March 28, 2019 Last updated March 25th, 2019 299 Reads share

17 Key Questions to Ask Before Hiring an SEO Agency

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You always dreamed of starting your own business. You wrote the business plan and started grinding away — working to turn that dream into reality. Now, after thousands of hours of sweat, blood, and tears, your business is off the ground. Profits are growing and you’re in the black. You have a loyal team committed to you and the company. You launched a beautiful website. The spiffy new product page layout and checkout system are the coolest things you’ve ever seen. You’re certain that online sales are about to boom. Finally, time to let out a sigh of relief. Right? Well, not exactly.

A few weeks after launching your new e-store, reality starts to set in. That huge traffic influx you expected isn’t coming. In fact, traffic is slowing to a near standstill. Your Google rankings are sliding. You feel like your business is in freefall mode. You need to turn things around fast or…well, don’t think about that end quite yet. What should you do?

You need to reassess your content marketing strategy. Putting the entire load on your in-house marketing can be pretty daunting. It’s time to consider hiring an SEO agency. Your to-do list seems never-ending, but turning your ranking trajectory around is imperative right now. How do you find the right SEO agency for you? How can you make sure that the agency is reputable and you don’t get scammed?

You need to find the best SEO agency for your business. Ask the right questions and make sure they have the expertise and bandwidth to offer top-notch full-service SEO consulting service that will make your investment pay off. Unfortunately, online reviews are usually subjective and don’t provide the most accurate representation. Even case studies are often filled with bias and written internally. The best way to cut through the misinformation is to set up an interview and ask your prospective SEO agency the key questions. Decide for yourself whether it would be a good fit.

Below are 17 questions — organized categorically into 5Ws (What, Who, Where, When, Why) + H (How) format — you should ask an SEO before hiring it.

What?

What services do you provide?

Think of SEO like a sailboat — so many parts that need to be installed, maintained and operated. The bow, stern, rudder, mast, hull, boom, luff, etc. all need to work in harmony for the boat to catch the wind and you to glide swiftly through the water. If one component fails, you’re at risk of either capsizing or being stranded at sea — in other words, a pretty miserable experience. Cutting corners in SEO, like sailing on a poorly designed sailboat, can result in major, major problems. In SEO, 80% effort does not amount to 80% results. In most cases, 80% effort results in less than 5% results. You need 100% effort to get 100% results. A reputable SEO should have expertise in optimizations, technical SEO, content strategy, promotions, and community relations. If they aren’t equipped to offer support in these five areas, figure out why.

What areas of SEO does your in-house team have expertise in? 

Any well-run SEO should have experience in the five key areas referenced above: Optimizations, Technical SEO, Content Strategy, Promotions, and Community Relations. According to Steve Brielmaier, CEO of Lamps USA, it is imperative for e-commerce businesses to have “an SEO agency that is not only proactively monitoring any changes, but also agile enough to adapt their strategies quickly, and effectively. Our business depends on online visibility and we are vulnerable to any changes to the Google algorithm. We value agencies that take this one step further to implement strategies aligned with the most updated algorithm updates.” Beware of SEOs that offer steep discounts for cutting out one or two key service areas or team collaboration processes seem inefficient. Imagine what would happen if you set off on a long sailing voyage without your rudder!

What is the implementation process?

Does the SEO make a long list of recommendations and then leave you to implement them? Or do they do the implementations themselves? Make sure you clarify these processes so there aren’t any major surprises down the line. Depending on how much you want to monitor the agency’s work, it should be able to adjust accordingly and develop a process that fits your needs. Typically, clients achieve the best results when the agency implements recommendations itself. It often takes longer for the expert to explain the step-by-step implementation process than to just do it. If the SEO agency expresses that you will get better long-term results if you trust them to do their work with more autonomy after a few months, consider it a sign of reputability — not deception. They want to do their job as efficiently and as well as possible.

What is your backlink strategy?

Turn your skepticism detectors on when you listen to this answer. Link building is one of the most complicated aspects of SEO. If done well, it’s possible for small startups to outrank Amazon and Walmart for valuable keywords. Networking with bloggers, journalists, and industry influencers in an authentic way is a great way to build high-quality links. A healthy balance of pursuing high-value links and achieving quick wins (answering Q&As, posting in forums, etc.) is a sign the SEO has a plan and is committed to executing it.

SEO campaigns without strategic link building strategies are destined to fall short of expectations. Perhaps even worse than that, an overly aggressive, spammy link building campaign has the potential to result in Google penalties that can decimate your business. Short-term traffic spikes followed by a major drop on the SERP (or deindexation altogether) are likely signs that you’ve been hit with a Google penalty. Beware of “black hat” SEO that promises quick results. Quality “white hat” SEO takes time, effort and strategy. Don’t be fooled by false promises of immediate results like 1,000 links or ranking on Page 1 for a competitive keyword next month. Such guarantees usually include shady practices that will come back to bite you.

Who?

Who actually does the work?

Many SEO offer a local account manager who is based domestically and then outsources the actual work to low-wage countries or random freelancers at a fraction of the rate they’re charging you. Unfortunately, some SEO can be deceptive about this. Ask for names, backgrounds, and locations of the team that will be working for you. Be wary if they are reluctant to share these details.

Do you have experience working for businesses like mine? If yes, who are the other clients?  

It’s important to know that SEO has experience working with businesses like yours. However, don’t take the “businesses like mine” part too literally. If you sell high-quality Bavarian cuckoo clocks, odds are that few CEOs have worked for other cuckoo clock retailers. Figure out what they have done to support startups or e-commerce companies of similar size or model. See if they demonstrate the competency to learn the ins and outs of your business and industry. Them taking the time to learn about you, your competitors and industry as a whole is a good thing — just make sure they aren’t starting 100% from scratch. Lastly here, double-check to make sure the SEO isn’t also working for any of your competitors. If it is, probe them on specifics and carefully consider potential risks of hiring it — conflicts of interest get awkward really fast!

