If you’re a business with a web site, you need the assistance of search engine optimization. For the value it provides, the cost of quality search optimization is more than affordable. Finding a high quality SEO firm though is something that requires you to do some homework.
Consider this article to be a cheat sheet of sorts, providing you with ten topics to discuss while evaluating an SEO company…
Tip #1 – Check All Client References
The first thing you should ask for is some client references. Every SEO firm I’ve worked with or for has some references that they can provide. Now, there are also typical responses that should raise questions on a firm’s legitimacy. For example, one firm I’ve worked with in the past claimed that all of their clients were protected by an NDA.
While it could be true, the firm you are reviewing needs to bring something to the table as a reference. If it’s not a client, ask to see how their own site is optimized. If that’s not done — ask them for non-specific examples of how they’ve succeeded in a market without naming names.
Tip #2 – Can They Prove Experience?
Proving experience is pretty simple. If the firm is willing to share a small client list with you, ask them for the top search phrases in the campaign and check the rankings.
Results will speak for themselves.
Before you assume that the firm is experienced though, check keyword competitiveness. Too often a firm will boast results for long tail terms that require little to no work at all.
Tip #3 – Ask About Their Knowledge of the Industry
A working history of the search industry is critical to making wise decisions. The assumption here is that you are not just hiring an SEO firm for a one time SEO effort. You should want an SEO firm to continue to provide value to you.
The reason you need a street-smart SEO is simple. Things are constantly changing, and ranking algorithms are always being shaped. Understanding critical points in past updates will open your eyes to what’s changing moving forward.
If nothing else, an SEO should be able to describe to you why major shifts in the market, like Google’s Florida update, were able to impact so many site owners.
If they can’t, move on.
Tip #4 – Differentiate SEO from PPC and SMO
This deals with a little bit of self-education here. You should know the working differences of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and how it differs from Pay Per Click (sometimes referred to as SEM, or paid search) and Social Media Optimization (SMO).
Each of these marketing forms involves the Internet, and to some degree, search engine properties. SEO firms though should be working on your site to provide you with stronger organic rankings. That is, not paid search rankings, or listings on bookmarking sites like Digg, Reddit, etc.
While this may seem like a straight forward assumption, many SEO firms will buy temporary listings to show you ranking in particular positions. It’s unfair of course, if you don’t know how to differentiate between the different types of listings.
If you don’t have time for a primer on these topics, consider this. You want listings that don’t appear on a pastel colored background, or immediately under anything involving the word “sponsored”. Finally, make these guys stick to major engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN.
(Thank you to Todd Mintz for his comments and indication of the fact that paid search is not always known as SEM. This popst has been revised accordingly…)
Tip #5 – How is Link Building Addressed
Link building may not be part of the package from your SEO firm. If not, they should still be willing to provide you with some guidance on how to best approach link development. Ask them for a list of preferred anchor tags for your links, as well as the best page URLs to associate with each. If they’re reluctant, that draws a red flag… Your working on link development should be helping their own efforts!
Now, if they are packaging link development work into the mix for you, be sure to request examples. Guestbooks, blog spam and sponsored links from irrelevant sources are not what you need. You need them to show you quality links from relevant sites that deal in the same general market as you do.
Tip #6 – Discuss Report Types
You should require any SEO firm to stand behind their work in the form of periodic reporting. Ranking reports were once a wonderful way to show overall progress with rankings. Today though, aside from being vague at best — they’re frowned upon by the engines.
So what is a site owner to do? Well, first — you should implement the use of analytical tools to help you review traffic from the search engines. You need to see the volume of visitors referred from search increase dramatically.
Now, an SEO firm probably can’t show you someone else’s live web stats. That’s understandable — but if you have access to any of their recommendations, be sure to ask for some general numbers. Stay way from percentage based increases too… A new site with ZERO search traffic can easily show an 800% increase in each successive month out of the gates.
Tip #7 – Discuss Periodic Maintenance & Ongoing Optimization
As mentioned above, SEO is constantly changing. As algorithms change, so too should the optimization on your site. Knowing this, your SEO firm should be willing (and, expecting) to go into your site to perform updates on a regular basis.
