Once upon a time, I had a lot of faith in SEO firms. I sought out top companies in the industry and paid thousands of dollars. What I got in return were minimal results, and what turned out to be minimal effort.
If you’re an e-commerce manager, you might be surprised to find out how easy it is to save money on the “low hanging fruit” of SEO by shifting part, or all, of your SEO efforts in-house.
There are 5 major parts of SEO that you can move in-house, and save your company between $20,000 – $120,000 dollars a year.
When I used an SEO firm, I was charged between $200 to $500 dollars a month just for keyword analysis. Looking back, it seems wasteful: especially considering the free and inexpensive resources available online that help you select an optimal list of keyword phrases, like Google’s keyword tool. This tool is part of the Google AdWords suite, but it is just as useful for SEO.
Let’s say you have a business that sells real estate. You enter “real estate” into Google’s keyword tool and you will see huge traffic levels. By default, once you enter your keywords, the tool does a broad match. Click the box in the top left-hand sidebar that says “exact match.”
After that adjustment, the column that says “local monthly searches” (this really just means searches in your country) shows 301,000 searches per month for the exact phrase “real estate.”
If you try a more specific phrase, say “Philadelphia Real Estate”, you’ll see that the volume drops to 3,600 searches a month. Play with the tool a bit more to get comfortable, and then you can begin expanding your keywords.
Another good place to start expanding your keywords is by glancing at your competitors’ websites. Although meta-keywords are often times viewed as worthless by the SEO community at large, having meta-keywords is still a common practice. Your competitors are likely to have their targeted keywords for each page exposed to you in their HTML code and you’d be a fool not to take a look.
Simply right click on the page, select view source from the context menu, and your browser should load the HTML of the page. Once you’re looking at the HTML, press ctrl+F on your keyboard to activate the ability to search the text. Search for: “meta name=”keywords”", and if your competitor uses the keywords meta tag, your search tool should jump to it.
While you’ve got that HTML open, take a peek at your competitor’s title tags (“meta name=”title”). Make sure you don’t copy their tags. If you look at the top three ranking sites for the keywords you’re analyzing, you’ll probably see that they have the same (or strikingly similar) title tags.
Once you have a good list of keywords, you’ll want to use Market Samurai, a tool you can purchase for $99. This tool will allow you to determine how heavy the competition is for each keyword phrase and select keywords that have both a high volume of traffic, but also a low level of competition. Do your best to put yourself in your customer’s shoes, and think of how they’d approach looking for your product.
Competitive Analysis & Reporting
Competitive analysis is a service most SEO firms provide (I was charged $100 monthly, on average) to provide you reports on how well your competitors are ranking for the keywords you’re targeting. There are a few tools, paid and free, that will also provide you with similar reporting, namely SEOMoz and SEO Quake.
For about the same price as I was paying just for competitive analysis, SEOMoz (about $90 monthly) will allow you to enter three competitors and a list of keywords you want to examine. (It has a host of other tools I’ll discuss in a bit, too.) When you run the comparison, SEOMoz will show you how you rank for each keyword compared to your competition.
Another free approach to examining your comparison would be to use a tool such as SEO Quake, which is a Firefox plug-in that allows you to instantly view an array of statistics. This plugin will display a website’s Google page rank, the number of pages they have indexed in each of the major search engines, Alexa rank, the number of inbound links, even the age of their website.
I also recommend plugging your website and your competitor’s websites into Compete.com to get a general idea as to how much traffic they receive each month (but be sure to keep in mind that this is just an estimate). When examining your target keywords, be sure to logout of Google and erase all of your cookies in order to get more neutral results.
I personally like to track ongoing rankings using Web CEO, although Market Samurai works as well. Web CEO will provide you with a report each month that shows any increase or decrease in your ranking. If you want a very basic overview of how your competition is doing, try websitegrader.com and woorank.com. These sites will also give you some helpful tips on how to improve your own SEO.
One of the most essential parts of a good SEO strategy is content creation. Most SEO companies charge around $100 for a piece of content, and often, unbeknownst to you, outsource the writing anyway. Content, in this case, includes any written articles targeting specific keywords being generated for your website, newsletter and blogs.
Why would you have someone else pay someone else to write about your business? When you think about it, who could write better content than people who know it best—your own in-house team? Be sure to focus on keywords when writing any articles or blogs. Using your target keywords 3 or 4 times in the article and hyperlinking them to the appropriate page on my website.
Writing content for your website and product isn’t very difficult or time consuming, so I recommend bringing content creation in house as much as possible. If that’s not possible, however, use a service like Content Network. This website will allow you to pay a fee per word for copywriting. I was able to find someone with a master’s degree in English from University of Michigan who charged 5 cents per word for their services.
Markup & Standards
Be sure to follow coding standards, and use your markup semantically. Basically, this means using only one ‘H1′ tag per page, and making sure your content is using the appropriate markup for what the content is. The web has millions and millions of free resources on basic HTML markup, and my personal favorite is the W3C, or W3Schools.
What is the relationship between markup and SEO? Spiders use your markup to determine the significance of the keywords it finds; a ‘H1′ tag, for example, means ‘This is the most important content on the page–this is what the page is about!’
According to SEOMoz: “Although employing targeted keywords in the H1 tag does not correlate well to high rankings, it does appear to provide some slight value. It’s also considered a best practice for accessibility and to describe a page’s content, hence our recommendation.” That’s just one example, but each piece of your code helps to tell the search engines the importance of the content on your page, so it’s critical to make sure that you use markup properly.
When it comes to SEO, I’ve found two factors to be most important: strong content and good links.
As I mentioned above, content can be handled very effectively in-house, though content creation and proper markup.
The second portion is link building. A significant portion of link building methods employed by SEO companies today are frowned upon by Google. Some of these questionable methods include spamming blog comment sections, buying links through link farms, submitting your website to 1000 directories, and so on. These methods are risky and can cause you to lose ranking or even get blacklisted.
Amazingly, plenty of SEO companies use exactly those old-school tricks to get short-term results for their clients. SEO Book wrote a great article on 101 link building tactics. If you have a low budget, this is a good way to get started.
Link building, however, is a complex and constantly evolving game, requiring time and dedication. I’ve found a number of ways to get quality links for little or no cost. One of the best methods that i can give you is to give away your own product to bloggers and get reviews from relevant websites. In exchange for reviews get text links for the reviews.
It can sometimes be frustrating and annoying to wait so long for links but it is the cheapest and easiest way to get links. I have also had confirmation from some of the top link builders in the industry that this is the best way to start.
Network Locally & Getting Support
If you’re considering bringing your SEO efforts in-house, you don’t have to do it alone. There are resources online, and in real life, in your local area, where you can get support and discuss your issues.
Some of the best advice I have ever gotten was in SEO related Meetup.com gatherings and SEO blogs and forums such as the High Rankings forum, the Seer Interactive blog and the SEOMoz Pro Q&A forum. All free advice. Their tips alone could help save you up to $20,000 – $30,000 dollars a month.
You don’t have to do it all at once, either; start off slowly, maybe focus on content creation and markup optimization, and continue paying for Link Building until you’re ready to take it on.
Ultimately, you know your business, your customers, and your keywords best, so try to bring your SEO efforts in house whenever possible. You’ll not only save money, you’ll get better quality content, and learn more about your website and your customers.
If you have questions or want some advice–just ask! Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments below or contact me directly.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.