How To Get Started With SEO

Filed in MY BEST POSTS, SEO by Matt McGee on October 20, 2009 30 Comments

Judging from the amount of inquiries that have come in this year via my contact form, there are a lot of small businesses that are just now starting to dip their toes into this whole SEO thing. I’d love some cold, hard stats to back up what I’ve seen … but short of that, gut instinct tells me a lot of people are wondering how to get started with SEO.

getting started with seo

Getting Started with SEO

Here are some questions you’ll need to answer and things you’ll need to know if you’re just now getting started with SEO.

1. “I want to rank well in Google” is not a goal; it’s a means to reaching a goal. Why are you getting into SEO? What do you want to accomplish? You’re a business owner. Your goals should be about making money and growing your business, whether it be through selling more widgets or acquiring more leads. It sounds cliché, but you need to begin with goals. Don’t focus on rankings.

2. Will you hire a consultant or do it yourself?

This is the first question you need to answer. Once you have a clear list of goals, it’s time to figure out how to get there. If you have more time than money, you’ll probably need to learn SEO yourself. Don’t feel overwhelmed. You can do it. Most SEO basics are not terribly complicated. If you have more money than time, you’ll probably need to hire an SEO consultant. But you still need to be involved and as active in the project as possible. Don’t just write a check and assume your SEO consultant will take care of everything without any input from you.

3. Who in your company will be involved in your SEO campaign?

Whether you’re doing SEO yourself or hiring a consultant, you’ll need to know who all will be involved in the SEO project. If you’re a one-man band, move on; it’s all you. If you have employees, though, you’ll need to get your staff on board and make sure the right people are contributing in the right ways to the SEO work. SEO will probably involve updates to your web site. It’ll probably require new content, in the form of articles, blog posts, maybe even videos. It may require some tweaks of a technical nature, so if you have an IT person/department, make sure they’re involved. Everyone needs to be committed; one person not pulling his weight can quickly derail an SEO campaign.

Hiring an SEO Consultant

golf & handIf you’ve decided to hire an SEO consultant, here are some things to consider:

1. Hiring an SEO consultant requires due diligence. While there are all kinds of SEO training/certification providers out there, our industry lacks an all-encompassing oversight organization. That means the burden is on you to find a good, honest consultant. Take this seriously. You’ll essentially be putting your business in this person’s/company’s hands for a period of time. This isn’t like hiring a company to service your copy machine. If you make a bad choice in hiring an SEO consultant, it could substantially damage your business or, at minimum, cost you a lot of money with no return.

Interview potential clients and ask a lot of questions. Ask for references/testimonials. Ask them if the tactics they typically use are risky, or are within the search engines’ webmaster guidelines. Make sure you’re on the same page as the consultant where risk vs. reward is concerned. Don’t hire someone that tries to get you to take more risk than you’re willing to accept.

2. 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.

3. SEO is usually not inexpensive, but usually is a great source of new clients and revenue. I’m sure there are some good SEO consultants out there that are only charging $75 per hour or so. I just don’t know who they are or where they are. Most top SEOs, and certainly the ones I’d recommend, charge $200 per hour and up. Some SEOs charge as much as $500 or $1,000 per hour, and these folks are not lacking for business. When done right, SEO offers tremendous long-term ROI. Spending $10,000 on an SEO campaign can often lead to years of business growth that dwarfs the original investment.

Learning SEO Yourself

cherrypickIf you plan to devote the time to learning SEO, the following should help you get started:

1. Basic SEO is not terribly difficult. You can learn the basics, and don’t let anyone — especially an SEO consultant who wants your business — tell you otherwise. SEO basics include a lot of low-hanging fruit — things you can do relatively quickly and easily and begin to see some rewards. Most of these low-hanging fruit are the same no matter how big or small your company is, no matter what industry you’re in, and no matter how competitive the landscape is. I’m talking about things like improving your page titles, improving your usage of keywords in web site copy, improving the anchor text of your internal links, and other on-page factors.

