Does Anyone Really Know How to SEO?
Yes. There are many reputable companies and freelancers that can help you optimize your website. But there are far more that will take your money, copyrights to your SEO data, and that can and will ruin your website without a second thought.
In my 7-year experience in the SEO (search engine optimization) world, I can safely say self-taught individual site owners seem to know more than most SEO companies.
Why do I say this?
A site owner that relies on traffic for business income has a keen interest in making their site work. They know their business, industry, and presumably adhere to a code of ethics an SEO company might not understand. They play with their site data, constantly massaging SEO data and obsessively check search engine results to see it their SEO is working.
Unfortunately, there are a growing number of bad SEO companies and SEO scams that prey upon naive site owners. Before you consult with an SEO company protect yourself from falling prey to an SEO scam artist and educate yourself first:
Familiarize yourself with basic SEO terms. Any SEO company that talks "over your head" is not one you want to work with, but you should also be an educated consumer and at least know the basics of SEO.
Check Out Consumer Ratings: Visit webmaster and other SEO-related forums and read what others are saying about SEO in general and SEO companies. Google the name of the company and "reviews." and "complaints."
Get To Know Your Own Website: Use free services like ScrubTheWeb (to access some features you do need to purchase a membership) to assess your own pages. While some free services are tedious to navigate they provide general tips and recommendations and can give at least a cursory analysis of your web pages.
Another great way to see how your site is doing is to use Google Page Speed on your site (it's free and easy) to run a website analysis report and be sure to also run an analysis through WooRank.com/
Take the data and reports and compare it with anything an SEO company tells you about your site. In other words, test them - their skills and integrity - before you sign a contract.
Education Yourself About the Evils of The SEO Industry: Learn to recognize warning signs of SEO scams and bad SEO companies.
Read the Fine Print - Website Owners Beware
It is fairly common in the SEO industry that the company who does you SEO will ask for copyrights to any and all meta data and other SEO work they do on your site.
These contracts usually state that if you terminate their services they can strip all meta data from your site that they created, edited, or even "analyzed." Take these words seriously. There are legal precedents where courts sided with SEO companies. The law seems to favor the idea that a copyrights exists on material even when only a computer can read it.
I personally know of a moderate-sized company that paid thousands of dollars for (very bad) SEO work and thousands more for the monthly right to use the awful meta data created. When they canceled their monthly contract, the SEO company (one that caters to of all things, law firms) stripped the entire site of all meta data. They even stripped tags they did not create because they analyzed and edited existing tags.
You can read more about this practice and why it is nothing but a strong arm tactic in "12 Warning Signs of a Bad SEO Company" (point #7).