20 Questions to Ask Before You Hire an SEO Agency in Post Panda/Penguin Era

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SEO is one of the most effective long term marketing strategies available to businesses that would like to increase their online exposure, but deciding who to hire for SEO work isn’t always an easy decision. Some SEO firms take shortcuts that can temporarily boost rankings, but harm your reputation in the long run. Others have limited experience and may not provide the value you’re looking for.

How can you decide which SEO firm to work with? These 20 questions should help you weed out the bad choices and focus on the most promising agencies.

Question #1 – What do You Know About the Recent Google Algorithm Updates?

Any SEO agency should be familiar with the Panda and Penguin updates, but there are other Google search algorithm updates that they should have knowledge of as well. These include the Exact Match Domain update, 7 Result SERPs, DMCA Penalties, Link Warnings, the Knowledge Graph, and more. Follow the link above to see an infographic of all the updates. Any SEO firm should be able to tell you what these updates did and why they matter.

Question #2 – How Do You Identify the Cause of a Penalty?

We’ve noticed several agencies have misconceptions about Google search algorithm updates, and many of them are incapable of differentiating Panda and Penguin penalties. If you find yourself penalized, it’s important to understand what caused the penalty in the first place, in order to resolve the issue effectively.

If you fail to identify the true cause of the penalty, your actions could do more harm than good. If you took a hack saw to your link profile when the true cause of the penalty was your content, this would be a tremendous waste of resources and it would hurt your rankings. See the link above to find out what your agency should know before you hire them.

Question #3 – What is Your Technical Experience?

Much of SEO is an art, and those who think it’s a purely technical exercise are very wrong. Despite this, it’s important to work with a firm with some technical skills, including knowledge of:

  • Server level redirection
  • Dynamic rules for unique titles and meta descriptions
  • An SEO friendly information architecture
  • A consistent URL naming convention
  • A logical hierarchy that doesn’t produce duplicate content
  • Proper handling of 404s and server codes
  • Optimized coding that loads fast
  • High quality user interfaces and user experiences
  • Responsive web design

While an SEO doesn’t necessarily need to do all of this work themselves, they need to have enough knowledge of these subjects in order to communicate with a web designer effectively, providing effective instructions in order to avoid conflicts, errors, and wasted resources. Google does consider the internal design and coding of a website when it assigns rankings, and SEOs should be aware of this.

Question #4 – How Experienced are Your Content Producers?

The core goal of SEO is to become an established authority on a topic. This can’t be accomplished without the help of a skilled team of writers and content producers. High quality content is the backbone of any long term SEO strategy. Any SEO firm you work with must be able to produce high quality content on a consistent basis. None of the following strategies can work otherwise:

  • Viral marketing
  • Guest posting
  • Relationship building
  • Social media marketing
  • Content marketing

Skilled content is key to all of these.

Question #5 – Do You Employ Social Media Optimization? How?

SEOs can’t ignore social media anymore. It directly influences rankings and it’s an important relationship building tool. Relationships, meanwhile, are crucial for link building and many other tasks. The modern SEO should understand how to:

  • Build influential relationships using social media
  • Produce content that is social media friendly
  • Expose content via social networks
  • Encourage sharing activity without being pushy
  • Convert social subscribers into email subscribers and eventually customers

Question #6 – What is Your Link Building Strategy?

This is the perfect question to ask up front. Any SEO that can’t answer this question in plain English is not to be trusted. They should understand how to build links in the wake of Panda and Penguin, and they should take advantage of advanced link building strategies in order to ensure long term results. Avoid any SEO who still:

  • Submits your site to a long list of directories nobody outside of SEO has ever heard of
  • Submits articles to article directories
  • Guest posts on obscure blogs that never send referral traffic
  • Uses any form of automated link building
  • Outright buys links

Instead, your agency should be engaged in link building strategies that make sense as marketing efforts such as:

  • Guest posting on popular blogs that send either targeted referral traffic or massive amounts of traffic
  • Collaborating with influencers on mutually beneficial projects
  • Building exposure through social networks, forums, and advertisements in order to build natural links
  • Any creative link building strategy that sends referral traffic

Question #7 – What Are Your Relationship Building and Outreach Skills?

