How to Select an SEO Company: 12 Points for Evaluation
Selecting the right SEO company can save you time, energy and money. Choosing the wrong SEO company will cost you precious time, energy and money. So how do you know if you’re hiring the right SEO agency? That can be a difficult question to answer when you’re not an SEO expert yourself.
Below I’m going to discuss the most important things to look for when selecting an SEO company. The insights I’ll provide are based on over 15 years experience as an SEO specialist, agency owner and more importantly entrepreneur.
1. A good SEO agency will employ a proven process and customized approach.
So what do I mean when I say “a proven process and customized approach”? Exactly tat. A good SEO agency will adhere to a proven process and principles that can and should be applied universally when performing website audits and search engine optimization. But, it will also apply a customized approach to analysis and strategy design tailored to the unqiue competitive position of the client.
For example, at my firm we applied a standard high-level analytical process to identify opportunity and develop a strategy for each prospective client. This process included the following five steps.
- Industry Analysis
- Competitive Research
- Strategy Design
Step 1—Industry Analysis—is performed to determine that opportunity exists and that value will be created once SEO objectives are achieved. Step 2—Competitive Research—is performed to assess the competitive landscape and probability of success. Step 3—Strategy Design—incorporates what is learned from steps 1 and 2 to develop a plan to help the client achieve a sustainable competitive advantage within their niche. Steps 4 and 5—Implementation and Followup—follow as a byproduct of step 3.
This same five step process was applied for each client—but no two strategies were ever exactly the same. Strategy design was unique to each client.
A good SEO agency employs a proven process and customized approach.
2. A good SEO agency is creative and innovative.
The best SEO agencies are highly creative. Over the last two decades I’ve built and sold multiple portfolios of successful business websites that generated in excess of several million pageviews a month. Each and every time an offer was made to acquire a web property that I and my team developed it was because we had been creative and innovative in our approach to SEO. We developed a strategy that was unique within the industry that helped us stand out from the pack and get noticed.
Being creative is hard and it’s expensive. It’s far easier—and far less expensive—to implement cookie-cutter, broilerplate SEO strategies… but broilerplate strategies are far less effective.
A good SEO agency is creative and innovative. When evaluating prospective SEO firms ask them what creative strategies they’ve implemented to help their clients stand out from the pack.
3. Look for real world SEO experience.
I sometimes tell myself if I had to start over in SEO today without the benefit of nearly two decades of industry experience, I’d never succeed. When it comes to success in digital marketing—especially SEO—experience matters. If you want excellent results, you want to work with an SEO that has a minimum of 5 to 10 years real world experience—preferably working with websites in your niche. While many SEO principles, practices and techniques can be applied universally, SEO companies with hands-on experience in your niche will have a better understanding of the competitive landscape, be more creative and innovative in their approach to strategy design, and ultimately deliver superior SEO results.
When evaluating experience, beware of the ‘salesman’. There are two types of salesmen in SEO. There’s the salesman at the front door—the traditional career sales rep whose sole responsibility is new business acquisition. Then there’s the salesman/SEO specialist who will promise the world to get you to sign on the dotted line. Be wary of both.
Larger SEO agencies typically have one or more dedicated career sales representives. Career sales representatives are responsible for selling the business (not servicing it.) While they may have some SEO experience, they often have very little. Once the career sales rep closes the deal, they receive a commission and the client is passed to an SEO manager or specialist who is responsible for servicing the account. When selecting an SEO agency, request to speak directly with the SEO manager or specialist who will be performing the SEO work for your website.
It’s unfortunate, but SEO tends to be one of the more unscrupulous industries. It doesn’t take much to launch a website and proclaim you’re an SEO expert. The industry is full of self proclaimed or wouldbe SEO experts who promise the world but have little relevant experience or noteworthy achievements under their belt. Sales reps that promise the world aint a rosie picture and speak in abstract—yet compelling—language, but are rarely able to articulate the specific optimization process they’ll employ for your website.
So how can you tell if an SEO agency has the requisite experience for your project? Give them the experience test below. An SEO agency or specialist with adequate experience should be able to articulate a clear and concise answer to each of the following questions.
- Can you guarantee my website will appear on the first page of Google?
The best answer: “No. No one can guarantee first page placement, but we have sevearl clients that we’ve helped achieve first page placement on Google.”
- How long will it take to start seeing results?
The best answer: “That will depend on the level of competition in your niche, but it typically takes three to six months to start seeing results.”
