Lee Odden

5 Tips on Hiring and Getting the Most Value from SEO Consultants

searchWhile Google offers advice on hiring SEO consultants, there’s not much information about how to get the most value afterwards.  There’s an impressive amount of information and resources for webmasters on SEO related topics, but I’m pretty sure Google as a company has never hired a SEO agency and therefore isn’t in the client/vendor relationship advice business.

Having worked as a consultant for well over 10 years in the SEO space with hundreds of companies, large ($100bn) and small (un-funded startup ca 2001), there have been many opportunities to learn the ins and outs of working with companies to effectively provide SEO related services.

The SEO client/vendor relationship must be a win/win or it will go bad/bad.  For some companies it’s not enough to get the results expected (or more) but to receive a certain type of service or support as well. For others, education to bring SEO work in-house is most important.  Some companies want to outsource the whole thing with little or no involvement and others want the agency to justify and build a case for each specific code/content edit or inbound link.

Here are a few tips on finding and engaging SEO consultants for the long term:

toprank-team1. The first thing is to find a good agency team. On the surface, this looks easy since just about every agency in the interactive-PR-advertising-webdesign-ITconsulting-marketinganything space also happens to “do SEO”.

If you’ve worked in a particular market and industry, chances are you’ve already established relationships with various consultants. Word of mouth referrals are often times the best for all when it comes to search engine optimization or digital marketing work. Personal experience with a company is important, but it’s worth noting that not everyone in a position to hire a vendor is capable of managing them. The same is true for people calling themselves consulants and their abilities to deliver services. Word of mouth referrals deserve some level of qualification.

Getting a new job or project that requires outside expertise often drives the search for new consulting resources.  This is a scenario where it pays to be networked.

As an example, I recently posted questions to my network on Twitter for recommended iPhone app developers and another time for videographer/editing talent. In both cases, I received 5-8 recommendations and passed them on to companies looking to hire.

Being networked in such situations saved me a substantial amount of time pursuing alternative search methods. It also saved the clients, for whom I was helping, a lot of time. On top of that it helped the people making recommendations of others because by doing so, it built up their credibility as a resource to others as well as the individuals they were recommending. Lastly, it benefitted the people that were recommended because they received additional visibility and one got the job.

Obviously, a company shouldn’t just hire whoever gets recommended to them. There need to be criteria and objectives, which I’ll describe further in tip #3.  Some companies like to use a RFP to describe the nature of the engagement and to define the specific criteria/expectations for vendor selection. RFPs for SEO with the expectation of being able to make apples to apples comparisons are tough since there is no “one right way” to solve every SEO problem. Regardless, the word of mouth referral from a credible source as well as fundamental expecations and goals should be enough to find a good agency in most cases.

2. Remember the Golden Rule.  Consultants should be respectful and honorable to clients/prospective clients and vice versa. There are many reasons why people act abusively or rudely to consultants when they’re trying to outsource.  Sometimes corporate staff carry a bit of “baggage” from a past bad experience or they’re simply annoyed at having to outsource at all. In other situations certain people become used to abusing vendors to look good to their superiors. Regardless, a client/agency relationship needs to be mutually respectful.

In the current economic environment, it’s pretty amazing what some companies will do in negotiations for services. The video below makes a bit of fun of that:


Let’s be clear that agencies are not immune to bad behavior. I’ve heard stories of SEO companies that develop networks of sites to boost client search rankings and then take all those links or microsites away when the client disengages.  Still other situations involve consultants that employ risky tactics without informing the client or never really disclosing what they’re actually doing or reporting on what the company is paying for.

Besides holding one’s own behavior and intentions to a higher standard, the way to ensure equitable treatment is through a structured agreement. A proper scope of work and project plan should be in place defining expectations and roles for both client and agency as well as mutual respect for expertise and meeting/exceeding customer expectations.

objectives3. Think Through Your Objectives and Resources. Many companies don’t have a great understanding of the mechanics or even strategies behind successful SEO or social media programs, which is understandable because that’s why they need to hire an outside consultant. A clear set of internet marketing goals is essential for getting the most out of an agency engagement.

Manydigital marketing agencies are certainly capable of engaging in a discovery process with companies to determine what goals are realistic.  But reacting to the competition, acting on a CEO’s whim (aka “ego search”) or as a result of a well oiled pitch by a consultant are not great reasons to start a search engine optimization effort.

Understanding what business goals are to be reached is critical for a successful search marketing program. This means more than measuring rankings, traffic and sales because holistic SEO can both increase revenue and decrease costs in areas such as Customer Service, Recruiting and Public Relations.  SEO isn’t a “try it and buy it” situation. It takes a commitment in time and resources, especially content creation, promotion and analytics.

When a company can communicate objectives and has an understanding of resources available, a good consultant will have the information they’ll need to leverage analysis for project recommendations. It’s a lot harder to “score” or win the game if you don’t know where the goal is.

skeleton leted4. Honesty Trumps Hiding SEO Skeletons and Abilities . Some companies have been left with bad decisions in the past ranging from hiring a lowball fee SEO consultant that “guarantees” specific search visibility to instances where certain SEOs used questionable tactics to shortcut results only to end up losing the value of those efforts or worse, being penalized.

