Are you struggling to get links built? Maybe you don’t have an SEO vet on your team and yet you still need to get better rankings for your clients. Or maybe you just don’t know how to create SEO friendly content. Or maybe the subject of SEO feels like a gaping, confusing abyss, kind of like relationships except not quite as confusing.
When you’re confronted with these issues, you’re probably going to consider hiring an outside SEO agency to handle some or all of these tasks. But hiring an Search Engine Optimization (SEO) agency can be confusing, right?
So many terms, so many options, so many different things to consider. If you’re not intimately familiar with SEO, it can seem like a terrifying, somewhat daunting ordeal.
To compound the problem, there are some low-life characters out there promising SEO snake oil. They stand in alleys, open their trench coats, and say, “Hey kid, wanna buy some rankings? Choose me and I’ll get you massive results for pennies on the dollar!”
It can feel like you’re walking through a hall of mirrors, trying to figure out what is real and what is an illusion. Or like you’ve taken a hallucinatory drug…but you wouldn’t know anything about that. Right?
Hiring an SEO agency doesn’t need to be this complicated. It shouldn’t feel like online dating, where you’re never sure if you’re getting a sweetheart or a sociopath with a weird doll collection.
If you know the right questions to ask, you can cut through the noise and get to the heart of what matters most.
Here are 7 absolutely essential questions to ask when hiring an SEO agency.
Question #1: Can You Explain What You’re Doing and How You’re Doing It?
Transparency is absolutely essential when hiring an SEO agency. Why? Because there are a lot of shady SEO agencies doing a lot shady practices which can create catastrophic problems for you. If you do a search on “SEO nightmares” you’ll find statements like this:
- I hired them, they charged me a crazy amount of money, and then they outsourced most of the work.
- These guys promised great results and instead my site got penalized by Google! Now I’m getting ZERO organic traffic.
- I simply couldn’t understand what they were doing. They got results, but I’m terrified that something is going to happen.
- They kidnapped my child. Wait, sorry, that’s from Taken.
When you are researching SEO agencies, you need to be able to understand what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Ask these questions to get to the heart of the issue:
- What exactly will you be doing to improve my SEO results? If they don’t give you a clear, understandable answer to this question, get out of there faster than a vegan at a BBQ festival. There’s a good chance that they’re not telling you because they’re using Black Hat SEO Techniques, such as Private Blog Network link building, ghost keyword stuffing, tiny text, or paid links.
Here’s the deal: If Google finds out that your site is using these techniques to increase your SEO rankings, they’ll kill your site in search rankings. Google takes their service very seriously, and people who try to game the system can get their sites completely removed from Google search results. Like, gone gone, see you later, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
This is also why you should never go with ultra-cheap SEO solutions that seem too good to be true. For example, if an agency promises “100 High Quality Backlinks” within 1 month for only $40, you know they’re up to no good.
You need to know the specific tactics an SEO agency will be using to increase your search results. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.
- Are you doing the work in-house? When you hire an SEO agency, they should be doing the work themselves rather than outsourcing it to a third party.
Several reasons for this. First, you want to ensure that the work being done is high quality. If the SEO agency you’re hiring outsources the work, there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually do a good job. There’s no guarantee that they won’t deploy Black Hat Techniques and then hide them. The more layers added to the work, the higher the odds that something will go wrong. You want to ensure that the agency you’re hiring is the one actually doing the SEO work.
Second, you want to know that you’re getting value and not simply paying for overhead. It’s not difficult for an SEO agency to inexpensively outsource your work overseas and then reap the extra profits. The result is you end up paying significantly more than necessary.
Transparency is crucial when you are hiring an SEO agency. If you can’t understand how they will be getting results for you, don’t hire them. They should be able to explain things to you in a relatively straightforward manner.
The same wisdom that applies to late night QVC purchases applies to SEO: If something seems too good to be true…it probably is.
Question #2: Can You Show Me Your Past Results?
Anyone can talk a big game when it comes to SEO, but the proof is in the rankings. In other words, an SEO agency should be able to give you tangible proof that they know what they’re doing and that they’ve had great success in the past.
