Everyone loves a bargain. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with saving money or finding a great deal by shopping around. As a consumer, it almost feels like you have "won" something when you can compare notes with others and have the bragging rights to say, "You paid how much? Wow, you got ripped off! I got it for 30% less." From a business perspective, it's just good decision making to minimize expenses as much as possible by finding the lowest price on whatever product or service you need- most of the time, that is. There are exceptions.
If your purchase is shrink wrapped in plastic and branded by a manufacturer, you can be somewhat assured that finding it somewhere else at a lower price is a "safe" bonus. In most product and service industries, when comparing generic product labels to brand names the old expression, "You get what you pay for" applies as a universal caution that quality comes with a price tag. The moral of the story with such expressions including, "Pay me now or pay me later" illustrate that you really don't get much of a bargain by buying offshoot products and services. In most cases, the knockoff product breaks prematurely or the discount service needs to be redone (in part or in whole) to make it right. At the end of the day, cutting corners usually results in spending more time and money later to get what you thought you were getting in the first place, and any savings that you initially realized is negated.
The same is true for your business' marketing efforts on the Web. Unfortunately, many website developers avoid discussing what it actually takes to get a positive return on investment from your website. Whether it's because they don't really know what's involved or because they want to get whatever money they can from you before asking for more, the topic of marketing and promotion is rarely covered during the design process. For the website developer, it's safer that way. Once your website is built (and you have paid them), the afterthought question, if it gets asked at all, is typically, "What are you going to do to promote your website?" The question comes as casually as, "Do you want fries with that?" The topic of marketing is almost treated as though it were optional.
It's not- if you want your website to pay for itself and bring you new business.
For your website to perform, you must ensure that its pages are constructed with certain features and characteristics that are important to the search engines so that search engines (like Google, Bing, Yahoo!, etc.) can properly and effectively consider listing the site when someone searches for what you sell. The process of adjusting the site is called search engine optimization, and it involves more than just pasting a few keywords on the pages of your site. Text, links, font, typesetting, image labeling, and other characteristics are all adjusted as part of the optimization process. Or at least, they should be.
After your website is optimized (prepared for the search engines), it then must be marketed (promoted to the search engines). Yes, that means more money. By now, you're probably thinking, "When will it end? How do I stop the bleeding? Won't people just find me because I have an optimized site?"
Unfortunately, your website is not like the ball field in the 1989 movie, "Field of Dreams". In other words, it's not a case of the coined expression, "If you build it, they'll come". For your website to develop a findable presence on the Internet amidst all of the competition, some kind of action is necessary to get the search engines to take notice of it. Search engine marketing is performed by many methods, including article publication, blog posting, social media, link building campaigns, pay-per-click, subscribed directory listings, and much more. Just as traditional marketing can be done by many methods (television, radio, newspaper, phone book listings, magazine ads, billboards, etc), marketing your website on the Internet is an expansive (and often expensive) process.
Aside from the methods, other significant differences between search engine marketing and traditional marketing are your audience and your competition. In traditional marketing, your audience is people and your competition is anyone who sells what you sell in your marketplace. It's different on the Web. On the Internet, your target audience for marketing efforts is not just people, it is the search engines as well. And your competition is not just other service providers in your area, it is any document, video, article, blog post, or other company that is taking up space where you want your business to appear.
Similar to traditional marketing efforts, your dollars are 100% at risk with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM). There are no guarantees that people who find you will pull out their wallets and buy what you are selling. Inexperienced and unethical people who tout themselves as search engine "experts" count on that little detail. There are numerous deceptive ways that unscrupulous fraudsters can artificially inflate the amount of traffic that your website receives without bringing any real, qualified customers to you. Often times, such fraudsters lure you in with lofty promises and seemingly bargain basement prices. Even some of the legitimate companies in the SEM arena can be misleading. The term "Buyer Beware" applies in full force, and the only defense you have is to get a basic education on SEO/SEM topics.
Therefore, read on.
As we've discussed above, Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing are not black-and-white, cut-and-dried, plain-and-simple processes. You can receive two price quotes from completely different companies claiming to optimize your site, one for $200 and one for $2000, and they are both "telling the truth." Assuming that both companies are honest and ethical, the price difference does not necessarily reflect that one is a bargain while the other is overpriced. To explain the difference, you must look at the extent to which your site will be optimized. For example:
- Will each page on your site be optimized with the same set of keywords throughout the site, or will each page be individually optimized with a unique set of keywords relevant to the content on the page?
- Will images on the page be adjusted and "labeled" with keywords in the programming on the page, or will they be left as generic?
- Will text characteristics like font size, font style, use of headings, etc. be adjusted along with the text content, or will the words simply be changed to reflect keywords on the site?
- Will the keywords be selected, analyzed, and verified based on market research data to determine demand, relevance, and applicability, or will the words be selected by intuitive guessing?
- How will such characteristics of keyword density, keyword dilution, placement "above the fold", and geo-targeting be addressed, or will these strategic elements of SEO be omitted from your project's scope of work?
