If you are a business owner, or hold a marketing position, you probably receive up to 10 calls a day from a SEO Company trying to sell their services. You’ve heard sales people say things like, we are a “google partner,” “we manage millions in monthly spend,” “we can get your site on the 1st page of Google,” we are the best SEO company or even pretend to be a current vendor in hopes to get the right person on the phone.
By now you are probably accustomed to the calls and basically just tune them out. They all use marketing jargon and different acronyms, and they make such bold claims that it’s difficult to distinguish the experts from the amateurs. Well, this write-up is going to give you the knowledge you need to properly interview a SEO company. SEO, the acronym for Search Engine Optimization, is the process of getting free or organic traffic from search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Google’s algorithm is estimated to include over 200 ranking factors. Brian Dean, renowned SEO expert, has a blog post that discusses Google’s 200 Ranking Factors.
The process of expert SEO requires a dedicated effort to keeping up with algorithm changes, the ability to manage a project plan, technical expertise, the ability to produce high quality content, the tools to manage results, and the ability to effectively communicate status and progress to a client. Trust me when I tell you, it’s the minority of SEO professionals that possess all of the aforementioned skills.
One reason identifying a quality SEO professional can be challenging is because the marketplace can be confusing to business owners. The following is a quick breakdown of the different types of SEO professionals in today’s market:
Large Digital Marketing Agency: The salesperson who calls from one of these agencies is definitely not the person who will be doing the SEO work. These agencies have preset packages to choose from and standardized processes for delivering the work. This allows them to create internal processes that are conducive to growing quickly, switching out account managers, and standardizing on a product. They typically have larger monthly minimums and the greatest opportunity for disparity between the frontline salesperson and the delivery of the actual SEO product. This is just the nature of the beast for larger entities.
Local SEO or Digital Marketing Companies: These companies are typically smaller, provide more hands-on service, and sometimes have the ability to customize a package. Since they are local, they may be able to add a level of domain expertise to ranking a site in your respective city. Many business owners flock toward local companies for the simple benefit of being able to meet face-to-face and build a strong relationship with their partner.
In-House: If your company is large or growing very fast, it may make financial sense to bring this function within your company. You can hire an SEO professional or contract a consultant to help launch the department. This decision typically comes down to size of company, company culture, profitability, and growth rate.
Individual SEO Consultants: Here is where the biggest gap in knowledge can take place. With independent consultants, you can find anything from rookies to absolute gurus. The challenge is that anyone can self-proclaim themselves as an SEO authority, so you must have the skills to distinguish the rookies from the pros. There are many excellent independent SEO consultants and freelancers, but it’s extremely important to thoroughly vet this class of SEO professional.
Now that you have a better understanding of the market, let’s jump into important questions to ask:
What will you do to improve my ranking on search engines?
I like this question because it’s fairly broad and forces the professional to talk and explain their approach to effective SEO. Listen carefully and look for them to be specific. Be aware of answers that lack specificity and misuse the word optimization. For example, “Our team of SEO analysts will implement Google’s best practices and optimize your site for search engine rankings.”
Okay, great. But what will they do specifically? I have heard answers like this dozens of times. They confuse the business owner and neglect to demonstrate a well-thought-out plan. You won’t see significant improvements to your website if your hired professional doesn’t have a serious strategy. For details, see the article How to Effectively Build an SEO Campaign From the Ground Up.
Ideally, the SEO professional would have reviewed your website and used some third-party tools like SEOquake, WooRank, or Google’s new “test my site” tool. Maybe they reviewed your backlink structure, social signals, and the current content you are producing to gauge an overview of your current SEO.
If they’ve done their homework, they would incorporate their findings into their response. For example, maybe they noticed that your site is very slow, is not optimized for mobile devices, is full of spam links, and does not have new content regularly produced. With this information, they would construct a relevant response such as, “We would like to start by working with your developers to increase the speed and mobile-friendliness of your website. From there, a priority will be to disavow harmful backlinks that could potentially be hurting your rankings. Once we have completed the technical SEO tasks, we will roll out a strategy that is content heavy.”
Now we’re talking. That sounds like an approach that incorporates issues currently affecting your rankings, can be substantiated, and certainly can be added to an SEO project plan. All of those important tasks can be tracked for completeness and open a healthy discussion about what content will be produced and why.
Will you link build?
