I know bad SEO. As a regular contributor on the #1. Tell me about your knowledge of Google’s penalties such as Manual Actions, Panda, Penguin, Page Layout and Exact Match Domain. Google penalties are born out of bad SEO. Google has teams whose sole purpose in life is to track down websites attempting to game its search results, and taking action against offenders. It is critical that your SEO consultant is well versed in Google penalties so they construct their campaigns to actively avoid employing shady link building techniques that will trigger a penalty against your website. Here is a quick overview on some of Google’s penalty creations. Panda is an on-site penalty that generally targets thin content and low quality signals. Google’s head of search Amit Singhai put together this helpful 23 question guide to help webmasters struggling with Panda. It’s a great read that can help anyone trying to escape Panda and even those who simply want to demand better content from their website. Penguin is an off-site penalty looking at spammy backlinks that are pointed at a website. It also takes into account things like keyword rich text as well as a lack of anchor text diversity. If an SEO firm were to trigger an algorithmic penalty, Penguin would probably be it. Penguin is also one of the most difficult to recover from as well (six months to several years) so its critical your hire is avoiding potential Penguin problems. Manual Action penalties are notifications that come down from Google’s webspam team that your website has breached their quality guidelines. All of the other mentioned penalties are algorithmic, but this one is manual. This means a Google employee looked at your site and identified something wrong. That something could be anything from unnatural links to keyword stuffing. Page Layout and Exact Match Domain aren’t really something most SEOs would be concerned about, but their knowledge about them will tell you how deep their well of information goes on penalty-related matters. Released in September 2012, the Exact Match Domain penalty downgraded websites that were using keyword optimized domain names for higher rankings. The Page Layout penalty penalized ad heavy websites that used advertisements to push down the content visitors came there to find. It also covered ads placed in deceiving spots on the page to encourage click throughs. #2. Do you strictly follow Google’s webmaster guidelines? Obviously, yes is the only acceptable answer here. If you aren’t well versed on what the webmaster guidelines entail, feel free to explore this link and pay special attention to the quality guidelines portion when it comes to an SEO hire. #3. What will our role be in the SEO process? You weren’t thinking you’d hire an SEO firm then you’d just sit back and cash the checks, did you? A good SEO fully integrates his client into the process. They walk them through the implementation of the campaign. They will seek out valuable existing content on the client’s site that they can present to potential publishers. They’ll also look to take advantage of your internal resources. Perhaps they’ll look to setup an interview between your CEO and a major news publisher. Maybe they’ll leverage some of the more knowledgeable members of your team to create a killer piece of content. Think of your SEO as a PR agency advertising your brand online. The more involved you are, the more options they have in selling your company. #4. Can you guarantee rankings for certain keywords in Google? This is one of those trick questions that you want to hear a definitive no. If an SEO firm guarantees you results for a competitive keyword term, you can be assured that they are either utilizing black hat techniques that may work in the short term but will ultimately result in your site being penalized by Google, or that they are just lying to you. Obviously, both are outcomes you want to avoid like the plague. In short, there are no guarantees when it comes to Google so if they promise you the moon, keep looking. #5. What methods will you use to improve our search engine rankings? This topic is an article unto itself. How would you market your business if Google didn’t exist? You create relationships with influential people and blogs in your industry. You would have a social media plan to push your content out to a wider audience. You would create compelling content that just begged to be shared and linked to. Any links you would build would be placed to drive traffic to your business and not to improve a search engine ranking. This is how your firm should approach SEO. It’s not about building links. Its about building your brand, increasing sales and creating the content and tools that propel your website forward. If you hear anything about buying links, directory submissions, guest posts on ghost sites or unleashing comment spam, run in the opposite direction. #6. What other clients have you worked with? Do you have references? You’re not looking for them to namedrop Coca-Cola and Walmart here, but you are looking to see sample sites they have helped improve. This shouldn’t be privileged information so keep looking if they aren’t willing to hand this information over. Find out when they started work for these firms, and if they are currently servicing the account. If they aren’t, why did they lose the business, and when did the contract end? If you plug the businesses’ website into SEMRush, you should see traffic trending higher overtime (just remember to account for the seasonality of some businesses). You can also plugin their site into a tool like Majestic SEO or ahrefs to get a feel for what links the firm has built to the client’s