In an increasingly digital world, a well-optimized website is essential for success. Whether you run a website for a large e-commerce businesses or a small brick-and-mortar, the amount of organic traffic you generate can either make or break you. However, with new SEO companies popping up every day, how does one settle on a single one? When interviewing SEO companies, there are a number of questions you can ask that will help you narrow down your list. With this in mind, I asked SEO professionals for their input. Here are the top 9 best questions to ask when choosing an SEO company (recommended by the pros):
1. Do you have experience with clients in my industry?
Do you know my industry?
In my own niche I stand out because I AM a mental health counselor. I understand the professional jargon, but more importantly I am sitting day in and day out with clients just like my SEO customers are. I know what makes our industry unique. This is most helpful with meta descriptions and editing on page copy. I am able to write a meta description that not only helps their website show up higher on Google but also can convince people looking for therapy to click on their site.
Simplified SEO Consulting
Do you have any experience working with other companies in our vertical?
As SEO becomes more nuanced, many SEO agencies are beginning to specialize in offering services to specific verticals, which presents its own set of pros and cons. Hiring an agency that specializes can be advantageous as the firm will be more familiar with challenges and the competitive landscape unique to your industry. However, it does also increase the likelihood that they might work with one or more of your competitors, which might be a conflict of interest. Explore the agency’s current client set, experience within your vertical, and ask for case studies for reference.
Content Marketing Manager
Do you have experience with clients in my industry/market?
An SEO strategy for a small brick-and-mortar business is much different than one for a nationwide e-commerce brand, so I would ask to see results for a website or client similar to your own business. They don’t have to be in the exact same market, but you want to know which areas the agency has the most success in.
Digital Marketing Manager
How will you target our buyers (as opposed to everybody on the internet) with your SEO strategy?
As a Content Strategist, the biggest mistake I see businesses making with SEO is failing to customize the SEO to the target audience. Most SEO companies do their keyword research without any knowledge about the specific buyer the website will serve.
When you’re optimizing a website, you need to start with a deep understanding of your buyers (ideally through persona research). Otherwise, you don’t really know what they want, need or expect. And you don’t know enough about their specific search behavior to drive a targeted SEO strategy.
Lead Content Strategist
Hello Marketing Agency
What do you know about my industry?
I think one of the most important questions to ask that gets neglected often is simply what do you know about my industry. The same SEO strategy will not work for all industries. Understanding the industry means the SEO company will understand what your business values, what conversion funnel to target whether form submission, calls or web traffic and what strategies to implement.
Has the agency worked in a similar niche as yours?
If your SEO agency has worked with similar kinds of clients or businesses as you in the past, you can be sure of your SEO success. Look for other intricacies like how they pulled traffic and search engine rankings, how they built a quality backlink profile for the past clients, and in what time.
Head of SEO
Mercer – Mettl Inc.
2. Can you provide examples of your SEO work?
Can you provide a recent example of a company like mine that you helped? What exact strategies did you use?
Now those may sound like generic questions but there’s a few key words in there to focus on. First, are the words “like mine”. I’ve found that a lot of SEO experts like to speak in generalities and use examples of companies that have nothing to do with the space my company operates in. For example, in my case, I don’t want to hear about how you helped a local dentist improve their Google rankings. I want to hear about a specific case study that I can personally relate to. Next, you might have noticed I used the term “exact” in the second question. This goes back to the generalities theme I mentioned above. As a business owner that operates online, I already know the basics about SEO. I don’t want to be inundated with a review of generic best SEO practices. I want to hear about concrete strategies the company has used in the past to help clients.
Show me a few examples of your work?
This will allow you to visibly see their work and results. For example, if they claim an average of say 30% organic traffic growth on average in 12 months, then Google analytics will either show this or it won’t. One can’t really fudge this. It’s important that you view a few examples here.
Have you worked with similar clients, in a similar niche and location as us? Please show me as many ‘proof of results’ as possible.
Don’t listen to any irrelevant answers about client confidentiality, and they should be able to show you something. If you’re trying to decide between different agencies, go by proof and case studies.
Out of the Box Innovations Ltd.
Can you show us some results you’ve produced?
Results are #1 in this industry and there are just too many fly-by-night SEO’s out there. So some good questions regarding results could be: Is there company ranking for their own market or service? What keywords are they ranking for themselves? When you Google the service your looking for does that company appear in the top 10? A professional consultant should be ranking in the top 10 for dozens of SEO (or marketing) + their city keywords.
Are their clients on page one? Some SEO’s can rank themselves but when it comes to their client, that’s another story. One does not always equal the other. Where are their clients ranking and ask to see proof. Some agencies don’t like to expose their clients rankings especially if you’re a competitor to their client, but any reputable SEO marketing agency should be able to provide you with verifiable results.
Craig De Borba
OnPoint Internet Marketing
3. How long will it take to see results?
What results can I expect in a month? 3 months? 6 months? A year?
