Pretty scary, right?
Hiring SEO help can make or break your company.
A good SEO will get you on the path to making tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, but a bad SEO could cripple any existing search traffic you get.
It’s important to choose carefully, and that’s what we want to show you how to do today.
If you’re considering hiring an SEO company, we’ve compiled 17 questions to help you make the right choice.
You should ask these questions before hiring anyone so you know exactly what to expect.
Finally, you don’t need to ask all of these questions, but we’ll explain why each is important so that you can decide if a question is relevant to your situation.
Types of SEO help
Before we get into the questions, we want to go over the different types of SEOs:
- Individual SEO consultants – Freelancers who offer their SEO services.
- SEO companies/agencies – Teams of SEOs and standardized SEO processes for the most part. They typically work with businesses of a decent size (with budgets of at least a few thousand dollars per month for SEO).
- In-house SEOs – Hiring an in-house SEO team makes sense if your business is large or growing rapidly. You can set it up yourself or hire an SEO consultant to help implement things and develop an initial strategy.
The questions in this post are primarily for the first two types of SEOs.
There is a lot of variation in freelancers and SEO agencies. Some are great, others are terrible.
We can say that a great SEO will never charge low prices. If you’re hunting for a discount, chances are you’ll end up with an SEO who cuts corners and hurts your site in the long run.
That being said, a high price doesn’t guarantee quality work either. Many agencies will increase basic work prices by an obscene amount. Since most website owners don’t know how to evaluate SEO work, these SEO companies can get away with a lot.
Luckily, you’re not an average website owner.
At the very minimum, just by reading this article, you’ve shown that you’re taking the initiative to weed out bad SEOs carefully.
As long as you ask the right questions and pay attention to the answers (we’ll show you how now), you should be able to find an SEO that positively impacts your business.
Ready? Let’s start…
1. How will you improve our search engine rankings?
You don’t get any significant results without a serious SEO strategy.
If you decide to target keywords randomly or to build links, you might see some small sporadic results, but you’ll never see consistent traffic increases.
This means that all good SEOs have a process, whether they freelance or work for an agency.
They probably won’t be able to tell you: “We’re going to get links from X, Y, and Z websites.”
What they can tell you, however, is something along the lines of: “We’ll start with an on-site technical SEO audit to identify any areas for quick wins. Then, we’ll identify the best keywords to target.”
Ask about the links: Backlinks have been a big part of search engine algorithms for a long time and will continue to play a big role in the future. All SEOs will “build” links to your website to attempt to improve rankings.
As you might know, not all backlinks are created equal.
One good backlink is worth more than thousands of low-quality backlinks.
Low-quality backlinks are the ones that can be automated and are often used for spam link building. Think of the typical gigs you see on Fiverr, where you can buy hundreds or thousands of good links for $5-10.
A single good link will cost a minimum of $20, and that’s a best-case scenario. Usually, a link from an agency will cost you more than $100 each.
If someone promises you many links, and it works out to $1 or less per link, run the other way.
2. How will you keep me informed of changes you make to our website?
A good SEO company will send you regular reports. The most common frequency is once per month (typically at the end), but some will send you quick weekly updates as well.
The first thing you’ll need to give an SEO company is access to your website (at least part of it). This is one of the main reasons it’s important to hire an SEO company that you can trust.
If you like, you can mitigate any risks by having all website changes made by an in-house developer. The obvious consequence is that changes will be made slower, and you must ensure an open and constant line of communication between your developer and your SEO company.
Some SEO consultants won’t ask for any website changes to be made. If this happens, it’s another red flag. While off-site work is a large part of SEO, on-site work is often more important, especially at the start.
Changes need to be tracked: Ensure that your SEO company is diligent about any website changes they make.
If something goes wrong, you need to know exactly what caused it.
If an SEO company says that they track changes internally, that’s not good enough.
Think about what would happen if your SEO freelancer or agency suddenly became non-responsive (yes, it does happen) and you were stuck with a broken or damaged site.
For you or an emergency consultant to fix the problem, you need to know what caused your SEO to drop in the first place.
Any good SEO company will be prepared to send you a detailed log of any website changes they make.
3. Can you share information on some of your past clients and their results?
Shopping for an SEO company means checking reviews, testimonials, case studies, and any client information.
You shouldn’t expect an SEO company to hand over their entire address book, but most will happily give examples of two or three big-name clients. In addition, they should be able to easily show their results (ideally over a long time period).
