Question: I read your recent column about "search engine optimization." How do I choose a firm that does this?
Answer: Search engine optimization is the process of tweaking your company's website so that it will show up prominently when potential customers search online for your products or services. Surveys show that search engine results increasingly drive customers to websites, and that consumers prefer results that show up naturally when they search on sites such as Google and that are not advertisements.
In looking for firms that can help, "speak to as many companies as you can and ... lean toward companies that specialize in small business," advised Truman Hedding of InfoSearch Media in Marina del Rey. There are no tricks for obtaining high search engine rankings; beware of companies that claim guaranteed results.
Get five to 10 examples of websites the optimization firms have promoted. Then talk to their owners about their search engine rankings before and after they paid for optimization. Ask whether sales have improved.
"Lean toward companies whose methodology is consistent," Hedding said. "Forget those who submit sites to thousands of search engines; this is an outdated tactic that will hinder your efforts."
Browse online forums for feedback from other entrepreneurs. Some good resources: forums.searchenginewatch.com, www.sempo.org/home and www.searchengineguide.com. Don't forget to vet firms through the Better Business Bureau, at www.bbbonline.org/consumer.
Expect to invest $5,000 to $15,000 annually for the initial website overhaul and ongoing tuneups to keep your site popping up near the top of search results for key terms in your industry. Most optimization firms will ask you to sign a six- to 12-month contract because it can take that long for the process to work. It should be worth the wait: Appearing prominently on search engines can boost your sales significantly.
Q: In 2000, my company installed one of our patented products at the home of an executive. Last year, I discovered his corporation selling a rip-off of my invention and marketing it as a "revolutionary new product." I don't have much money. Should I pursue this legally?
A: Deciding whether to spend money on litigation is tough. Patent suits can cost upward of $1 million, and law firms rarely take them on a contingency basis. If you can command a higher profit margin by being your product's exclusive supplier, the amount you expect to earn may justify the cost of legal action.
However, if you are not selling a significant volume of your patented product, you should consider other options, said Michael Fedrick, an intellectual property attorney at law firm Sheldon & Mak in Pasadena.
"If sales of your patented product are small, you should consider having your lawyer make an offer to the larger competitor [that you mentioned] to sell or license the patent," Fedrick said. "If the competitor can generate a larger volume of sales, then the patent likely has more value in its hands, and large companies often see value in clearing potential intellectual property challenges to a major product. Your competitor may be willing to pay an amount that more than compensates you."
If your competitor doesn't agree and you don't have sales large enough to justify a lawsuit, you could try to sell the patent (keeping a license for your own continued use) to a third party interested in pursuing litigation. There are companies that make no products but seek licensing revenue from patents they've acquired. An example would be NTP Inc., the firm that recently won a settlement from the company that markets the BlackBerry device, Fedrick said.
Before you decide anything, meet with an attorney who specializes in intellectual property protection. Such a professional can look over the facts and give you meaningful advice about your chances of success.
Got a question about running or starting a small enterprise? E-mail it to karen.e.klein@ latimes.com or mail it to In Box, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.