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While the gold rush is mostly over, websites of all types are still paying plenty of money to enhance their rankings in search engine results. After all, ranking for high-volume keywords can provide thousands of referrals per day, which can lead to sales and other income-generating events. In other words, while SEO has taken some flak in recent years, it still serves an important purpose for every website seeking to sell something.

Although the general nature of SEO is more well-known now than it was five years ago, many mysteries still abound. Many companies believe they need SEO services, but are a bit unclear on what they’re getting out of them. Yes, SEO tactics are designed to boost your rankings for important search keywords, but that’s not the ultimate goal. When you pay for SEO services, you should have one goal and one goal only in mind: to increase sales. If an SEO campaign¬†doesn’t increase your sales, it’s not worth your while.

In other words, you need to see one of the most basic business principles at work: return on investment. How can you determine what you’re getting out of your SEO campaign? And how can you best set yourself up for success with SEO? Here are a few tips from many years of working with big companies to boost their rankings and increase their revenues.

Work on revenue share (at first)

Many companies now prefer to hire full-time employees for SEO work. This has been a boon to the industry, giving jobs to many people who eked out a freelance existence previously. On the surface this seems to make sense. SEO is not a one-and-done task. Since there are thousands of companies vying for the top rankings on the most lucrative keywords, SEO has become an ongoing process. Who better to handle an ongoing process than a full-time, in-house employee?

At the same time, an in-house employee has few incentives beyond doing a good enough job to not get fired. In other words, while you might get good work out of an in-house employee, and hiring one might enable you to control your costs, you probably won’t get elite results from one. A freelancer, particularly one working on revenue share, will be much more motivated to produce elite results. Since the freelancer makes money only when you do, he or she will necessarily produce a profit.

Since many veteran SEOs require a retainer, chances are this means going with a lesser known service. But that can be an advantage, too. Those with a lesser-known reputation will be willing to try new tactics, and will certainly be ahead of the industry learning curve. So you have a motivated and incentivized SEO working to make you money, because that’s what makes him or her money.

(Caution is still necessary, though, which will be covered below.)

Constantly monitor analytics

Constantly-monitor-analytics

If SEO is an ongoing job, you should be able to see the results in relatively short order. This doesn’t mean instant gratification, but it does mean that after the initial load period, you should start to see results change regularly. While the SEO should be checking analytics for feedback, you, the person who hired the SEO, should do the same. It’s the only way to determine whether the relationship is working.

This means checking not only traffic and conversion data, but also sales data. A program like Intuit accounting software QuickBooks can help greatly here. Not only will that allow you to see your sales growth, but you can break it down to sales growth directly from search traffic. Again, it’s sales gain you’re seeking, not just rankings increases. Rankings increases without sales increases is just noise.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t check your rankings analytics. Rankings and sales are often related. But ranking No. 1 for a keyword that doesn’t convert well isn’t as impressive as ranking No. 4 for a term that converts at a 50 percent rate. But in order to mete out that data, you have to constantly check rankings and sales analytics to ensure you’re on the right track.

Require regular activity reports

In the past two years, Google has lowered the hammer on shady SEO practices. Much of what was common four years ago is absolutely forbidden today. This is yet another reason to hire an SEO on a revenue share basis rather than on retainer: when you hire someone on retainer you guarantee them payment, and outdated SEO tactics can lose you far more money than you pay the SEO.

It is not unreasonable to ask your SEO to detail all tactics. A freelance SEO might find that unfair; what’s to stop them from hiring someone in-house to duplicate those tactics? But as we discussed above, the revenue-sharing freelancer will be more cost efficient overall.

Requiring weekly or even daily activity reports allows you to stay on top of the situation and make sure that the SEO isn’t doing anything that might harm your business. It is also advisable to run regular backlink checks, using tools such as Majestic SEO, so that you can ensure that your SEO isn’t doing something shady and not reporting it.

As Ronald Reagan said, trust but verify. This is incredibly important when hiring any freelancer, especially an SEO.

Test PPC campaigns

PPC-campaigns

For some keywords, especially the biggest money keywords, you might find it impossible to rank highly. (Which is why you should never believe an SEO who says he can rank you No. 1 for any term.) There are just too many entrenched players with recognizable brands and unmatchable backlink profiles. Unless they get penalized, which is unlikely, you won’t move them out of the top spots.

Even if you do rank No. 1, your link might not be the first one a searcher sees. Sitting on top of your No. 1 link is a box filled with anywhere from one to three links. These come through Google AdWords, which charges for those links on a pay-per-click basis. Essentially, you bid on how much you would pay for each click on a particular keyword search. If you have the highest bid, your ad gets displayed, and you do indeed have to pay every time a user clicks your link.

Through the years Google has blended these PPC listings, making them look more and more like organic search results. In many cases, consumers mistake the PPC links for organic links. For some terms, you might be better off forgetting about SEO and focusing on PPC. You could see much higher conversions.

As with most things SEO, the only way to know is to test. But chances are if there is a term that you can’t rank for, or there is a term to do rank for but there are many PPC links above your link, PPC could be the path to go. Keep this in mind: Google makes huge money off those links. Clearly they want to drive your business there, and for that reason it is likely more effective.

While there are many mysteries remaining in the world of SEO, we can say one thing with definitive finality: the goal is to increase sales. Ranking No. 1 is nice, but it if doesn’t put more money in your company’s bank account, it’s not worth the effort. Described above are four tactics for ensuring that you realize an ROI on your SEO campaigns. If you don’t see your profit increase, then perhaps it’s time to forget about SEO and try another tactic.

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Posted by Joe Pawlikowski

Joe Pawlikowski is a writer, editor, and business owner. He writes for a number of blogs, mostly in the tech realm, and owns a digital publishing company. His personal blog, JoePawl.com, touches on many of the lessons he's learned along the way.

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