Article BY: Forbes
You’ve got a problem. You’ve been tasked with hiring an search engine optimization (SEO) firm to provide various online marketing services to your company. You went out and did a search on Google for “[your geographic location] + seo” and got a list of 300+ SEO firms. You start contacting the firms starting with the one at the top, since it seems reasonable that the guy at the top must know what he’s doing. But as you contact the firms they all tell you the same things, or as one reader put it in a comment on one of my previous articles, “SEO is surely the greatest con ever. Can anyone here tell me how every would-be Internet Marketer on the planet can promise every client to get them onto the first page of Google natural search?” The easy answer is that some can deliver while others can’t. But if that’s the case, how do you figure out which SEO firm to hire?
First, let’s clear up some misconceptions about SEO firms.
A nice-looking website does not a good SEO firm make. If you’re looking to hire an SEO firm that can also take care of designing your new website, then yes, you should probably consider how good their own website looks. But if you’re only looking for top-notch SEO, some of the best firms have websites that are second-rate at best.
- The SEO firm that ranks first in your geographic area is not necessarily the one you should work with. I’m going to let you in on a secret. My own firm almost always shows up first in Google for “utah seo,” and has for most of the past 10 years, but it’s not because we’re the best SEO firm in Utah. I’m not saying we’re not the best SEO firm in Utah, but if we are that’s not why our website ranks high, because a lot of our competitors are doing a better job of SEO on their own websites than we are doing on ours. Why does our website continue to rank #1 for “utah seo?” Sure, we have some decent content on the site, we’ve got the code right for the most part, and we have some good inbound links, but mostly it’s because we were one of the first SEO firms in Utah and it’s an old domain that’s been in use since 1996. Google puts a lot of weight on those two factors, and fortunately for us, it’s hard for anyone else to compete without a time machine.
- The best “SEO firm” for you might not be much of a firm. Bigger is not better. Less sometimes, but not always, is more. The right SEO firm for you might have one or two employees working from a basement. Or it might be the SEO firm with 500 employees. Don’t write either one off automatically.
- All SEO firms are scam operations. This statement is 100% false, in that it’s only 95% true. Or as the late Rex E. Lee put it in a statement about lawyers but which applies equally well to SEO firms, “It’s a shame that an entire profession should be maligned because of two or three hundred thousand bad apples.” Yes, you’re right to be careful about the firm you hire. Too many people hire a firm, only to leave a year or two later and wonder “Did I just throw all that money away on nothing?”
Now, on to the meat–how do you hire the right SEO firm?
- Decide what you need. Do you need link removal, reputation management, a one time SEO audit, ongoing SEO, link building, PPC management, retargeting, content marketing, or one of the other 20 services SEO firms frequently offer? If you’re not sure what you need, start by figuring out the job to be done. Do you want to grow sales by 20% over the next 12 months, or leads by 50% over the next six months? Is your goal increased rankings, or do you just need the boss to know that someone is working on SEO and then you can check this bothersome item off your to-do list? Have a goal in mind by which you will measure the success of your engagement with your SEO firm, and make that goal the center of your communication with them. If you can’t measure how successful your SEO efforts are, you’re less likely to be successful with them.
- Get multiple consultations, but keep it secret. Once you know what you want, sit down with an SEO firm, in person or by phone or email, that seems reasonably qualified and ask them to help you figure out what you need to do. Most SEO firms will gladly offer a free consultation because they know by doing so they have a chance to impress you and win your business. This time will also help you to know if you like the firm and the people you’ll be working with. By the end of the consultation, which may take a few days if the SEO firm needs to go and do research on your website and industry, you should received a proposal with the services you need and pricing for them. Then, unless you’re in a time crunch and love the first firm you’ve met with, go do the same thing with one or two other firms to have a basis for comparison. But don’t advertise this. When you tell an SEO firm “I’m shopping around,” or “I’m talking to other firms,” this doesn’t always make them compete harder for your business, it may make them compete less. This is especially true of some of the best SEO firms, where clients are fighting to work with them rather than the SEO firm fighting to work with that client.
- Get case studies and references. The #1 question you want answered from an SEO firm is “Are you going to help me get my job done?” When you go climbing in the Himalayas you want an experienced Sherpa. Without being able to see the future, the best way an SEO firm can answer this question is to show you that they’ve gotten the job done for other clients just like you. If you run a self storage company, and you talk to an SEO firm that has done work with 10 other self storage companies, and they’ve all had good results, then that’s a reasonably good predictor they’ll be successful working with your company. If your company is unique and you need a generalist SEO firm rather than one that focuses exclusively on your industry, get case studies and references from SEO firms that have at least done work for clients with similar business models and similar “jobs to be done” as yours.
- Make the firm tell you stories. A good SEO firm executes tactically. A great SEO firm does that, but is highly creative as well, and creative people tell good stories. Stories also allow you to get a truer vision of what the SEO firm is all about. Case studies and references are like looking up someone’s LinkedIn profile. You should do that before hiring an employee, but you wouldn’t hire someone based exclusively on their LinkedIn profile. You’d also want to hear them tell you stories about their background, experience, and successes and failures. This is part of why video interviews from companies like HireVue are taking off. Ask the SEO firm how they were founded, what their best client experience was, what their worst client experience was and how they handled it, and how they’ve improved over the years. Even if you have made up your mind after following the first three tips, as you listen to stories you may completely change your opinion.
Setting clear goals, getting multiple bids, examining predictors of the future, and listening to stories–that’s how you ensure you’ll hire the right SEO firm. Are there exceptions? Sure. At my own firm we’re terrible at producing formal case studies. We’re busy doing the work that produces results for our clients, and although we know we should have the case studies, somehow they don’t make it to the highest priority. And I know of some firms that I wouldn’t hire myself nor recommend to anyone else, and yet they have great looking case studies. In both cases listening to stories is a way to better see the reality behind the company.
Have you hired an SEO firm? How did you make sure you found the right one?