Having worked with over 45 different small businesses over my career, I know just how much confusion and misinformation is out there when it comes to search engine optimization.

I thought it might be helpful for me to cut through the mumbo-jumbo and give some brutally honest advice to small businesses interested in getting started with SEO.

1. Understand SEO basics.

You will have a much easier time understanding the value of what you’re investing in if you spend some time learning the basics of SEO. While there are hundreds of factors that go into ranking, SEO has two basic tenants:

On-page SEO involves making sure your website can be crawled by search engines, that your content contains the right keywords and that the elements of your website are set up in the optimal way for ranking.

Off-page SEO involves links. It’s not just about how many links you get or even what those links say, it’s also about the quality of the websites linking to you.

Of course, that’s very oversimplified, but a good start. A great basic guide to SEO can be found at http://www.seomoz.org/beginners-guide-to-seo

2. SEO is not a vending machine.

SEO is not a “put money in, get rankings out” equation. There is also no voodoo involved – and most of all, there can be no guarantees. Nobody can guarantee you #1 rankings because that’s not how search engines work. You’re dealing with a sophisticated algorithm, not a “pay-for-placement” arrangement.

It also takes time to see the results of an SEO campaign – in most cases, 6 – 12 months. SEO is not a quick fix, it’s an investment that can yield incredible results over time. Make sure you have realistic expectations.

3. Cheaper does not mean better.

SEO is a specialized skill. It takes time and money to learn and execute. People promising cheap, fast results are usually counting on you being oblivious to what they’re actually doing. Don’t fall for it.

Don’t choose your SEO company solely based on pricing. Instead, evaluate their track record. Call their clients and ask if they’re happy. Ask to see an example of their monthly reports. Usually, you get what you pay for.

4. Demand thorough reporting, but don’t get hung up on individual metrics.

Make sure you’re getting a detailed monthly report from your provider. Important metrics to track include rankings, search engine traffic, unbranded traffic (traffic from searches not containing your brand name), any relevant conversions, total link count and so on.

There will always be monthly fluctuations. What’s most important is to watch trends. Is traffic trending up over time? Are you getting more leads? Obsessing about the rankings for a particular keyword phrase can mean you’re missing the forest for the trees.

5. Be involved.

The best way to make sure your SEO campaign is a success is to be involved. Your SEO’s are going to need your input, approval, cooperation and industry expertise!

Talk to those running your campaign. Implement their recommendations. Be willing to try out-of-the-box ideas and do whatever you can to help them create the content they’ll need to reach your audience.

SEO might be an intimidating new world for you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get started. A strong online presence can make a huge difference for your business and a great SEO campaign will pay dividends for the long term.

That said, you can avoid a lot of headaches by investing a little time in understanding what SEO is all about and setting realistic expectations. Like any marketing investment, it pays to find a reputable provider and to be actively engaged.

Joel Klettke is an SEO Specialist for Vovia Online Marketing – but more importantly, he’s the best looking man in the world.  He’s executed bottom-line-changing SEO campaigns for over 60 businesses large and small. He hates birds.