Friend and colleague, Matt McGee, recently published a very fine piece on getting started in SEO. For business owners new to the discipline of search engine optimization, Matt offers very good advice with the voice of experience. And, while this was the main focus of his piece, it is Matt's comment about hiring SEOs that is generating some of the liveliest feedback on his blog. Matt advises:
Don't hire anyone who contacts you first. SEO is very much in demand these days. The best and most trusted companies don't need to spam you with offers of free web site analyses. Delete those emails right away.
Responses have ranged from readers explaining that they feel it's important to research and contact businesses that might be a good match for their services, to asking why SEO is any different from any other industry that might contact potential clients, to suggesting that only a prestigious SEO like Matt would be doing well enough to comfortably give this kind of advice. As it happens, I support what Matt has said, and I'd like to explain why.
Why Business Owners Shouldn't Hire Web Services Providers Who Contact Them
I'm broadening my statement to include any type of web service: SEO, website design, SEM, Local SEM, PPC...you name it. If you own a business and are seeking to establish a presence or increase your visibility on the web, I would never advise you to hire a provider who contacts you first, whether via phone or email. Why not?
- Well, it's not because someone new to SEO, SEM, website design, etc. doesn't have any talent or skill. Most assuredly not.
- And it's not because cold calling or cold emailing automatically equates with spam or crooked business practices.
- And it's not even because unsolicited marketing is something that annoys so many of us.
Rather, these are my 3 reasons why hiring a web services provider who contacts you is probably not your best bet for success.
1. It's my contention, and this is borne out by the experience of so many folks I know in this business, that the majority of established web services providers' work comes through referrals from satisfied clients or colleagues or directly via searches on the web for the desired services. One of the commentors on Matt's blog suggested that cold calling is fine because the SEO may be 'hungry' (eager for work and ready to do a good job). My feeling is that hunger is only possible in the absence of established experience.
Established SEOs, Web Designers, Usability Experts, SEMs have to turn down work all the time because there is more demand than they can fulfill. I would say that a hungry SEO is one who has simply yet to establish a satisfied clientele that will refer their own friends, family and associates to him, or who has yet to establish good search engine rankings of his own that bring visitors to his website where the first contact can be made by the client. Only time is going to amass the experience a web services provider needs to be the best bet for a client. When you hire someone to strengthen your presence on the web, your business' success is in their hands and I would advise that you will be better off with a firm with a track record of real past success.
2. It's important to consider additional scenarios besides the lone and hungry SEO who is cold calling business owners. Telephone marketing can also be the province of very large web services companies who have the staff to run their fingers through the YP calling every business in sight in hopes of picking up contracts. When I think about the welfare of the client, I'm not happy with this scenario either.
In my experience, business owners (especially small business owners) will be best served by forming a long term relationship with a web designer, webmaster, SEO, etc., who will know them by name and come to know their business like the back of their hand. Can you really hope to succeed on the web when you start out as an 'account', being treated like a number by a company too large to ever know you by name? I wouldn't bet on it.
I've seen one too many small business owners get burned by $9.99 website builder companies and generic PPC management offers. This scenario stands in sharp contrast to the lucky business owner who manages to hire somebody like Matt McGee to start working for the success of her business. Genuine rapport and a personal investment will develop between provider and owner and I am convinced that the business owner is going to be far better off working with someone whose chief concern is client well being rather than whether his boss will fire him tomorrow for not picking up enough new accounts.
3. I saved this for last, because I see this as applicable much of the time, but surely not all of the time. There are a heck of a lot of rotten spammers and scammers out there who very much do contact business owners with the intention of rooking them. That's just the truth and I've seen it happen. The bad guys can't rely on a hard-won reputation for providing quality services. Rather, they rely on the naivety of business owners who don't know the difference between valuable services and ripoff deals.
I will never forget a personal experience with a small business owner - a client who came to us many years ago for website design for his handmade wood toy company. We built him a small, functional, simple little site, solidly grounded in good onpage SEO practices, properly optimized for the keywords that were important to him. For one reason or another, the client lost touch with us, only to show up 6 months later pleading for help.
He had given his credit card number to an 'SEO company' who had contacted him, guaranteeing him top 10 Google rankings. Instead, they had stuffed his meta tags, turned his copy into utter nonsense and desecrated his code and run up unapproved charges on his card...and continued to charge his credit card after he had told them they were very much fired. We went in and did damage control on the site, but I still wish the owner had thought to contact us first before handing over the keys to these crooks. Really frustrating.
When a stranger calls or emails you offering you something, please remember that you have no idea who this person is, where they are or what they are up to. I'd love to live in a world where I could trust everyone's word at face value, but that's just not the way things are. The health of your business' web presence is far too important to automatically trust to a person who falls from the sky into your life. If you needed to take the most important person in your life to an exceptional restaurant for an incredibly special occasion, chances are, you'd ask your friends for recommendations on the very best eating place in town. Surely, your success on the web deserves equal thought and care.
The bottom line here is that you should ask your circle of friends and colleagues for referrals when it's time to hire an SEO, a website designer or marketer. You should visit multiple websites, look at testimonials for credibility, read blogs, visit top industry forums and social media sites to see who is spoken well of and plan to have a real heart-to-heart talk with the person or team you're considering hiring to see if you can really work with them. If you own the business, the effort needs to be on your part to make that first connection, based upon your research and good sense.
It's No Shame To Be New
So where does this leave those new to the various web-based work fields? How are you supposed to build up this circle of colleagues who will gladly refer to you, this valued pool of clients who so love what you did for them that they will recommend you to their best friend, this mass of web citations that refer to you as an expert and a good guy?
My advice here is simple. You already know a lot of people. Palore recently estimated that only 1/2 of the small businesses in America currently have websites. This means that some of your friends who run businesses almost assuredly have no website, have never engaged in SEO, Local Search Marketing, PPC or any other web-based efforts. These people can be your first clients, pro bono or at a very modest fee that is commensurate with your present lack of experience. Don't quit your day job until your aunt refers you to her hairdresser...someone you don't know but who is about to become your client via referral. When you reach this stage, when you've started to build up that gorgeous page of totally legitimate testimonials from business owners in whose lives you've made a real difference, you are headed for success.
And, while you're working for little or no money, make the smart move of identifying where the very best conversations are happening in your industry. Start participating. Ask questions. Offer help when you can. Don't try to wear bigger boots than you actually own. There is absolutely no shame in being new and there is a ton of room in all the web-based specialties for hard-working, decent, honest, committed people who want to acquire skills and put them to use for others.
I found Matt McGee's article to be an excellent starting point for thought and discussion, not just about getting started on the web as a business owner, but getting started as the owner of a web services business. Like any other industry in the world, achieving success and maintaining it is going to take time and a lot of hard work. There will be cases and places in which advertising, marketing and maybe even contacting interesting businesses now and again may be indicated, but solidity will best be built on establishing a name for yourself in the business world that makes clients come to you. Think of how proud you will feel achieving this. It's a worthy goal!--------------------- Flickr Photo Credit
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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