If you have the budget resources the best time to hire an SEO is before you start your website projects. However, most people new to the web lack the cashflow needed to buy quality SEO services. Further if they don't understand the complexities of the market and get bombarded with cheap (and low to no value) SEO package offers from web hosts, registrars, and email spammers they may think SEO should be cheap and easy, causing them to buy garbage - and become distrusting of the concept of SEO.
Your best bet (if you are new to the SEO field) is to do as many of the following as are practical
- start a test Google AdWords campaign (and use the conversion feedback from this to help inform your SEO strategy)
- if you are in a competitive AdWords market you might also want to watch the Google AdWords videos, and read books by guys like Andrew Goodman and Perry Marshall
- buy 2 or 3 SEO books from Amazon.com (and see where some of the general tips and ideas overlap...mark up the books and take notes)
- join a high caliber SEO membership site
- read 5 or 10 of the top SEO blogs for a minimum of a month or 2
- go to an SEO conference or 2
...and then from that collection of knowledge you can start building a bit of a strategy, some momentum, and some cash flow. That way if/when you do hire an SEO, you are the type of client who is worth having (ie: one that will receive a positive ROI, one who knows the basics and will make sure suggestions are implemented, and one who is willing to allocate significant resources in the search game).
If you are a small or local player in a fairly non-competitive non-saturated niche (a clue here might be if your AdWords campaign is instantly profitable then the market probably is not too saturated) you might be able to do well hiring an affordable SEO right out of the gate, but when you get down into the lower price bucket for services there is a market for lemons effect and over 99% of the offers are scams.
In spite of claims to the contrary, you can do SEO and SEM yourself, especially if the market is not saturated. More and more companies SEO is getting baked right into their content process and company culture - many companies that hire third party consultants also have an in house SEO team. Search is the highway new customers drive on for the next hundred years. SEO will be taught as a fundamental piece of marketing strategy in the next decade.
The big limitations to doing SEO yourself are if you don't understand some of the risks vs rewards and use a singularly focused SEO strategy then those types of sites can have wildly fluctuating rankings and higher than needed risk levels. The more supports you have the more solid and stable your search rankings will be, but if you just find 1 loophole that works and exploit it aggressively then when it stops working those types of sites can come crashing down.
This is where having an SEO consultant on retainer makes a lot of sense. It prevents some of the oh crap, I just destroyed my business moments that Google shows business owners every day. Think of an SEO consultant on retainer as an insurance policy on your business.
In the last couple days I have had multiple people contact me about their site after it got whacked in Google. That is sorta the wrong time to contact an SEO...it is far better to do so while you still have growth, momentum, and cashflow. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
If your site is banned or filtered then sometimes you have to take a step back before moving forward. A site that was banned for buying too many links will be looked at and evaluated more closely upon review by Google - such reviews take some gray hat opportunities off the table... a significant lasting cost in a competitive set of search results where business is often won or loss on small differences in strategy.
And in many cases where a site was penalized for being too aggressive there are similar techniques that can be used with a far lower risk profile. Hiring an SEO who can help you manage risk and growth while you have momentum (or during the slightest pull back) makes a lot of sense. It is leveraging expertise to help build a stronger foundation and a deeper competitive moat.
But asking them for help after your site is banned is much harder because for them to help you get unbanned they might have to try to ask for some favors or try to leverage their feedback channels they earned with the search engines. If they just keep making requests to get penalties removed then that makes them look pretty spammy, kills those feedback channels, and in some egregious cases penalties can take years to be lifted.
The goal of an SEO is not just to rank your site, but to keep it ranked as the structure of the web changes, Google's business goals change, and your competitive landscape changes. This often means working the gray areas to get a site built up, and then pulling back on the sketchier stuff as momentum is built and solid supports take over the role of pushing up rankings.
Managing risk is probably the singular most undervalued aspect of SEO consulting. Largely because the cost does not appear until it does - and by then it is already too late.
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