If they don’t have demonstrable evidence of success, you have no reason to trust them. Don’t be mislead in thinking that since they showed past performance you will also receive that performance, there are always multiple variables at play. If, however, they cannot show past proof then get out of dodge!
So what sort of proof should they be able to show you? Several things:
- Increased organic search traffic. Notice, this is a highly specific result. You don’t want to only see an overall general traffic bump, because that can come from anywhere, like social media or Reddit. It’s easy to generate traffic by spending a few dollars on PPC advertising on Facebook or Google. But that’s not what you’re after. You want people coming to your site on their own, not through ads or social media platforms.
- Increased Conversions Around Key Search Terms. Unless you’re only trying to build traffic, one of the most important numbers when it comes to SEO is the number of conversions. You’re trying to increase search traffic so that buyers show up on pages that will ultimately lead to sales.
An SEO agency should be able to demonstrate that they have directed traffic which has maintained or increased the rate of conversions. For example if a site received 100 search visitors and 1 converted they have a 1% conversion rate. If the SEO agency increased that to 1000 visitors yet the conversions only increased to 5 that’s a conversion rate of 0.5%. This shows signs of poor quality traffic.
If they can’t show results of previous success stories, then there’s no guarantee they’ll help you achieve your SEO goals. Traffic without conversions is like coffee without caffeine: pointless.
Additionally, the SEO agency should be able to explain to you precisely how they achieved these results. This touches on the point about transparency. If the agency can’t easily show you how they achieved these results, stay far away from them. They may have purchased backlinks, or they may have used their own Private Blog Network, both of which Google hates more than Trump hates having small hands.
And in case we need to say it, Google penalizes that which they hate. Your goal should be to at all costs avoid known methods of triggering penalties. It’s what we’re trying to help you do by asking an SEO agency about these questions.
Also, an alarm should go off in your mind if they achieved big results really fast. The truth is, SEO is a slow and steady process, with big gains coming over longer periods of time. It takes Google a while to register changes and backlinks to your site, which means that search rankings often take months to increase.
A study by Ahrefs discovered that only 5.7% of pages moved into to the top 10 rankings within a year. As Tim Soulo wrote:
[W]e’ve shown that almost 95% of newly published pages don’t get to the Top10 within a year.
And most of the “lucky” ones, which do manage to get there, do it in about 2–6 months.
Actually, I shouldn’t be framing these pages as “lucky,” because the reason they got to the Top 10 in less than a year is most likely hard work and great knowledge of SEO, not luck.
When Soulo notes the “lucky” ones, he’s referring to pages that have a very strong profile of content, backlinks, and on page SEO (all of which we’ll get to in a bit). Those with a strong profile are much more likely to rank in less than one year.
In other words, if an SEO agency skyrocketed a website to a top ranking in anything less than 3 months (aka a crazy short amount of time) they better have a good explanation for it.
When asking for proof of results, don’t be afraid to ask for the hard numbers. An SEO agency could say they double traffic to a site, but that doesn’t mean anything if they increased it from 20 visits per year to 40. You need to know actual, detailed facts and figures.
Question #3: What Is Your SEO Philosophy?
It is general knowledge in the SEO community that Google has a whopping 200 different factors that influence where a page ranks in a given search result.
And while Google doesn’t tell us exactly how their algorithm works, we do know that it breaks down into three overall buckets:
- Technical – Is your site coded properly and optimized so that Google can easily index it and evaluate the relevancy of the content? Are pages properly structured, do you have the right meta tags in place, and do you have keywords showing up where they should (H1, scattered throughout the body, etc.)? Google wants you to make their job easy.
- Content – Does your site have quality content that actually relates to what people are searching for? Does it solve the reader’s problem? Is it sourced, plagiarized, or duplicated? Is the content of sufficient length, or is it only two paragraphs? Do people stay on your content when they discover it or are they quickly going to other sites? Does it contain the search terms the user has searched? Google cares very much about delivering the right search results. That’s why people use them and that’s how they make money.As R.L. Adams writes in Forbes:
The underlying content is extremely important. Too many people skimp on content, but it’s one of the major anchors that tether you to Google’s relevancy algorithms. Thin content with errors, or duplicate content and spun content can really hurt you. Instead, the content not only has to be lengthy, but it has to be well-written, keyword centric and highly engaging where readers are spending a good amount of time digesting and consuming that content.
