If you are running a small business these days, it’s practically impossible to avoid online marketing in some way. But where exactly do you start? And, what do you do if you don’t have the time, skill, nor even the desire to roll up your sleeves and figure out Internet marketing for yourself, let alone do it week after week? After all, if you’re running your own company, your available time may be fast approaching the endangered species list.

Don't Waste Money on Bad Online Marketing ExpertsI know that the answer for many of you has been to hire others- online marketing experts, website developers and designers- to take care of this thorny issue or at least help to lighten the burden. The problem is if you don’t know what you are doing or what to look for, you can easily be taken for a ride and have little to nothing to show for all your investment of time and money.

Just keep this in mind: For every competent online marketing expert and website developer out there, there are about a hundred complete buffoons who will milk you of your hard-earned money even as they hurt your online reputation.

You need to become an informed consumer so you can avoid being scammed from the beginning or at least walk away from a service that isn’t helping your business. The reality is that there are people who can provide your business with quality, professional work. It may cost you a significant amount of money, but if it’s done right, you should see an increase in sales that will more than cover the cost. Otherwise, why bother?

Just an aside regarding the price tag of some of these online marketing services: depending on your needs they can get very pricey. One way to look at it is to see your online presence in a similar way to your physical off-line presence. If you had to build or renovate an office or a store-front, it would cost you money- probably a lot of money. Even renting can get expensive. But, if you run an off-line business it’s just an accepted operational expense. So too, for the majority of small businesses, maintaining an online presence- with all of its associated costs- is just a part of doing business today. Bottom line: expect to have to pay something. If you’re budget is limited, then you’ll have to mix in some DIY work to help keep the cost low or hire someone in-house with less experience who will get on the job learning/training.

Given all of this, how can you tell the authentic online marketing expert or web developer from the incompetent one? First, make sure that you are very clear about the goals you would like to see, how realistic they are, and what your marketing expert’s job description should be. After that, when you start your search, pay attention to the following six red flags that will signal you to move on to someone more qualified to do the job:

1. They don’t provide a portfolio of past work. When you seek to do business with any online service provider, you need to establish for yourself a set of criteria that will help to prove the provider’s level of expertise and credibility. One such factor is being able to see the results of their work with other clients. If you are looking for a website developer/designer, ask to see at least 3 to 5 examples of websites they built. If they are SEO experts, then ask for 3 to 5 examples of websites they helped to rank as well as the top keywords they ranked them for and make sure they actually appear in the search results in the way that they claim.

2. They have few or questionable references. Forget about testimonials from “John F in Wisconsin.” You need to see references and testimonials from real people with real businesses- preferably ones similar to yours. If these people are willing to put their names and faces to their testimonials in certainly is a good sign. But, I recommend taking things a step further. Will your prospective online marketing help allow you to contact these people or businesses directly or others that they’ve worked with? If you sense resistance, then it’s not a good sign.

3. They have unclear or “black-hat” methods. If they can’t give you a clear breakdown of their marketing or design methods then the effectiveness of their process is questionable. Likewise, if your prospective SEO tells you he has discovered a previously unknown method for gaming Google’s search engine algorithms and rocketing your site to the number one spot in the search results, then run the other way. In the unlikely event they have discovered a chink in Google’s armor, the benefits will last only until Google figures it out and changes their algorithms to account for it, which means at best you’ll have paid for nothing. At worst, you may see your site penalized and sent to the search engine backwaters.

4. They’ve received negative reviews. Do an online search for company reviews from previous customers and maybe even drop the company’s name in a forum to see what the response is. Even if the first results of your online search seem pretty glowing, make sure you go a few pages in. Realize there are ways to bury negative reviews, so you have to dig a little deep.

5. They promise the moon. Search engines are extremely complex pieces of software, and they are getting more complex as time goes by. Any SEO or website developer who guarantees a top spot in the SERPs for a reasonably competitive keyword in a timescale shorter than several months is probably selling snake oil. There are reliable methods that all good SEOs and website developers employ to boost search rankings, but most of them involve good website design, high-quality, optimized content, and honest link-building that will take a considerable amount of time and effort.

6. Their prices seem too cheap. The best online marketing and SEO is a time-consuming process engaged by smart, intuitive people who can charge quite a lot for their services. If your prospective online marketing expert is offering you a full website audit for $50, then it’s unlikely to be very helpful to you. Calibrate your expectations somewhere in the region of what you’d expect to pay any highly-skilled professional or you won’t get a highly-skilled professional. To get a more concrete idea of how much you can expect to pay, see this post over at SEOmoz: SEO Pricing: 600+ Agencies Share Costs of Services & Pricing Models. Even though the post is a couple years old, it should still give you a ballpark figure.

In closing, just like any other business service out there, you get what you pay for. But, really when it comes to anything related to online marketing it goes beyond even this. If you want to get your money’s worth then you have to make an effort to find the people who will offer true value and give your business the boost it deserves.

(image credit: freedigitalphotos.net)