- Do you outsource any of the SEO process?
The best answer: “We handle everything in house — would you like to meet our SEO team?” or “We handle all strategy design in house, however, we do outsouce…”
- What’s your process for building backlinks?
The best answer: “We embrace a content-driven approach to attracting quality incoming links. We also employ initial outreach and content promotion.”
- How do you choose the keywords we’ll be targeting?
The best answer: “Keyword selection is based on four criteria: relevance, searcher intent, traffic volumes, and level of competition.”
- What metrics do you use to track progress and success?
The best answer: “We monitor growth in rankings, traffic and backlink numbers. We measure success in growth of leads and sales.”
- How often do you communicate with clients?
The best answer: “We provide our clients with a weekly progress report. We meet with our clients bi-monthly to review progress and set goals. Our clients can call or email at any time to discuss their account.”
- What type of reporting do you provide?
The best answer: “We provide weekly reporting on all KPIs and project progress. Here’s an example report we provide for our clients. Let’s review it.”
- Can you walk me through a few of your successful SEO projects?
The best answer: “Absolutely. We have a couple case studies to share that are very relevant to your business and niche.”
- How do you incorporate SEO with overall marketing strategy?
The best answer: “SEO and link building go hand-in-hand with content marketing, social media and public relations. We’ll work with your team to ensure SEO supports your overall marketing strategy.”
- What SEO tools do you use?
The best answer: “We use several SEO tools including [NAMES OF TOOLS]. We use these tools to perform technical audits, conduct keyword research, perform deep crawls of your website, monitor backlinks and conduct competitor research.”
- How do you stay up-to-date on changes in SEO?
The best answer: “We are constantly monitoring updates and changes to Google’s content quality guidelines and algorithm updates by following Google on it’s Webmaster Central Blog, reading industry publications including [NAMES OF PUBLICATIONS] and conducting our own research.
- Do you need anything from my company to be effective?
The best answer: “Yes. Absolutely. We will need detailed information about your audience, niche, goals and KPIs. Effective SEO requires a partnership between your company and ours.”
- How do you approach mobile optimization?
The best answer: “Mobile-first optimization encompasses the entire consumer experience, and when implemented properly, compliments every interaction customers have with your website and brand.”
- What steps do you use to develop an SEO strategy?
The best answer: “That’s an excellent question. We employ a 5 step process that includes industry analysis, competitive research, keyword research, a technical audit of your website… [ETC].
Additional questions you can use to test an SEO’s knowledge and experience include the following. I recommend researching the answer to each of these questions before interviewing a prospective SEO.
- What programming languages do you have experience with?
- What is E-A-T?
- What is the difference on-page SEO and off-page SEO?
- What is a competitive analysis?
- What is a keyword gap analysis?
- Why canonicalization important to SEO?
- What should a technical SEO audit include?
- What are the most essential schema markups for a website?
- What are main components of Google’s Core Web Vitals?
- Why is website accessibility important?
- Can you explain the importance of content siloing?
- What are the key consideration when performing a site migration?
- What is local SEO?
- What is your process for helping a local business appear more prominently in search results?
- What method do you use to redirect a page?
- How do you use structured data to earn featured snippets?
How long an SEO agency has been around is not as important as the amount of experience their team has. An agency that’s been established for more than a decade may assign an SEO specialist with less than two years experience to your account. Conversely, a newer SEO agency may have several veteran SEO experts with several years of experience that will be working on your account.
Take the time to find out who will be working on your account and if they have real world SEO experience.
4. Look for a diverse team of specialists.
When I launched my SEO agency in 2006, SEO was much less complex than it is today. A basic understanding of HTML, keyword selection, on-page optimization (e.g., title tags, header tags, alt tag, copy optimization), competitive research, trend analysis, link building and strategy design was sufficient to construct and execute a winning SEO campaign. While these skills are still required, today SEO requires a much more comprehensive pool of knowledge, talent and abilities.
Some of the core competencies and critical skills to look for when evaluating an SEO agency include:
- Content Marketing Specialist – Content marketing and SEO are natural compliments. Content marketing fuels SEO. One the major factors search engines consider when determining rankings is content quality. A good SEO agency must have the ability to develop and market strategic content that supports everything from link building initiatives to on-page SEO. While a dedicated content marketing manager is not absolutely necessary, it’s helpful.