Whether link building is part of their package is not really the question. This is more of a test to see if they understand the key difference between quality and quantity. If part of the presentation is the massive amount of links they are going to build in a short amount of time, run for the hills. One quality link is worth more than a thousand low quality links. The building of low quality links can be automated and outsourced. There are gigs on freelancing sites like Fiverr where people offer link building services for $5 to $10. Unfortunately, some SEO companies simply use these services on behalf of their clients. It will inevitably end in disaster.
Link building has been an effective SEO strategy for over a decade. If they tell you they will be providing link building as part of the package, don’t be disappointed if they can’t promise an amount. If they will be reaching out to authoritative sites in your industry, it will be impossible to predict how many links they can provide on a monthly basis. You are looking for an answer that clearly demonstrates their desire for quality links from highly reputable sites and a practical plan to obtain the links.
Will you be doing Technical, Off-page, or On-page SEO?
This may have come up when you broadly asked what they will do to improve your search rankings. If not, make sure you ask this question and ensure they are able to clarify which categories their work will fall under.
If they are a competent SEO professional, they will most likely be starting with Technical SEO. Technical SEO is the basic function of making it easy for the spiders to crawl your website and index your content. It’s senseless to start with On-page SEO if the site is full off technical SEO issues. If they immediately dive into On-page and Off-page SEO without addressing Technical SEO, this would be a major red flag.
A lot of midsize and large digital agencies and SEO companies will have packages that include ongoing Technical SEO and On-page SEO, but often they are not providing new content. Be careful with these packages. The problem is that once the Technical issues have been fixed and the current content has been optimized, there is not a lot of ongoing Technical and On-page work to do each month. Well, at least not enough to justify the fee. It would be wasteful to pay every month for optimizing images, schema markup, or updating meta descriptions for the same static content on your site.
It’s a business model that is labor intensive for the company the first month, but then has a very high margin in subsequent months. They are collecting the same fee but doing a small fraction of the work. The exception to this rule is if you are internally producing large amounts of new content for the site each month and the SEO company is ensuring that it is optimized and posted. If this isn’t the case, find a company that will start with Technical and On-page SEO and then produce high quality monthly content. To enhance that strategy, consider supplementing this approach with a sound backlinking strategy.
Can you guarantee my site will be on the first page of Google?
This is probably the quickest way to filter out snake oil sales people and trustworthy long-term partners. If they say yes, they are telling you what you want to hear solely so they can get the next sale. Politely wrap up the meeting and move on to interview your next SEO candidate.
Unfortunately, no one can guarantee a #1 ranking every single time. Google has an algorithm comprised of hundreds of data points they use to rank websites. No one knows the exact algorithm. Anyone claiming to know the algorithm is simply being dishonest.
Google is also known for providing constant updates to the algorithm. This includes updates such as RankBrain, Hummingbird, Google Mobile Friendly, Google Panda, Google Penguin, and Google Pigeon. You can see an updated list of algorithm changes at Search Engine Land. There could be a significant update in the future that could call for a correction in their strategy. Without knowing when updates are coming and exactly what will be involved in the updates, it would be impossible to guarantee a ranking for any site.
Look for an honest answer and an explanation as to why they can’t make a guarantee. A valid answer would be something along these lines, “Due to a number of variables out of our control like Google algorithm updates and competition, we can’t guarantee a first-page ranking. However, we can guarantee to execute the SEO plan we have constructed for your business, make a concentrated effort to keep up with search engine changes, communicate with you frequently, and report on results.
Will you do local SEO?
Google has been updating its algorithm to give more importance to local search. It initially prioritized local with an update in July 2014 referred to as Pigeon. Then once again in September 2016 they placed additional importance on local results with an algorithm update known as Possum. Below are just a few of the consequences of these updates:
Businesses that are outside of city limits saw an improvement in their rankings
Historically it has been difficult for businesses outside of physical city limits to show up for a certain city. For example, if a user searches “San Diego Dentist” a Dentist office located in Del Mar would have a hard time showing up. Sure, Del Mar is part of San Diego county, but it is not within San Diego City limits.
After an algorithm update, dentist offices in Del Mar started showing up more frequently for users who paired “San Diego” with a dentist keyword. This update hurt businesses in the San Diego city limits, helped businesses in the County but outside of the city limits and made results more relevant for searchers (since we use “San Diego” loosely).
Yelp and directories became more prominent on the Search Engine Results Page
You may have noticed Yelp showing up more frequently. In fact, in many cases Yelp takes up several of the Organic listings. It’s not just Yelp though, other directories like TripAdvisor, Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor are also showing up more often in the Organic Listings.
Google is filtering out listings based on addresses, business type and association
Since this last update Google is filtering out businesses with the same address as another listing in the same industry.
