All publishers want to get more visitors to their websites. Sometimes, they are sophisticated enough to follow top SEO related blogs, like Google's lead Webspam detective, Matt Cutts, but they get often lost in the technical details. Google drives the majority of English language search traffic on the Internet, and they are very, very careful to be vague about exactly how they rank pages in their results. I've written a lot about search engine optimization and website design for publishers in the past, and it continues to come down to a couple basic principles. Write and publish high quality content and get relevant links. If you need an SEO company to write your content for you, it's not clear why you should be in the publishing business.
So what can a professional SEO company actually do for a publisher? For starters, it depends on how bad a job you've done for yourself. If you've published your website with a content management system or web authoring package that doesn't take search engine visibility into account, they can point that out to you and help you migrate your website to a different platform. Of course, you can figure that out for yourself as well by just checking if your pages appear in Google and looking at your page titles. An SEO professional can certainly point out if you or your designer has done things that search engines consider bad practice, and which get you penalized. But some SEO professionals follow bad practices themselves, to get their clients a short lived bump in the search rankings and prove that they've "earned" their pay.
But beneath it all, the main thing a search optimization company can do for a small publisher is get you more links. A cheesy SEO expert will get you a lot of worthless links, perhaps from his other clients websites, or paid links from grey area neighborhoods and link-sharing networks which will likely do more harm than good. A quality SEO expert will use research and tools to identify the appropriate websites to solicit links from, and then do it in your name.
Just a week or so ago I got a particularly persistent link request from a legitimate site in one of my publishing areas. So I took the time to reply and tell them I don't trade links, something I don't bother doing for the more incoherent or dicey link requests. To my surprise, I got back an e-mail from the individual offering to write a whole article about me and link my site from it in return, something which I again, politely denied. Then I happened to notice in the e-mail header that while the return address was for the well known site, the real originator was an SEO company. It was a legitimate SEO company using a return address identified with their client's site to make it look like the link request was an internal mom-n-pop affair, rather than a professional search engine optimization effort the client had purchased.
All of which is perfectly legitimate, but it struck me as kind of funny after I checked up on the SEO company, a business that's been around for a few years and claims offices in a half dozen countries with a large staff. I'll bet they pitch their clients on their in-depth knowledge of how search engines work, with all sorts of graphs and technical gibberish, but in the end, the real value of their service is based on getting relevant links for their clients by asking for them, persistently, and trying to barter for them if asking fails. Because after getting your content right, it's all about the links.
There is another way to get incoming links without going through a drawn out process of begging for them or paying for an SEO firm to do the begging for you. If you're a nonfiction publisher, publish some of your best material online, and if that doesn't do the trick, the odds aren't very good that a book will do much better. Despite all of the competition for eyeballs, there's always a shortage of quality content, and most websites have no way to generate that content internally. Increasingly, companies count on social networking, blog comments and forums to get their customers and visitors to generate free content for them. Some of it is actually pretty good, but as a professional publisher, hopefully you can do better. And sign up for Google's Webmaster Console to find out what Google really thinks of your site.