No legitimate SEO strategy is complete without relationship building and outreach. It’s virtually impossible to earn worthwhile links without these skills. It’s certainly necessary in order to earn the hard links, and the type of links that your competitors won’t have. These skills are absolutely necessary in order to build a truly diverse and robust link profile that will stand the test of time.

Question #8 – How Does Your Team Adapt to the Needs of Different Clients?

This is a very important question to have an answer to. As we’ve said before, the core value of SEO is becoming an established authority. SEO agencies are experts in SEO, not your niche. How can they help you become an established expert in your field?

There are many legitimate answers to this question, but almost all of them will involve you. The answer may also rely on hiring experts or seeking out proprietary data. It certainly relies on extensive research, fast learning, and a dynamic skill set. Push hard on this one. It should be very clear how your SEO agency plans to help you become an established expert in your subject matter.

Question #9 – What is Your Knowledge of Content Marketing?

As QuickSprout has said, content marketing is the new SEO. Content marketing is hard work, but as we’ve said, content marketing isn’t rocket science either. By involving you in the process, in combination with skilled writers, graphic designers, and other content producers, it is possible to reach a wide audience and attract massive attention online.

The links above should give you some idea of what your agency’s content marketing strategy will look like, but in summary:

  • Be the first company to say what you’re about to say visibly online
  • Find your content’s “unique selling proposition” the same way you would for your products
  • Produce real-time, actionable content
  • Market the content through high-traffic distribution channels
  • Capitalize on content marketing tools
  • Leverage social networks, influencers, press releases, email marketing, and citations in later posts to expand your reach as widely as possible

Question #10 – Do You Share Your Strategies Transparently With the SEO Community?

A huge part of building exposure online is offering as much value as possible to your target audience. An SEO’s target audience is the SEO community, and virtually all reputable agencies share ideas and strategies transparently. An internet marketing strategy that does not involve sharing advice and solving problems for your target audience is a strategy that can’t be expected to last.

Better yet, an SEO firm that shares its strategies openly on their own blog and other popular blogs is effectively demonstrating how its strategy works. By successfully marketing their content on the most popular industry blogs and building a reputation in the process, they are putting their words into action. You can also learn a great deal about how an agency will work with you by taking a look at the content they have produced to promote themselves.

Question #11 – How Much Will We Be Involved?

The answer should be “quite a lot.” An SEO firm specializes in outreach, research, content production, social media marketing, and many other skills that you may not specialize in, but it can’t specialize in what you do. Furthermore, they should openly share reports, strategies, and progress with you. They should be open to suggestions from you, and they should keep you “in the loop” about what’s happening.

Question #12 – Who Else Are You Working With, and For How Long?

The agency should be able to point you to some of their other clients, what they’ve done for them, and how long they’ve been working with them. Clearly, some details will naturally need to remain proprietary, but a legitimate SEO strategy shouldn’t involve too much secrecy, and clients should understand that virtually all exposure is good exposure.

If they’ve been working with several clients for extended periods of time, this should also mean that they haven’t dragged their clients through penalties and that they’ve successfully demonstrated results for them.

Question #13 – Do You Use Tools?

An agency that doesn’t use tools will be doing certain things manually that should be automated, and this translates into higher costs for you. It’s important to have some knowledge of the kind of tools the agency is using, however. For example, SEOs should not be using tools to:

  • Automatically build links
  • Automatically produce content
  • Automate the idea generation process
  • Automate outreach or social media efforts

Instead, they should be using tools to:

  • Estimate the potential of ideas
  • Measure the competition
  • Measure the potential of linking opportunities
  • Discover target audience needs
  • Track results and ROI
  • Swiftly discover influencers, targets, etc.

Question #14 – Do You Guarantee Results in the Search Engines?

The only honest answer to this question is “No,” and Google has essentially stated that any agency that states otherwise is violating their guidelines. No agency can guarantee the top spot in Google or make any similar claims.

Legitimate agencies may make other types of guarantees, however. For example, they may guarantee ROI or guarantee satisfaction. These looser guarantees are more trustworthy, but it’s important to probe the meaning of this guarantee and understand the language of it before you take it at face value.

Question #15 – Do You Make Predictions?

