Search Engine Optimization still seems to be a mystery to most people – even web-savvy people – even though we’re 15-ish years into it. In my short time in the field, I’ve come up with 2 analogies that I believe can give a better perspective on SEO for newbs.

1.       The Wizard Analogy

Gandalf was a powerful wizard and always had just enough power to fight against the dark armies of Sauron. When he exhausted himself fighting against the fiery balrog, Gandalf was reborn as Gandalf the White to finish the war. The cost of SEO is dynamic, dependent on your needs, much like how Gandalf’s power as a wizard was based on what was needed to win the war. One of the most commonly asked question from potential clients is, “Why can’t you just give me a price up front?” And to that, the reply will always be, “The price will be what it needs to be.”

Offering a set number or a package deal upfront is telling a client what they need before an audit is conducted. To be effective – an important distinction – SEO projects must deal with the reality of all that must be fixed with a site, as well as the ongoing tactics necessary to grow and maintain rankings. Costs are relative to those things, as well as how competitive a client’s industry is online. While there are some issues that have a “permanent” solution in SEO, a large part of SEO is about continually improving on foundations and solutions that have been implemented to maintain an authoritative Internet presence.

You can go around bargain hunting for SEO work, and you can probably save some money. In the end, though, we find that our clients’ percentage of return on investment is relative to investing the appropriate amount. (Not to mention that an integrated marketing campaign produces more than the sum of the SEO, SMM, PPC and other parts.)

Expect to pay for quality SEO. You’re not doing yourself any favors walking into a SEO agency with the mindset of saving as much money as possible. The whole point of SEO is doing what needs to be done to make your website better, and for each task that needs to be completed, there’s a price. From any respectable SEO agency, you will never hear anything like, “I’ll optimize your website for X amount of money,” within the first few minutes. If you do, that means you’re talking to the dark lord Sauron and not the friendly and wise Gandalf the Grey.

2.       The Hobbit Analogy

Who really won the war for the elves and humans on Middle Earth? Frodo Baggins, the hobbit. No number of battlefield victories would have mattered if Frodo didn’t carry the Ring of Power from the Shire to Mt. Doom and destroy it. Despite being small and physically weak, Frodo had the biggest impact on the war.

Lesson 1 – Good things come in small packages

Like Frodo Baggins, SEO at many times will seem small and insignificant in the face of huge TV or print marketing efforts by big brands, but in reality, it’s entirely the opposite. In a report, fixing some canonical errors and optimizing title tags seems tiny on the client side. But over time, along with other efforts and improvements, a site can see noticeable movements in rankings. (We’re working on those very things for our largest client – a big, established travel site that has been around for 15 years.)

After a month of link building a client might wonder, “Ok, so you built me some links? It doesn’t seem like you did a lot.” SEO isn’t a product you pick from a shelf, though. It’s a number of services over time, with tweaks and fixes and connections all over the website and the Internet. It’s not one big solution you can just drop onto the website to fix things instantly.

Lesson 2 – The Climb

I’ll probably never forgive myself for this Miley Cyrus reference, but given the nature of her song “The Climb,” it’s appropriate. For Frodo Baggins, it wasn’t just the end of the journey that mattered. The journey itself was just as important. From dragging his chubby hobbit friend Samwise Gamgee to Mt. Doom and overcoming the grievous wound he received from the Witch-King of Angmar, every step in the journey was crucial. No matter how trivial the obstacles were or how difficult, they all shaped Frodo into who he was and thus established the outcome of the journey. There are two important things to take away from this.

First, SEO is always a work in progress and it always will be. There’s not a single website out there that’s immune from losing search position, page rank, and link juice. Except maybe Google … and Wikipedia. So unless you are Google, understand that SEO isn’t a one-time deal. You don’t just buy SEO services and within a month expect to see instant, permanent results. SEO agencies are there to help you constantly shape your website into a powerful asset, because updates and algorithms constantly change the landscape. And, websites need to be optimized and/or re-optimized to stay on top. Every little thing we do to the website matters.

Second, the end of the journey affects both the SEO professionals and the clients. Whether it’s for better or worse is up to both sides. As SEO professionals, we should be patient and vigilant when working with clients. It’s important that we educated ourselves on the latest developments to ensure that our clients’ websites stay competitive. However, it is also of paramount importance that clients understand basically what SEO is and what it takes to get it done. That helps set expectations and minimizes miscommunication and delays. SEO agencies remain successful and clients become more knowledgeable about how their websites can strengthen their businesses.

In essence, I’ve observed in the SEO industry that building and maintaining a working relationship with a client is the most essential SEO strategy. Not only should we understand this, but we should also work to set a standard to be met when SEO’s work with clients and vice versa. Now I’m off to the Grey Havens as SEO is forever changing and I still have much to learn.