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June 16, 2008

How to Pick an SEO Firm

SEO is the foundation of your marketing campaign – at least it should be. Aside from any other marketing that you participate in, you should also make sure your site is ranked in the top of the engines so you can tap into the millions (actually over 400 million) searches performed daily.

So, how do you pick an SEO Firm? It is a very important decision.

I was talking to a man recently who told me the problem was he didn’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to evaluate the answers.

Here is some guidance on what to ask and what to expect in response.

Do you have any initial or set up fees? How much and what are they for? Are there ongoing fees and how much are they?

They should be able to outline all fees and tell you exactly what is included. Different firms price things differently. If they require full payment up front, that may concern me. Most firms will require some payment up front, and that is to be expected. You need to look at what they are proposing, make sure it is clear to you and make sure you are OK with it.

Is monthly maintenance necessary?

Any SEO Firm that knows what they are talking about should tell you that maintenance and monitoring of rankings is required to ensure you don’t start losing rankings. If they tell you that you will lose rankings as soon as you leave them, they are lying—or more accurately they are just guessing. They don’t really know for sure. However experience shows us that rankings do tend to maintain until the next major algorithm shift and then if no one is maintaining them for you, they may begin to drop. SEO is not the kind of thing you do once and then you are done. To maintain and hopefully even increase your rankings, you need to have someone continually working on your behalf. Alternatively, you could learn to handle some of the maintenance items yourself. But the key is to realize that someone needs to monitor your rankings and work on your in order to hold on to your top rankings and grow them. Don’t forget the engines themselves reported that approximately 25% of searches each month are never before seen phrases. So, at the very least you’ll want to monitor what new phrases are popping up and make sure you are getting exposure for them.

How long is my term of service?

Typically you should hear anywhere from 3—12 months. Anything less than 3 months isn’t long enough to see any matured results. Six months seems to be the industry standard middle ground. With six months you aren’t locked in too long, but it does allow time for the campaign to mature.

Do you offer a Guarantee?

Contrary to popular belief, guarantees aren’t all bad. You just have to make sure you aren’t being promised something that no one can actually deliver.

– Top rankings in less than 30 days? Not likely.

– Guaranteed amount of site visitors or conversions? With regular SEO and no other services no SEO Firm can guarantee the precise number of visitors or the conversion rates.

– If you are told you will get rankings on a precise keyword within a precise amount of time, that just isn’t possible unless they are doing PPC or have magic fairy dust.

The kind of guarantee that is safe is the kind where the company states they don’t control the engines and can’t predict exact timeframes but they will not stop working until they have delivered what they promised (ex: 20 rankings within the top 20 for 6 months—so they may have to work 8 or 9 months of real time to deliver the full 6 months of “guaranteed” time.) This offers you protection but it also honest and lets you know that the Firm does not control the engines.

Do I own the work you do for me? Where does it reside?

The answers should be: yes you own the work (once it is paid for in full) and it resides on your server. If they are hosting content on another server or another domain, you want to think twice before getting involved.

Do you provide regular reports and how often are they provided?

You should be provided reports once a month to show the results and your site’s rankings.

When will I start seeing results?

That is a question that varies from site to site. Your site’s history and competitiveness of the industry are big factors and the SEO firm should try to answer honestly considering what they know about your site. Any blanket statement is just a guess. They could also tell you their average time for other clients and that is a good indicator of what you could expect.

What engines do you submit to?

This could change as things in the industry change. Basically you’ll want to look at the list of engines they give you and make sure you have heard of them all. Most Firms focus on the Big 3 (Google, Yahoo! and MSN) and then about 6 or so other engines.

What about past results?

Do you provide references and testimonials? The answer should be YES! They should be happy to show off past results.

What techniques do you use to optimize my site?

An ethical SEO Firm will focus on content and on-page optimization as the foundation. They should also look at whether you are in need of links and may include linking as part of their strategy. More people tend to get links on their own, but they don’t focus on the on-page portion, so maybe all you need is the on-page work. The SEO Firm should evaluate that and let you know what your specific needs are.

They shouldn’t hide any text or code on your site, and they should be willing to explain every step of their process and not want to hide any information from you.

If they tell you they have a special relationship with Google, or proprietary techniques that should be a warning sign to you.

Do I have access to anyone on your staff, so I receive personalized service and can ask questions at anytime?

The answer should be yes. SEO can be confusing and you need a Firm that will work FOR you and WITH you.

Any SEO Firm that is worth working with should be happy to spend time going over each of these questions with you. Selecting an SEO Firm can feel intimidating but if you use these questions as a guide and follow your instincts, you should be fine.

Jennifer Horowitz is the Director of Marketing for Over the past 10 years Jennifer’s expertise in marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has helped clients increase revenue. Jennifer has written a downloadable book on SEO and has been published in many SEO and marketing publications. Jennifer is the editor of the popular Spotlight on Success: SEO and Marketing newsletter. Follow Jennifer and stay current on SEO, marketing, social media and more.