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If you are considering search engine optimisation (commonly abbreviated to SEO) for your website, it is really important that you understand the SEO landscape. Unlike more traditional industries such as construction or catering, there is no body that regulates search engine optimisation providers; nor are there any worthy accreditations. This has created a marketplace of reselling, overpricing, scams and in some cases taking money for nothing. To avoid the possible pit falls of hiring an SEO (search engine optimiser) you have to educate yourself. In an industry that is full of people making different claims it can be difficult to know what is correct. For that reason, I have put together some information that should give you enough information to make an educated decision when choosing an SEO and thus avoid any sharks or snake-oil SEOs as they are often termed. It is also important to understand that there are different approaches to SEO and you need to make sure you know what approach your SEO provider is going to use. If they are vague about what they are going to do for you it is probably a good sign that you should not deal with them.

Advice for Parties Considering Hiring an SEO

Before going into any detail about search engine optimisation, it is important to establish the basics. Although SEO is a deeply complex topic with many facets, the core principles are actually simplistic and easy to understand. First of all it is important to understand the four factors which search engines use to decide what results to display for a given query:

On-site

Search engines analyse web pages to find out what they are about. If a keyword is not present on a web page it is unlikely it will ever rank for that keyword.

There are different parts of a web page, which are given varying weights of importance by search engines. The most important of these is known as the title tag. The title tag is – in most cases – what you will see come up in big blue letters on search engine results pages, the part you click on to take you to the page. Search engines do not pull this out of thin air. In most cases it is a part of the web page, which can be easily changed. If you want to rank for a keyword or phrase in a search engine, ideally it should be present in your title tag. Search engines also give more weight to text that is set to be a header or in bold. It is also beneficial to mention your keywords several times in your copy.

Off-site

In their early days, search engines solely relied on on-site factors to rank web pages – title tags, paragraph text etc. This system was rife with manipulation by people who spent their time figuring out how search engines ranked web pages. A few failed attempts were made to solve this problem with further on-site measures. It was not until the launch of Google in 1998 that a viable solution was implemented for the problems that earlier search engines had suffered from. The Google search engine pioneered a system that used hyperlinks (the things you click on to take you to another page) to help determine what it is about and how important it is. With this new concept, Google was better able to decide which web pages should be ranked highly for search queries. Although on-site factors were and still are a major factor in ranking, it is now becoming increasingly harder to rank web pages just by tailoring them to the search engines' web page analysis algorithms. Links pointing to a web page are now a major factor used by all large search engines to decide the relevancy of web pages. The idea behind this system is that the link text pointing to a web page from multiple external websites is a lot more reliable than the actual page itself. Not only can links be perceived as impartial votes of confidence, but they can also be used to enhance a search engines understanding of a page's subject and place on the internet. Because of this new concept of link analysis, SEO in now largely an industry that is concerned with obtaining links. As you shall find out, there are different practices that are used to obtain links and the search engines view these methods in varying ways.

In the modern search environment, it is more or less impossible to rank for keywords that bring good search engine traffic without incoming links. The sheer volume of links you have is not the determining factor. Search engines use their analysis of the web's link structure to give each link an individual weight. Practitioners of SEO (known as SEOs) use certain metrics to judge the value of a link. The major factors are:

  • Authority of the domain
  • Text of the link
  • Relevance of the page
  • Position of the link on the page
  • PageRank*
  • Number of links pointing to the page
  • Number of links on the page
  • Whether search engines have been told to index the page or count the link

*PageRank is a value assigned to web pages by Google, which symbolises the perceived importance of the page.

The most sought after commodity in SEO are links pointing to a given website with the keywords you want to rank for in search engines. If an SEO is telling you that there is all sorts of magic involved it is probably a sign that you should not deal with them.

Domain and URL

The domain is important for two reasons. Although it is alluded to by search engine representatives, it is widely believed by SEOs that the length of time a domain has indexed for plays a part in how important search engines think a domain is. The reasoning behind this is that old domains are more likely to be quality web sites and new domains are more likely to be spam looking for a quick buck. This is so strongly believed that some SEOs will not work with clients who have new web sites. The domain is also important in ranking for keywords. When a domain matches a search query exactly it is a major factor in where it will appear in the search results. When a domain has the exact keywords of a search query it can be very difficult for competitors to out-rank them if they also have a good incoming link profile. Domains that contain search queries, but do not exactly match also influence search engine results. The same can be said for individual page paths and file names, but to a lesser extent.

Human Review

The final factor that search engines use to influence the rankings is human review. To what extent humans influence the rankings of search engines is not known. However, it is known that Google employ a number of people to report on the quality of sites. This will at least be used to modify their system and make recommendations of any spam sites that should be dropped.

