evaluating SEO companies

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a constantly evolving practice, as search engines continue to update their algorithms to provide a better user experience. Where SEO could once be effectively done with keyword density equations and cheaply bought backlinks, modern SEO only works as part of a holistic, integrated digital marketing strategy.

Companies that once kept their SEO in-house are finding it more complicated to create measurable SEO success. Creating effective backlinks now requires engaging content, influencer marketing, and at least little bit of PR savvy. Accordingly, a modern keyword strategy needs user intent research, content marketing experience, and a working knowledge of Google’s ranking priorities. It might require more than one or two SEO experts in a marketing team, which is why some brands are choosing to partner with a professional SEO agency.

Hiring an SEO company or agency can be a daunting task. In the best-case scenario, your partner grows organic traffic to your site, improves your search rankings, and helps you generate more leads and sales. In the worst-case scenario, your SEO partner engages in black hat techniques that give the appearance of success, disappears before the penalties kick in, and leaves you with less traffic than ever—and months’ or years’ worth of cleanup.

However, hiring someone to create and execute an SEO plan doesn’t have to be difficult. You don’t need to be an expert to hire one; you just need to know what questions to ask and what answers to expect. Consider the following 12 questions—and what to look for in the answers—to find a proficient SEO company that follows best practices and drives the results you’re seeking:

1. What is your philosophy of approaching SEO to deliver results?

There are three major facets of SEO, and the most effective SEO companies consider all three as components of a comprehensive SEO strategy.

  • Technical SEO considers code, site structure, site speed, and other metrics that could impact your search traffic. During a technical SEO review, an SEO professional will make sure that search engines can crawl your site and its content, will review 404 errors, and will analyze redirects, among other tasks.
  • User experience (UX) is the optimization of the content of your digital properties. During an on-page SEO review, an SEO expert will analyze user-facing aspects of your site, including content, navigation, and keyword optimization.
  • Off-page SEO means improving your SEO presence by earning links, strengthening the brand online, and improving the popularity of the site and content. To execute off-page SEO campaigns, an SEO agency will look for opportunities to increase your domain and page authority through incoming links to your site from other high-quality properties.

Many SEO agencies operate in one of two ways:

  1. They will offer only one facet of SEO (such as link-building).
  2. They will do all the research and strategy without being able to effectively implement any of it.

Modern SEO requires a holistic strategy and experienced execution. Make sure the SEO agency you are evaluating can do all three (technical, UX, off-page), and that they have a clear strategy for balancing them.

2. How will you adapt that strategy to our brand/business/industry/niche?

SEO is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and your SEO partner should have some ideas as to how your business needs a unique approach that caters to your industry, business model, and goals. SEO for a local business interested in attracting customers from a dozen zip codes requires a very different approach than SEO for a major corporation with a global market.

Experience in your industry is a plus, but it’s not necessarily a requirement. More important is the SEO agency’s ability to articulate how they will adapt the general approach to cater specifically to your niche. Make sure that the company can highlight specific places where the general approach will vary.

3. What metrics define “success” for you?

This is kind of a trick question. While SEO companies may come to the meeting with certain, general goals in mind, their success metrics should really stem from what success means for you. No SEO company can guarantee page-one rankings, and those that make these types of promises are likely using black-hat techniques. These techniques may get you traffic for a short time, but they’ll ultimately land you a penalty—along with significantly reduced traffic and rankings.

Legitimate SEO professionals will build their plans around your goals. If you’re looking for increased traffic, they may prioritize keyword optimization or content creation. If you’re looking for more local traffic, they may recommend optimizing your local business profiles on directory and review sites. An SEO agency’s success metrics should be directly based on your business goals, so look for companies that turn this question around and seek the answer from you.

4. How long will it be until we can expect to see results?

Effective SEO takes time, but that shouldn’t prevent an experienced agency from giving you a time frame for results. In general, you should expect to see results from legitimate SEO techniques within six months of getting started.

The possibility of seeing results earlier depends on the health of your site. For instance, correcting technical errors and oversights can net some legitimate SEO gains in a short period of time. However, if your site is already structured well and free from technical issues, you will have to wait longer for measurable change.

If your SEO company promises quick results, ask why. If they point out technical factors that need to be cleaned up, good. If not, be wary—they might be using outdated, spammy techniques that will eventually get your site penalized.

5. How do you approach mobile?

Ideally, mobile should be part of the conversation when you discuss the general strategy. Google announced last year that they were in the process of moving to a mobile-first index, making mobile optimization more important than ever. Look for companies that have a process for conducting a mobile audit of your site, and ensure your SEO agency can convincingly articulate why mobile is an important SEO consideration.