If they can’t give you any examples of clients who are legitimate businesses, that’s a pretty big warning sign. Either they couldn’t deliver for big clients in the past, or they don’t have the experience for that level of SEO.
Then, follow up by asking who their longest active client is: We’ve already mentioned that one of the biggest problems with shady SEO firms is that they use short-term risky tactics.
They want to show clients quick results, not caring if they’re doing anything that jeopardizes the site in the future.
If you’re interviewing an SEO company that has been around for a while and their longest active client has been with them for under a year, that’s a red flag.
A good SEO consultant or team is worth their weight in gold. Good SEO alone can grow a business by 5% to 15% per month. And we’re talking about on a consistent basis, year after year.
No sane client will give up an SEO firm that produces great results unless they decide to build an in-house SEO team or the SEO company decides to end things.
4. Do you always follow Google’s best practices?
Following Google’s (and, to a lesser extent, Bing’s and Yahoo’s) best practices is crucial to long-term traffic growth.
Google applies hundreds of algorithm updates per year. All of these updates are for one purpose: to provide better results for searchers.
The guidelines are essentially the “golden rules” of user search, published by each respective search engine.
When you violate the rules, Google isn’t happy.
That’s why it has released certain algorithms that have penalized many manipulative sites.
The biggest problem is that it can take months or even years of recovery work (depending on the skill of your next SEO) to correct the penalty. You’ll miss out on tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue during this time, so emphasising the long-term SEO results is typically best.
5. Which tools do you use?
While many people think that any SEOs that use tools are “blackhat” SEOs, that’s not the whole story.
The word “tool” typically describes various applications when talking about SEO.
Tools allow you to process lots of information in a short amount of time. This can save a lot of time and money, which is good for everybody.
Before we go any further – check out the tools that SEO pros use for the best results.
But there are different tools:
- Reporting tools – While reports could be created manually, creating a custom report that combines analytics, keyword rankings, and other SEO metrics is much easier. Most of the reports can be automated, which saves time, plus you know exactly what to expect as a client.
- Link-building tools allow you to create hundreds or thousands of links with the click of a button and a few proxies (more on these below).
- Technical SEO tools – Tools such as Screaming Frog allow SEOs to crawl large sites quickly for various technical issues. This would take a long time to do manually, and you can often find important problems that must be fixed.
- Research tools – There are now tools such as BuzzStream that allow you to gather contact information of a large number of people in minutes. These tools generally help you gather prospects and conduct keyword research.
Most of these tools are good. They help you comply with Google’s guidelines for good SEO. However, pure link-building tools are bad…very, very bad. (Did we mention that they’re bad?)
These tools are designed to comment on hundreds or thousands of blogs, forums, or Web 2.0 websites. These are the lowest-quality links you can build, which can easily lead to penalties.
Stay away if your SEO company mentions tools like Xrumer and SE Nuke. There might be others, but we’d suggest eliminating them entirely.
One more tool we want to mention is Scrapebox. It does have a black mark against it because of the spam blog comment function, but it can also be used for legitimate research and reporting activities. If your SEO company specifically mentions Scrapebox, ask for more details on how they use it.
6. What types of SEO work will you do?
This may come up when you ask other questions on this list, but if it hasn’t yet, make sure to ask this question at some point.
There should be at least a basic technical SEO audit done once you hire a company. If this isn’t part of their process, they likely aren’t very good SEOs.
Technical SEO involves all of the background aspects of SEO that search engines still care about. Finding and addressing web crawler errors, 404 pages, redirect problems, and evaluating site navigation are all part of basic technical SEO.
7. Can you guarantee that our site will rank #1 for a major search term?
This is the easiest way to weed out the SEO salesmen from legitimate SEOs.
If an SEO freelancer or company is trying to make a sale, they’ll typically be happy to say that they guarantee #1 rankings (in Google).
However, no one can guarantee #1 rankings every single time- especially not in any specific period.
Here are a few reasons why:
- No SEO knows the exact Google algorithm – Google had a revenue of $74.3 billion in the first three months of 2023. Most of this revenue is only possible because of Google’s search engine. Suffice it to say they protect the exact algorithm closely. If anyone claims to know the exact algorithm, they’re lying. (If you knew the algorithm, you could make way more than you could as an average SEO consultant).
- No one knows how Google’s algorithm will change – Google pushes out more than one algorithm change per day on average. Unless you’re working at Google, you can’t know when or how Google will change in the future. You can certainly guess but be prepared to be wrong quite often.