Where SEO gets more complicated, and where an experienced consultant can really help, is in keyword research/selection, competitive analysis, link building, content promotion, technical issues like redirects and URL rewriting, and so forth. Still, there are a lot of great resources on the web where you can at least get the basics. Read on….

2. Continuing education is a must. While the basics of SEO are pretty much the same today as they were years ago, the overall search/SEO landscape never stops changing. Fortunately, there are a lot of places where you can learn for the long haul:

  • Sorry for the self-promotion, but I’ve been writing this blog for almost four years with the goal of teaching SEO and online marketing to small business owners. I think the world should read and print out my SEO Success Pyramid, and read all the related articles linked from that page. I also think beginners should spend $25 on my How to SEO Your Site in 60 Minutes e-book. It covers all the basics of on-page SEO with specific instructions for improving your web site. Also watch for the link recap posts I publish at the end of every month, with links to the best articles I read during that month.
  • I’m also biased in this recommendation, but I think most SEOs would agree that Search Engine Land offers some consistently great instructional content. In particular, check the Small Is Beautiful column every Thursday, and the Locals Only column (local SEO tips) every Monday.
  • Search Engine Guide is another excellent source of instructional articles, and it focuses specifically on small business issues.
  • The SEOmoz beginner’s guide to search engine optimization is in the process of being updated, but is still a great resource in its current version.
  • GetListed.org is a great place to learn about Local Search, especially the Resources section.
  • Some of the best how-to material written over the past couple years can be found in the nominations for the SEMMY Awards. You’ll find lists of excellent articles about SEO, Local Search, Link Building, and much more. (Disclaimer: I’m one of the founders of the SEMMY Awards.)
  • You can learn a ton at educational conferences, and for small businesses I’d especially recommend Small Business Marketing Unleashed (don’t know when the next one will be, however), Learn About Web (ditto), and SearchFest, which will take place next March in Portland, Oregon. Two larger conferences, SMX and SES also offer sessions specifically for small business owners.

3. Read every day, and with a critical eye. I spend at least an hour a day reading other SEO blogs and web sites so I can stay informed on current strategies and tactics. You may not need an hour, but I do think a consistent schedule will be helpful. Also, read critically — don’t believe everything just because an SEO blogger said so. When you can, test the strategies and tactics for yourself and see what works best in your situation.

Final Thoughts

There’s one more thing you’ll need a lot of when you’re getting started with SEO: patience. SEO is not a quick-fix; it usually takes at least a few months to see any real benefits from your SEO efforts. It usually takes a year or two to build up a site that search engines trust enough to rank highly for semi-competitive terms. SEO is a long-term process, not something you do once and see results from as soon as you’re done.

In fact, you’re never really “done” with SEO. Search engines regularly tweak how they rank pages, so you’ll need to adjust over time. Plus, your competition probably isn’t “done” with SEO, so you’ll fall behind quickly if you stop. The most important thing is to get started — the sooner, the better. Whether you’re doing SEO yourself, or hiring a consultant, there’s no better time to start than right now.

(race photo at top courtesy Jon Marshall via Creative Commons)

Comments (30)

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  1. Jim Rudnick says:

    great article Matt….loved it all – and will send the URL to clients too!
    :-)

    Jim

  2. Great overview getting started with SEO

  3. Glen Allsopp says:

    Hey Matt,

    Definitely a beginners guide but a great article. I definitely agree with your point about realising SEO can be expensive, but you can make the money back.

    Too many people look at the costs and not realise what it can do for their business.

    Sphunn!

    - Glen

  4. Nancy says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and will be clicking on the RSS feed. You give a lot of places to learn SEO, even for a beginner like me.

    Thank You.

  5. David Smythe says:

    Point 2 seems a bit controversial.

    Good companies take a proactive approach to marketing themselves and generating business.

