to learn how to increase ROI on our advertising budgets, but how?

Well, it may be time to pull out of some of the old standby go-to marketing tactics and move into the digital age. The good news is there are people out there who can help you. The field is Search Engine Optimization/Search Engine Marketing (more commonly referred to as SEO/SEM or just SEO). The bad news is, SEO is mired by poor ethics and bad intentions.

The function of SEO is to promote Web sites via search engines to increase visibility and drive Internet traffic to their clients. The problem is, their clients have no idea what progress is being made, if any, and the unscrupulous ones take full advantage of this situation. I have spoken with many people in our industry who have personal experience with “Bad SEO.” I’ve heard stories of tens of thousands of dollars spent on Web site development and ongoing SEO, years of “work” where a simple site review by an honest SEO reveals that no work had been done at all. I’ve seen material handling sites that don’t even have SEO 101 optimization done after paying an “expert” for two years of work. Sound grim? Well, it is.

I’m not stating there are no honest SEO firms out there, because there are many highly ethical, hard-working firms in existence. In fact, there are more good than bad. The bad ones are just easier to find and usually less expensive, so we run into them more often. How can you cross that minefield to pick the rose? Below is a series of initial questions that should be asked of any prospective SEO firm.

How long have you been doing search engine optimization (SEO) specifically?
Many firms have spent years doing Web design and are well-equipped for that, but they are new to SEO and don’t have the resources or talent to do their clients justice. Keep in mind the SEO industry is relatively young. Google just had its 10th birthday, so six to eight years doing SEO is a long time.

How do you keep up with current trends in SEO?
The Internet changes very fast. An SEO professional must participate in continuing education to perform well. In many cases, a recent graduate from an SEO program is better equipped than a 10-year veteran using decade-old tactics to optimize Web sites. A good SEO firm has established educational programs for employees, usually in the form of Web and/or classroom training.

Have you ever done SEO for material handling companies?
This question is more important than most SEO firms will admit. You can’t sell what you don’t understand. Think twice before signing up with a firm that specializes in travel or retail sites, as they probably don’t have much knowledge of material handling products or our market. Why spend thousands of dollars trusting someone to promote your business when they don’t know what pallet rack, conveyors or forklifts are?

If your prospective SEO firm already has knowledge of our industry, it is better poised to promote your site. This is a tricky question, though. If they currently are working with one of your competitors, they should politely decline to work with you. If they don’t, it is an obvious indication of their ethics. All good SEO companies have an ethics policy limiting the number of competitors. If you are a Toyota dealer and you are being approached by the local Hyster dealer’s marketing company, run.

Are your optimization tactics within search engine guidelines?
All search engines have webmaster guidelines. These are rules that, if not followed, can get you banned from said search engine. In the SEO world, there are firms that run on both sides of this equation. The firms that follow all search engine guidelines are know as “white hat” firms; the ones that don’t are known as “black hat” firms. Both types can be effective in increasing Internet traffic. However, think twice about contracting with a company that is willing to risk your Web site by “tricking” the search engines. Most reputable SEO firms won’t do “black hat” marketing.

If hired, how will you research my market?
This is extremely important. An SEO firm must be familiar with your target market and your competition within that market. A competent firm will interview you and your marketing/sales team to learn where you are and where you want to be. They will research the leaders in your “online arena,” uncover what makes them leaders, and then use that information along with good SEO tactics to improve your rankings. The important key to this answer is communication. If they decide your direction based on your obsolete existing Web site, keep looking.

What are some successful SEO strategies you employ?
You are really looking for indicators that your prospective firm is on track with your goals. Keyword research, content management and link-building are all solid answers to this question. In some cases, pay per click (PPC) is a good short-term marketing strategy. Watch out for firms that pitch PPC as a long-term answer. Most firms charge a percentage of PPC dollars and, after initial setup, this is usually money for nothing for the SEO firm. Organic results yield a much higher ROI than PPC, and a good firm will concentrate most of its efforts here. Make certain link-building (increasing links to your site) is a high priority for any SEO firm you contract with (more on this later).

A good SEO firm will start by researching your market and, if they don’t already have it, gain familiarity with the material handling industry (on your dime, mind you). Early on, you should receive an in-depth survey of your existing site pointing out its major strengths and weaknesses. After this survey, you and they should agree as to whether your site should be optimized or rebuilt.

The next step in SEO is keyword research to implement keyword phrases that fit your goals. You should certainly be involved in this step. Ongoing optimization begins immediately, whether it’s part of new site development or working with an existing site. Content management practices include meta tags, keyword frequency optimization, headers and any internal linking strategies. Link-building campaigns should be high priority with the firm you choose.

