SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of ranking higher in search results and is the single best thing you can do for your marketing efforts. While it takes time to see results, it has the single best return on investment in marketing. We often tell people it is the best thing you can do for your business next year. You know you want to do SEO, but how do you chose who to hire? How do you know your SEO is good and honest and can deliver results?
SEO takes time. It takes a lot of time. It takes months to start ranking and even longer to get phone calls. This is why we tell people it is the best thing they can do for their business next year because it won't do anything for months. There are two exceptions. One, if you are already ranking well and need to improve things, or two, if you are in a low-competition market, but for everyone else, it will take months. This time delay creates two significant problems within the SEO community.
The most significant problem is that there are tons of scams. Due to the nature of SEO taking time to show results, many people have learned they can charge you for months without doing any work without getting caught. They will continually tell you that it takes time to see results and that you must wait for a little longer until you eventually cancel.
The other problem is that many web design agencies offer SEO as an upsell rather than a core service. They often don't do any SEO themselves and instead hire a white-label agency to do all the work for them. This often results in higher costs and a middleman that can't fully explain the SEO process or give proper recommendations.
One question we get from small business owners is how they can know if an SEO agency will help their business. Many businesses even need to hire SEO consultants to evaluate an agency's current SEO strategy. An SEO consultant can determine if you are getting the work you were promised and if that work will help your website.
To help our clients, we created a quick checklist to help you know if the SEO agency you are hiring will actually help you.
See previous work from the date they started. Even better if you know their budget for the campaigns. They don't have to have a vast breadth of work if they can appropriately answer strategy - but if there is any "we can't share our work," they don't have any. We don't put much credibility in past work because it can easily be faked by giving false timeframes, false results, campaigns they didn't work on, or even the Baltimore trader problem. You can easily create 100 free WordPress sites and only report on the one success when you have 99 failures. While you shouldn't give too much credit to past work, no past work is a bad sign.
Check the SEO value of their website. It doesn't have to be a lot - but if it is zero, that is suspicious. The "we don't utilize SEO for our business" usually means they can't compete in their niche. SEO and web design are competitive industries. The reason most agencies don't do SEO on their website is that they are only able to rank for noncompetitive markets.
Ask about their strategy regarding content, keyword strategy, and backlinks. You don't have to understand their strategy, but you need to feel confident that they have a process and that they will discuss it with you when needed. If you don't trust their strategy, hire a third-party SEO consultant to evaluate their approach.
Cover expectations on a month-to-month basis. SEO is a long game, and you need to know what should happen at each step along the way. You may not rank and get phone calls for months, but there should still be movement within your site and tangible monthly deliverables.
Ask about their toolset. They should use all the basics. There are tons of SEO tools. Ahrefs, and Semrush are the most common keyword research and ranking tools. Scalenut, Surfer SEO, Frase, and Page Optimizer Pro are the most common content evaluation tools. The tools they use are less important than that they use them and know how to use them. No SEO tool is perfect. Experienced SEOs can describe, in depth, the strengths and flaws of every tool they use. If they only use free tools, then run because that means they aren't doing the work.
Ask about their sources for backlinks, content, and other SEO deliverables. If they can't share them, then run. If they say it is all in-house, then they should have the portfolio to represent a company with lots of employees. You don't need specific people - but you do need generalized answers - we like these sellers on legiit, or we get press releases from x or citations from y. Every good SEO company outsources something. There are many SEO agencies and freelancers that have focused on creating a process for one particular thing. This makes them both very good and affordable at that task, and good SEO agencies take advantage of this instead of charging you extra for no reason.
Try to cover the specific process for the scope of work, for reporting, and for deliverables. If they can't do this, they are just salesmen, and you shouldn't use them. They should be able to provide reporting and explain the benefits and drawbacks of the reporting. We want to improve these key metrics in this way - this report gives this, but it is flawed because of this reason (all reporting is inadequate in some way). You should get several reports. Content, budget, backlinks, ranking positions, work done that month. Even better if it is a this was our strategy, this is our results, these are our expectations (though this can be an email and not part of the reporting)
Try to break down their pricing model in a precise way. The less they can break it down the less they know what they are doing. It should be x costs y. a costs b. People that are outsourcing everything to disreputable sources can't answer these questions. If this includes all of this - but they can't break it down then they aren't involved. Good SEO should be adaptive pricing because no site or business requires the same complexity. A good SEO process focuses on what you need, not what they sell, and can adapt the pricing to your specific requirements.
