SEO Smoke and Mirrors

Part of my routine each morning involves deleting lots of email - some from the wives of deceased dictators offering me generous compensation to help transfer huge sums of money out of the country, and some that guarantee to put my website in the #1 position on Google.

Unfortunately, just as there is no secret stash of money waiting in Nigeria, there are no companies that can guarantee a #1 ranking in Google, despite their claims to the contrary.

Since the first search engine appeared on the Internet, webmasters have struggled to get their sites to the top of the search results, often using somewhat unsophisticated methods attempting to trick the search engines. These included using hidden text, keyword stuffing, page cloaking, joining link farms and others. But these were all doomed to failure, as the search engines got smarter and quickly learned to weed out sites that practiced these questionable methods. And as search engines and their indexing methods evolved, the search engine optimization (SEO) industry started to boom.

At the same time, a shroud of mystery enveloped the process, which some of the less reputable SEO firms have unfortunately chosen to exploit. Promises of top rankings, proposals light on details and heavy on "proprietary secrets," inflated fees, and a questionable ROI are the order of the day with some of these shysters.

But ensuring a website is properly optimized remains a vital component of success, whether you have the resources in-house or you out-source to another company. By keeping a few things in mind you can avoid the hype of some of the snake oil consultants, and choose a proper SEO firm that will deliver what they promise.

Beware the #1 ranking guarantee
Some SEO companies love to tout how they will move you into the #1 position on the search engines. When someone guarantees a #1 ranking, ask them what keywords they will be targeting. They may be able to get you a #1 ranking for an obscure search term, but since no one is typing that into a search engine it won't bring you any traffic and therefore has little to no value.

Keep your expectations realistic
Understand that exhausting your resources trying to rise to the top for a common search term may not be your best option. It's often better to target less common search terms for which you can realistically rank well, and will therefore bring in traffic. Educate yourself on what can realistically be accomplished and set your goals accordingly. A good place to start is to perform some keyword research and discover the more competitive terms in your industry.

Understand there is no magic formula to SEO
Optimizing a website is a long, slow process, sometimes taking months to show results and with no guarantees. Trying to outwit the search engines through sneaky coding or technical tricks isn't an option, as ranking is determined using criteria not so easily manipulated.

SEO isn't about a single specific method of ranking well in the search engines. It's a methodology involving a large number of interrelated pieces - keyword research, competitive analysis, content development and copywriting, link building and more. It may also include PPC advertising, and modifications to site architecture and design. Exactly what and how much needs to be done will be dictated by your goals and your budget. But the point is, optimizing a website is a multifaceted process and part of your overall Web strategy, not a quick fix.

Be involved in all steps of the process
Even if you outsource your SEO services you will still need to be fully involved in the process. Some of the steps, such as developing  content or rewriting Web copy may be left to the site owner to complete. Building up quality incoming links is a process that can take years.
Regular monitoring of your rankings is another ongoing requirement. In other words, don't expect to write a check and forget about it.

SEO has attracted its fair share of criticism over the years. But there are bad apples in every profession, and it's wrong to assume that everyone working in this field is a con artist. But as with so many online businesses, it's a buyer beware market. So be sure to perform your due diligence and have a plan in mind before signing on any dotted line.

Real SEO is not a collection of tricks meant to fool the search engines, and it's not a scam. Real SEO is an integral part of the Web design, copywriting and marketing process. No smoke and no mirrors.

About the Author: Darren Johner has a background in web development and online marketing, and has been involved in the SEO field for over 10 years, optimizing sites for the technology, real estate, education and travel industries. He's currently based in beautiful Vancouver British Columbia where he works for Tourism Vancouver.