- Technical SEO Specialist – A technical SEO specialist is key to a successful SEO campaign, escpecially when optimizing complex enterprise and e-commerce websites that employ disparate technologies and have a lot of moving parts. While a general SEO specialist can also be adept at technical SEO, if you have an enterprise or ecommerce website you’ll want to make sure the agency you hire has a specialist experienced in technical SEO audits and optimization.
- Project Manager – Project management is a critical skill for any business endeavor. It’s particularly important for SEO. A dedicated project manager will ensure that all SEO objectives, deadlines and budgets are met. Larger SEO companies will typically have an SEO manager who acts as the project manager.
- Programmer/Developer – Development is often a necessary element of a successful SEO campaign. This is particularly true for large enterprise and ecommerce websites. There are a lot of SEO pros that do an excellent job with very little programming experience, but having someone on your internal team, or external SEO team, that understands programming is important. If your business does not have a dedicated web programmer or development team, it can be helpful to work with an SEO agency that does.
When selecting and SEO agency, look for a diverse team of specialists with diverse skill sets.
5. Look for an agency with experience in your niche.
A smart SEO specialist whose been in the industry several years can tackle just about any project. Notwithstanding, it’s always better to work with a specialist who has direct experience working with clients and technologies in your industry. During my career as an SEO specialist I’ve developed several highly successful SEO campaigns. But I’d be the first to admit that there other SEO specialists that are more adept at international SEO than I am. Not because they’re smarter, or because they’ve been in the industry longer, but simply because they have more direct experience in international SEO than I do.
Over the years I’ve developed a myriad of SEO campaigns using WordPress websites. From a technical perspective, optimizing a WordPress website is far easier than optimizing a enterprise-level ecommerce website built using SAP Hybris framework. While the SEO principals, techniques and processes for working with both frameworks remain the same, the actual technical process for optimizing content and website structure within each framework is very different. If you’re a large ecommerce company, or have an enterprise-level website, you’re going to be far better served by working with an agency that has experience working with enterprise-level clients and websites.
If you’re a brick’n mortar business with multiple physical locations, you should work with an SEO agency that specializes in local search optimization. If you’re a business that sells online with customers nationwide, then working with an SEO company with expertise in national SEO is going to serve you better than working with an agency whose clients are primarily local brick’n mortar shops. If you’re a business with an international presence, you’ll want to work with an SEO agency that has proven experience optimizing websites for international audiences.
Look for an agency with direct experience in your niche and business model.
6. Examine past and proven performance.
Experience and past performance go hand in hand, but they’re not the same thing. An SEO specialist may have worked in the industry for many years but never hit a homerun—or even made it across home plate. Some SEO agencies will showcase the few wins they’ve achieved while the vast majority of their clients have experienced lackluster results.
Take a hard look at what an SEO agency has achieved for their clients to determine if they can deliver for you. There are several ways to verify an agency’s past performance.
- Portfolio Examples – Review an agency’s overall portfolio. How many total impressions, leads and sales have they generated for their clients.
- Cast Studies – Does the agency have real world SEO case studies they can share?
- Industry Awards – Has the agency received any awards? Typically, SEO awards are granted on the merit of customer satisfaction and retention. However, don’t be fooled by fake awards sponsored on a pay-to-play basis.
- Client Testimonials and Reviews – Does the agency have positive client testimonials? What type of current Google reviews do you see when you search the agency online? What type of reviews to you see on Yelp and other review websites? When searching for reviews, be careful to stay away from paid review websites. There are several industry websites that offer reviews that are bias.
- Client References – Last but by no means least are client references. In fact, if I were to list performance indicators in order of importance, client references would be at the top on the list. Any good SEO agency should be able to provide a couple current clients for you to call. Speaking with an agency’s current and past clients will give you a good idea of the type of service and results you can expect.
If an agency is unable or unwilling to share client references, look for a different agency.
A truly successful SEO agency will be able to provide specific, proven and verifiable results—for client websites.
Note: Just because an SEO agency’s website ranks well in search results does not mean the agency is able to achieve success for your website. It’s common for a prospective client to be impressed with the results an SEO agency has been able to achieve for their own website. However, the amount of time, dedication and resources a agency dedicates to achieving Google rankings for their own website are typically far greater than what they provide for client websites.
7. Look at customer retention rate.
So what does it mean when an SEO agency says they have an 80% retention rate? Is an 80% rention rate good or bad? And… why is retention rate important to selecting an SEO agency?
