Measuring Search Engine Optimization

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The importance of search engines in sending traffic to highly ranked Web sites has led to the development of an entire industry of consultants specializing in search engine optimization or SEO. These hired guns promise to attract more visitors to your company's site by moving your rankings higher in the search-engine listings.

But how effective are these SEO firms, really? More importantly, how would your company know which of the hundreds of SEO companies seeking your business will do the best job?

An entrepreneur is now planning to launch a service in the next two weeks that may be able to answer these questions on an objective basis. For the first time, a comparison of different SEO firms might be possible on the basis of statistics rather than mere suggestions of success.

Then There Were 2,500

The entrepreneur is Bruce Chapman, 56, who's worked at search-engine optimization firms in the past. He's designed a computerized system that, ironically, has required a great deal of human judgment:

Looking for key words. The project started more than two years ago, Chapman said in a telephone interview. His company, SEO Comparison Inc., used nine different search engines and 18 search phrases to look for companies claiming to offer SEO services. The search terms included typical words customers might use to find a consultant: two examples were search engine ranking and search engine optimization, Chapman says.

A universe of 5,000 possibilities. The result of his online expedition was that he found some 5,000 listings of possible consulting firms. Each of these sites was examined manually, Chapman says. At one point, he employed nine computer programmers and half a dozen temps to conduct the project, although now only three programmers are needed, he indicates.

A narrower but still very large focus. The eyeballing of the various possibilities convinced Chapman that only 2,500 of the listings corresponded to "true SEO companies" that are doing business in the United States and Canada. He says he's whittled this down much further and is about to start selling reports on the top 60 SEO players.

The Tough Business of Search Engine Optimization

To explain his focus on SEOs, Chapman relates a story about a consulting firm where he used to work. A study of the firm's customers was commissioned, asking them to rate the service they were getting. The average rating, on a scale of 1 to 10, was a paltry 4. The customers didn't feel the benefits of the relationship even qualified as mediocre. The firm later went out of business, Chapman says.

This experience gave him an idea: Why aren't SEO firms objectively rated? A lot of companies would pay good money to know which firms were effective and which could just talk the talk.

The pressure to be in the top few search-engine rankings, and therefore to have good SEO, is intense for many product categories. I wrote in this space last week that an "eyetracking" study had recently underscored the competition. By monitoring where test subjects looked on a computer screen displaying Google search results, the researchers found that 100% of the participants looked at the top three listings. But the readers' attention rapidly faded. Only 20% of the Web surfers even glanced at the 10th listing.

Search Engine Optimization Rankings For Sale

Chapman says his company will begin selling reports comparing groups of SEOs firms for approximately $200 per report. He's just getting started on collecting and analyzing the data, and he must be a patient man. He says it typically takes three to nine months for a company to see an increase in traffic due to a search-engine optimization effort. His data, therefore, are expected to grow over time.

Meanwhile, he's planning at least the following reports:

How well SEO firms optimize their own sites. The easiest part of the project — if anything about a two-year research effort can be called easy — will record the position of SEO firms' ranking on SEO-related terms in the largest search engines. This could be a crude but effective means of testing how well an SEO firm optimizes its own site to attract potential customers via search engines.

How well SEO firms optimize their customers' sites. Chapman says he's making a list of the top five customers of each of the top SEO firms. He asks these customers to confirm that they use the services of a particular SEO shop, and he inquires about the five most important words or phrases they're trying to rank highly on. He'll then measure how well each SEO firm's customers are ranking on those terms.

How well each firm's customers rate over time. Chapman says he doesn't have any immediate plans for reports in this area. (He's got his hands full with just the first two lines of business.) But by far the most intriguing possibility to me is that his company could show which customers are going up in the rankings and which are going down over time, as new listings and avid competitors bubble to the top. After collecting a few months of raw data, it seems to me that Chapman could have some dynamite figures on his hands.


As an example of the type of reports he plans to sell, Chapman provides a sample chart. It compares the ranking scores of 20 SEO firms in the listings at Lycos, a small search engine that served 1.9% of all searches in the U.S. last December, according to an article in Search Engine Watch.

The chart does not show actual figures, Chapman says, but is merely illustrates what is possible with the data he's compiled so far. To see the sample for yourself, visit Chapman's Compare SEO Firms page, which contains a demo screenshot of the upcoming service. Scroll down and click the "Click Here for Sample" button, which opens the chart in a new browser window.

Will Chapman's startup succeed? Will his reports be worth the money? Since Chapman wouldn't provide a sample report containing real data, and I wasn't able to buy a market-priced report because the site hasn't launched yet, I can't tell. What I do know is that the SEO field badly needs some hard figures — call it an SEO Olympics.

Chapman has managed to keep his project so well under wraps for the past two years that, according to Google's advanced search page, not a single site on the Web links to his home page yet. Despite the fact that his site is light on information and is slightly cheesy looking, I predict that its lack of visibility is about to change. Here comes his first link now: SEOComparison.com.

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