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This is another open-ended question that should be community wiki. –  Lèse majesté Oct 27 '10 at 0:54

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

SEO in my personal opinion, really is more of basics your web developer should be doing from the start of building your site. There are some optimizations you can do along the way if you're unable to make your URL's friendly or some of the other heavier lifting things, but why you would pay for this when you already had someone build the site is crazy to me.

The service part that I think I could see being worth paying for is market research about your site. I've seen a company that went out and found out what keys words were really the best for a sites content/market and helped to tailor the content of the site more accurately towards what their market wanted. In the end it wasn't so much SEO as it was just getting their site to match what people really wanted to find on their website. If someone keeps arriving on your site with the search term "How to boil hot dogs" and you're site only talks about hamburgers, then there's potential. However dumping "Hot Dogs" all over your meta data just to increase traffic is a bit of a jerk move and the main reason I hate these so called SEO-experts.

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Not talking about hacks, talking about how to speak to the number one user on the web, searches. There are things they want to hear, things they think are junk, and things they simply just can see. I've personally been doing SEO off and on for years, heard people talk about, etc. Point of my question is to find out today, what a real SEO firm does and how much it cost. Thanks for posting! +1 –  blunders Oct 25 '10 at 20:39
    
Honestly what they mostly do is scam money out of people that think they are literally gaining a direct ratio of visitors to the amount they are spending on SEO optimizing. If you're familiar with SEO I'm not really sure which parts you want to know about. The basics obviously, Meta tags and URLS, would be the low hanging fruit. If the site is already built the scale of their changes could be too much to fix depending who your developer is. –  XOPJ Oct 25 '10 at 20:45
    
I noticed you keep saying SEO firms/companies, but honestly I'd avoid anyone that specializes in that. Like I mentioned in my comment above the one time I had a experience working with someone on SEO related changes to our site it was a marketing firm that did their research to make it worth while. We already had the basics with our meta data and SEO friendly URL's but they found changing the words we were using actually increased our results, not by much, but enough to make value of their research. –  XOPJ Oct 25 '10 at 20:55
    
Great. Freaking. Answer. The first paragraph should be mandatory reading for every webmaster. –  John Conde Oct 25 '10 at 23:07

I think evaluating an SEO depends on your needs. SEO has and is becoming increasingly segmented, there are some that specialize in IA, some in link building, some in local SEO, some in content writing, some in video SEO and so on.

Google does offer their recommendations on "tips for hiring and SEO" http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35291

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Thanks for pointing out Google's page on choosing an SEO firm, and I agree that the field has become segmented. My confusion remains though that is seems that all of these methods are good practice, but do not attempt to understand SEO at the source, meaning the search results -- and what factors lead to the result being listed as they are. A long, long time ago I saw a list of 150-250 factors that Google uses to rank sites. Do you know of a list like that, that also including the weight of a given factor? Seems like understanding that list would be key to choosing a firm. –  blunders Oct 27 '10 at 12:53
    
There are a few that openly try to discuss all of the ranking factors but since there are so many it is virtually impossible to test conclusively here is a list that SEOMoz puts out every year (for some reason I can't find the 2010 version) where they build a list of possible factors and ask top SEOs to speculate on their weighting. seomoz.org/article/search-ranking-factors –  Joshak Oct 27 '10 at 13:14
    
Also David Mihm has also done the same for local SEO specifically davidmihm.com/local-search-ranking-factors.shtml –  Joshak Oct 27 '10 at 13:16

I think what most SEO companies do is one or more of the following:

  1. to evaluate/find what are the keyphrases that could bring you most traffic from Google.

  2. to adjust your site title/meta description and contents to contain the keyphrases of point (1).

  3. to add links to your site on many websites/blogs/directories.

I agree with XOPJ that (1) and (2) should be done by the guy who made you the site. Obviously if you bought a 10$ website (or a free one) you can't expect them to have done it for you. I'm clueless about what SEO charges for (1) and (2), I would evaluate a SEO doing this based simply on how much my website performs better on Google search results for those keyphrases after his intervention.

About point (3) the added value of a SEO company could be to avoid you doing a tedious job that might not even bring you the expected results. The SEO company might aready know what are the websites/directories/forums/blogs where is simplier to add a link to your site with a NOT-nofollow link and maybe with some PR on those pages.

For point (3) you could evaluate a SEO job by paying him only after he submitted you the list of pages where he inserted a link to you site, the PR of each of those pages and the number of outgoing links from each of those pages. Keep in mind these values might change in time, if I'm able to place a link to your site on Microsoft HOME PAGE, but such link is removed after one week, it's not very helpful.

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@Marco Demaio: Find this all very interesting, guess I just expected that there would be a clear answer, or that an expert looking at a list of search results would be able to run analysis on why XZY placed better than ABC. Thanks for posting! –  blunders Oct 26 '10 at 21:05
    
Aside from submitting to directories, number 3 is actually discouraged by Google and would be considered greyhat or blackhat. Google created canonical specifically so that paid links would not contribute to PR. Paying someone to sneak your link into blogs or put them on sites without nofollow is unethical. PR works by measuring how valuable a page is based on how many people voluntarily link to it. It's not intended to measure how many links a website owner can buy for his site. –  Lèse majesté Oct 27 '10 at 0:58
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@Lese Google actually encourages proper link building, there are many spammy and Blackhat ways to build links to your site that Google discourages, however, when people link to your site because you add value to them and their users Google likes that and rewards it. (Also canonical deals with duplicate content, nofollow deals with paid links). –  Joshak Oct 27 '10 at 11:30
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There are absolutely many "SEO" companies that produce bulk content, but there are also many SEOs that produce high quality content and have decided to specialize. I read the blog of a gentlemen that only works with clients in the independent art industry, because of his knowledge of the art industry and his knowledge of SEO, he can very likely write better content then most artists, he has also spent a lot of time networking and because of his connections can get a much broader reach for the content. As in most things there are far more that produce bulk content than produce good content. –  Joshak Oct 27 '10 at 13:11
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@Lese Agreed knowledge of SEO does not automatically mean you are a better writer, however, in the same vein just because you are a strong writer doesn't mean you'll get any traffic to your site. Content is king, but if you don't know how to promote it, then it still does you no good. –  Joshak Oct 29 '10 at 11:17

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