So You Hired an SEO Consultant: What Should You Expect?

John Tabita

Early in my career as a web designer, I had an epiphany. I realized clients don’t want pretty websites — they want customers.

Oh sure, a website ought to be professional-looking and easy-to-use. But without some type of marketing, no one will find it.

As Digital Strategy Director for a company that provides web marketing services, I’m tasked with training sales reps how to explain what we do in a manner that clients both understand and know what to expect. But before I discuss what you ought to expect from your SEO consultant, let’s define what “SEO” means.

SEO: A Working Definition

The term search engine optimization or SEO first appeared around 1997. Yet nearly two decades later, the practice remains shrouded in mystery—at least to the average business owner, that is.

No, SEO doesn’t involve magic. It’s simply getting search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Bing to recognize your website as an authority so that they rank it higher in their search results.

So how exactly does that work? Think about what it takes to be considered “an authority” in the offline world:

  • Years of experience in a field
  • Recommendations from others
  • Endorsements from top industry experts
  • Depth, breadth, and quality of knowledge

SEO is online word-of-mouth. It’s the work involved to make your website an authority in the eyes of search engines like Google, so they’ll “recommend” it to its users, by ranking you higher than your competition.

It takes time, but once you’re established, it pays dividend over the months and years, in the form of ongoing website visits and sales leads.

For a more detailed explanation, see my previous article, How to Explain SEO to a Sixth Grader.

Now that you have a better understanding of what search engine optimization is, here’s what to expect from your SEO firm.

Your SEO Firm Should Set Realistic Expectations

Nothing is worse than miscommunicated expectations. An experienced SEO firm ought to be able to give a realistic idea of what to expect.

If a personal injury attorney in Columbus, Ohio, told us he wants a top ranking on Google within the next six months, we’re going to explain to him why that’s not likely. We may have to spend a year or more with an aggressive SEO program—and we may still not get the result he wants.

The two most important expectations your SEO firm should establish are:

  1. SEO takes time
  2. SEO is not guaranteed to work

SEO Takes Time

As I explained above, SEO (like word-of-mouth) requires that you spend time doing the work necessary to become an authority. A qualified SEO firm should have a grasp of the market and be able to set realistic expectations. Less competitive keywords in a less competitive market will take less time than highly-competitive ones. Consider a water well drilling service in upstate New York compared to a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. You get the picture.

SEO is not Guaranteed to Work

“Why would I pay for something that’s not guaranteed to work?” That’s the response from a client of ours when we explained we can’t guarantee his placement on Google.

This makes perfect sense if you think of SEO as a product, like a watch. If it doesn’t work, you return it to the store you bought it from for a replacement or refund.

But SEO is marketing—and no form of advertising or marketing is “guaranteed” to work because no one can guarantee with 100 percent certainty how consumers will respond.

For the past several decades, businesses have been advertising in the Yellow Pages, newspapers, billboards, television, radio, and direct mail. None of these are “guaranteed” to work. Yet they do—when done right.

I can’t guarantee you won’t get hit by a bus when you cross the street—but you’ll never get to the other side unless you try. Advertising and marketing, like life, involves risk. I can guarantee that without SEO, you have no chance of showing up on the first page of Google.

Getting on Page One is a Goal, not a Guarantee

No legitimate firm can “guarantee” results or first page placement. That’s because Search engines use complex and jealously guarded mathematical formulas (called algorithms) to determine how sites rank. Since search engines constantly change these algorithms, all any SEO firm can do is test and make educated guesses to what’s behind Google’s algorithm, then implement what works and eliminate what doesn’t.

No SEO firm has a special relationship with Google. Those that are “Google Certified” are certified in Google’s paid advertising program (called AdWords), which has nothing to do with search engine optimization.

Just because there’s no guarantee doesn’t let your SEO firm off the hook. A reliable firm will allow itself to be held accountable for the work they perform. Next week, in Part 2, I’ll discuss exactly how to do so.

Free book: Jump Start HTML5 Basics

Grab a free copy of one our latest ebooks! Packed with hints and tips on HTML5's most powerful new features.

  • g00glen00b

    SEO is a good thing but I think it is hard for small/medium sized companies to hire such people just because of the risk involved and it’s hard to put a quota on it to evaluate the benefits. You can use the PageRank score, but it takes weeks/months before you can see the differences (as you said, SEO takes time).
    This makes it hard/impossible to make a good cost-benefit analysis and so that also means many companies will not free any budget for these reasons.

    • http://www.smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      I agree that it’s a challenge—difficult but not impossible. Now that our reps are beginning to grasp it, we’re starting to see some traction. I heard a great quote just yesterday, that digital services are “sold, not bought,” meaning it takes a skilled sales rep to demonstrate its value. Left to their own devices, the typical SMB doesn’t go out of their way to seek out and buy SEO services.

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au John Faulds

    “we’re going to explain to him why that’s not unlikely” – I think you meant “not likely”.

    • OphelieLechat

      Double negative fail! That’s now been fixed.

    • http://www.smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      I blame my editor =)

  • Mike Becvar

    I would love to see an article about what SEO means to a small, local, mom and pop business. Let’s say that a pizza place with a single location in the suburbs of a big city wants to have the best possible website. They don’t plan to have a blog per say, maybe just something with the latest special or upcoming event. Their target audience are the people looking for a pizza place in a 20 mile radius from their restaurant. They want their website to come up before any of the other near by pizza places. They don’t care about the people looking for a pizza recipe or someone looking for pizza in another city. They aren’t an “expert” just a family, friendly place to eat.

    • http://www.smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      I’m planning to write that exact article in the very near future.