Is There Value in Search Engine Optimization Firms?
I spent some time over the past year or so talking to various SEO firms and Adsense consultants. These are people who offer to increase the visibility of your web site or increase Adsense revenues for a fee. Other than pretending to be interested in their services (I'm not), I was completely honest about my site, my present statistics, and my goals. We'll cover all that, but first a statement you probably won't find surprising:
There's a lot of snake oil out there.
Well, you probably knew that. On the other hand, I did have some pleasant conversations with a few people, and even got a few snippets of free advice. Some of that advice might have even been worthwhile, though most of it was rather generic and nothing you couldn't find easily on the web.
A few of the SEO firms never responded to my email solicitation, which is always interesting: business must be very good for these fellows if they can ignore leads. Some of the firms were blatantly dishonest (immediately talking about "fooling" the search engines) and others seemed ethical and above board. Most (ethical or not) seemed to be reasonably technically competent, though there were some amusing exceptions here and there. Most interesting to me is that all of them failed to really listen to what I told them. I'd call that "hammer syndrome": if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
What I told them
My initial email correspondence went something like this:
There were others who had articles to sell or offered fee based consultations; if the price was reasonable ($100.00 or less) I tried a few of those also.
An important thing to notice here is the "often in the top 10 for many related searches" that I mentioned. In almost all cases, the folks I talked to or had more email correspondence with ignored that entirely and kept pushing the idea of improving my Google position. As I'm almost always in the top 10 and fairly often number one for the searches I'm most interested in, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to talk about improving that, at least not in the manner that these folks usually did.
Over and over again I was warned that it could take months for my pages to show up in Google at all, and that I needed to "hang in there" (presumably still paying the monthly fee some wanted) and have faith. Keep in mind I had already told them that I was in the top ten on page one! From that I would guess that most of these folks work primarily with unknown sites, though when I asked that directly, I was usually told no, they worked with sites just like mine and larger. Of course. Why did I bother to ask? It's also obvious that most of them paid no attention to what I said or looked at my Page Rank or anything else.
Cloaking and doorways
Cloaking is serving up different pages to different users, specifically to search engine spiders. There are some folks unabashedly promoting cloaking of pages, but their numbers are dwindling.
If cloaking were done only for honest purposes, nobody would have any problem with it and in fact the search engines themselves might encourage it. If the search engine spiders saw a page that was easier for them to understand and that would be indexed correctly so that hits on it would be more likely to truly reflect what the user was actually looking for, that would be great. Unfortunately, people use it for less honest purposes, and therefore Google and other search engines object: Google's Cloaking Policy says that they "may permanently ban from our index any sites or site authors that engage in cloaking to distort their search rankings. "
Of course folks disagree on what is and what is not cloaking: Webmaster World Cloaking Forum. My feeling is that if Google rank is important to you, why take a chance of screwing it up?
Doorway pages have a similar purpose, and are just as disliked by search engines like Google. At Possible reasons for indexing problems, Google explains some reasons why they might not index you at all, including:
Doorway pages are pages that contain "bait" for search engines, but then immediately jump the visitor to other content. Again, if this were done for honest purposes, it would be beneficial to everyone. But of course people just aren't honest everywhere: What Are Doorway Pages?.
Personally I would stay far way from someone using this sort of technique. Several of the folks I contacted were quite outspoken against the use of such tricks and complained that competitors who do such things ruin the business for the ethical purveyors. Those in favor of these maneuvers tended more to a "Get Real!" response, insisting that "Everyone does it". Personally, I'd stay away. But then I'm the kind of person who reports my cash income, too.
Rewriting of Content
Rewriting content is probably the best and most valid suggestion any of these folks had to make. Naturally enough, it's also pricey: I had quotes ranging from $2,000 to $18,000 to rewrite my "important" pages so that they would be more tasty for search engines. One search engine optimizer (whose "down payment" would have been $7,500.00) told me that he could rewrite my main page so that "sco unix support" would be the search engine key. He said my page is too large now (actually several of them made the same comment) and that would cause Google etc. not to be able to index it well. While we talked I typed "SCO Unix support" into Google and my home page came up as position one and two. Apparently he hadn't bothered to do that before giving advice..
But there is value in rewriting content, and it is hard to do well. The search engine spiders want to see phrases and keywords repeated often enough so that they know what the page is about. Do too much of it, and your pages read horribly for human visitors (hence the attraction of "doorway" pages).