SEOs aren’t fortune tellers and can’t predict everything that’s coming, but understanding where the industry is headed is a crucial part of the job. SEOs can make accurate predictions about the future of search marketing, and Rand Fishkin at SEOMoz does so successfully every year. We have made our own predictions about SEO in 2013, and feel that this is an important part of the process.

Why is it important to make predictions? The future of your SEO efforts depend on them. Excessively conservative SEOs rely on old tactics that do not work long term. Experts in the industry need to focus on where things are headed so that they can provide lasting results.

Question #16 – How Do You Measure Success?

The long term success of an SEO project is measured in dollars and cents earned from organic search traffic. While a well planned SEO strategy should be designed to earn a profit from referral traffic and branding alone, this is not a measure of success in SEO. The goal of SEO is to produce steady growth in traffic from the organic results in the search engines: not paid traffic, not referral traffic.

This is because organic search traffic is cumulative, long term, and passive. Continued investment causes your monthly traffic to increase, not merely hold steady. SEO is a strategy for growth, not instant traffic. This is what makes it so effective.

Question #17 – What Would You Do if You Failed to Provide Results On an Agreed Timeline?

SEO is not an easy job. It is thought provoking, creative work that needs to be justifiable as legitimate marketing. SEOs should be able to offer a refund or compensation of some kind if they fail to offer results, and should certainly offer some contingency if your site gets penalized due to actions on their part. Some agencies will just eat your money and leave you on the roadside without any help when things go sour. This is unacceptable. Everybody in this industry understands that search engine results can’t be completely controlled, but all work should be justifiable.

Question #18 – Why Should We Hire You?

It’s a simple question, but sometimes it’s easy to forget this one. The agency should be able to offer a unique selling proposition that makes them different from the other agencies. You should be able to get specific answers to this question that relate directly to your needs. What can this agency do for you that others can’t? That’s the crucial thing to understand.

Question #19 – Can I Speak With Your SEO Department Head?

You should be able to speak directly with the SEO department at some point. True, agencies are busy and put a great deal of work into their clients, so it’s not always possible for them to get on the phone at a moment’s notice. But you should be able to schedule a meeting and speak directly with them. An informed salesperson or receptionist should be able to explain the basics of the process and how things work, but only the SEO department can explain exactly what their expertise is and how they plan to work with you. In fact, the SEO department needs to know a great deal about you in order to make the strategy work effectively.

Question #20 – How Will You Report Your Progress?

An agency’s reporting should go deeper than telling you how your rankings have improved or how many links they have built. You should be able to see where the links are coming from, what the content looks like, and how the progress is linked to their actions. Ideally, the agency should also be able to report results not just in terms of domain authority, rankings, and links, but in terms of dollars and cents as well. Perhaps more than anything else, actions should be justifiable as marketing efforts and should appear “spammy” or manipulative. Reporting should be completely transparent. SEO should never be a black box.


Remember, SEO requires technical skill, but SEO isn’t just a technical skill. It is a marketing effort. It’s important to approach agencies with enough knowledge to discern the difference between pretenders and professionals. Seek out agencies with outreach, writing, relationship building, and marketing skills. Look for transparent firms who have demonstrated results with previous clients, or at the very least their own websites. Agencies should involve you in the process, and report progress in a language you can understand.

What else should companies ask SEO agencies? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and please pass this along if you liked our take on things. Thanks for reading.

Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya

Co-Founder at E2M
Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder of E2M, a digital marketing agency and Preceptist.com, an executive branding & content marketing agency. Pratik has been featured on... Read Full Bio
Pratik Dholakiya
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  • Well said! This article had all the questions for which i have answered for past 4 years.

    Point #14: If we are honest, we will never get the deal. They expect guaranteed results before handing over. 🙂

    • I agree. In such cases, making them understand about the reality is the best way to earn deal and trust both.

      Hope you enjoyed reading the post.

  • This is an excellent list! Another way to phrase #15 is to ask, “What’s your vision of what SEO will look like in two or three years, and why?”

    • That’s spot on Brad, thanks for mentioning it in another way. Glad to hear you liked the list.

  • Andy Kinsey

    great list, it would be worth also asking how they use analytics to make the most of trends (seasonal or otherwise) and how they use analytics to shape the future of the site (how they know what to change etc)

    • That’s correct Andy. I think we can add many more questions in this list keeping all the different concerns into mind.

