As search engines have become the fastest and easiest way to gather information, many companies have invested a fortune in trying to be one of the first listings searchers see. Research supports the concept, noting that people are far more likely to click on listings near the top left-hand portion of the screen, which just happens to be where most search engines display them.

With that boom in search engines has come a boomlet of search-engine optimization (SEO) consultants. These IT wizards study how the search engines work and then retool websites to make them more attractive. Instead of focusing on the humans who read the information on the sites, they target the crawlers and spiders that lay the groundwork for search engines.

As with any industry, the competence and practices of SEO consultants varies wildly. And for every legitimate consultant, there seems to be two dozen hucksters who use telemarketing and robocalls to rope in unsuspecting customers.

But the bigger question is whether your business really needs to worry about SEO. That friendly consultant who would like your business is dangling a pricey proposal promising to put you in Google’s top five for several key categories. Should you do it?

Before you can answer that question, you need to know how your customers find your business. Not how they find out what your business offers, but how they find you in the first place. If most start their search for you online, SEO is probably important.  For example, if you’re a fence contractor in a competitive market where most potential customers type “fence contractor” into a search engine, a healthy investment in SEO makes sense.

However, if customers don’t look for you online, it’s probably not worth your money. If your business is one that people come to because they encounter it — say, a restaurant at an Interstate exit — SEO probably won’t pay off. If you obtain customers primarily through referrals, you’d be better off investing in strategies to get more of them.

My business is a prime example. The vast majority of clients arrive through referrals. They may visit my website to gather more information about me during the decision-making process, but they don’t find me through a web search … and that suits me just fine.

If you do decide to go the SEO route, don’t fall for the promises of those folks who call you on the phone or send dozens of emails. Instead, find a local expert who takes the time to get to know your business and explains how he or she will go about maximizing your online exposure. Choose that consultant as carefully as you’d choose a doctor, lawyer, or other professional. And be sure to track and measure the consultant’s effectiveness once the SEO program is underway.