This is a guest post by Brad Shorr.
Hiring an SEO specialist is one of the most important decisions you will make in your pursuit of online marketing success. It is also one of the most perplexing.
There are two enormous issues with search engine optimization that hinder your ability to zero in on the right partner:
- Rapidly changing, constantly evolving rules. Google’s algorithm – the formula it uses to determine page ranking – has undergone significant changes recently, and I believe we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
- Lack of industry standards. Lawyers pass the bar, doctors have diplomas, but SEOs have nothing of the sort to give you confidence in their level of training and talent.
With this in mind, the first two things you want to evaluate in a potential SEO partner are:
- Methodology. Are they are using today’s SEO best practices or yesterday’s?
- Results. Do they walk the talk? Are they surgeons … or butchers?
Let’s take these decision-making factors one at a time, and then move on to a few more very important factors that need to be addressed once these two are nailed down.
Getting a Handle on SEO Methodology
SEO is an extremely complex Internet marketing discipline, involving a great many moving parts – parts that are constantly changing, as I just said. Without an up to date blueprint for conducting your SEO program, results are likely to be subpar at best, and potentially counterproductive.
The first thing to do on is ask if the SEO has a methodology. If the response is a blank stare or some rambling, semi-coherent, jargon-laden ad-lib, it is a telltale sign that they have no systematic approach to strategy or execution.
Ideally you want to see the SEO’s methodology in writing. This should not be a difficult thing for the SEO to deliver, and you’ll want the document to explain:
- Strategy: How does the SEO determine the goals of your program, and how success will be measured?
- Onsite SEO activities: How much time is devoted to onsite optimization, and what specific activities are undertaken?
- Offsite SEO activities: How much time is devoted to offsite optimization, and what specific activities are undertaken?
- Keyword analysis: How, step-by-step, does the SEO evaluate which keywords to include in your program?
- Analytics and reporting: What information is collected in report documents, how is it presented, how often is it presented, and how will the SEO help you take action on the data?
Of course, unless you are very knowledgeable about SEO, you will not necessarily know whether the information provided is spot-on or miles off the mark. However, once you have a document in hand, you can ask questions about things that don’t make sense. You also have a way to do comparative shopping, and to validate the SEO’s approach by doing your own online research into SEO best practices.
Getting a Handle on Results
A lot of people (perhaps a greater than average number in the world of marketing) can talk a great game. But can they deliver? Over the years I’ve talked to many entrepreneurs and marketers at larger firms who have experienced disappointing SEO results. Most of them skipped – or went through the motions on – the very important step of checking references. Here are a couple of suggestions for doing it properly.
- Request case studies with details. Almost every SEO I know is a statistics junkie – it goes with the territory. You should be able to get something more detailed than “We got ABC Company on Google page one.” Ideally, you want specifics relating to what keywords were targeted, how competitive they were, and what changes in rankings were accomplished over what period of time. Most important, you want to see numbers relating to increases in non-branded traffic, because in the end that is what you are really trying to achieve with SEO.
- Talk to their clients. It’s always helpful to go to the source. If the SEO is ready, able, and willing to let you talk to their clients, it is a very good sign in itself. When you talk to the referral, have a handful of specific questions ready, relating to keywords, rankings and traffic, along the lines of what I described in the bullet point just above. If you fail to ask the right questions, you may not get helpful insights. Believe it or not, a client can be “happy” with an SEO’s service without really understanding what the program looks like or even what results are being obtained!
Other Important SEO Selection Issues
If a potential SEO partner doesn’t pass the methodology and results tests, I don’t see much sense in taking a deeper dive. However, if you feel comfortable at this point, these issues should also weigh heavily in your decision.
The Right Fit
SEOs tend to specialize based on the size of the client’s business. When I was freelancing, I worked with entrepreneurs and small firms. I was a jack-of-all-trades, performing a number of onsite, offsite, research, and analytical tasks.
At the agency where I work now, we focus on the middle market, working with relatively complex firms that do things like credit card processing and GPS vehicle tracking. We have a staff that specializes in the various types of SEO activities, because the complexity and volume of work is too much for a generalist.