6. How should SEO incorporate with our overall marketing strategy?

The most successful SEO initiatives are part of an overall marketing plan, so avoid companies that expect to perform their tasks in isolation. SEO goes hand-in-hand with content marketing, and public relations and social media marketing activities can be used for effective link-building. Your SEO partner should be very open to collaborating with your other marketing teams—as well as other teams as needed, such as your web development and sales teams—and should have a basic plan for integrating their efforts with your existing marketing initiatives.

7. How do you conduct keyword research?

In the past, keyword research meant plugging a term into a keyword research tool, populating a list of relevant keywords, and developing content with keywords inserted at various places. However, modern keyword research requires much more effort—it’s an exercise in understanding user intent. It seeks to understand what information a user is looking for when searching a keyword phrase and provides content catered to the intent behind the search.

As you’re interviewing prospective SEO companies, make sure that they refer to user intent and speak about the tools and methodologies they use to determine keyword intent. If the entire conversation revolves around number of searches for a keyword and keyword density, it’s likely that they’re operating on outdated practices.

Some SEO companies will promise to get you thousands of links within a few weeks, but the reality is that those links will not be high quality. One high-quality link from a credible, authoritative site is more effective than hundreds of low-quality purchased or machine-created links in blog comments. The conversation should focus on building quality links over a large quantity of links.

Modern link-building is better described as link-earning. It’s executed by providing high-quality content that drives incoming links organically, and building relationships with influencers and editors. Your SEO company should describe their link-building efforts in terms of relationship-building and quality—not quantity and expediency.

9. What tools do you use?

Knowing exactly what tools an SEO company uses isn’t necessarily important, but knowing that they can describe why they use those tools is critical. Legitimate SEO professionals will have a number of tools they use to conduct audits and complete tasks, and they will have tested multiple tools to find the best. Ask the following questions:

  • What tools do you use to conduct keyword research, and why?
  • What do you use to monitor rankings, and why?
  • What crawler do you use, and why?
  • What do you use to monitor backlinks, and why?
  • What do you use to conduct competitor analysis, and why?

Your SEO partner should be able to articulate the reason their preferred tools are used and the impact those tools can have when properly utilized—not simply recite a long list of “great tools.”

10. How do you report on progress and what does it look like?

Ask to see a sample report created for another client in order to ensure that the SEO company has a valid method for reporting their progress toward your shared goals. At this point, you’ve already discussed your specific goals, so ask how they would customize the progress report to cater to your unique goals and KPIs. Be wary of companies that cannot provide detailed information on how progress will be measured and reported.

How often an SEO agency reports on progress will likely depend on the size of your project. Most brands can expect monthly updates. Bigger companies, or short-term and specific projects, might require more frequent updates on the work being done, but bear in mind that tracking actual progress week-to-week is largely ineffective and can be deceptive.

Search results fluctuate for a variety of reasons: Google testing new algorithm changes, competitors making dramatic changes to their content, etc. SEO is a long-term strategy, and companies that monitor close-term changes often make rash changes that end up hurting their efforts.

11. How do you stay up-to-date on industry changes and Google updates?

At a minimum, you’ll want someone who stays up to date with the information posted by Google on its Webmaster Central Blog—Google’s own outlet for news on how to best position a site for their search algorithms. Better, is someone who follows popular industry blogs and participates in SEO forums and conversations. The best SEO professionals will do all of the former as well as conduct their own research. They monitor the properties they manage for potential signs of algorithm changes and investigate possible shifts in SEO best practices.

12. What do you need from us to be effective?

Legitimate SEO companies should respond with a long list of questions and needs. To conduct their work effectively, they’ll need detailed information about your audience, industry, goals, and KPIs. They’ll need to know what other digital marketing platforms you’re using that will affect your content, if any, such as marketing automation. They’ll also need access to your Google Analytics. Effective SEO requires a partnership between multiple teams and company leaders, so agencies that need very little from you are unlikely to build an SEO plan that will help you achieve long-term success.

Hire an SEO Company that Delivers

SEO is a complex field. Ever since Google introduced their machine learning program, RankBrain, the search engine has been continuously updating and improving—24/7/365. Effective SEO companies stay up to date on key changes and adjust their plans and practices accordingly. Additionally, the ultimate goal of a search engine is to provide quality results to searchers, so effective SEOs should be more concerned with quality for users than with ranking factors and quantity of links.

By asking these questions and evaluating the answers to determine the practices and policies an SEO company employs, you’ll be able to weed out black-hat SEOs and find an agency that delivers long-term success.

Are you in charge of your company’s SEO strategy? What other questions would you ask an SEO company?