Businesses of all sizes get taken by a bad breed of online marketing firms that shamelessly over promise and then shamelessly under deliver.These fly-by-night SEO ‘experts’ lurk in the darkest corners of the Web, many under the cloak of anonymity, preying on businesses that seek a competitive edge on the ever-expanding Internet. Unfortunately, many fall victim because they don’t do adequate research, and buy into hyped-up sales pitches packed with unachievable promises. When all’s said and done, they are left with sub-standard services, products and results -- if anything at all. My colleagues and I witness such cases often, including most recently: * A Canada-based entrepreneur paid “SEO experts” hundreds of dollars a month, so when someone typed his actual website address in Google’s search box, his site would come up first in the rankings. When he was advised he’s being taken advantage of and confronted the SEO firm, the group threatened any stoppage in payments would result in his site being removed from Google’s index “indefinitely.” * A popular Vancouver, B.C. realtor hired two different “SEO experts” to improve her search engine rankings. Upon consultation, we learned she didn’t even have title, meta and description tags in her site’s back end – fundamental SEO elements. Equally disheartening, we discovered her hosting company required her to pay a considerable fee to access these common tags. * A U.S.-based tourism business paid a programmer monthly to appear on the top pages of Google, Yahoo and MSN. He got there, but with search terms so obscure, no traffic was generated. To top it off, when the rankings on those terms dwindled, the programmer accused the business owner of sabotaging his own website with “invisible links.”

Black hat SEO

But it’s not just about business ethics. You also need to be aware of the SEO strategies employed on your behalf. ‘Black hat SEO’ tactics, which are designed to trick search engines, can get you blacklisted, penalized and removed from search results altogether. Such was the case with a small business owner in Montreal who invested her entire marketing budget into an online marketing campaign. Little did she know it comprised several pages of text hidden on her website, a common black hat SEO tactic, which eventually got her deemed a spammer and stripped from search results. Black hat SEO attracts great numbers as it can be lucrative for both the providers and the recipients. However, it’s incredibly risky and short-sighted, with harsh consequences that can maim your bottom line. Indeed, customers are thrilled to see their rankings and traffic increase, often at phenomenal rates. But the celebration ends abruptly, when days or weeks later the sites vanish from search engine results, and the business owners find themselves abandoned.

Educate Yourself to Remove Risks

Probably the best way to remove indecision, doubt and fear when selecting an SEO firm is to educate yourself on SEO basics. No need to be an authority, just establish a general knowledge base. That way, you can swiftly identify anyone who tries to bluff you with any hocus pocus. The two key elements of legitimate ‘white hat SEO’ tactics entail keywords and links. Selecting and positioning the right keywords and terms in your web copywriting and tags are essential for natural or organic SEO. Inbound links are the other important key to promoting high search engine rankings. Go for links from quality sites rather than quantity, and try to steer clear of paid links. This has traditionally been a gray area, but is now considered black hat SEO by Google and friends. Here are other common black hat SEO tactics to be aware of: * Hidden text – Web copy is set at the same colour as the background. * Keyword stuffing – A large number of keyword phrases are nonsensically ‘stuffed’ into tags and web copy, often at the bottom of a page in small fonts. * Cloaking – Serving different pages to search engines and visitors, which is generally frowned upon by the likes of Google. * Doorway Pages -- Pages added to a website solely to target a specific keyword phrase, providing little information and value to a visitor. * Redirects – Often used to complement doorway pages, redirect links automatically move visitors to a page with actual content.

Do Your Homework

As a business, you should look at SEO as any other investment and do your due diligence. Some suggestions: * Find out what tactics SEO firms are using (if they don’t disclose their SEO techniques, best to walk away). * Study the SEO company’s client list (are their customers reputable?). * Contact the clients (ask about their experiences and if they’d use them again). * Check out their results (if they’re not producing for themselves or existing clients, chances are they won’t produce for you). * And the golden rule: no one can guarantee number one spot on Google, Yahoo or MSN. If an SEO firm makes this claim, be very wary. When you’re ready to begin your search for a suitable SEO service provider, establish specific criteria and tap into your existing business network. If you can’t locate a suitable SEO firm through referrals, carefully go with the search, evaluate, selection route. Just be sure to invest adequate time to establish the right partnership; one that will gain you much value in the short and long term.

About the Author

Rick Sloboda, Senior Web Copywriter at Webcopyplus, has been writing for websites since 2001 for some of the world’s largest service providers (Cingular, Scotia Bank, etc.). He speaks frequently at Web-related forums and seminars.