There are other SEOs staffed to handle large organizations with mid six-figure SEO budgets and tremendously complex needs. These shops would be ill suited to handle smaller clients, in terms of both responsiveness and execution.
The best SEO partner is one that targets your type of business. If the SEO has no particular preference in terms of client size, I would view this as a major negative.
Longevity and Stability
Achieving results takes a fair amount of time, so your ideal partner is someone who has been around and will be around. Does the SEO have a long-term business plan? Adequate funding? Consistent profitability? Don’t be shy about asking questions along these lines. It may save you the extreme headache of having to start all over again six months or a year into your program.
The best results come when you, the client, are actively engaged. This means you will be communicating with your SEO on a regular basis. There will be disagreements and misunderstandings, challenges to overcome and opportunities to exploit. If you feel there is a good chemistry, it counts for a lot. If you sense that every phone conversation is going to be an ordeal – keep looking!
Over to You: What factors have I overlooked? What do you look for in an SEO?
Brad Shorr is Director of Content & Social Media for Straight North, a Chicago Internet marketing firm. He is an experienced SEO copywriter and content optimization specialist. Follow Brad on Twitter.
Good article Brad.
Methodology needs to be demonstrated too: Not just refered to in a paper/online document. Seeing a little bit of the work (and tools) an SEO uses will give you a good idea if they really know what they are going on about.
Good stuff, Brad! Glad you mentioned non-branded traffic as a key stat to look for in case studies. Sadly, most of the SEO agency case studies I’ve seen don’t include this data.
I also agree that a company has to find the right “size” (e.g. enterprise agencies almost always fail when they try to take on smaller-sized clients).
Alex, Excellent point about seeing the work. Assuming the client has the ability to evaluate the SEO’s use of a particular tool, this will provide a very clear read on capabilities. Definitely belongs on my list!
Hugo, Thanks for the feedback – we’ve been trying especially hard to make that branded/non-branded distinction. It’s an important point that clients are sometimes rather fuzzy on.
Great post! Proven results based on hard-core statistics are crucial for closing any sales. Whether it’s SEO, Social Media or even Internet Marketing. There are some “so-call” SEO expert focus on the “what” instead of the “how” and “why” and always guaranteed first placement. Therefore, they seem to put their foot in their mouth after performance evaluation.
One of the warning signs is when they talk a good game, then they take weeks, even months to get you a cookie cutter proposal. If the communication is poor now, it will only get worse.
I was especially interested in the agency model.
I wonder if you can elobrate on this model, maybe for your next article.
Great article. With so many self-proclaimed experts it’s really important to do your homework before committing to a consultant or agency.
I like #2. I think there should be some accountability in the industry for SEO’s.
EXCELLENT ARTICLE, PROVIDED THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT TO SELECT YOUR PARTNER SEO, and it is important monitor and measure results over time … If no results have to make changes
If some one is looking to hire a SEO, he wont be knowing much about Strategy, Onsite/Offsite activity,Keyword analysis. If he already know all this stuffs why would he hire some one?
I think the simplest way is to look for the project that he has work upon and then decide what to do 🙂
I know social media, but I can’t do it for EVERYONE. Sometimes I bring in a team. The same logic applies to hiring people; you may understand concepts, but you may not have time to execute.
Hiring someone is always the easiest option if you have the money, compared to doing it yourself…
The referrals are definitely very important, and asking them specifics about not only their previous work, but how they operate as an individual, and their work ethic, are also vital to figuring out if you will be able to work and interchange information with this person on the long term.
Clashing personalities can be a great impediment in the grand scheme of your campaign, and you should definitely hire someone you can get along with!
You are right Brad, methodology will surely give you a heads up before you dive into deeper things with your SEO partner. I came across this video about what we should know before we hire people. It’s something worth watching too. http://marieforleo.com/2011/02/watch-hire-business/
There are a lot of SEO agencies out there, so it is really tough to weed through the bad ones. I think it’s important to ask for some results the SEO has had in the past. Show me a website you’ve raised in the rankings and I think that goes a long way.