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 B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Excellent Article!!

    in this moment, my job here in our design agency is buy this services, but here in Argentina we have very few agencies specialized in SEO, this post is the best to me in this moment.


  2. Great post! So many seo-seekers need to read this article.

  3. interesting answers.

  4. nice link drop – even with a liberal imagination, I can’t imagine what Martin Bowling liking Zima has to do with this post

  5. Great article. I would add the following two questions:

    1 – Who is going to do the actual work?

    I would ask this question because many SEO firms have a high profile SEO with strong industry experience, yet they have junior/intermediate SEOs doing the actual legwork.

    Clients should expect to receive personalized attention from the SEO expert they think they are hiring.

    2 – Are you going to consult with me all the way through to the end until the recommendations are implemented?

    Best practice recommendations in a well designed PDF template won’t add value to any business. Recommendations need to be implemented for any benefit to occur. I’ve seen many big companies struggle to implement basic On Page SEO recommendations because they get stuck with their dev teams. In many occasions the solution is for the SEO firm to send someone to spend a few days a week inside the clients premises and liaise with the development team at a very detailed level.

  6. And the one fundamental question for clients:

    Why would I pay you to do something that I can do myself with available information from the search engines?

  7. Hi. Just to let you know that I added 10 of your blog posts to spotlightideas.co.uk Top 250 Blog Posts – advertising, marketing, media & PR.

  8. Good article… for the most part, Google is definitely on point.

  9. very nice article! seo seekers read this!

  10. Hi,

    That was a really very well put. Very comprehensive.
    Covers almost all the questions possible.


  11. On top of the great questions to ask above, I would also like to see a partial client list with testimonials and even references.
    Also, how ethical are you? (I’m sure most are, but I do know a few who walk on the grey area as well!)
    Nice list, how about a top 10 questions seo’s ask their clients?

  12. A couple of other considerations / questions that are worthwhile :
    – will the SEO tell you what they are doing off the site.. it isn’t just changes to your website that affect the visibility in search engines..
    – will the SEO be rewarded by and or be concerned to make sure the traffic doesn’t just reach the website but converts ( i.e. signs up / buys )

  13. Nice article, I enjoyed what you said on the timeframe of SEO. This is an grey area in SEO. But I think I understand it a little better now.

  14. well, I’m an SEO expert myself and when I ask myself all these questions, I feel bit difficulty in answering them. Thanks Lee, I will prefer them for my next job 😛


  1. […] Lee at TopRankBlog provides some more detailed discussion on the questions. […]