- Penalties can come out of nowhere – Penalties can be algorithmic (Google core updates) or manual. Google doesn’t often say when certain algorithms will be run. In addition, manual reviews and penalties can be triggered at any time.
This means that while SEOs should be able to increase your search traffic consistently over time, they can’t guarantee specific keyword rankings. If that’s their main promise: run the other way.
There’s one important caveat though: Some SEOs might ask you which keyword you’re targeting or might suggest one. They might offer a guarantee if you’re targeting a very easy keyword.
Note that offering a guarantee and guaranteeing a #1 ranking are two different things. Offering a guarantee typically means that they expect that you will rank #1 for an easy term, but if they can’t help you do that, they’ll give you a refund.
This type of guarantee is okay, although you need to be careful because it might lead to them being overly aggressive to get short-term results, which could be dangerous.
8. How often will you report on your work, and what will it look like?
We talked about SEO companies reporting on any website changes they make, but they should also report on their activity and results.
We’d say that you should look for a monthly report — that’s pretty standard. If you prefer a different reporting frequency, most SEOs will try to accommodate you.
All SEO reports should include a few things:
- The summary of activities should include details about email outreach campaigns, content creation, and how many new links came into the site.
- Search traffic – One of the most important progress markers is increased search traffic. A report should show your search traffic for the month and the percentage change from last month to last year (the same month).
- Search rankings – You should get a quick update in each report if you’re targeting any main keywords.
- Conversions – The most important of all: how many search visitors are converting to the next step(s) in your sales funnel? Without conversion, there is no return on investment, regardless of search traffic quantity.
This question won’t typically help you tell a good SEO from a bad one, but it will tell you what to expect from the company if you hire them. Having clear expectations from the start will minimize frustrations on both sides in the future.
9. What is your payment structure?
Different SEO companies use different payment structures.
Knowing how much and when you must pay to factor it into your budget is important.
Because SEO can be done in many ways, some consultancies will charge by the project. However, the current pricing trend is that 78.2% of SEOs require a monthly retainer, with a further 54.5% only having one pricing option. If you’re interested in this, you can find someone who offers it. Expect to pay between $1,000 and $7,500.
The survey also revealed that retainers range anywhere from under $500 to $2,501-$5,000. A retainer is a monthly payment that essentially reserves the time of an SEO to work on your site.
Another option is to pay by hour, which is popular if you’re dealing with freelancers (although agencies also offer it). Expect to pay $100-$200 per hour for a good SEO.
Finally, find out when you’ll have to make your payments. Freelancers typically like to be paid as soon as possible, but paying 30, 60, or even 90 days after an invoice isn’t unheard of. Find out if there is an interest fee for late payments.
10. How will we contact you?
SEO differs from other services in that you don’t typically need to contact your SEO company more than a few times a month.
However, if something does go wrong, or you have an important issue to discuss, you want to be able to get a hold of them as soon as possible.
Find out which methods of communication they prefer, and also tell them yours (they should ask you at some point anyway). Also, ask how to contact them in emergencies (if the site went down or search traffic dramatically declined).
11. How will your work tie into our other marketing efforts?
SEO is no longer separate from marketing—it should be one seamless system. Of course, it doesn’t always work like that, but that’s the goal.
Because of this, many SEO agencies or consultants have rebranded themselves as digital marketing or inbound marketing specialists.
While they are similar, here’s a quick definition of each:
- Inbound marketing focuses on creating content of all kinds that attracts links, which can then improve search traffic.
- Digital marketing covers all parts of marketing online, including inbound marketing. They will typically have experience in PPC, email marketing, SEO, and other marketing branches.
So, when you’re looking for an SEO company, don’t automatically rule out agencies that primarily brand themselves as marketing consultancies. They often still have SEO specialists on board but can provide other highly valuable services.
12. What happens if we terminate the contract?
This is for your own protection. It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Understandably, most SEOs want you to sign on for at least a minimum period (usually at least a few months). It takes time for SEOs to make changes and even longer for those changes to produce significant results.
At the same time, if your company has a crisis and suddenly can’t afford to pay for SEO services, you need to know your options. (It’s rare, but it does happen.)
There are other scenarios in which you would want to break the contract. Maybe you’re disappointed with the work the SEO has produced, or maybe your marketing department wants to focus resources on a different traffic source.