  • A brilliant list. It would perhaps also be worth asking what the company’s price plans are, and what each level involves exactly.

    • Sure Emily, that can also be one of the parts of SEO questions. Thanks for mentioning about the same.

  • rksistu

    Excellent list of questions . Both the business owners and SEO Agencies should aware of this questions

  • This article fulfills my all requirements, I was having a meeting in my office regarding the same issues of SEOs, I had a good discussion with my seniors regarding the same and I saw this in my facebook page and can not stop myself to read this article. Truly said, it is very good research on particular topic. Many of the companies who still using some Traditional SEO techniques which they have to leave and use good and ethical ways.

    Thanks for focus again.

    • Glad to hear this post helped Ravi.

      Please feel free to pass it along within your network 🙂

  • WOW! What an article you’ve written. The questions are all straight related to SEO and are worth asking, SEO has become a great profession in the worl of digital marketing.

    Loved the article.! Thumbs up.

    • Thanks Wali. Happy to hear you enjoyed reading this article.

      I hope you’ll pass this along.

      • Yeah Sure Pratik, definitely it will be helpful for others too, mostly that people who are in marketing of SEO projects.


  • You said in Q6
    Avoid any SEO who still:

    ” Submits your site to a long list of directories nobody outside of SEO has ever heard of
    Submits articles to article directories.”
    I agree wit h you but still we can submit High PR good quality web directories and HIgh PR Good quality article directories.

    Any body against me ? iam waiting for reply………..

  • Has Google even released an update list lately? The “Search Quality Highlights” on the Inside Search blog? I noticed they stopped that one a long time ago.

  • Chris Sansone

    Pratik, fantastic article!

    I am putting this on my private list of favorites to re-read every once in a while.

    I did read it over more than once, in an effort to absorb it as fully as possible, and want to point out a typo to you.

    Question #20

    “should appear ‘spammy’ or manipulative.”

    I’m pretty positive you meant to say “shouldn’t” appear…

  • Jose Capelo

    Good Article! I feel that some agencies are only interested in taking the money and do a 5 minutes job, which will bring devastating effects for the long term of your business. It is important to have a tailored campaign to your business and budget.

  • Lee

    Excellent list of questions, something we do is be as transparent as possible with clients right from the start. Transparency has become such an integral part of how we win clients and new business.

    These are questions that we generally go through with a client, we’ll often ask similar to these and see what knowledge they have of SEO and related topics. Some clients just don’t want to know but we’ll make sure we go through a presentation so they understand what we are actually doing and how the basics of SEO work, what the dangers are etc.

    Being proactive and telling them the information first so they don’t have to ask goes a long way in building trust. We often do a “what is SEO” presentation and then spend a couple of hours doing an SEO Q&A session with the client.

    With regards to link building, we’ll show them how we do it, we show them the tools we use such as http://linkprospector.citationlabs.com/ to find links and then how we analyse the link prospect, email prospects, ring them etc to make contact and get the valuable links.

    Once they see the value in what you do and understand and how much effort goes into a campaign it assures the client that their money is not being wasted and they understand where it’s going.

    Covering this list combined with complete transparency (and a few other points!!) with a potential client is a sure way to win the contract.

  • I love this article so much. I’ve been with the SEO (my company now converted it to Digital Marketing) for just over a year but I was never thought about the things mentioned above. Thanks a lot for helping newbies like me especially when doing self-study. Kudos!

  • M R Krishna

    Great to see a expertise post.

    I think it covers all the questions related to SEO agency/firm. But still I would like to make a note of 2 more questions that can be added to the list.

    1. What system do you use to mange if the flow of projects is huge / increases? The answer should be a finest base-camp.
    2. Can you please proof read some of the projects that you have achieved very good results/rankings/traffic? The answer should be latest case-study.

    Thanks Pratik!

    M R Krishna

  • Manny Zarate

    Great list!

    One more question: How many clients do you take per niche/market?

    Some companies take too many clients per niche and if you are their client then, how do you know they will rank you higher than the others?

  • hey, this is interesting how you setup the selection for your SEO agency. I totally agree with the questions that must be raised before infliating with any SEO agency. This is a great awareness for new small business owners who want to hire the SEO agencies .. Keep it up 🙂