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 I want to show you how to do today.
If you’re thinking about hiring an SEO company, I’ve put together 17 questions that can 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 I’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, I want to go over the different types of SEOs:
- individual SEO consultants – these are freelancers who offer their SEO services.
- SEO companies/agencies – these companies have 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 – if your business is very large or is growing rapidly, it often makes sense to hire an in-house SEO team. You can set it up yourself or hire an SEO consultant to help put things into place and come up with 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.
Here’s what I can say: 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 mark up prices of basic work 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 initiative to carefully weed out bad SEOs.
As long as you ask the right questions and pay attention to the answers (I’ll show you how now), you should be able to find an SEO that makes a positive impact on 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 randomly target keywords or to build links, you might see some small sporadic results, but you’ll never see consistent traffic increases.
What this means is 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 in order 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 is promising you a large number of 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.
You can mitigate any risks, if you like, by having all website changes made by an in-house developer. The obvious consequence is that changes will be made slower, and you will have to make sure there is 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: You need to make sure 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.
In order for you or an emergency consultant to fix the problem, you need to know what caused it.
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 is just like shopping for anything else. You want to see reviews, testimonials, case studies, and who their past clients were.
You shouldn’t expect an SEO company to hand over their entire address book, but most will be happy to give examples of 2-3 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 weren’t able to 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: I’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 5-15% per month. And I’m talking about on a consistent basis, year after year.
No sane client is going to 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 approximately 500 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 a large number of manipulative sites. On-page violations are penalized by algorithms such as Panda, while off-page violations are penalized by updates such as Penguin.
When you get hit by one of these, your traffic will be hit hard.
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, which is why emphasizing the long-term results in SEO is typically best.
5. Which tools do you use?
While many people are under the impression that any SEOs that use tools are “blackhat” SEOs, that’s not the whole story.
The word “tool” typically describes a wide variety of applications when talking about SEO.
Tools allow you to process lots of information in a short amount of time. This can save a ton of time and money, which is good for everybody.
But there are different tools:
- Reporting tools – While reports could be created manually, it’s a lot easier to create a custom report that combines analytics, keyword rankings, and other SEO metrics. Most of the report can be automated, which saves time, plus you know exactly what to expect as a client.
- Link building tools – These 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 a variety of technical issues. This would take a long time to do manually, and you can often find important problems that need to 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 in general 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 I mention that they’re bad?)
These tools are designed to comment on hundreds or thousands of blogs, forums, or web 2.0 websites (think Blogger, Weebly, etc.). These are the lowest quality links you can build, which can easily lead to penalties.
If your SEO company mentions tools such as Xrumer, SE Nuke, or Bookmarking Demon, stay away.
One more tool I want to mention is Scrapebox. Scrapebox can be used for spam blog comments, 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 simply trying to make a sale, they’ll typically be happy to say that they guarantee #1 rankings (in Google).
Here’s the thing though: no one can guarantee #1 rankings every single time—especially not in any specific time period. Here are a few reasons why:
- No SEO knows the exact Google algorithm – Google had a revenue of $17.3 billion in the first three months of 2015. Most of this revenue is only possible because of Google’s search engine. Suffice 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 (like from Panda or Penguin) or manual. Google doesn’t often say when certain algorithms will be run. The next Penguin could be run in a week, a month, or a year. In addition, manual reviews and penalties can be triggered at any time.
What all of this means is 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. If you’re targeting a very easy keyword, they might offer a guarantee.
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 some sort of 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.
I’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:
- summary of activities – this should include things such as details about email outreach campaigns, content creating, and how many new links came into the site.
- search traffic – one of the most important markers of progress is an increase in search traffic. A report should show your search traffic for the month as well as the percentage change from last month and last year (the same month).
- search rankings – if you’re targeting any main keywords, you should get a quick update in each report.
- 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.
It’s important to know how much and when exactly you will need to pay so that you can factor it into your budget.
Because SEO can be done in so many different ways, many consultancies will charge by the project. In fact, according to a Moz survey, 70.1% of SEOs offer project-based pricing. If this is something you’re interested in, 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 time of an SEO to work on your site.
Another option is to pay by hour, which is a popular option if you’re dealing with freelancers (although agencies also offer it). Expect to pay $76-$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 is different 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 case of emergencies (if the site went down or if 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. It doesn’t always work like that, of course, 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 – essentially covers all parts of marketing online, including inbound marketing. They will typically have experience in PPC, email marketing, SEO, and other branches of marketing.
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 it takes 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, find out if there are any fees 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 was able to accurately determine which sites were using spam tactics, it started penalizing sites (like with Penguin).
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 no doubt been involved in working with a penalized site.
Once a site has been hit with a penalty, it’s not easy to recover it. However, good SEOs can still achieve a pretty high success rate.
Find out how successful your potential SEO has been at bringing sites back from the brink as well as 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 I 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.
There are, however, a select group of algorithm updates that were significant enough to deserve being named. All SEOs should be familiar with all of these.
You can see an updated list of algorithms at Search Engine Land:
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 incredibly inexperienced SEOs or the ones that are just trying to make a quick buck without having much expertise in the field.
I 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 my 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 is designed to shed 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 3 rankings? number 1?
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 one of two things: 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.
Yes, those metrics all go hand-in-hand most of the time, but experienced SEOs and marketers know that they don’t always, which is why more attention needs to go to ROI and/or conversions.
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 I said, good SEO work can add tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to your bottom line. It is an investment that takes at least a few months to see significant results.
If the SEO you’re interviewing is advising 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 that 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’s going to take months before results, or a lack of results, become apparent. One of the biggest reasons why shady SEO firms continue to stay in business is because they aren’t found out for many months.
Many of the 17 questions I’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 trust me, a good SEO team can be essential to building a business to 7 figures or more.