Regardless, determine if any fees are written into the contract for early termination. Have them changed if you need to.
13. Have you worked with penalized sites? If so, how did you fix them?
Penalties weren’t really part of the SEO landscape until a few years ago.
Instead of penalizing sites for violating certain guidelines, like building backlinks, Google used to devalue the backlinks. Once Google could determine which sites used spam tactics accurately, it started penalizing them.
Since 2011 or so, both manual and algorithmic penalties have skyrocketed. If your SEO has been working for at least a few years, they’ve undoubtedly been involved in working with a penalized site.
Find out how successful your potential SEO has been at bringing sites back from the brink and how they will prevent those penalties from occurring in the future (to your site).
14. Are you up to date with the latest algorithm changes?
While we told you earlier that Google releases about 500 algorithm changes per year, they aren’t all significant.
Most of them have a very minor impact on any one site.
However, a select group of algorithm updates were significant enough to deserve being named. All SEOs should be familiar with all of these.
Ask your SEO to describe a few of them, and then confirm that they know what they’re talking about by reading through those links.
All you’re trying to do here is filter out inexperienced SEOs or those just trying to make a quick buck without much expertise in the field.
We don’t know if it needs to be said, but ask these over Skype/phone or in person so that they can’t just Google an explanation and email it back.
In addition, you want an SEO that stays up-to-date with SEO news. Ideally, they should be active in forums and other SEO communities.
One way to quickly test this is to ask them to name a few of the most recent major algorithm updates.
Moz keeps an updated list of all major algorithm updates that you can use to check if they’re correct:
It’s not important that they know the exact date of an update, but if they can say: “There was a Panda update in July and a Quality update a few months before that,” they obviously know their stuff.
15. How will your team adapt your strategy to my industry?
In our experience, most small to medium-sized business owners are hesitant to invest in SEO because they’re not sure that it will work for their industry.
If that’s you, you’re not necessarily wrong; some SEO strategies and tactics will not work in your industry.
That being said, a good SEO/marketer knows how to adapt an SEO strategy to work for virtually any industry. If you ask them this question, they should be able to address your concerns.
16. How do you determine if you’re successful?
If your expectations are not met, you’ll feel frustrated.
The clearer you are on what to expect from your SEO, and the better they understand what you need from them, the less frustration both of you will experience.
This question sheds some light on how your potential SEOs determine if their work has been successful.
- Do they aim to increase traffic by %X in Y months?
- Do they want to see a %X increase in a specific metric?
- Do they consider themselves successful if they can get a main keyword onto the first page? Top three rankings? Number one?
Whatever their answer is, it will help you determine if you think a successful result on their end would justify the investment you’re about to make on yours.
Also, ask: “Which metrics do you track?” If this didn’t come up when you asked them about reporting, ask it now.
This is a really easy way to differentiate between experienced, successful SEOs/marketers and the rest.
Pretty much any SEO will include the following:
- keyword rankings
- search traffic
- on-page metrics (bounce rate, time on page, etc.)
But for the most part, only solid firms and freelancers will mention either return on investment (ROI) or conversions, possibly both.
Although keyword rankings and traffic increases are nice, they don’t really mean anything. You want traffic that actually builds your business.
17. Why should we hire you over other SEOs?
This is obviously a very open-ended question. It doesn’t have a right answer.
What you’re really looking for are a few red-flag answers. If they respond with anything involving:
- We’re cheaper than other options.
- We can build you more backlinks (instead of better quality).
- We don’t know.
- We can get you faster results.
then you need to proceed cautiously.
Good SEO will not come cheap. Why? Because as we said, good SEO work can add tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to your bottom line. An investment takes at least a few months to see significant results.
If the SEO you’re interviewing advises you to cut corners or be extremely aggressive with link building, it’s best to move on to the next candidate.
Ideally, when you ask this question, they will respond by pointing to their track record, which should include their past successes, current and past happy clients, and the respect their name and brand have in the industry.
Remember that SEO is a long-term investment.
It will take months before results, or lack thereof, become apparent. One of the biggest reasons shady SEO firms stay in business is that they aren’t found out for many months.
Many of the 17 questions we’ve laid out for you in this post are designed to help you weed out those shady SEO companies and individuals.
The other questions will help you decide if a particular company offering SEO help is worth hiring for your business.
Use as many or as few of these questions as you need to ensure you find SEO help you can trust.
It may be a pain, but a good SEO team can be essential to building a business to 7 figures or more.