    Whilst I’m not for unsolicited emails and such, there are worthwhile companies out there doing it. It’s about finding a way to filter out the junk …

  6. Julie Kosbab says:

    I would have to agree with David.

    Cheesy e-mails sent to your contact form, or just general spam? Delete with prejudice.

    But there are a lot of good companies and practitioners who are hungry, and who go out to put themselves in front of people, and describe what they can do to help a business. This is just good sales prospecting.

    Heck, even Google are doing radio ads trying to get people to carry AdSense… :)

  7. RKF says:

    Matt,

    Another solid article that I definitely appreciate. As with the previous two commenters, I take issue with the point about avoiding firms that contact you.

    From a personal perspective, we are a growing firm with capacity to fill. In fact, we were one of the first (if not the first?) advertisers on your blog . Occasionally, we will contact specific companies that we’ve identified as potentially being a good match for us. Often, it’s an SMB with a good product or service and lousy marketing.

    We’re close to the point where we won’t be soliciting new business, but until that time we’ll be reaching out to suitable companies. I don’t think that makes us remarkably inferior, it just puts us at a different stage in our company’s growth.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, Matt :)

    Ryan

  8. Jed says:

    Yes, Continuing education is a must.

    You cannot see the result of one strategy you’ve done in one click. Learning more and more is important. Reading and getting involved with other SEO blog sites is a plus.

  9. imroz says:

    I like the wordings “Don’t focus on rankings.” Thats true. Focus on your goals instead of rankings. This is better. Great article BTW.

  10. Gareth James says:

    Your Point 1 on getting started is so true. I get so many people saying they want top positions, but totally miss the point as to why. It also can become an ego thing, wanting to rank for terms that may not even bring them conversions.

  11. MiriamEllis says:

    Matt,
    This is a really nice overview of how to get started. And, having now gotten to work on a project with you as the lead SEO, I would like to add that your advice is grounded in considerable experience and worthy of trust for anyone who is just getting into this discipline.

    Regarding hiring/not hiring SEOs who contact you, while I understand what is being said in the above two comments, I second your opinion. Successful SEOs earn contracts via referrals from clients and colleagues and by dint of the high rankings they’ve achieved for their own important keywords – if they are hungry, they probably aren’t the best bet.

    If they are simply new and haven’t yet built up a circle of clients and colleagues who will gladly refer projects to them, or they have yet to achieve good visibility on the web for the services they provide, they should consider doing pro bono work to build both experience and connections. Once this is established, they shouldn’t need to be cold calling people any more than a doctor, lawyer or landscaper would. So, I’m sticking with Matt’s feeling on this.

  12. Dan Connolly says:

    Once again, thanks for the advice and especially the Search Engine Land links. When you are a small business owner doing this along with the basic business you are in, it helps to have someone weed through the info and point out the gems. I am an occasional visitor to that blog and appreciate the heads up on the columns that actually apply to my biz.

  13. RKF says:

    Miriam & Matt,

    Would we apply the same advice to other industries? Would you say that real estate agents who marketing themselves are not to be trusted?

    Should florists not proactively reach out to potential corporate clients and funeral homes?

    Aren’t we supposed to be all about the marketing? I’m not necessarily advocating blanket cold calling, but targeting specific potential clients is a legitimate practice, I think.

    Ryan

  14. Matt McGee says:

    The difference to me, Ryan, is that real estate agents and florists are in an established industry that people are familiar with. Sure, they know there are some bad apples perhaps, but they don’t need an education about what a real estate agent does or a florist.

    With SEO, too many people have no idea and so the only exposure they have to SEO is from the spammy solicitations they get via email (or via phone) from companies promising the top spot on Google and all kinds of other things they have no business promising.

    As an SEO, I wouldn’t want to be seen in the same light as those people, so I wouldn’t do any cold-calling, cold-emailing, etc.

