While 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:
1. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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?