Highlighted Evidence

Google SERPs

The above image shows three results for a Google query. The underlined part, as mentioned above, is the title of the document, which is defined on your web page. It is possible for the title to be defined in other ways out of your control, but should ideally be set on your page. Notice that the word waste is highlighted. Also notice that the word waste has been highlighted in the descriptions below the title. This description can come from one of three places: a part of your web page called a Meta description tag, the actual content of your web page or your description in the DMOZ directory. Search engines will decide which to show based on search queries and which of the three aforementioned sources they have available. The meta description has no influence on Google rankings, but does on other engines such as Yahoo. The domain name and URLs are also highlighted and the first domain is an exact match for the query 'waste', which boosts its perceived relevancy for that keyword. The only part of a web page that Google highlights that is not a ranking factor is the Meta description.

Matt Cutts.com's Gootle cache snipet for cats

The above image is from the Google cache, which can be accessed, by clicking on the cache button next to a listing's URL. This cache was returned for a query for 'matt cutts cats'. As you can see it tells you it is returning the page because it has the words 'matt' and 'cutts' on it, but the word 'cats' is only present in incoming link text to the web page. Without incoming links includings "cats" in the link text, the page would not be returend for the query: 'matt cutts cats'. Matt Cutts is Google's anti-web spam czar by the way – he likes cats.

Site Architecture

When becoming involved in SEO it is also important to establish how pages relate to one another. As briefly covered above, search engines give each page a rating and this can be passed to other web pages by linking to them. On top of this, the text of the link gives search engines more information about the page, which it uses to influence search results. If you have a lot of links pointing to your home page, some of that value is passed to your sub-pages that are linked to the homepage. If you want your sub-pages to rank in search engines as well as the home page, having links to your home page will help. However, each page may need external links to be able to rank for given keywords. In short, each web page is viewed as an autonomous entity by search engines. Links pointing to one page do not mean the same benefits for your entire web site.

Google, Yahoo, MSN/Live, Ask

At the current time, Google dominates the UK search market and that of many other counties. Google accounts for around about 80% of search queries conducted in the UK. They are followed with Yahoo with about 10%, MSN/Live with about 5% and Ask with about 1%. There are a number of other search engines, some of which use the indexes of Google or Yahoo. Most SEOs don't pay much attention to search engines other than Google – particularly here in the UK. All engines do use similar systems, which produce similar results. Increased traffic from one usually means increased traffic from all.

Conflicting Information

It should be noted that there is a lot of conflicting views held by SEOs as to what works and how search engines operate. You will find some SEOs will swear by certain techniques while others will say using those techniques will get you banned or just don't work. Others will tell you that Google uses text surrounding links to influence results and others will tell you this is simply not so. The latter case is because search engines do not tell people how they work as it would make them easier to manipulate, which is not part of their business model.

As will be covered there are three different practices of SEO. Contrary to what you may hear from some SEOs, all of these practices work. However, one of the practices will likely lead to you being penalised by search engines. One of the most common misconceptions among SEOs, which is then passed on to their clients is that search engines are sophisticated almost to the point of being artificial intelligence. This is particularly true in relation to Google. A common perception of SEOs is that Google is somehow able to to spot anything that looks unnatural. This could be not be further from the truth. There are 100s of cases where Google has been manipulated to show totally unnatural results. The most famous example is when George W. Bush's presidential biography was ranked number1 in Google for 'miserable failure' even though neither of those words were present on the page. An example of this can be seen today as Google's head of web spam has had his blog ranked for 'buy cheap viagra online'

Matt Cutts Beating The Viagra Spammers

Black, Grey and White

There are three different SEO methodologies. These are known as black hat SEO, grey hat SEO and white hat SEO. The summaries below will only cover areas which are explicitly linked to SEO. These three terms are also used to refer to topics, which are not actually related to search engines, such as cookie stuffing.

Black hat SEO is a practice which involves methods which are deemed not acceptable by search engines. The general idea of black hat SEO is to spend as little time building sites or pages, traffic and rankings as possible and coupling this with not getting caught for as long as possible. Black hat SEOs build links to their sites/pages by automatically spamming susceptible sites such as forums and blogs. Although it is possible to not incur any search engine penalties by using black hat tactics in moderation or with a reduced footprint, it is not something that is recommended by SEOs nor is it widely commercially available. Sites that use black hat methods can rank very quickly in search engines, but their time is often cut short with search engine penalties. Sites that use black hat SEO do not intend to establish themselves in any way. Their sole purpose is to make as much money as possible in their short lives. Black hat SEO campaigns can utilise illegal and highly questionable tactics such as hacking websites for links.

