The internet, it seems, is magic to quite a large number of people. Even though so many people use it all the time, do and purchase stuff online, and numerous individuals and businesses have some sort of online presence, from websites to profiles on social networking sites, many would struggle to explain what it actually is and how it works. And, in particular, most people are not aware how Google and other search engines choose and rank in order the webpages that are shown as results, after they had typed in a few words. That is not unusual: probably something similar happens, when people are asked to explain how the radio works, or how an aeroplane flies, and what matters is that it works. Somewhat oddly, and despite the intensive use of the internet, there seems to be more mystery surrounding the internet, compared to radios and aeroplanes.
If it is magic, then there must be magicians, who know the esoteric arts related to the internet, especially in making your online presence more prominent. In many cases, these magicians call themselves SEO. SEOs (search engine optimizers) are people who do SEO (search engine optimization). The wizards know – or claim to know – how to make your website, or blog, rank higher in the search engine results for certain words and phrases, ensuring more exposure to the public, thus more visitors, which in turn would result in more revenue, if for example, you sell things on your site, or have advertisements on it. Like the sorcerers of yore, SEOs wear hats, and the colour tells what kind of magic they practise. The black-hatted ones perform black magic, and the white-hatted ones perform white magic. Or so they claim. Through a process of mystification, people seem strangely vulnerable to the messages sent out by these self-proclaimed magicians. People, who would normally slam the phone down when they are cold called, or who would do a due diligence test, seem to forget to do this, when it comes to SEO and the internet magic box in general.
As in any other industry, there are cowboys, and there are good, legitimate, helpful operators. SEO can be a particularly difficult industry to distinguish the cowboys from the good ones, as it is unregulated, in the sense that there is no widely accepted certification system. Also, SEO is amorphous: while its practitioners may be loosely defined as someone whose job is to raise the ranking of a site in search engine results, there are many methods to achieve that end. In other words, there are so many different paths: some are broad, some are narrow, and some are very risky. Here we go back to the different colours of invisible hats various SEOs wear. The practitioners of black magic or black-hat SEO may be able to give a site temporary boost, however there is a great risk that the search engines will detect black magic, that is to say methods that are contrary to the search engines’ guidelines and policies, and that would often result very badly for that site, as the rankings tank. The black-hatted magicians know what they are doing, though their risk assessment may be off, and they may not tell their clients the inherent risk of their methods. It is perhaps the hapless hatless, in other words the clueless and the incompetent, who are probably the most likely candidates to approach a site owner or a blogger unsolicited: they may mean well, and they believe they are practising white magic, but they have absolutely no clue as to what they are doing. They may be dabbling in black magic without realizing, or persist in methods that do not work. Perhaps the best case for the site owner or the blogger would be that the hatless SEO is so incompetent that his or her actions will have no influence whatsoever on the rankings. If they really wear a hat or are not hatted, then it would help to distinguish them, but unfortunately, it is often tough to ascertain who practises which magic.
It is a crying shame that the dangerous, the bad and the incompetent have tarnished the reputation of an industry. However, if your business requires an online presence, then you will often need a good SEO. You will need to hire a proper professional. Treat the process in a similar fashion to finding a good builder or architect: ask for references, ask for a portfolio, ask if there are previous clients whom you can contact. You may not know how to build something, or design a whole new extension, but you’d want to know certain things. You may not know the technical aspects or the jargon, so you will ask them to explain it to you in the language you can understand. It’s the same with SEO. While there is no guarantee that expensive ones are going to be necessarily more competent, don’t go for the cheapest offer, especially those who turn up uninvited, in a similar fashion as you wouldn’t want to accept offers of double glazing from someone who turns up on your door unannounced, and is distinctly shifty. Above all, be in control of your business and online presence strategy, the big picture: for example, what are the realistic goals you want to achieve, where do the different types and forms of web presence fit into that, and how does internet search slot into that bigger picture? These are the questions that you will need to ask yourself, and discuss with those whom you employ or contract. If they are good, then they should be able to explain what they do and what can be achieved, whilst showing awareness of the broader picture.