- Backlinks – Backlinks are links from other websites back to specific pages on your or your client’s sites. Google uses these links to determine just how important a page really is. Backlinks are a popularity vote, of sorts, in the eyes of Google. It’s kind of like the prom. Sites with lots of backlinks are the popular kids who have their choice of dates, while sites with few or no backlinks are the kids in the Dungeons and Dragons club.
If a lot of people link to a page, it must mean that it’s relevant to a lot of people. Incidentally, this is why Google gets so angry when people use artificial means to get backlinks. It artificially inflates the importance of a page.
In my opinion, technical SEO accounts for about 10% of why a page ranks, while content and backlinks each account for around 45%. In other words, technical SEO is important, but not nearly as important as the other two. Yet many SEO agencies have the focus completely wrong.
A Moz study of top 50 Google rankings for 15,000 keywords found the following:
Out of the top results, a full 99.2% of all websites had at least one external link [a.k.a backlink]. (The remaining .8% is well within the margin of error expected between Mozscape and Google’s own link index.) The study found almost no websites ranking for competitive search phrases that didn’t have at least a single external link pointing at them, and most had significantly more links.
In other words, if you want to rank, you need backlinks, and the primary way you’re going to get backlinks is with good content. After all, nobody wants to link to shoddy material or an obviously pushy sales page, or a spammy clickbait article. Your “Which Kardashian Are You” quiz may be important to 12 year-old girls but beyond that, nobody cares.
When you’re hiring an SEO agency, you need to understand their overall philosophy toward SEO. Are they simply going to come in and perform an SEO audit on your site? Is their main service fixing meta tags, optimizing for keywords, structuring pages appropriately, and repairing broken pages?
While a technical SEO audit is a valuable service, and one every site should have done at least once, it’s probably not going to move the needle to the degree you desire. It’s the 80/20 rule (actually the 90/10 rule) in action. If 90% of your rankings depend on content and backlinks, why are you spending 90% of your time, effort, and money on the technical side of things?
Additionally, an SEO agency that only does technical audits will likely get into trouble if more complicated problems arise, like a domain being penalized. In cases like that, changing meta tags and page structures is like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. While most SEO agencies that focus on the technical aspects alone should be able to help fix this problem, an audit alone will not be the correct tool and they will need additional tools.
Is the SEO agency’s philosophy:
- We’ll improve your rankings by fixing all the technical errors on your site?
- We’ll bring new backlinks to your site?
- We’ll write better SEO-optimize content?
- A combination of, or all of the above?
Ideally, an SEO agency will offer a holistic, well-rounded service, with appropriate weighting of the main ranking factors. If they do offer a well-rounded service, you need to know their experience within each element of SEO.
How long have they been doing backlink building and what quality of backlinks are they able to deliver? Do they create content for your site or do you need to create it? If they do create it, is going to be of the highest quality? Or is it farmed out to a non-native English writer?
If an agency claims its approach is content creation yet they’ve never done it, it’s like hiring a kidney specialist who spent his career in plastic surgery. It doesn’t work well.
Don’t be afraid to ask for samples of these things. Ask them to show you the sites where they’ve gotten backlinks. Ask them for samples of the content they’ve created. If they’re doing email outreach to gain backlinks, ask to see the templates they use.
You want to be confident that their SEO philosophy will yield the highest results for your site or your clients sites.
Question #4: How Long Have You Been In Business?
Knowing how long an agency has been doing SEO work can give you a good feel for how well they know the industry. It’s crucial to understand that SEO has changed in huge ways over the last decade, and those who have been in the industry the longest have a healthy sense of what truly works and what to stay away from.
Every few years, Google usually changes their algorithm that determines page rankings. They often do this in response to ways that people have gamed the system, trying to adjust their algorithm to reflect a page’s true value. Those who have been in the SEO game for years understand these changes, and know how to respond appropriately when these changes happen.