Another tactic which should be considered black hat is showing content to search engines but not users. Such as making lots of text the same colour as the background. This is known as content stuffing. Showing search engines different versions of the page than is shown to browsers is known as cloaking.

Grey hat SEO is a term used to describe practices that are frowned upon by search engines, but do not incur penalties. This practice consists of two areas: the questionable nature of your website in the eyes of search engines and the questionable nature of links pointing to your website in the eyes of search engines.

Questionable on-site methods are really limited to text that is overly optimised for search engines. This is epitomised by title tags that read like: Web Design, Website Design, Web Designers, Web Site Design, Cheap Web Design. The idea behind such keyword stuffed title tags it to try and convince search engines that the page should be ranked highly for those terms. However, this would be frowned upon by search engines as unnatural text, which has been constructed in such as way as to be “search engine friendly”, but to a human it just looks like spam. Search engines would not be able to penalise sites for using such tactics, because what is too much is down to individual discretion. Also, so many sites use such keyword-laden title tags for it to be impossible for search engines to do anything about it. On-site grey hat techniques can be summed up as those that aim to overly target search engines at the expense of the quality and the readability of the web page. This does not mean that you should not target your site to search engines. Optimal text should be honed for both humans and search engines.

Off-site methods that are considered to fall under the category of grey hat SEO are buying links to your website and building lots of irrelevant links through methods such as reciprocal linking. The difference between grey hat and black hat link building is that black hat links are generally irrelevant links placed without the consent of the site owner; whereas grey hat links are placed with the consent of the site owner (sometimes for a fee). This is not to say that links cannot be irrelevant. These methods to build links to a website are the most prevalent due to the ease in which they can be carried out. They are used by companies that have had healthy search engines rankings for a long time, including many most household names.

Paid LinksThis image show a number of paid links from a system known as TextLinkAds. This system sell links on a monthly basis for people who want to improve their search engine rankings. The text of the links are the keywords that the advertisers are seeking to rank for in search engines.

White hat SEO describes the methods and practices used that adhere to search engines guidelines (with emphasis on Google). There are no on-site aspects to cover beyond creating a quality website, which is something all parties that take their online presence seriously should strive towards anyway. The main focus of white hat SEO is building incoming links. Traditionally, this consisted of asking other websites to link to you and relying on the strength of your content to build links naturally. However, as search terms become more competitive white hat SEO has evolved to more effectively use the power of content – be it in the form of words, images, code or any other medium – to gain large numbers of high quality links. This method has become known as link baiting. Probably the most common form of link bait is the blog, which can be used to build industry recognition, links and contacts. A blog is something that a party should only consider undertaking if they believe they can regularly update it with quality content. If you are thinking about outsourcing to an content writer in India or adding the odd news item every six months, it is not worth considering. Also, it should be considered whether there would actually be any interest in a blog in your industry. More creative methods of building links with content have been pioneered, particularly those leveraging open source software and free graphics. This includes such things as Firefox plug-ins, blog templates and plug-ins for open source applications. These are powerful link building tools as they are likely to be linked to by the people who have best access to create links: web designers, programmers, internet marketers and bloggers. This is not to say that links cannot be built in other areas or that you cannot target these people if you are not part of the web industry. Examples of content that may be linked to in other sectors could include:

  • A historic private school, which provided images and biographic material on its past pupils and headmasters. Such content could be linked to by people tracing their family tree, historic and genealogical societies, universities and a whole host of other people and organisations.
  • An accounting firm that provides a series of simple to advanced calculators and conversion tools for free use. These could be linked to by financial blogs and forums, resource sites, maths based web sites and so on.
  • A chemical distributor that provides a periodical table of elements with images of the elements and videos of reactions between elements. Such content could be linked to by schools, scientists, student blogs etc.

Any of the above suggested content ideas or any others that can be dreamed up by SEOs and website owners has the potential to build links naturally. Seasoned SEOs will also have good tools and knowledge of how links to the content can actively be pursued. A way to come up with great link bait is to ask yourself the question: 'What could I supply to people that they want for free?' It is also best to come up with something that has not been done before or at least outdo what others have done.

One problem with this form of link building is that it tends to build links to your non-commercial sub-pages, which are probably not the pages where you want people to go. It also does not necessarily allow you to build keyword rich text links to the pages you want to rank in search engines. However, link baiting also tends to build links to your homepage , which is generally the page people want to rank the most. This is one of the problems with white hat SEO – it takes the most time to do and its probably not going to be effective at improving your search engine rankings as grey hat SEO.