- Will the physical characteristics of the site (use of frames, tables, site maps, page names, navigation structure, etc.) be addressed, adjusted, and corrected as appropriate, or will the scope of work involve just quick tweaks, working with what's already there?
- The list goes on...
The $200 deal may take eight to ten months to achieve mediocre results, if any results at all. The $2000 dollar deal may result in top rankings within a couple of weeks, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars each month in sales. Maybe-but not guaranteed.
You see, there are varying levels of detail to the extent that your website can be optimized. It's not a matter of "is it optimized, or isn't it?" Knowing that, it becomes easy for one company to undercut another in price, sometimes substantially, using the same language that "We will optimize your website."
I wish it were a simple equation that could be summed up by saying, "You pay less, you get less", but that is not the case either.
To complicate the issue, we need to examine the ethics of the service provider involved. Here is where you really need to do your homework to protect yourself. You might be in safe haven if you initiated contact with the SEO/SEM provider based on a referral from another happy customer, but more times than not, you are the one receiving a call from a company that is soliciting. Buyer Beware.
Before you commit to doing business with anyone regarding the marketing "fate" of your company, check them out thoroughly.
- What is their Better Business Bureau rating?
- Do a search for the company on the Internet using the company's (or freelancer's) name to obtain any information about them. If the company is legitimate, you should see plenty of references to them. If they're shady, you may see evidence of lawsuits, complaints or bad press associated with them. Be sure to explore what you find, and dig a little deeper.
- Obtain references and examples of client success stories that you can verify yourself by doing keyword searches on the web. If an SEO/SEM company claims to have achieved great placement for their customers, your response should be, "Show me." If they refuse or cannot produce examples, walk away.
In the SEO/SEM world, "You get what you pay for" is a best-case scenario. Since there are no guarantees on producing results, it is very easy for rogue fraudsters to overcharge for services, deliver nothing, and laugh all the way to the bank. Adding insult to injury, if you sign a year-long contract for ongoing marketing services, those same fraudsters can legally bind you into throwing good money after bad, month after month, and if you refuse to pay, they can sue you and collect even more. I'll emphasize it again, you should absolutely look out for your best interests and perform some kind of background check on anyone who asks for your Internet marketing money.
Even some of the larger, popular phone book companies must be questioned. If you have been in business for any length of time, you will undoubtedly be solicited by a telemarketer from one or more online phone book directories. You are low-hanging fruit for them-after all, they own a database of phone numbers and business names and business-to-business calls are exempt from the Do-Not-Call registry, so why not exploit it?
When you are approached by such companies, the sales pitch is often geared towards getting your business (not necessarily your website) found at the "top of the listings, on page one". In the same breath, the sales person may inter-mingle a comment about being partnered with a search engine company like Google, or some such statement. Although the sales person may not be intentionally trying to be deceptive, the resulting confusion is the same: In these conversations, the business owner usually ends up (mistakenly) thinking that his or her website will be guaranteed a top position in the organic search engine listings on page one of Google (or other search engines) for selected keywords.
What is really being promised, usually? For a fee, the business will receive a top placement listing within the online directory of the company that is soliciting the business owner. That listing will be for the selected keywords, but it will not be the business website at all. It may be for a profile page or for a template landing page, but it will not necessarily be found anywhere on Google, Yahoo!, Bing, etc. in the organic listings. What of all the talk about being "partnered" with the search engine company? Whether stated for informational purposes, credibility, or as a "red herring" to distract and mislead, it's pretty common for phone directory companies to do enough business with the search engines' pay-per-click programs to achieve "partner" status... but that status guarantees you nothing. It just means that the phone directory company met the search engine company's administrative and financial requirements to be dubbed a "partner". If a directory listing company makes claims about top placements for your business, insist that they show you examples of other clients whose websites show up in the organic search engine listings under various keywords other than the business names. Don't be surprised if they can't, at which "no, thank you" is an appropriate close to the sales conversation.
Like SEO, SEM involves more than one method or process to be effective. The success of your SEM efforts relies on the extent of your promotion efforts and how well diversified they are. Another old expression, "Don't put all of your eggs in one basket" applies to the methods used in promoting your business. If you find yourself in the situation of doing only pay-per-click, your organic search engine positioning will suffer. If you find that you're paying someone to do just blog posting for you, your organic marketing is imbalanced. The price tag may (and probably will) be much lower than if you used a competent broadened strategy focused on your local, regional, or national markets, but paying less to get nothing in return is just plain dumb.
It's smart to compare SEO/SEM service providers and cost does need to be considered. But cost should not be the deciding factor. It should be a contributing factor. More importantly, credibility, experience, demonstrated results, level of detail, and diversification of methods need to weigh in on the decision, too. If you make your decision based solely on price, by the time you figure out that what you're doing isn't working, you are most likely out hundreds or thousands of dollars and bound under a contract to spend thousands more. How does that bargain feel now?