What are your criteria for choosing keyword phrases?
Again, cooperation is your answer. Your new firm should survey you for the products/services you sell and the industry jargon for those items. With this initial list, they will use keyword tools (specialized software) to determine what your target market searches for when they are looking for these items. The final list rarely matches the initial; it’s amazing what people call the things we sell. Make sure you review the keyword list before it is implemented. If the SEO firm is not familiar with our industry, the final list may not drive the traffic you want.

Specifically, how do you handle link-building?
Link-building refers to increasing the number of inbound links, both internal and external, to your site. Google’s ranking method is weighted heavily toward inbound links. It is of utmost importance that your SEO firm provides link-building services. Many firms that provide link-building charge additional money for it, so find out in advance if this is a hidden expense. The power of link-building is so great today that to ignore it means certain failure. Without a strong link-building strategy, your Web site is, at best, only half complete. Link-building is labor-intensive but produces visible results.

Ask the SEO these questions: How does it research links? How does it separate good links from bad? Who implements links once they are chosen? A good firm researches the leaders in your chosen keyword phrases to find co-citation links in addition to “known” link sites. The others submit all their clients’ sites to the same 20 places and stop. Watch out for this. A good link for one is not necessarily a good link for all. In addition, our industry has many specific link sites that are very strong for us but certainly will not show up on some generic link site list. Once the link site research is complete, your firm needs to separate the quality links from the link farms and other bad neighbor sites. Google’s bad neighborhood policy states that your site will be penalized or even banned if you have “bad” sites linking to you. A quality firm should be able to sort these out easily.

Implementing links from quality sites is the most labor-intensive phase of the link-building campaign. Someone needs to contact all of the sites’ owners and ask for (or buy) the link. Your SEO firm should take care of this step for you. Check for hidden cost here, as it’s quite a bit of work. Once the initial campaign is over, co-citations should be checked at least every quarter and, when necessary, the whole process started over again.

The other side of link-building is creating a strong internal linking structure between your own site’s pages. Google doesn’t acknowledge the difference between an inbound link from an external page and a link from one of your own pages. All things being equal, either holds just as much weight. Most SEO firms provide internal linking as part of their normal service, but it is still important to ask.

How do you track success?
This may sound strange, but many SEO firms don’t track success. Most will inform you that the increased rankings speak for themselves, and then leave it up to you to find the increased rankings. A quality firm has an established method of recording and reporting success. Performance and analytical reports are the two most common.

Performance reports are a must. Any firm you decide to work with for ongoing optimization must define a time frame and a list of goals for that time frame. Each month of your contract period, you should receive a detailed report of exactly what has been done to achieve those goals. Without a performance report, you have no idea if any work is ever completed on your site.

This is where Bad SEO lives. Instead of ongoing optimization, you will receive ongoing billing. They bring in clients on promises, then sit back and invoice, doing little, if any, work. Demand performance reports every month and scrutinize them. If you are paying for a service, you have every right to know that it is actually being done. There is no valid substitution for this service.

Do you provide analytical reporting?
Analytics show a site’s traffic volume, the most-visited pages, the most common routes visitors take and much more. These reports are generally sent out monthly. Most SEO firms provide analytics as part of their regular optimization service. Some firms charge extra, so it’s good to ask.

Quite a bit of emphasis is put on analytics, but truth be told, they probably won’t interest you much. That’s OK; they really aren’t made for you anyway. They are a very important tool for your SEO firm, so insist they provide them and use them to make your site better. A great firm follows up each report with a phone call to “translate” them for you.

A poor SEO firm will try to push off an analytics report as a performance report. Some may tell you that their performance is tracked in the traffic. This is in no way acceptable. If a prospective firm tries to sell you on this, cross it off your list.

Do you provide an overall performance guarantee?
A good SEO firm provides you with a list of goals and their methods to accomplish those goals. A great firm guarantees those goals are met. Many good SEO firms don’t provide performance guarantees, so this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, but no bad SEO will offer them.

What It All Means
Hopefully, the above questions will help you avoid the mistakes thousands of others have made. If you are one of the thousands, then may they help you to not go down the same road twice. As a good rule of thumb, make certain you get everything in writing. An SEO contract is usually the best way to ensure both parties are treated fairly. Make sure you ask for exclusivity on this contract and ensure that you are the owner of all property (Web site) that results.

It’s scary to invest in something relatively unknown, especially in the current economy. However, it’s even scarier to see your market share go to competitors who have embraced the Internet. This is a truth we all must face in the material handling industry. It’s up to us on which side of the table we will be sitting.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
Meet the Author
Mark Juelich is director of American Warehouse Systems, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and on the Web at www.aw-systems.com. He also serves on MHEDA’s Board of Directors.

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