This impacted businesses in the same industry sharing office space even if they had different names and phone numbers. Of course it also wiped anyone getting tricky and trying to get the same business listed twice.
Where the searcher is physically located became more important
Google is paying more attention to where you are physically located and tailoring searches accordingly. This is very important to understand because if you are doing test searches from your physical location you are very likely receiving different results from people who are searching for the same keyword from a different location. To conduct test searches from a different location, I would recommend Google’s Ad Preview Tool. The preview tool allows you to change your location prior to conducting a search. It’s also a great way to check on your PPC ads without costing yourself an impression without a click.
There is a lot to cover when it comes to Local SEO. My goal is to arm you with some useful facts, Google updates and core best practices so you can ask your potential SEO partner the right questions and intelligently evaluate their response.
Try asking open ended questions like, “Can you tell me about local SEO?” Or, can you please describe to me what you will do to enhance my local SEO presence? If you get a blank stare or just a rambling that lacks specifics you know they are not proficient in Local SEO.
Below are a few things you are hoping to hear in the response:
We will list your company on prominent directory listings
Google refers to your business being listed on a directories as a citation. When you have an abundance of accurate and consistent citations it materially helps your local SEO presence. Google looks for consistency across these directories in NAP, which is the industry acronym for Name, Address and Phone Number.
Implement Schema on your website with local information like the address and phone number
The local business section of Shema.org has a few different options businesses can implement as part of the site or in the footer of the site. Schema or “markup” helps Search Engines understand where your business is located and influences local rankings.
Google My Business
Thoroughly build out your Google My Business account, make sure to fill in every data point.
There is more to do when it comes to Local SEO but at least now you are equipped with some background and aware of some of the key components. With this new information, you should be able to determine if the SEO company you are interviewing is green behind the ears or competent when it comes to local. Read this section prior to speaking with your prospective SEO partner and you will be able to distinguish the rookies from the pros.
How will you measure success?
This question is incredibly important because it’s critical that your expectations are aligned with your new partner’s expectations. In my career, I have seen monthly marketing meetings in this industry go awry because the business owner had one expectation and the agency had another. If expectations are not set up front, people create their own expectations. Not every SEO company will be a good fit for your business. Conversely, not every business will be a good fit for every SEO company. Each SEO product is different, and the objective is to find one that is a good fit for your digital marketing goals and pocketbook, and is provided by an outfit you feel comfortable working with on a monthly basis.
For the success of the campaign, both parties must discuss metrics of success up front and agree what will be measured. Simply ask the question and ask them to be specific with the response. Most firms will reply with at least “keyword rankings” and “organic traffic.”
Amateur firms will simply report on keyword rankings each month, which is basically a snapshot of where certain words rank. More sophisticated professionals will report on this information before they launch the campaign, identify which words they will be targeting, and report on the changes each month. The idea is to improve the rankings of targeted keywords to ultimately increase your monthly organic traffic.
The more solid firms will also report on-page metrics, conversions, and return on investment (ROI). On-page metrics like bounce rate and session duration can confirm that you targeted the right keywords and also help highlight additional improvements that could be made to the site.
Traffic is good, but at the end of the day you need conversions to grow your business. A good SEO professional will review organic conversions versus other sources and look for opportunities to improve organic conversion rates.
Lastly, ROI will justify the initiative or provide the data you need to cancel services. ROI with SEO is not as clear cut as pay-per-click because SEO, by nature, is an investment. It takes time, money, expertise, and patience to rank a site. Think about your budget and an acceptable time period for you to see meaningful results before you launch the campaign. This will make it easier to evaluate ROI when you are four or five months into the project. While calculating ROI, take a look at how much you have spent, progress that has been made, and the potential for increased revenue.
In summary, remember that SEO is a long-term investment strategy for growing your business. The marketplace is crowded with almost everyone claiming to be an expert. Choose wisely when hiring an SEO professional—whether that is a local company, a freelancer, or a large national agency. If you select your partner correctly, it could be the best decision you make for your business. Dominating the search engines with organic traffic that converts is a sure way to materially increase revenue and grow your business month over month.
Make sure you use these questions, and you will be well on your way to choosing the right strategic partner for growing your business through proven SEO tactics. Picking the correct San Diego SEO company is vital to the success of growing revenue through proven digital marketing practices.
Feel free to contact me about this article, or to learn more about our SEO services.
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What questions do you ask when interviewing a SEO Company? Share your experiences in the comments below. We would love to hear from you!