It's a familiar story. A business owner gets a website built and, knowing he needs to drive traffic to the site to make it worthwhile, starts shopping for a company to do some search engine optimization. The bids that come in vary so much in price it's like comparing apples and oranges. One of the biggest differences between the companies bidding for the owner's business is that the ones with bids ranging from $100 to $200 all guarantee a page one ranking on Google, Yahoo, MSN, and the rest of the search engines in a matter of weeks. The bids that come in at $2,000 per month and above don't come with any guarantees. Instead of guarantees, these companies give an estimate of hours doing link work, writing content, and doing press releases. "It's a process, it can be done, and we'll do all the necessary work to get you on page one", goes the pitch. To make things even more confusing, the higher bids are more conservative about how long it will take to get to page one than the cheaper guys.
The business owner goes with the guarantees and low price of the cheapest bid. In real life, a nephew, a friend at the lodge, or his wife's friend's son just out of college can be substituted in place of the cheapest bid. At this point there are three possible outcomes for the endeavor:
1) Nothing - Either the winning bidder doesn't have the wherewithal to deliver on the guarantees made or he does but ends up with a bigger, more lucrative project that takes most of his time. After dedicating long hours to the design, marketing, or whatever else the bigger project entails, there is just not enough time or energy to do what needs to be done on the smaller project. Both paths lead to the same destination; frustration, money spent, and no traffic to the site.
2) Something, but it's not good - Trying to optimize a site by taking shortcuts and trying to trick the search engines is one way to offer a labor intensive service for pennies on the dollar. Unfortunately, search engines are very good at detecting shortcuts and trickery and don't take very kindly to either practice. "Black Hat" techniques, as they're called, may be the only way to deliver on a guarantee for these types of companies but it also results in the site being black-balled from the search engines. The business owner is now put in a position where he has to shut down the original site and start from scratch with a new site.
3) The Business Owner Decides That Search Engine Optimization Doesn't Work - Getting ripped- off with no results or getting them and then getting penalized for it, quite frankly, sucks. The bad experience convinces the owner that SEO simply doesn't work and if there is going to be another website it will be one that people can find when they see its address on his business card.
This is a story that gets repeated on a daily basis which is unfortunate because search engine optimization/marketing, when done properly, can do exactly what it's supposed to do. Doing it properly takes experience, creativity, and time. How much of each depends on the size of the market the business plans to address and how much existing competition there is in that market. A company in the business of supplying side view mirrors for '55 T-Birds, for example, will require less search engine optimization/marketing than a company trying to get on page one for cell phone accessories.
Prior to starting a project, a responsible SEO firm will be able to determine keyword traffic, competition, and whether doing search engine optimization/marketing makes sense for the company. A viable project may take 100 hours of work to get started and 100 hours of work per month to achieve the desired end result of getting listed on the front page of the search engines. That works out to about $2 per hour for the guys bidding $200 per month for your project. As the saying goes, "If it seems too good to be true..."