Who will I primarily communicate with? In what capacity? How often?

Establishing a clear, direct communication channel with the SEO is fundamental to building trust and the ultimate success of your SEO efforts. Figure out who will be managing your account. This person is your direct contact and needs to be someone you can count on and trust. Ask what the typical communication process looks like. How often will you be in touch? Will you mainly use email? Slack? Trello? Phone calls? Another medium? Consider how well these processes are defined. Look for a healthy balance of predefined systems in place and flexibility to adapt and support you on your terms. Steer clear if they feel overly rigid or too loose. Follow your intuition and make sure your account manager is someone you trust.

When?

When will we start seeing results?

Understand that SEO takes times. You’re not going to climb onto page 1 for that highly sought after the keyword in the first month. If the SEO makes overly bold short-term promises, you’d be wise to end the interview promptly and steer clear of what likely is a “black hat” agency.

A reputable SEO should be transparent while also not using that as an excuse to bill a ton of hours in the first few months without delivering any visible results. The SEO should be able to describe the type of results (be wary of concrete, short term promises, and guarantees) you will see after one month, three months, six months, etc. Ask about the results you will see at each stage and consider whether that works within your timeline. Remember that good SEO takes time and patience to make major strides, but make sure the agency is committed to building value from the day your contract starts.

When can we start?

“Tomorrow” may be too soon as the agency should probably do some pre-kickoff call research, but after that, the sooner the better!

Where?

Where will the work be completed?

It’s all too common for SEOs to hire offshore contractors for pennies on the dollar. Beyond being unethical and dishonest, this significantly increases the likelihood that the work will not be done correctly. Communication between you and your account manager is challenging enough. Those extra wrinkles of relevant experience, language and culture gaps are worth avoiding at all costs. Make sure the SEO doesn’t do shady offshoring.

Where can your team target SEO? Locally? Domestically? Globally?

Think about the scope of your target audiences. If you’re a neighborhood pizza parlor, you need an SEO that specializes in local. If you’re an e-commerce company that’s working on reaching customers overseas, find an SEO well-versed in international expansion. Make sure they know how to build SEO value in the target locations that will bring you the most value.

How?

How do you measure success?

Any reputable SEO should utilize quantitative metrics to show your increase in SEO value over time. Do they track keyword search volume, keyword value, ranking probability and projected traffic increases after ranking? Can they analyze key indicators such as click-through rate, page relevancy, and website strength? Can they track progress over time? You want to make sure you get the most out of the agency. If you don’t have much experience with SEO, some of these concepts and explanations can be pretty overwhelming. Make sure they have the tools to gather the necessary information and the communication skills to explain results in a way that you can understand.

How involved will my marketing team be with the day-to-day SEO operations?

Flexibility on both sides here is key. If you want your marketing team to work with the SEO, they should be willing to collaborate. With that said, remember that you’re paying for the SEO’s time and expertise. If they’re spending a significant chunk of their time allotment explaining minor details to your internal team, those are billable hours that could be allocated to link building, content development, page optimizations or another task that will result in a higher return on investment for you.

How much does your service cost? Monthly or hourly blocks?

Speaking of return on investment, just like your business, SEO agencies are out to make a buck as well. Try to learn a little about how they run their business. Do they have a fancy office in Silicon Valley? House a large internal marketing team? Attend extravagant SEO conferences in Austin? Remember that your fees are what make their wheels go round. Get a sense what percentage of the fees are going toward fulfillment that directly brings you value. Compare that to industry standards and decide for yourself whether they seem fiscally responsible.

If they pass the test, you’ll need to negotiate a payment structure and rate. Usually, a set number of hours per month for several months is a good place to start. Naturally, as you purchase more hours, the hourly rate should decrease and the SEO will be able to get more work done faster. The other common payment structure is to purchase a set block of hours that can extend out beyond a month. Once that number of hours has been worked, the clock runs out and you’ll have to negotiate a new agreement. Blocks can be a good option if you just want to try SEO out, but remember that good SEO takes time. If your clock runs out a few hours short of a major breakthrough, all the work leading up could be for naught.

Why?

Why should we choose your SEO and not Agency XYZ?

Hopefully, they have this answer polished and perfected. A reputable SEO should share data and evidence that differentiates themselves from the masses. Ideally, they’ll have a document with questions they’re asked frequently and their agency-specific answers. A thorough answer should address:

  • differentiating factors between them and competitors
  • quality of service
  • the expertise of in-house employees
  • measurable results that you can expect over time
  • competitive pricing options
  • adaptability and willingness to serve you and your business’s needs
  • transparency in all stages of the communication process.

Can you refer us to 2-3 clients that you’ve helped?

Every agency has one client (or old pal of the founder…) who can provide a glistening testimonial. Talk to 2-3 businesses that have worked with the SEO — preferably businesses of similar size and/or structure to yours. They will be able to give you valuable insights about what it’s like to work with the SEO and help you determine whether you should hire them.

Why do I have to go through this whole process? I run my own business and don’t have time to ask all these questions!

Remember what happens if you set out to sea without your rudder? You deserve an SEO that provides top-notch service and helps your business meet its goals. An hour or two of drilling them on the essential questions will help you make sure that you hired the right SEO. Don’t risk the whole ship going down or getting stranded at sea. Invest a little time now and reap the SEO benefits later.

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David Sheppard

David Sheppard

David Sheppard is digital marketing consultant at CanIRank, a SEO ranking software and digital marketing agency that consults small businesses and startup companies. In his spare time, David enjoys riding his road bike and watching basketball, especially his alma mater, Gonzaga University.

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