    Your phrase “targeting specific potential clients” is a bit different from what I’m referring to in this post about spamming “with offers of free web site analyses.”

  15. “2. Don’t hire anyone who contacts you first. ”

    I respect you and what you do but this comment can only come from someone with the prestige u have.

    But whats wrong with picking up the phone and calling a business and offering help?

    Are you saying no one should get into SEO unless they work for a major company?

    A majority of seo projects start with just that,

    someone contacting you first.

    Spammy emails asside lets make a land in the sand of what’s spam and what is direct sales.

    sorry we dont have your prestige just yet , how bout the little guy?

  16. I think many times when a person or company venture into the world of SEO they know they need it but are often times not sure what it is. A few searches online could easily send their head spinning from all the clutter. There are many ways to get from point A to point B so it is important to find a vendor that will mesh with you and your business.

  17. David says:

    hey Matt,
    this article has been bookmarked. I will definitely refer contacts to it as it makes really good points: basic SEO is easy, SEOs different pay structures, and the resources section is excellent. With regards to your SEO Pyramid chart, I hadnt heard many SEOs talk about it until this week during the SEOMoz Protraining seminar in London, when it came up in the conversations like at least 3 times. cheers, david

  18. robert says:

    In addition to the resources on your site, I recommend newbies check out SEOMoz’s guides and daily blog/videos.

  19. Shannon says:

    Matt,

    Good article and I agree on many points. The cold calling point struck a chord because I am the biz dev guy at our small firm. I want to stand behind this because no one really likes cold calling, but we all want to grow our business too and if you have gotten big enough to employ a dedicated sales person then you need that person to be doing something. What’s great about this approach is your salesperson can be doing things so much more effective than cold calling (like engaging in blog discussions). SEO is expensive if done right and before any business small or large is going to drop this kind of money they want to have a relationship with that vendor. So cold call if you must but stay with that prospect until it is a very very warm call and don’t expect any business until then.

  20. Upesh says:

    Great post Matt,

    It would be good to know how you went around getting clients in the early stages of your business.

  21. Sue says:

    excellent article for the beginner companies and small companies – and a good point about being involved in what your SEO consultant does if you hire one as you need to know what is going on with your website – plus learn the tricks of the trade as well so you can implement some of them yourself. Great post…

  22. M Sherwood says:

    I’ve had great success with hiring a SEO company. As long as you keep a positive attitude, know how much you want to spend, and stay involved you will have great ROI.

  23. Shailendra says:

    Thanks a lot Matt for such a great guide.

    I agree with you that if you have more time then money, you should go through SEO learning but again as you said it’s a life long learning and require regular updates and need lots of time a patient to see the results.

    Here I would like to encourage people who have opted to it themselves that SEO is not at all difficult to learn it only need to do thins in right way.

  24. Dev Basu says:

    Matt, this is definitely one of your ‘evergreen’ posts. #3 on hiring an seo consultant is where prospective clients need a deeper education, as they really have no basis on what a ‘fair price’ would be.

  25. Bob Maiocco says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for this great resource. I began my first real estate blog just a few months before you wrote this post and I have used many of the resources you’ve laid out in this post as a guide over the past year plus. Although I have dabbled in hiring SEO services for the most part I’ve done it myself with your help! The results have been very good. Although with the benefit of hindsight– if I had it to do over, I think I would probably just pay an expert so I could concentrate on my area of expertise (selling homes). Anyway the ROI is great and would have been even if I had spent upwards of $10k for a best in class SEO. Thanks again, and if you have a chance to visit I’d love to get your feedback on my site.

  26. Stuart says:

    Point one makes the most sense to me, as it’s not about rankings, just like Matt says, that’s just a means to an end – what it’s really all about is conversions.

  27. sudha says:

    Does anyone have or know where I can find statistics on companies that spend money advertising opposed to those who don’t and what advantage their dollar buys for them over the company that SAVES money advertising?

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