site. References are key. Get them and make sure that you call them. Ask these companies about their experience with the firm. Ask about the results they saw. Ask if they’ve had any setbacks or problems since hiring the SEO service (traffic drops, manual or algorithmic penalties). If they aren’t current clients, would they sign on with the agency again? #7. How do you measure the success of an SEO campaign? Success should be measured in two ways – increased organic traffic sent to your website and higher sales, more signups or whatever your golden egg is. To achieve this, a firm should be able to show Google Analytics reports highlighting traffic gains, keyword reporting showing how key industry search terms are improving over time and you should be able to see gains to the bottom line. Obviously, nothing happens in a vacuum so look at the sales in relation to other business-related events that could be affecting your web traffic. #8. Do you feel you can help us achieve results given our area of business? Its not difficult to achieve results with a business that sells a product that operates in a marketplace with only two other competitors. On the other hand if you are in a hyper competitive industry like insurance or legal, the impact of an SEO firm may take a year or more before you start making decent in roads on certain search terms. Some SEOs will honestly tell you if they don’t feel they are a good fit to help you, and that is a good thing. Ask if they have other firms they would recommend for the project in question. #9. What is your experience with local SEO? If you are a multi-national company, then local SEO largely doesn’t apply to you. For all of the businesses who primarily service a local area, this question becomes pivotal in your search. The SEO firm should be able to help optimize your site so you show up for key terms in your area. They should help you get listed in valuable local search hubs like Google, Yahoo and Bing’s local listings as well as channels like Yelp. #10. Will you be making changes to our website? One of the first steps a good SEO will take is looking at deficiencies that are holding back your website. It could be something as simple as non-descriptive or non-existent page title and description metatags. They will look to see if you have valuable links going to dead 404 pages that need to be redirected to other resources. If you are using WordPress, maybe you are flirting with duplicate content issues by indexing category, tags and author pages. There are a lot of on-site SEO issues that could be holding your website back, and a good SEO will look to resolve these before focusing their efforts on an off-site campaign. #11. How will we be updated on the progress of your efforts? Whether you are updated weekly or monthly doesn’t matter. The key is that you want to keep a good dialogue going with your SEO at all times. You need to know what they are working on, and you need to approve the direction they have charted for your website. If they are pitching your brand to the wrong publications and bloggers, you need to promptly shut down that wasted effort. Both parties should always be on the same page regarding the campaign and its implementation. Regular updates ensure that this happens. #12. What are your fees for service? Obviously, this is important to find out if their service fits what you have budgeted each month. There is a great variability in pricing based on the firm’s deliverables, their reputation in the industry and how much work they have to do to create engaging content. I’ve seen monthly pricing run anywhere from $500 to $10,000+. I wouldn’t necessarily write off those in the lower range. If the firm is still making a name for themselves, they’ll try to undercut the market to win the business. The lower end can also be a breeding ground for black hat techniques that can easily scale so make sure you do your due diligence to avoid these players. Regardless of the price point, get several quotes for the job, vet them all thoroughly and never make a final decision solely based on price. #13. What makes your agency different from other SEO agencies we’ll talk to? This is more of a creative question that allows the SEO to sell themselves and the uniqueness of their service. I’m not going to tell you how they should answer, but when you talk to a handful of firms, the answers to this question should stand out amongst your finalists. The best firms are genuine and honest with what they can accomplish and what they can’t. They have inventive ideas for ways they can market your business that get you excited about working with them. More than anything though they instill a sense of confidence that you can hand over key components of your businesses’ web marketing strategy and feel comfortable that you’ve left them in good hands. This list outlines the importance of researching this pivotal decision for your business. Hiring the wrong SEO firm can harm your business more than hiring the right one so you need to enter this process with a healthy measure of caution and skepticism. To explore this topic further, checkout Google’s Do You Need an SEO for lots of great additional thoughts. Images: ”Portrait of two business people pulling SEO banner/ Shutterstock.com“ __________________________________________________________________________________ Connect with Tweak Your Biz: Would you like to write for Tweak Your Biz? Tweak Your Biz is an international, business advice community and online publication. Today it is read by over 140,000 business people each month (unique visitors, Google Analytics, December, 2013). 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