I get a dozen requests a week for advice on hiring a SEO firm.

Arguably, flattery may get you everywhere in marketing, but not in the Google SERPs. I know the struggle of many online marketers when it comes to SEO, and so here are just a few tips for small to mid-size firms considering hiring an SEO.

  1. Set a budget.
    Going into the process, you have to consider what you would be willing to invest to achieve the kind of results you expect. In order to do this you need to chose your keywords up front, and determine how many searches there are on those keywords. That is, are those keywords economically viable if you were to rank high on page one?Calculate your proforma return with assumptions on the number of clicks if you were to achieve a page one ranking –then calculate the number of sales or leads you could generate based on your existing website conversion rate.

    These numbers are often enough to make you reconsider a search program. Small to mid-size business should rarely consider one and two word terms with national appeal. The competition will be intense and the costs and time to create success will be high.

  2. Know what your expectations are.
    You shouldn’t just talk about them, you should write them down, and discuss them with the SEO firm you are considering. Too many SEO’s will tell you they will deliver whatever you tell them. Ask them the difference between this campaign and others they have executed on. If they don’t negotiate your expectations, they are likely either too low, or you are talking to the wrong firm.
  3. Get a referral.
    This is the least technical, and perhaps the most effective. If you cant find a company that can make a good referal, consider requiring one or more references from current and past Clients. Again, assess the validity of the results they have achieved. A #1 result with a term with virtually no traffic at all is not a result.

  4. Consider that SEO may not be for you.
    The average time to value for an SEO engagement is between 6-18 months, depending on the competitiveness for a given keyword and the level of experience of both you the Client and the search optimization firm you choose. You should take a realistic look at your budget and the year ahead, is now the time to make an investment in an SEO program? Will you lose patience and perspective four months into the campaign? If so, perhaps your budget is best spent on creating an email newsletter campaign. Email tends to produce immediate benefits and upsales.If you need results in the short term, there will be SEO’s who will promise fast and high results. It is advisable to be highly cautious of such promises –there are plenty of “black hat” SEO techniques that could penalize your site in search rankings. The best way to avoid this is to avoid any relationship that over promises… its a setup for their under delivery.

Search optimization is a critical part of many Internet marketing programs, but it is not necessarily required for yours. Consider your options wisely, and consider retaining a professional from an Internet marketing company for a referral if you cant find one that works for you on your own. Good luck!