When picking an SEO firm, you should consider what is important to you and ask any and all questions that you want answers to.
To help get you started, here are some questions that I think are important (along with my thoughts on what the answer should be).
Do you have any initial or set up fees? How much and what are they for? Are there ongoing fees and how much are they?
They should be able to outline all fees and tell you exactly what is included. Different firms price things differently. If they require full payment up front, that may concern me. Most firms will require some payment up front, and that is to be expected. You need to look at what they are proposing, make sure it is clear to you and make sure you are OK with it.
Is monthly maintenance necessary?
Any SEO Firm that knows what they are talking about should tell you that maintenance and monitoring of rankings is required to ensure you don’t start losing rankings. If they tell you that you will lose rankings as soon as you leave them, they are lying—or more accurately they are just guessing. They don’t really know for sure. However experience shows us that rankings do tend to maintain until the next major algorithm shift and then if no one is maintaining them for you, they may begin to drop. SEO is not the kind of thing you do once and then you are done. To maintain and hopefully even increase your rankings, you need to have someone continually working on your behalf. Alternatively, you could learn to handle some of the maintenance items yourself. But the key is to realize that someone needs to monitor your rankings and work on your in order to hold on to your top rankings and grow them. Don’t forget the engines themselves reported that approximately 25% of searches each month are never before seen phrases. So, at the very least you’ll want to monitor what new phrases are popping up and make sure you are getting exposure for them.
How long is my term of service?
Typically you should hear anywhere from 6—12 months. Anything less than 6 months isn’t long enough to see any matured results. Six months seems to be the industry standard middle ground. With six months you aren’t locked in too long, but it does allow time for the campaign to mature.
Do I own the work you do for me? Where does it reside?
The answer: yes you own the work (once it is paid for in full) and it resides on your server. If they are hosting content on another server or another domain, you want to think twice before getting involved.
You should be provided reports once a month and an SEO firm that knows what they are doing should be reporting on traffic. That is what really matters. Ranking reports are no longer reliable. “Looking at rankings doesn’t paint an accurate picture of how well your site is performing on Google. Look at the overall traffic that Google has sent you.” – from Danny Sullivan, leading SEO expert
Why aren’t ranking reports viable anymore? SEO experts agree that ranking reports don’t show the big picture and more data is needed to see what is and isn’t working on an SEO campaign.
There are a couple reasons why the dynamics of ranking reports have changed so much and are no longer as reliable:
Personalization of Search Results
Users see different results based on whether they are logged into a Google account or not, if they have personalization features turned on or off and again depending on their geographic area. It’s hard for one position to truly “belong” to one person (that doesn’t defeat the purpose of SEO, it in fact makes it more important because you have to work hard to come up as relevant for as many people as possible as searchers and algorithms continue to get more sophisticated). But it does make it hard to report a specific ranking that you “own”
While there are tons of options available for ranking report software, none of them are perfect and they all may get different results based on what database they tap into. But more importantly, rankings fluctuate and what you see in a report you may not see tomorrow. Getting hung up on a specific word in a specific position is a waste of time. You are far better to focus on data from web stats that shows what is and isn’t working overall (at a big picture level) and look for an increase in organic traffic (which is ultimately what it’s all about).
The industry is changing and while we can and do still get great exposure for clients, the way to measure it is not by ranking reports but by referrals from the search engines. By seeing an increase in traffic from the engines.
Even focusing on keywords is not the same as it used to be, with LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) which basically means the engines search based on the “meaning” or “concept” of the keywords and not just the words themselves, which is why the engines look at keywords as a mere suggestion and not as a precise phrase. So ranking are often made up of variations of phrases that were chosen as the baseline. Again the goal is not to look at a report that shows certain words in certain positions; the goal is to achieve growth. It’s growth in traffic that grows your business and not a ranking report for a set of words.
Results from an SEO campaign can be tracked by looking at organic traffic in your web stats. A good SEO company should also set up web stats for you, if you don’t have any in place.
When will I start seeing results?
That is a question that varies from site to site. Your site’s history and competitiveness of the industry are big factors and the SEO firm should try to answer honestly considering what they know about your site. Any blanket statement is just a guess. They could also tell you their average time for other clients and that is a good indicator of what you could expect.
What about past results? Do you provide references and testimonials?
The answer should be YES! They should be happy to show off past results.
An ethical SEO Firm will focus on content and on-page optimization as the foundation. They should also look at whether you are in need of links and may include linking as part of their strategy. More people tend to get links on their own, but they don’t focus on the on-page portion, so maybe all you need is the on-page work. The SEO Firm should evaluate that and let you know what your specific needs are.
They shouldn’t hide any text or code on your site, and they should be willing to explain every step of their process and not want to hide any information from you.
If they tell you they have a special relationship with Google, or proprietary techniques that should be a warning sign to you.
Do I have access to anyone on your staff, so I receive personalized service and can ask questions at any time?
The answer should be yes. SEO can be confusing and you need a Firm that will work FOR you and WITH you.
Any SEO Firm that is worth working with should be happy to spend time going over each of these questions with you. Selecting an SEO Firm can feel intimidating but if you use these questions as a guide and follow your instincts, you should be fine.
One other thing I wanted to share was written by Stoney de Geyter, he’s well known in the industry and I thought even though I didn’t write it, it was an important message to share:
“I think businesses get into trouble when they expect their SEOs to have all the solutions. They look at the SEO as the magical ranking provider. They want better rankings, more traffic, increased conversions, and expect an SEO to be able to provide it all… within a few hours of paid time.
Not. Gonna. Happen.
Again, just like any other field, you get what you pay for. Find the cheaper expert you’ll get cheaper results. Maybe you can find a plumber that charges less per hour he’ll likely take twice as long as the guy who charges a few dollars more per hour. You hire the cheaper lawyer, you may not like the results. Just sayin’.
When you’re looking for your “SEO expert” you gotta know what you want and what you expect. Don’t expect real magic on a clown budget. If you know what you want, then you can select the person, firm or group that will best be able to give you what you expect.”
Plan to spend time talking to your potential SEO firm to really understand what you will get, what you will pay and what you can expect. Talk about social media and other areas of marketing – don’t make assumptions about what is included and don’t neglect areas that need your attention.