SEO consulting is a booming business. Law firms are routinely solicited to “improve their Google rankings.” Even Google itself receives emails reading:
I visited your website and noticed that you are not listed in most of the major search engines and directories…”
Improving organic search engine rankings is an increasingly popular method of drawing non-referred clients to your law firm (so long Yellow Pages). Because the value of each new client tends to be high for many practice areas (personal injury and family law in particular), lawyers are a core target market for SEO consultants. The challenge is to distinguish fly-by-night operations from established, reputable, and effective firms like our friends at Stem Legal (full disclaimer, Skunkworks also advises firms on SEO during website development and through search marketing retainers) . When retaining a consultant of any type, the key is to know the right questions to ask. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
1. Who will actually do the work?
Legitimate forms of SEO work are…(surprise, surprise)…actually hard work. There’s no magic technological bullet that will shoot you to the top. In most cases, you’ll need to write relevant content for your website. You should be weary of anyone who says that they’ll take care of everything. A reputable consultant will likely tell you that “You should be doing X, Y, and Z. For my part, I’ll do A,B, and C to ensure your efforts are rewarded. Our combined work will improve SEO because of G and H.”
The other reason for this question is that many larger firms complete a bait and switch with regards to your point of contact. They have knowledgeable, experienced professionals on the sales/executive side with a small army of junior account managers below them. If you’re hiring a consultant, be sure that you ask who’s time you’re actually buying.
2. Can you generally describe your primary methods for improving my organic rankings?
There are both legitimate (white hat) and illegitimate (black hat) methods for improving SEO. Despite Google’s best efforts, the ranking algorithm remains susceptible to underhanded methods of improving search engine performance. While these tricks change regularly, a popular strategy involves link-farming where large networks of automated sites are used to link back your website (see also shadow domains and doorways). Not only is harnessing drone sites a risky practice from a professional conduct perspective (most law firms prefer not to share space with Russian Viagra), but it also runs the risk that subsequent modifications to Google’s algorithm will punish the practice and demote the firm accordingly.
3. Do you guarantee placement in organic Google rankings?
This may be a general business principle, but always beware any guarantee. Nobody can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google and this tends to be a primary clue of a sketchy operation. For that matter, beware anyone who claims to have a “special relationship” with Google. I see this fairly often. Another reference I hear is when people say they have been to the Googleplex. I have been to the United Nations for that matter. While Google does certify professionals (including myself and Skunkworks) for specific types of services, this means that we have completed training courses and passed the associated tests. This does not mean that we are part of a secret society where Google software engineers impart top secret wisdom.
4. What happens if I fire you?
Yet another general business principle. As a lawyer by training, one of my first questions with any new business relationship is how easily I can get out of it. Does the relationship have a minimum contract term? Can I fire you if I’m not happy? Am I locked-in to a piece of proprietary technology that will require me to start from scratch if I hire someone else? SEO doesn’t have any magic bullet formulas. Most of the challenge involves content generation and syndication. While some processes can be automated, you don’t want to lose all the hard work that you and the consultant have done.
A Taste of Your Own Medicine
You can even give it a try right in front of them. This is actually somewhat cheeky, but it can be used to assess how they respond. If they’re so good at improving SEO, you would think that they would rank well for their target market. Not surprisingly, keywords relating to SEO Consulting are extremely competitive.