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.
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our daily newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!