Ask how they handle technical SEO. If they can't fix CLS, or have someone that can, then they probably aren't good. If they don't even know what technical SEO is and aren't able to explain it to you, then they are a scam.
The more SEO knowledge you have, the more SEO-related questions you can ask - but some of those require you to know what the answers should be. If you don't have any SEO knowledge, you should hire an SEO consultant to evaluate their strategy. It is cheaper to pay an SEO consultant a few hundred than to pay the agency thousands.
They should be able to do a legitimate breakdown and audit of your site on the fly. The audit should be a this is where you are, this is what is good, this is what needs to be improved audit. If it is simply your h1 is bad, or you are missing alt tags, then they are just a salesman and not an SEO. Agencies train salespeople to point out very simple things like h1 and alt tags. In-depth audits take a long time and can be expensive, but any web professional can do a quick audit in a few minutes for free. SEO isn't that difficult, but if it were that simple, it wouldn't require professionals.
If they want to do anything dramatic get a third-party consult. This would be rebuilding your website, recommending an extreme budget, writing hundreds of pages, or anything that acts like x doesn't matter or only y matters. Sometimes these strategies can be sound - but most of the time, if they act like something doesn't matter, it is because they don't know how to do it. Someone with a specific specialty is good - but they should probably be white labeling for a holistic company rather than trying to convince you that only one aspect matters. If someone claims they have some secret formula they probably shouldn't be trusted.
If it is anything along the lines of "if we write blogs you will rank" and that is it then they are a scam. The same is true if they say you only need this cheap backlink package. SEO requires an all-encompassing approach. Things that are too good to be true often are.
Check them for general honesty. Most people in the SEO game lie - if you feel like they are dishonest, they won't work for you and will collect a paycheck for as long as they can without getting results.
Understand your niche and your competition. SEOs can work in any niche - other than maybe vice industries - that is a specific specialty - but if they say you need an extremely high budget for something without competition, then they are just stealing. If they recommend a very low budget for something like roofing or law, then it won't help you. You can do low budgets to get new domains moving and out of the sandbox for a cost-benefit, but competitive niches will eventually need reasonable budgets to get good results. The larger the city the more competition.
You can get some search traffic from zero-volume keywords - but if their entire strategy is zero volume or if they are only aiming for longtail keywords, then they aren't good. You do need some legitimate volume keywords. It is extremely easy to rank for a longtail keyword with zero search volume and then send you a report claiming they got you to page one.
An understanding that strategy changes over time. If their month one strategy is the same as their month ten strategy and they aren't going to discuss and adapt over time they aren't good at what they do. This is also something you need to understand - you need to understand budgets and strategy will need to change over time for good results. If you ever think that them altering a strategy is bad, then you may be hindering campaign performance.
Understand their communication system. Can you call them? Email? How long until they respond? Will they have regular meetings? Many of our clients come to us because their previous agency didn't respond to requests for website changes and didn't give them the time they needed. We also have clients that just want us to do good work without ever involving them. You know your personality type and what will fit you best.
Understand that their company size doesn't matter. Many of the largest companies (or at least companies that seem the largest) are the largest scams in SEO. These are sales-based agencies, not performance-based agencies. Performance-based industries often stay smaller and more personal because they are more focused on growing the work and the brand than selling to lots of clients. Hiring a large business is perfectly fine, and we recommend agencies over freelancers, but being large doesn't mean they are good. Phone book companies sell more websites than anyone because they have tons of salesmen - but no phone book company makes good websites.
Good companies are transparent companies. Do they give honest, thoughtful answers or a sales pitch?
Do they force you to rebuild your website? This is a tricky concept and one that is difficult to mention because we almost always recommend that people rebuild their website. We usually recommend people rebuild their website because we build outstanding custom websites that are highly performance with great technical SEO. This still needs to be mentioned because many SEOs are not web designers or web developers and want you to rebuild your site not because it is better for you but because it is better for them. Tons of SEOs can only work with a particular WordPress toolset and don't know how to work with anything else. They will try to convince you to rebuild your site not because your website is bad but because they don't know how to use it. If someone is telling you to rebuild your website be sure that their websites are better than your current site.
If all else fails, pay a minimal amount to an SEO consultant to help you interview them. This can save you tremendous pain later. It is unfortunate, but 95%+ of people selling SEO are scams. It is easy for a salesperson to convince you of something you don't know about and collect a paycheck for six months while not doing anything before you fire them.