Additionally, those who thoroughly understand the world of SEO can, presumably, avoid the mistakes that can tank inexperienced SEO agencies. And if they do run into a challenge, there’s a good chance they’ve encountered it before and know what to do.
While length of years in business isn’t necessarily a make or break factor, it’s certainly one to consider. Experience is valuable, and those with it are often safer bets, especially since SEO is a long-term game and you are in business for the long term.
Question #5: What Is Your Pricing Model?
It’s essential to determine the pricing model of an SEO agency up front so that you don’t get gouged on the back end. Generally, you’ll find two different models offered by SEO agencies:
- Estimate Model – You are given a general estimate of what the price will be but that price can change based on several factors depending on the specific pricing model. For example, a pay-for-performance model is when you pay based on the success of the SEO. The more organic traffic you get, the higher the price. There are also hourly consulting models where you pay for every hour the agency spends on your SEO work.
- Fixed Price Model – You are given a set price and told exactly what you’ll be getting. Typically, this fixed price comes from the agency estimating how many hours are involved in the work and the amount of profit they need to make.
Hiring an agency that uses the estimate model can be risky, especially if you aren’t intimately familiar with the inner workings of SEO. Several problems can arise with the estimate model:
- The project scope can balloon. If you have unexpected SEO problems with your site, it may take the agency more hours than anticipated to optimize things.
- You can get ripped off. If an agency senses that you don’t understand what you’re doing, they can add in additional work and then claim it was necessary. Because you don’t know exactly what they’re doing, it’s difficult for you to protest. Or, the agency could royally screw up and not tell, simply passing on the extra hours to you.
- You may not get what you thought you would get. If you don’t have everything clearly spelled out in advance, you may not get the services or results you expected.
- You might stuck in a long-term contract. Depending on the pricing model, you may end up getting stuck in a long-term contract with no easy way out. If the service isn’t up to par, you may have to pay a substantive termination fee to end the contract. This is like those cable contracts where you basically have to give up your first-born child to terminate early.
Ideally, you should know what you’re getting and exactly how much you’re going to pay before you get into a contract with an agency.
If you don’t have these details nailed down, there’s a chance you could get burned.
Question #6 – Do You Offer White Label Services?
If you are a marketing agency that offers SEO services as part of marketing packages, you’re going to want to be able to white label any outsourced SEO services. In other words, you’re going to want to be able to put your brand on the services rather than pointing out that you’re actually using another agency to help with these services.
This point isn’t overly complicated. If you can’t white label the SEO work, your end client is going to be confused when you include another agency in your marketing package. Ideally, you want to be able to put your name and brand on the work done.
White labeling also means the SEO agency cannot include your client in their case studies or examples of success. This is very important as when a client finds their brand on a service they never paid for it can be quite a shock and come back to bite you in the long run.
Question #7: How Responsive/Avaliable Are You?
Again, this is not an overly complex question, but it’s crucial. You want an SEO agency that is very responsive to your questions and addresses problems in a reasonable manner, taking into account time zones, etc.
Hiring an agency that isn’t responsive can create massive headaches for you. For example, let’s say that, for some reason, you get penalized by Google and your search traffic completely drops off. No search traffic means no sales, and no sales means no income, and no income ultimately leads to you going out of business. I’m not saying they should get back to you within five minutes every time you have a slight worry, but they should definitely respond relatively quickly.
If you’re an agency and the end client runs into an SEO problem, you want to be able to address it ASAP, which means the SEO agency needs to be really responsive.
This is one of those common sense things that, much like those dogs in those sappy Sarah Mclachlan commercials, often gets neglected. Neglect it at your own peril.
Hiring an SEO agency shouldn’t scare the pants off you. Yes, you have to do some digging. Yes, you need to do some research. But the process can be much less complicated if you simply know what to ask and what you should expect to see.
Just because you may feel inexperienced doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be pushed around. After all, it’s your company that’s at stake here. Your sales and conversions are on the line. In some ways, your reputation hinges on the performance of the SEO results.
Don’t leave it up to amateurs or underhanded characters. Hire the right people and get the right results.