Lee Odden

How to Hire a SEO Firm – According to Google

With search engine optimization a challenge for most company marketers to stay current with, how exactly are businesses supposed to confidently hire a SEO consultant? Google has an opinion on this if you haven’t noticed.

There’s an ongoing dance of sorts between search engines like Google and the search engine optimization community. They both want a win/win for the searcher (relevant results) and for the same reasons (revenue) but from different perspectives. Google uses the content of web sites against which to run its ads and make money for itself and it’s advertising clients. SEO consultants optimize those web sites to rank higher in the “free” or non-ad portion of the search results for a fee in order to drive traffic to increase their client’s sales.

When those web sites need outside marketing help to optimize content, build links and related services to rank higher and motivate more click throughs, Google offers some “useful suggestions to ask an SEO” for the selection process.

I’m not against these guidelines and suggestions at all, but they do make for an interesting read. I’ve added my comments/observations after each:

“If you’re thinking about hiring an SEO, the earlier the better. A great time to hire is when you’re considering a site redesign, or planning to launch a new site. That way, you and your SEO can ensure that your site is designed to be search engine-friendly from the bottom up. However, a good SEO can also help improve an existing site.”

Can you show me examples of your previous work and share some success stories? – A reasonable request provided past clients allow you to use this information.   In competitive industries, not all companies want their competitors to know who their SEO is. However, case studies, testimonials and references should be a built-in component of SEO client lifecyle management. When prospects see you publishing success stories of existing clients, they’re more likely to expect the same for themselves after they hire the agency.

Do you follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines? – So, this means follow Google’s rules but at the same time, webmasters won’t know how things “really” work?  At least Google’s Webmaster Guidelines give an overview on basic SEO practices and provides a benchmark against which to identify overzealous webmasters and marketers. Also, Google has made an effort recently to post a little more insight into the Google search engine the past month or so.

Do you offer any online marketing services or advice to complement your organic search business? – Any SEO firm that’s been around for more than a few years is offering complimentary services. Too many companies have other issues to be fixed before SEO can really have an impact. Examples include, believe it or not, an online marketing strategy, web analytics and conversion tracking, web design and usability issues, organizational structure and workflow issues and training.

Aptly named TopRank Online Marketing is one of those agencies that does provide an array of marketing consulting and services that compliment SEO as are many of the top agencies in the industry.

What kind of results do you expect to see, and in what timeframe? How do you measure your success? – The answer to this question is situationally dependent. How competitive is the market? What is the state of the client website? Do they have a workable CMS? Do they have staff that can create content?  How old is the site and what are the expectations? Does the client produce content besides text, a blog, other media formats? These factors and more must be considered to estimate time frame.

Measuring success of course, depends on goals, expectations and the type of marketing. A B2B enterprise software site may view whitepaper downloads as a precursor to a 6 month sales cycle as a measure of success. A retail site will see sales as the main metric. One thing is for sure, the value of “rankings” has diminished greatly with personalized search, Google suggest and the way Google Chrome and MSIE8 fill in your search bar as you type.

What’s your experience in my industry? – Experience in a particular industry may be important on one level, but a company that specializes in a particular vertical warrants questions about conflict of interest. How can a company specialize in “real estate” for example, without working for competing firms?The biggest advantages that come industry specific experience is the ability to quickly ramp up on client key messaging and audience needs as well as connections made online for content promotion, online public relations and link building.

What’s your experience in my country/city? – I really don’t see the relevance of this question. TopRank serves companies all over North America, many of which, we’ve never been to or have any other clients in. The internet is a universal marketplace and physical location doesn’t mean much unless your providing local SEO or geographically targeted online marketing services.

What’s your experience developing international sites? – Again, not relevant unless you’re selling international or multilingual SEO services. If the client is publishing different language sites, or needs to, then of course it’s highly relevant.

What are your most important SEO techniques? – The answer to this will greatly vary by the emphasis of the SEO agency so you really cannot make a competent or useful apples to apples comparison between agencies unless you really know SEO.Knowing Google though, this question is meant to uncover spammy practices I think.

SEO agencies or consultants should of course, be able to offer up the basics: improve spidering and content discovery, information architecture, keyword research, content optimization and promotion, link building, analytics and conversion tracking.

How long have you been in business? – This matters more for those SEO consultants with only 1-2 years experience. It also depends on the project. If an agency has only been in business for 2 years and is talking to a Fortune 100 prospect, there may be concerns about the stability and experience of the agency.Once an agency or consultant is in the 5 or 10+ year range like TopRank is, it’s not as much of an issue. It’s more about people, process and the technology – not age of the company.

How can I expect to communicate with you? – Excellent question!  Account management should be a big part of most, not all, SEO engagements. With larger and more complex organizations, an Account Team is essential to deal with all the different stakeholders involved. Weekly or monthly in-person meetings, or via WebEx or phone with a predictable reporting format or even a client facing dashboard are all reasonable depending on the scope of the engagement.Account contacts should be accessible via phone during business hours or email during extended hours.

Will you share with me all the changes you make to my site, and provide detailed information about your recommendations and the reasoning behind them? – I don’t know how a SEO consultant or agency could properly implement a SEO initiative for a company web site without “sharing all the changes made and offering recommendations and the reasoning”.   For some tactics, there is no direct effect, it’s the cumulative result that produces better search visibility.

However, offering a direct or potential benefit for each recommendation is very reasonable.  At the same time, there must be room for a certain amount of experimentation. Not risk taking per se, but so many new technologies and online marketing opportunities come on the scene every month, that some time should be allocated to exploring their viability without a specific knowledge of the effect, but more an anticipated expecation.

All in all, I think it’s great to have guidelines for companies when challenged with the task of finding and then evaluating potential Search Engine Optimization firms. As much as business owners would like to just pick the best, or whoever seems to “click”, hiring the right SEO consultant does take a commitment on the client side to become educated.

Find more info on Google’s perspective towards SEO on the Webmaster Help Center.

I’m curious what questions you would add to the list above as advice to companies hiring SEO firms?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he’s the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on integrated content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he’s likely on a beach somewhere doing absolutely nothing.