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You have two cars. They both have 4 wheels, a transmission, a four-cylinder engine, red paint, and a sporty feel to them. To someone just hearing about it and who didn't know much about cars, they might seem to be pretty much the same.
One is a 1957 Ferrari TRC Spider with the rare inline-4 and the other is a 1993 Geo Storm GSi. If someone knows nothing about cars, they might pick the latter since it's 36 years newer, but here on Driving Sales it's safe to say that everyone knows which one would go for $4 million at auction.
The problem with SEO in 2015 is that everyone is describing their product the same way. I was on a presentation last week when a prospect told me that our description of SEO matched with another company's. I know for certain that this particular company does very little in the way of actual SEO, but looking at the brochure they left and reading about it on their website made me feel like I just showed up at a party wearing the same outfit as someone else.
There are universal buzzwords being tossed around in our industry right now. Content. Links. Social signals. Schema.org. Unique title tags. The list is pretty long, just as the list of similarities between a Ferrari and a Geo Storm would be long. How can dealers discern?
Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that there's really no way to truly differentiate unless quality is checked. If a dealer receiving a pitch for SEO doesn't closely examine the quality of the work being performed, there's no way to tell the difference between good SEO and bad SEO.
I know what you're thinking. All a dealer has to do is ask for examples of results. The work is only as important as the results, right? The sad reality is that every SEO or website company with more than 20 clients can come up with great examples of SEO prowess. There are plenty of dealers across the country that don't even have SEO but who are ranked well for their keywords.
If everyone has examples, we're back to having to judge the quality of the work. It's a pain because it means reading through content, testing that content out in searches on Google or Copyscape, and even asking for conversion numbers to see if the page was effective at actually driving leads.
Plenty of people have written about the questions one could ask their prospective SEO firm to see if they know what they're talking about, but I am going to go back to the beginning on this one and focus on getting examples of work. It's actually contrary to what many post, but there are a couple of dynamics at play here. First, most companies have someone on staff who can talk intelligently about SEO even if they aren't actually doing it right. Second, the "right" answer might not be so easily explained.
An example for the second dynamic at play would be looking at links. PageRank is dead, so that's no longer an indicator of the quality of the site. Page and domain authority are decent indicators, but even those are slow to update and don't always paint the right picture, particularly if a page is loaded with outbound links that dilute the effectiveness.
So, it comes down to the one universal truth that every great SEO service I've ever seen can hold as sacred: quality of content. Thankfully, you do have the ability to discern this because you can tell the difference between good content and bad content. There's really no such thing as "SEO content" anymore. If it's good for SEO, it will be a great read for a human as well.
Get examples. See what they're posting on your site as well as anything being posted offsite. If it's stuffed with keywords, sounds robotic, or generally makes you feel like rushing through to get to the end, it's probably poor content. If you can read it and get engaged with what's written, Google and Bing will likely like it as well.
It's not a perfect science, but there's an art to SEO as well. If it makes sense to you, it will make sense to the search engines.