The idea of spiders reading pages also led to another fun conversation. This person (who was otherwise intelligent and ethical) said that I should move my links table to the right side of the page because "spiders read just like you do, left to right, and you want them to see your content first". That sounds plausible unless you understand typical html design and realize that the table with an "align right" tag will still be the first thing the spider sees. Of course there are ways to do what he suggested, but again it's also obvious that Google's spiders in fact have no difficulty with this page.
Since then I've moved to a CSS styled design, still with a left column, which is the last text read.. I wonder what he'd think of that..
This is another area of typical services offered, and it's another one where you have to tread carefully. You do want people linking to you, but you don't want dumb links - links from pages that have no purpose other than to link to other pages. Those kind of links will do you no good with search engines because search engines like Google also know (or try to know) how "important" a page is. A page with nothing but hundreds or thousands of unrelated links is not important, so the fact that you are one of the links doesn't help you. Worse, most of those kind of places require that you link to them, so now your pages are filled with trash links that are meaningless to your visitors.
Incidentally, a very few search engine optimizers seem to think that you shouldn't have any outgoing links because it takes people off your pages. True, but if you are providing information, and those other links have related content, you really need to include those links. If your site is valuable, people will return to it.
Links from relevant pages, especially if those pages are important in their own right, are good for you. So if your search engine optimization firm is just handing you out to link farms, you are doing more than wasting your money; you are doing yourself harm. On the other hand, an intelligent search for related web pages can be well worth paying for. I regularly get contacted by honest search engine optimizers who are working for sites with content related to mine, asking that I put a link up. If I agree that the content is relevant and worthwhile, of course I do so. Sometimes they return the favor, though I do not insist upon that.
Search Engine Submission
Unfortunately, too many of these firms still stress submitting your pages as an important function. It is not. There may have been a time when it was, but that time is long past. I don't really think most of these folks even really believe this themselves; I think they say it because they think it is what the customers want to hear.
You do need to submit once, but all you need to submit is your main page - assuming of course that one way or another a trail of links leads from there to all your other pages. And while you can submit to the thousands of different search engines out there, you probably don't need to. If the important ones (Google mostly) find you, the others will get you from that. Google now lets you tell it when you have added content with their Google Sitemaps.
The Adsense advice folk were probably the most honest of the lot, and generally seemed to have better ideas. Their advice was good, though nothing you won't find on-line for free. I was surprised that two of them had no knowledge of Google Sitemaps, but that's only tangentially related to Adsense so I didn't consider that as real ignorance. However, part of increasing advertising revenue is increasing traffic, and Google's sitemaps are related to that, so it is a deficit.
Content is king
I've said it over and over again, and the best search engine optimization firms agree: nothing beats content, and the more the better. Few of the firms offer content themselves, though some may have ties to syndication services. Tempting as that may be, you have to be careful there too. Google doesn't like sites that are just near mirror images of other sites, and one or both will suffer (see Solving Google Page Rank problems with a 301 Redirect for a related problem). That's why exclusive content is better than something other people can buy as readily as you can. Exclusive content of course can be expensive, and again you need to be concerned that the writing is both intelligible to humans and easily digested by search engine spiders. That's not easy to do, and someone with talent for one side of that may be untalented at the other.
Wrap it up
Several of these search engine optimizers wanted a monthly stipend to cover on-going services. I'm not quite sure just what value they feel they are offering here. The fees quoted were nominal ($30 to $80 monthly), but for what? If Google has found you and you have good content, their spiders will automatically return and reindex you regularly. There's no need to "submit" new pages ( and that's especially true if you use Google Sitemaps). Some offered to regularly report on positioning for certain keywords and to check for broken links; that could be of value though it's not hard to automate that sort of thing yourself. I'm not sure I'd want to sign up for such services, but you might see value.
In summation, you need to be very careful in selecting a search engine/ad revenue optimization firm. Check references carefully, and see if search terms really do show up in good positions for the sites they have helped. My advice is to stay clear of those offering things like cloaking and doorway pages, but there is plenty of disagreement on that. I'd err on the side of caution, but you may feel differently.
I would not spend a lot of money on a SEO firm or anyone offering Adsense consulting. Well, that's not true: I did spend a fair amount of cash researching this article. But that's different. If the fee is reasonable, (I'd suggest $100.00 or less) you could get a quicker and more concise education than searching for this kind of thing on line, but there's no magic: none of these guys know anything that isn't published on the web.
Got something to add? Send me email.
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