In some markets, monthly updates are a bit much. In those cases, quarterly updates provide a most cost effective plan that still benefit both you and the firm you are working with.
In the end though, make sure they’re actually performing changes. Request to see what changes were made, and find out what caused those changes to be made.
I have seen, first hand, firms that simply downloaded pages monthly, changed the date on when the files were last modified — and uploaded them back in place. Nothing was being done for the client, but the bills kept on coming in.
Tip #7.5 – Actively Managing Universal Search
The consulting that delivers value on an ongoing basis involves a lot more than link building and “SEO maintenance”. An account manager should be assigned by the SEO firm to provide end to end consulting and oversight of implementation as well as the creation, optimization and promotion of the web site’s digital assets. Interpreting the effect of those actions in the context of how well they are contributing to marketing and business goals is also part of the ongoing consulting that should be a part of any SEO project.
I couldn’t agree more, and I apologize to readers for not having addressed this initially. Rather than rewrite what is already available, I would like to reference a post that Lee has called Small Business Guide to Optimizing Universal Search. This post is an excellent review of what small business owners can look forward to when it comes to optimizing universal search topics — including the use of videos, images, events and so on.
To be clear, your search firm should be able to assist these needs on an ongoing basis — as well as encourage you to leverage these powerful marketing channels.
Tip #8 – Who Owns the Work
You do not want to work with SEO firms who are going to create “doorway pages” or new content all over your site in an effort to simply game the engines. Aside from being poor practice, firms tend to make these pages magically disappear when you stop working with them.
Search engine optimization is all about improving your existing web site. Therefore, all the work you are paying for should be yours to keep once you decide to opt out of your contract. Make sure you can retain the SEO work regardless of what happens.
Finally, I should be clear about the addition of content on your site. In many cases, it is in fact needed. To make a solid decision though, these pages should value both your SEO efforts as well as your actual visitors. If the firm proposes the creation of hundreds of pages for SEO purposes — move on to another candidate.
Tip #9 – Discuss the Meaning of “Success”
One of the most difficult things in SEO is proving success. Success will most likely mean either the factual listings for a specified group of search terms — or — a quantifiable increase in organic search engine referrals.
Either way, discuss exactly how success will be determined. Make the firm stand behind their claims of an X% increase in traffic, or, X number of top ten rankings, etc.
Please be sure to discuss the search terms first. If you sell laptops in San Diego, you shouldn’t have to settle for search terms like “San Diego California Laptop Store” or “Laptops for Sale in San Diego CA”.
That’s junk. You’d want to rank well for San Diego Computers, San Diego Laptops, Southern California Computers, etc. Do not allow a firm to trap you into easy goals. Also, make sure they’re not judging success through the use of quotation marks (phrase searches). Bottom line… Challenge them early and often. It will make them treat you with more care and respect, and you’ll receive higher quality services.
Tip #10 – Get it All in Writing
Finally, and certainly the most important… Make sure you get things in writing. Many companies have a clear disconnect between their sales and production staff. Then, when you start complaining or challenging the lack of results, the production team stands by their work and tells you to “read the contract”.
Aside from being incredibly arrogant, it’s horrible business practice. Still, the contract needs to be in writing, and the factors that you require need to be in there. If they are not, request an amendment or custom contract. If the SEO firm is serious about your business — they will do what it takes.
Ultimately though, the contract is your line of defense against poor business practices and falling short of expectations. So, protect yourself and your investment — and get it all in writing.
My point of view on this is one that may help you understand my background a bit more. I began working for a web design firm that offered SEO services. Then, we split off the SEO division as its own company.
When I left that company, I co-founded another — and that firm was a strict SEO only business. Since closing down shop, I’ve now joined a Fortune 500 providing SEO services as a value added program to existing web site marketing systems.
In short — I’ve seen and dealt with a number of issues, coming from all angles. At the end of the day, I can assure you that you need to protect yourself and cover your investments with strong legal documentation. Beyond that, nothing beats consistent and friendly communication. Tell people what you expect, discuss it with them regularly, and hold them to their word.