How to Select the Best SEO Company: 10 Points for Evaluation
Selecting the right SEO agency can save you time, energy and a lot of money. Conversely, choosing the wrong SEO agency will cost you precious time, energy and and a lot of money. So how do you know if you’re hiring the right SEO agency? That can be a difficult question to answer—especially 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 18 years of industry experience as an SEO manager, as an SEO agency owner, and more importantly as an Internet entrepreneur.
1. A Proven Process, A Custom Approach
So what do I mean when I say “A proven process, A Custom Approach”? Exacty that. A good SEO agency will adhere to proven processes and principles that can and should be applied universally when performing website audits and optimization. But, a good agency will also apply a custom 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 in the evaluation of opportunity and strategy development for each prospective client that walked through our doors.
- Industry Analysis
- Competitive Research
- Strategy Design
Step 1, Industry Analysis, was performed to determine that opportunity existed and that value would be created if SEO objectives were achieved. Step 2, Competitive Research, was performed to assess competition and probability of success. Step 3, Strategy Design, incorporated what was learned from steps 1 and 2 to develop a plan to help the client to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage within their space. Steps 4 and 5, Implementation and Follow-up, followed 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 designed was unique to each client.
A good SEO agency employs a proven process and custom approach.
2. Creativity and Innovation
You’re like really? Yes. Really. The best SEO agencies are highly creative. Over the last 18 years working as an Internet entrepreneur 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 done something creative. We did something unique and innovative within the industry that lead to a sustainable competitive advantage.
Being creative is hard and it’s expensive. It’s far easier—and far less expensive—to implement cookie-cutter, broilerplate strategies… but it’s far less effective.
A good SEO agency is creative and innovative. When evaluating prospective SEO companies ask them what creative strategies they’ve implemented to help their clients stand out from the pack.
3. Realword SEO Experience
I often tell my wife that if I had to start over in SEO today without the benefit of having started in the industry in 2003, 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 and SEO that has a minimum of 5 to 10 years real world experience—preferably working with websites in your field of specialization. While many SEO principles, practices and techniques can be applied universally across industry, SEO companies with hands-on experience in your industry 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 “SEO Sales Rep”, responsible for new business acquisition, and then there’s the SEO salesman who will promise the world to get you to sign on the dotted line. Be wary of both.
Beware of Career Sales Reps
Most SEO agencies have one or more dedicated career sales representives. Career representatives are responsible for selling the business. While they may have some SEO experience, they often have very little. Once the career sales rep closes the deal, 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 specialist who will be performing the SEO work for your website.
Beware of Sales Rep That Promises the World
It’s unfortunate, but SEO tends to be one of the more unethical 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 experts who will promise the world but do not have a lot of relevant experiece or noteworthy achievements under their belt. Sales reps that promises the world will paint a rosie picture and speak in vague—yet compelling—language but will rarely be able to articulate the specific process they’ll employ for your website.
Questions to Test SEO Experience
So how can you tell if an SEO agency has the experience you need? Give them the experience test below. An SEO agency or specialist withe adequate experience should be able to articulate a clear and concise answer all of the following questions.
- Can you guarantee my website will be 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, 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 reviwe 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 incorporate SEO with overall marketing strategy?
The best answer: “SEO and link building goes hand-in-hand with content marketing, social media and public relations. We’ll work with your team 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 how much industry experience their team has. An SEO agency that has been established for more than a decade may assign an SEO specialist with less than two years experience to your account. Conversely, an SEO agency with only five years of history may employ several veteran SEO with 15+ years of experience that will be working on your account.
Take the time to find out who will be performing your SEO and if they have the right experience.
4. 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?
When evaluating a prospective SEO agency retention rate is an important element of the evaluation process. You might initially be impressed when an agency tells you they work with over 50 clients and 10 Fortune 500 companies. But would you still be impressed to find out 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.
A company’s retention rate is far more important than the number of accounts they have on the books. Some of the largest SEO companies offer the poorest quality “cookie cutter” SEO services. In fact, in my experience some of the worst SEO companies in history were also some of the largest. It’s not to say that large SEO companies offer poor service, or that small SEO companies offer superior service. What’s important is how many clients an agency is able to retain.
If you ask prospective 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 between 70 and 80%.
However, with respect to retention rate, there is one more think 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.
5. Is an SEO contract required?
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 agree to and 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 having a clear understanding of expectations between parties. An SEO contract establishes those expectations. The following are other reasons for an SEO contract.
- It provides you a clear outline
- 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
If a prospective SEO agency tells you they do not require a contract, it’s not in your best interest. A good SEO agency will provide a good SEO agreement—in writing. Do not work with any SEO agency the does not require a contract. Do not work with an SEO agency that requires a contract that does not outline clear and agreeable expectations.
Most SEO agreements have a 6-month minimum term. This provides the SEO agency enough time to start showing results while ensuring that the client isn’t stuck in a long-term service that isn’t producing. A typical SEO agreement will have 6 to 12-month term.