Other than building links, link bait is an invaluable way of building traffic from sites other than search engines - industry recognition as well as general recognition. This is particularly true if you can provide a person with something that is useful. This can be a real cost-saver over conventional forms of advertising which tend to rely on making as much noise as possible to as many people as possible and hoping some will take a certain action. Providing something that people want can be an infinitely more powerful way of making them know and respect your organisation than spamming them with promotional bilge. Such link bait is also advertising you for as long as it exists, while conventional advertising is only there as long as you pay for it. This form of advertising uses the concept of getting other people to do your advertising for you, by talking about you – in real life or online. It is no coincidence that the world's largest web company, Google has built itself using this method. Google is a company that does not advertise, but has gained recognition from providing free content: Google Search, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Mail, Google Docs, Google Books and so on.

It should be stressed that practising white hat SEO over a short period of time may not be very effective. White hat SEO works on the notion of becoming an authority website. If you spend one week publishing quality content on your web site and promoting it you may get a quick fix of a hand full of links. Successful white hat is really a long-term commitment. If you can continually produce quality content, you will build up traffic and that traffic may link to you bringing in more traffic who may link to some of your quality content in the future and so on. However, it should be noted that purchased links can have a tenancy to disappear or the sites they reside on be penalised or banned. It should also be noted that not all paid links are considered unethical by search engines.

What Approach You Should Take

What approach to SEO you should take should be dictated by four factors: your budget, how important you think it is that you adhere to search engine guidelines, how quickly you want results and how solid you want your rankings to be.

When money is to be spent, people often try and look for the best deal. You may be able to use this technique to save £20 off a new laptop or piece of furniture which is exactly the same, but when you are dealing with services this rule is totally obsolete. You cannot buy a bag of search engines rankings for X or industry recognition for Y. Much the same as if you are having a house built or garden designed, you are paying for the expertise and the experience of the craftsman or woman. As an outsider to the world of SEO, it is your responsibility to deduce who is the best at their craft for your needs. If you want to outsource all your SEO work but don't have much money to spend, perusing a strict white hat SEO campaign will probably not be viable as white hat SEO is almost always going to be the most lengthy and expensive option. This is particularly true if you want to rank well for a specific keyword and even more so if that keyword is competitive. This is due to the fact that white hat SEO will probably not explicitly build keyword rich links to your chosen pages. However, it is possible to hire a consultant to teach someone in your organisation SEO practices, both white and grey hat. If you are really serious about perusing a white hat SEO route, you really need to be looking at being able to cover the salary of one SEO for at least one month. If you take a white hat approach to link building without any link bait (marketed content), you will be asking your SEO to manually look for sites that they think might link to you. They will then have to construct emails to web masters and it may end up that they can only build a few links per day. Anyone who is serious about using link bait should really be looking for someone to work on their project for at least several months, either on a part-time of full-time basis. This is true whether the SEO is being outsourced or done in-house with instructions from a consultant.

Grey hat SEO is much more quantifiable than white hat SEO. With white hat SEO you can't put much of a guarantee on what the results will be in terms of search engine rankings and reputation building. Whereas with grey hat SEO, you can buy 100 links with your keywords as the link text for a given price and have an idea of what the results will be. Although there are a number of practices that fall under the umbrella of grey hat, the most prevalent is buying links. There are a number of outlets that anyone can use to buy links to their website. Some links are permanent, while others are paid for on a monthly basis. To give you an idea, some people will rent 1 link for 1 month for more than $250 in the case of websites that have very high SEO metrics. Whereas other links can be bought for a dollar or so. With buying links, it really is in your hands. You can buy X links for Y and a good SEO should be able to give you at least a rough idea of what the outcome will be. If you are particularly wary of the process, you can buy just a small amount of links, see the results and buy more later. Whereas if you hire someone to undertake a white hat link baiting project, you are going to have to make an upfront investment and be unsure of the results.

Finally, black hat SEO, which is not something anyone who wants their site to rank for more than a month should be considering. If you can find someone to sell you black hat links they will probably be extremely cheap, as they won't cost them any money. Scripts that can build 1000's of spammed links can be constructed relatively quickly by programmers experienced in creating such scripts.

If you are an organisation that insists that it must adhere to search engine guidelines, you only have one choice, white hat SEO. There are a number of tactics that are border-line and some people consider white hat, such as directory submissions, articles submissions and moderated link exchange. These are some of the cheapest methods in SEO. Although, as covered above, cheap means that it is probably going to be a lower quality service and this is true in the case of links provided from directories. For less competitive keywords, it is possible that links from directories could gain your site page one rankings. If your organisation is adamant on white hat and do not have a big budget, your only option is to hire a consultant to teach someone in your organisation SEO and the basics of link building. It would also be beneficial if this person was adding quality content to the site and engaging in social media to promote it.

