There hasn’t ever been a more overused and often less understood term than Search Engine Optimization, or SEO. Millions (I am not kidding) of freelancers are in front of their PCs across the globe with the shingle out that says “SEO Specialist.” And you know what? Some of them really are. If you’re a business owner with a site on the Internet, unless this is your game, SEO specialists are likely better than you at optimizing your site. But how do you find someone who will make a difference for your business?

Why You Need to Be Optimized

First, let’s define Search Engine Optimization as all the on page things you can do for your website to boost its Page Rank (PR) on the major search engines, Google being the biggest kid on campus with upwards of 65% of all worldwide searches. Your efforts should be designed at getting you to page 1, and if possible, in return results 1-5 which tend to show up above the fold, or before the user has to scroll down. It is conservatively estimated that less than 5% of online searchers ever get beyond page 1 when finding a source. That means if you’re not coming up on page 1 for your keywords, you are a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it bud. If your business being “found” on the internet via search engines is important to your lead generation strategy, you simply cannot afford to ignore top tier SEO strategies.

What Makes Good SEO

Here is what the experts bring to the party for exceptional SEO:

1. Good Written Copy – Readable, enticing, conversion-producing, with just the right blend of keywords on the page that gets high rankings without getting the dreaded Google slap.

2. Local Optimization – Make their web properties the biggest fish in their own local pond, optimizing for local SEO and knowing that even for intangibles like SEO services and information technology, people seek out those closest to them. They take advantage of tools that supplement your website like the millions of unclaimed local websites that already exist for companies from Google Places (see this Google Places video for more).

3. Staying Current – Google comes up with new updates that change the way the game is played seemingly every other day (Panda anyone?); are you up to speed? If not, then your best SEO intentions may work against you and penalize your site PR.

If you have the skillset to be labeled an expert, then you can affordably optimize your web pages provided you have the time. If not, it makes sense to vet Search Engine Optimization companies to see who works for you.

How to Find a Good SEO Partner

Charlatans reign supreme online when it comes to buzzwords about marketing your services on the Internet. Any kid with a laptop and dorm room power supply can claim the handle SEO Expert, and some may be. The same goes for Search Engine Marketing (SEM) specialist and the latest “anybody can be one,” Social Media Marketing (SMM) consultant.

Here’s what to look for when sourcing an SEO firm:

1. Visible Portfolio – Don’t be someone’s guinea pig; make sure vendors show you other sites they have worked on, AND test the sites against the keywords they were optimized on by searching on Google, Bing and Yahoo. Are the samples sites coming up on page 1? If not, keep looking.

2. Start Local – It’s much easier to verify if a firm is real or not by looking for expertise in your city. If you live in San Diego, search San Diego SEO. You get the picture.

3. Detailed Plan – Make sure the SEO firm provides a detailed plan of exactly what they will be doing to optimize your website for local SEO or any SEM offline strategies they are using to drive traffic. The best SEO consultants will lay out the strategy in detail regarding keywords per page, tactics, submissions, etc. without being asked, but ask anyway. Stay away from anyone who essentially says, “Trust me.”

4. Check References – Testimonials need to be from real people that you can call if you need to. If you see a quote from Rob R, San Francisco, RUN, don’t walk, to another choice.

So if you’re in business and you want an online presence, do it right. Don’t have one of the hundreds of millions of websites online that get no traffic and wonder why business is down. Bone up on SEO tactics or hire a pro using the steps I outlined here, and become web relevant locally and beyond.

By Karl Walinskas (c) 2011