You might initially be impressed when an agency tells you they work with over 50 clients, ten of which are Fortune 500 companies. But would you still be impressed to find out that the year before the same agency had over 150 clients—of which half were Fortune 500 companies? (Now 50 clients doesn’t seem so impressive.)
Retention rate is typically calculated as a percentage of an agency’s customers who remain on the books over a specified time period—usually a year. The formula for calculating retention rate is [(E-N)/S] x 100 = CRR, where E is the total number of customers at the end of the time period, N is the number of new customers added during the period and S is the number of existing customers at the start of the time period.
An agency’s retention rate is far more important than the number of clients they service. Some of the largest SEO agencies offer the poorest SEO service. In fact, in my experience some of the worst SEO agencies in history were also some of the largest. It’s not to say large SEO agencies offer poor service, or that small SEO agencies offer great service. What’s important is not how many clients an agency has, or how large they are. What is important is how many clients an agency is able to retain.
If you ask an SEO agency what their retention rate is and they can’t immediately tell you, it should be a warning sign. My experience is that a good SEO agency will have a retention rate over 70%.
However, with respect to retention rate, there is one more thing to consider—contract duration. Retention rate is impacted by contract duration. Agencies with contracts of a longer duration, often have a higher annual retention rate. When evaluating retention rate, take into account the duration of the customer service contract.
8. Review SEO techniques utilized.
The early years of SEO (pre-2010) were reminiscent of the Wild West. The Internet was a new frontier, Google was just inventing itself and anything that worked for achieving rankings was fair game. It was during this time that the phrase “Black Hat SEO” was coined. Black hat SEO refers to optimization practices that increase a web page’s rank in search engines by means that violate a search engines’ content quality guidelines or terms of service. Black hat SEO may work to boost rankings in the short run but does not provide a secure long-term SEO strategy. In fact, black hat SEO can cause a website to be temporarily or permanently banned from appearing search results.
Common black hat SEO techniques to beware of include:
- Content Automation – Using tools or scripts to generate content automatically.
- Doorway Pages – Web pages loaded with keywords and poor content designed only to achieve rankings.
- Hidden Text or Links – Text or links that are visible to search engines but not to users.
- Keyword Stuffing – Filling a webpage with an unnatural number of keywords in an attempt to inflate search engine rankings.
- Cloaking – Presenting different content to human users and search engines.
- Link Schemes – Any scheme designed to inflate income links to a webpage to manipulate search engine rankings (including buying links.)
- Guest Posting Networks – Publishing guest posts on networks of website for the sole purpose of gaining a backlink or in exchange for payment.
For a complete list of black hat SEO practices review Recognized Black Hat SEO Techniques.
You should avoid working with any SEO company that employs black hat SEO technique or any similar practices.
A reputable SEO agency will only employ “White Hat SEO” techniques. White hat SEO techniques refer to SEO practices and strategies that improve a website’s search engine value and rankings (1) without relying on tricks to manipulate a search engine’s relevancy algorithm and (2) by improving the overall quality of a website or web page to users.
Some of the top white hat SEO techniques include:
- Quality content development
- Content marketing and outreach
- Creating content silos
- Well-structured markup language
- Improving website user experience
- Developing descriptive meta tags
- Improving site navigation
- Improving internal website linking
A good SEO company will be creative and innovative, but they won’t cheat. Avoid any SEO company that appears to employ black hat SEO techniques. Work only with an SEO agency that employs white hat SEO techniques.
9. Identify specific SEO goals.
With your internal team identify specific SEO goals and find an agency that can help you achieve them.
One of the biggest mistakes that website owners make when selecting an SEO agency is not being specific about their goals. “Increasing organic traffic” is not a specific goal. Examples of specific goals include:
- Achieve 400 new top 1-3 keyword rankings in Google
- Generated 100 backlinks
- Improve page speed to 3 seconds
- Decrease bounce rate to 40% for desktop
- Decrease bounce rate to 45% for mobile
- Grow organic sessions by 20%
- Grow website clicks to 300,000 per month
- Improve click-through-rate (CTR) from 3% to 5%
- Improve conversion to 10 new leads a week
- Grow organic sales by 10%
At the end of the day your goal is to increase revenue and profitability. Setting and achieving specific SEO goals will help you acheive these goals.
