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We are not a big company. I believe,(if what our current vendor says is true) that a seo/ecommerce provider can port our current site(s) and bring it to the level that we expect.
My question is how do we find the company that fits our needs. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of alternatives and we do not have the time to talk to them all. The last company we talked to said our current vendor's code was proprietary and they would have to rewrite our site at considerable costs. What we finally found out was that he was running an apple server application and ours was in the microsoft world. Had he been forthright in the beginning we probably would have proceeded with his company. Needless to say, we moved on.
[edited by: engine at 6:13 pm (utc) on Dec. 18, 2007]
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Second, ask them for a description of their method. If they say "It's a secret", then run, again. There's no great secret to effective SEO. It's hard, it requires a lot of skills, but it's not a secret: Smart code, great content, effective link bait. That's it.
Third, what's their history? Search them in Google News and blog search. If you see one or two disgruntled customers, don't worry. If you see a long list, though, you should at least ask the firm for an explanation.
Fourth, make sure they're not a development or design agency that merely SAYS they can do SEO. I've seen many, many clients badly burned this way.
I'm sorry to hear about your issues. It's an unfortunate, but all too common occurrence in this industry.
As others have already mentioned, the more you know, the better off you are. Even if you aren't wanting to handle it yourself, having some knowledge of SEO allows you to give a better interview with potential SEO firms. It's hard to ask the right questions when you don't know what to ask.
It's also harder to smell the "BS" unless you have some basic knowledge. ;)
The bottom line is get a basic understanding for what SEO is and what is involved. Then talk to and interview various companies. You will find companies in this field vary greatly. There are no real standards that a company must follow so the more you know, the better off you will be.