As briefly covered above, white hat SEO is really something that is a serious endeavour and will probably take time to come to fruition. For large companies who engage in white hat SEO, it will be a permanent facet of their promotion rather than something to hire in for a few months. This leaves grey hat SEO as the quickest viable method to long-term search engine rankings. The speed of results can be obtained from grey hat SEO really depends on how much money you have to spend and how quickly you are willing to spend it.

As any experienced SEO should be able to tell you, search engine results are prone to change. This is dependent on two things: change that search engines make to their systems and changes web sites make to their site and their incoming link profile. Big keywords such as insurance related terms, web design, gambling etc. are prone to change because of the number of people lured to rank for these keywords due to the potential financial rewards. However, less competitive keywords are not so prone to change and are less likely to be invaded by new sites in search of clicks. So, solid rankings can really depend on your niche and how many of your competitors are also engaged in SEO campaigns. If you are targeting an easy keyword and have a lot of time and/or money to throw at increasing your site's rankings, it is possible to remain at number one for a keyword on a search engine for years. It should also be noted that search engine results change as search engines crawl pages and re-evaluate them.

Who You Should Use

Unlike the world of hardware, the realm of online web companies, namely developers and promoters is 100% free from any regulation. Although there are quality guidelines in both development and SEO established by industry bodies, there is no reason that any web company need adhere to them. The web is full of false prophets, get rich quick schemes and over-hyped SEO quick fixes. Due to lack of knowledge people have and the complexity of the and web industry, it can be relatively easy for unjust prices to be charged. In the case of SEO, because it is such an intangible product, it is not unheard of for people to be charged for nothing. As a potential SEO client it is important that you request reports of the links built to your website. SEO clients should also learn how to find out how many links are pointing to their website.

There are a number of tell tale signs of people you should probably not deal with:

  • Sales people – Most SEO companies are small or one-man-bands and probably cannot afford sale people. Whoever you are talking to should show an in-depth knowledge of the SEO industry. SEO companies should have consultants rather than sales people
  • Guarantees – It is not really possible for anyone to guarantee rankings in a search engine. Experienced SEOs will be able to give you a good idea of their thoughts, but guarantees are probably a bad sign. If someone is telling you they can guarantee rankings for your site, they are probably trying to sell you rankings for uncompetitive keywords that can easily be achieved
  • Adding links to your site – If an SEO company wants you to add links to their site using link text like, "SEO Company", particularly if they tell you this will help your site (not true). This is a tactic used by many SEO companies and it only serves to benefit their own rankings. Such tactics are regarded as unethical and breach search engine quality guidelines

If you are sceptical about what an SEO company are offering you, it would be advisable to visit a forum covering SEO to ask for advice. However, remember that a lot of the people replying to you will be SEOs who might want your business, so take everything with a pinch of salt.

If you want to try and carry out SEO on your site you will need someone to teach you SEO and you will be paying them every time you want some advice. This is a particularly good approach to take if you want engage in white hat SEO, but don't have the thousands of pounds to spend on outsourcing it.

If you want to hire a white hat SEO, you should look for someone who is both extremely knowledgeable and passionate about their work as these are the sort of attributes that are needed in that line of work. If you are looking for a grey hat SEO, you will just need to find someone who can sell you lots of links.

Of course, your budget is very important in who you can deal with. If you only have £1,000 to spend you are not going to get very far with an industry renowned firm with £35,000 pa SEOs, rent, rates, lighting, secretaries etc. If you've not got much to spend, the best thing would be to find a freelance SEO with a bit of industry recognition. This is not to say a large company would be better at SEO than a freelancer. An SEO company is more likely to have a broader range of skills (PPC, organic, affiliates, conversion rates...) than a solitary SEO. However, I am sure there are some SEO who are better than an entire company.

Understanding Your Competition

Understanding your competition is vital to your SEO. One thing I have seen some SEO companies selling is really easy terms like, 'cheap plums in Chipping Sodbury'. Such geographic terms can be really easy to rank. If all you want to do is rank your site for 'my product/service in my town/area' you may only need to change your title tag. This is not to say all geographic terms will be easy. I am sure 'Manhattan real estate' is a competitive term to rank for on Google. However, many geographic terms will be very easy to rank for.

You should get your SEO to show you what it is making your competitors rank: their links, PageRank etc. so you can try and understand your competitors and how much work could be involved in outranking them.

If you would like to find out about what SEO services we have on offer, visit the services page; or you may like to place an enquiry in regards to SEO on your website.