Before you begin contacting prospective SEO agencies, outline exactly what you’re hoping to accomplish with SEO. Is your primary goal to improve sales? Do you have a reputation management objective? Do you have specific keyword rankings you want to achieve? Is website conversion your biggest challenge? Are you looking for help building your social media following? Do you have another objective that goes beyond traditional SEO?
Make sure you’re clear about the specific goals you want to achieve and select an agency that can help you achieve them.
10. Don’t rely on ‘best SEO’ lists you find on Google.
So what is the first thing that most business owners do when they begin looking for and SEO company to work with? They go to Google and perform a search for a variety of keywords including “best SEO”, “best SEO agency”, “list of best SEO agencies in…”, etc. Searching for the ‘best’ SEO company in Google may be a starting point but you shouldn’t put too much stock in ‘best SEO’ lists or those websites that appear at the top of SERPs for keyword searches.
You shouldn’t rely on ‘best’ SEO lists for the following reasons:
- The best SEO agencies are typically more focused on optimizing their customer’s websites than they are their own website.
- The best firms typically build their clientele through word of mouth and reputation.
- Many ‘best’ SEO lists are not impartial. Generally, agencies that appear on these lists pay for premium placement.
- Most good SEO agencies have too much business to bother being listed on ‘best’ or ‘top’ SEO lists.
- You’re far more likely to find the ‘best’ SEO agency for your business by word of mouth than you are on Google or any published ‘best’ SEO agency list.
The best way to find the right SEO firm is old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising. Reach out to people within your professional network to see who they recommend. Ask other business owners within your industry who they use.
11. Choose an agency that provides a good contract.
An SEO contract can be your friend. It can also be your enemy.
An SEO contract, or more commonly referred to as an SEO ‘agreement’, is a legal document that you and your SEO agency sign. The agreement details all services to be performed, deliverables, payment terms, etc.
One of the most important elements of your relationship with your SEO agency is the SEO agreement. The SEO agreement establishes a clear understanding of expectations between parties. The following are other benefits provided by a good SEO contract.
- It provides you a clear outline of services
- You can refer to it for answers to basic questions about service
- It will include the step-by-step SEO process
- It outlines all fee schedules
A good SEO agency will provide a written SEO agreement. Most SEO agreements have a 6-month minimum term. This provides the SEO agency enough time to start producing measurable results while ensuring that the client isn’t stuck in a long-term service that isn’t meeting expectation. A typical SEO agreement will have 6 to 12-month term.
Do not work with an SEO agency the does not require a contract. Do not sign an SEO contract that does not outline clear and agreeable expectations.
12. Visit the SEO company before signing on the dotted line.
There are two reasons to visit an SEO company at their offices. First, it’s import to verify the agency has a physical location. Second, it’s good to meet the people you’ll be working with. It’s one thing to talk to someone over the phone, it’s a completely different experience meeting face to face.
Whether or not an SEO company has a physical location is not necessarily an indicator of whether or not the company provides good SEO service. However, if there is a physical address and pictured listed on an agency’s website, you’ll want to verify the address actually represents a staffed office. In this day and age of remote workers, it’s becoming more common for companies—especially tech companies—to employ a remote workforce. Notwithstanding, most reputable SEO company’s will have a central office where they meet with clients.
(Note: As previously mentioned, I have found that some of the largest SEO companies provide the worst SEO service. Don’t be flattered by an attractive office building with nice ammenities. You’re interested in how well an SEO company can promote your business, not how well they promote their own. Conversely, not having any office at all, may be a sign that an SEO agency is not well established.)
Visiting an SEO company at their place of business also provides the opportunity to connect with the SEO team that will be working on your account. Taking the opportunity to meet the team you’ll be working with, and providing them the opportunity to meet you, will personalize the relationship and ensure you’ll be able to relate and understand one another.
If SEO is crucial to the success of your business, choosing the right SEO agency is too.
A good SEO agency has the ability to transform your business—for better or worse. So take your time and perform all the necessary due diligence to ensure you find the right SEO partner.
The 12 points for evaluation I’ve outlined above come from my personal experience as an SEO specialist and entrepreneur. I love SEO. It’s allowed me to compete in industries that would have otherwise been inaccessible to a young entrepreneur working on a shoe string budget.
A final thought. SEO can be a very powerful marketing strategy, but it should only be one of several strategies you employ to promote and grow your business. SEO works best as part of a comprehensive marketing strategy.
I no longer offer SEO services, however, if you’d like assistance in find the righ company for your project, shoot me an email.