I left off in my last post saying that it is frustrating to the Search Marketing (SEO-SEM) buyer in "Finding objective people or companies who are not under "undo influence" of any kind to be positive or negative in their reference giving,..". Google may help with this (click on cartoon to enlarge).
That quote above is true since most of the references that prospective search marketing buyers get are from the SEO-SEM firm that they are considering. To me this is like asking Coke if I should buy Pepsi or Coke. Of course, Coke could refer you to Sprite for a referral to the answer, but bias would still be there. God forbid you don't know that Sprite is friend or partner to Coke.
Yet Matt Cutts said in an Aaron Wall Interview when asked "..what would you personally look for when hiring an SEO?": "References, probably. Proven success with clients who are willing to show their results." So, how does an SEO-SEM prospect find a way to get unbiased references in order to ask open-ended, leading questions of, along with great "peel the onion" follow-up questions?
Here are a couple of ideas from Todd Malicoat that I really like.
Danny Sullivan was right about SEO-SEM prospects not checking references (as backed up by "Five Mistakes You Don't Want to Make - Common Reference Checking Pitfalls"). But, when you read point #7 of "References: The Keys to Choosing and Using the Best Job References in Your Job Search" where it urges the applicant to "Keep your references informed (and perhaps coached)", you can understand why many prospects don't put a lot of credence in references given by sellers. Even if they are not coached, no seller is going to intentionally give a buyer a reference to even a partially unhappy customer. Furthermore, an unhappy customer (past or present) is probably not going to be totally open if he knows that the seller gave the prospect his name.
Todd Malicoat said in "bullet" # 4 of this SEW Forum post on "Reputable SEO Companies": "Ask for referrals from folks with top rankings - My new personal favorite - Do some searches for some medium level competition searches (2 word phrases not HIGHLY sought after). Call up the companies in the top spot and ask them about their SEO company. Don’t do this with YOUR phrases as you will likely get less feedback from your competitors (if any). Make sure to let the people you call know you are not a threat and just looking for assistance in shopping for help with your site." (I suggest giving them proof of who you are by first e-mailing them with a link to your website, and then asking for a convenient time to call). This is a GREAT STARTING POINT to find your initial list of possible SEO consultant firms, in my opinion! This also insures that the top spot web sites really were authored by the SEO firm you're interested in, as many sites only disclose the webmaster, but have no SEO logo or mark.
Todd then says in "bullet" # 6: "Do searches for the names of the SEO company or the main folks in the company - this will show you their reputation within the industry." This, and all of Todd's suggestions can be time consuming, but it is a better alternative than what I describe in "SEM Consultant & Client = Parting Is NOT Sweet Sorrow". So, the answers you come up with could be another "According to Google answer", if you know how to use any of the search engines properly. Here are some great search tricks, tips, and hints at the "Wolf-Howl Blog. After that, be sure to do your "Skimming and Scanning" well, as you review those top ranked web sites for overall design, and ease of usability & readability. If you find a link not working or anything that the website owner would want to know about (including a SINCERE COMPLIMENT), offer that info as a way of introducing yourself.
5/13/06 Postscript: Thanks to Lee Odden of Online Marketing Blog, I want to add that potential SEO clients need to try to find out what the "conversion to actions" statistics are achieved for the web sites they found near the top of the SERP's. This may be difficult as sometimes there are confidentiality clauses between SEO and client that would prevent those kinds of disclosures. But conversions are actually as important, if not more, than rankings. I'd rather be #3 with a high conversion rate than #1 with a low one.
5/17/06 Postscript: At the bottom of this page: "10 Questions to Ask a Consultant BEFORE You Hire Them", it says that an affiliate for that "consultant finder service" wrote it. I like the advice given which could be applied to finding a Search Engine Optimization Consultant (especially about "Personalities"). However, I have read many articles and posts from SEO Consultants who, I feel, would not pay the "consultant matchmaking-broker service" a fee to find them a client. Also, many good SEO Consultant's don't want that kind of scrutiny, mostly because they don't have the time for it. Also, don't forget that once you choose a SEO Consultant firm, you need to have "SEO Seller & Buyer Performance Evaluations ".
Cartoon courtesy of "Microdoc News" (out of business) by way of Google Blogoscoped .