If a past SEO consultant has been hired and performed questionable tactics, it will save a lot of time for everyone involved, if those efforts are shared up front. Most, if not all, of such tactics will be discovered by the new SEO anyway. Informing a new consultant of past efforts will speed the work it will take to employ any fix efforts and if necessary, steps towards reinclusion.

On the topic of honesty, it’s even more important that internet marketing consultants be up front about their capabilities.  Remnants of software companies selling “vaporware” still exist within many tech and IT focused SEO consultancies. However, saying yes to every project results in “overpromise and underdeliver” sitiuations. Delays, mis-communications and overall dis-satisfaction inevitably result.

It’s better to be fully aware of capabilities and be open about what can and cannot be done at the service levels required. Doing so allows the consultancy to do their best work for clients that expect exactly that.  Internet marketing agencies with a good grasp of their areas of expertise decline many projects that require services outside their specific areas of expertise. In some cases, the situation can be solved by partnering with other agencies. In others, it simply makes more sense to recommend another agency with the specialization the company requires. The goodwill generated pays dividends many times over in the long run.

winning5. Win or Lose with Implementation. One of the most common issues in the SEO industry involves situations where SEO recommendations are not implemented as intended , not completely or at all.  This is a bit ironic, since, companies pay for the advice but there are many reasons why it happens.  Some companies cannot justify the expense of making major changes to their content management systems or the potential effects do not justify the changes in content creation processes.

In other cases, the nature of the SEO engagement is structured as an audit and delivered as a report of recommendations to the client. Implementation is up to the client’s web development staff or agency, copywriters and other marketing personnel without SEO consultant oversight.  Some companies do this to save money or more often, because they see SEO as a web development/IT project and not as a marketing project. Client side staff can easily get tasked with many other responsibilities and the SEO recommendations may not all get implemented before other projects take priority.

Link building and content promotion are the most common victims where there is a lack of ongoing SEO consulting.  In fact, many SEO companies are not particularly skilled at ongoing site marketing and link building let alone companies who do not market web sites as a specialty.  On top of implementation issues are training and staying current with SEO best practices. As staff within an organization change, knowledge of SEO goes with them. New staff need to be trained or they will not continue with the ongoing content optimization and link building necessary for maintaining and improving search engine visibility.

Whether you’re a SEO consultant or on the client side, what advice can you offer on getting the most value from SEO engagements?

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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. As an SEO consultant, the most important thing for me is how I fit in with the client, and vice versa. I put a lot of myself out in the public via social media, so it is important for my client to understand my fun-loving, but straight-up and no-fluff nature. Some of my favorite clients have actually discovered me through my rash and outlandish Tweets.

    On the other hand, if a company is looking for a suit and meaningless reports, I wouldn’t be who they’re looking for… and I wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.

  2. Lack of client education is the single largest reason for failure in SEM projects. Setting expectations and defining roles and responsibilities should be considered foundations.

    If the SEM consultant isn’t providing organized educational efforts that include executives and key stakeholders in the first 5% of the project then something is going to break later.

    Secondly, make sure there is a RESPONSIVE SENIOR point of contact with the SEO consultant. Not three. Not 25. Do not let 25 people unleash their worldly frustrations about web developers on the person. If you don’t, people will eventually end up asking the SEO guy how to fix their printer. I’ve SEEN it with my own eyes.

  3. These are all great.

    It always comes down to finding honest people to do business with as you mention in #4.

    And #3 is huge as well. It’s important to communicate expectations regarding goals and delivery dates.

    It’s best to be on the same page for both parties involved.

    Again, great insight. You’re a trusted SEO resource.


  4. The SEO field has become filled with a lot of consultants offering outdated or ineffective strategies. To avoid using one, my recommendation would be to create a shortlist of about 10-20 consultants or agencies based on the criteria Lee has listed.

    Call several of their listed clients, and request several clients NOT LISTED on their references. You can usually get a pretty good picture about the quality of a consultant or agency through talking to their customers.

  5. Thanks for sharing the good information and ideas about marketing. Nice post!

  6. Wow. I loved that video! Almost totally took me away from the topic. But I came back again to read your post. My reaction to SEO is kind of a roll of the eyes because most companies who ‘do SEO’ have a major tendancy to over promise, and under deliver. In fact the promises seem so unbelievable that the credibility is shot before the relationship begins – how can I get a promise from the SEO company that they will increase my traffic by 100% if they don’t know what traffic I’m starting with? Or they don’t even know if I have a website (I’m talking about the emails I get to my personal email – unrelated to my sites).

    • Kris, so called “SEO Consultants” that send unsolicited ads to your email are NOT representative of the SEO industry at all. The best SEO consultants and agencies don’t do any kind of outbound marketing. Or at least many of them don’t. In any industry, companies that have to make big promises almost always set the expectations bar too high and the situation results in the reality or perception of underdelivering.

      Companies that want to find good SEO companies or consultants should get referrals, not rely on ads. Common sense.

      BTW, I hope it wasn’t a SEO consultant that advised you to register a domain name with 3 hyphens!

  7. That was a great information shared, You are a good SEO resource. Nice Post.


  8. Probably a good idea to look at some of their clients sites, and see how they rank.

  9. Spot-on post on a hot topic, Lee. Thanks for sharing!

  10. For me it is getting the client to give over control of the site. SEO is not a bolt on exercise. You don’t just “add” it to the a site. The client’s strategy has to include SEO from the ground up.