There’s a lot of different companies out there offering “SEO” and honestly “SEO” can mean a lot of different things. This question I would use as a tool to separate out the more “scammy” services out there. Unless your budget is extraordinary, promising extraordinary results in one month would be a huge flag to me… and even if you had a huge budget I would still be skeptical. Finding a partner that sets realistic expectations with a long-term vision, but with a positive ROI equation, is key to making your SEO investment worthwhile.
When will I rank #1?
This question is super important to ask your potential SEO company because they shouldn’t be able to answer it. There’s no single way to get a company to rank #1 and because each industry is different there aren’t any guarantees. If they guarantee a specific position that you’ll hit in a certain time frame, they aren’t reputable. Sure there are hundreds of strategies that could help you hit the goal of ranking in the top 3, but a reputable SEO company knows that every client needs a different strategy to even get close. There is no one [strategy] fits all in SEO.
How long will it take to see results?
This question is a great way to see if the company you are hiring is legitimate or is just telling you what you want to hear. If they tell you anything earlier than 3 months you should see what their strategy is to make it happen. SEO takes time for Google to reward you for your efforts and if you are promised fast results they are either lying to get you to work with them over competitors or they are using black-hat methods that will end up causing Google to penalize you and your traffic will fall immensely. If they say a time longer than 3 months you should ask them what their timeline and strategy is to make your website successful!
Junior SEO Analyst
How fast can I rank on Google?
It’s worth asking this, even though the answer needs to be realistic. If the company claims they can get you ranking within weeks, or even a month, beware.
SEO takes time and ranking on the first page of Google could take months. What’s most important is the SEO company should understand your business first and use their skills to get you ranking high as soon as possible. With Google, there’s never a set timetable.
SEO Expert and Digital Marketing Consultant
I Know SEO
How fast can I rank?
If the marketer is honest, you should get an answer along the lines of “it depends.” Because rankings are an inexact science, any guarantees should be a red flag. With that said, estimates are perfectly legitimate. Mentions of domain age, market competition, and current rankings as factors are all good signs.
4. How do you handle link building?
What’s their philosophy about link building?
Their answer to this question is super important because it’ll give you an idea of what to expect for your website when it comes to inbound links. If they say that they use a private network of links, or PBN (aka Private Blog Network) that is a red flag and you should avoid working with them by all means. Google has cracked down on multiple PBNs in the past so this approach to link building is very risky. I would recommend working with an SEO agency that believes in ‘earned links’ so for example participating on popular blogs through commenting, or creating high quality content and sharing it through social networks to maximize engagement.
Founder & CEO
Little Dragon Media
Do you believe that you can create great content and then wait for backlinks organically?
What you are looking for in the answer:
- A deep understanding that high-quality content is the basic building block of SEO
- That content marketing and SEO have essentially merged
- A realistic view that promotional activities for your content are VERY important
- Some indication that the SEO knows the importance of the content creation / promotion ratio – which most get wrong.
- A basic awareness that backlinks are still the most important factor in the Google algorithm
Dr. Adam Stetzer
Can you build safe and valuable backlinks?
Link building is still a very strong part of building rank and authority for any given domain. But you need to make sure that the SEO you are hiring can build links naturally, and effectively prospect new linking opportunities that will not put your site in jeopardy of a potential Google Penalty. Yes links still work, but they are extremely sensitive. If you are building backlinks you need to seek out domains that are relevant, authoritative and well vetted from past and present penalties. A good SEO should be able to look at a possible linking opportunity and dissect not just the on page value of that site, but the value from social signals, as well as dig into that site’s past. See what sites link to that site, and what tertiary linking is being done. Trickle down authority is a real thing, and you need to make sure that you’re protecting your domain from a serious penalty.
The good thing is Google quality updates are far more frequent than they were years ago. So, if you do make a mistake and obtain a link from a spammy site, you can now disavow that domain and move on knowing your site will rebound. The only issue is, it’s not certain your site will completely rebound.
Senior SEO Specialist
I think one of the best questions you can ask before hiring an SEO agency is: what will the strategy for backlink profile improvement look like?
Backlinks are an important part of your overall SEO campaign so you want to know that you are investing in long lasting quality in this area. Not all backlinks are created equal, if you have one great link, it’s worth more than many low-quality links. Low quality links are often automated and spammy so its best to avoid, not only is it not likely to help your business grow online but it could also be detrimental and take you backwards.
Founder & Head of Growth
5. Have you used black hat tactics?
Have you experimented with black hat tactics? Have you ever been tempted to?
I would expect most SEOs to say that no, they haven’t ever tried anything black hat, but yes, they have been tempted to. The truth is, there’s no law against black hat SEO – they’re just the things Google wishes you wouldn’t do because it negatively impacts the search experience when low-value websites rank higher in the SERPs than they should. The threat of black-hat SEO is just that Google will catch on and punish your site so a good SEO who is concerned with your long-term success won’t attempt them – though she’ll always be tempted to because SEO is a results-driven service.
Digital Marketing Director
Do they use black hat SEO strategies?
A lot of shady agencies can indulge in multiple black hat SEO strategies to trick Google and then, end up inviting penalties that do more harm than good.
Head of SEO
Mercer – Mettl Inc.
6. How do you measure your progress and success?
How do you measure progress and success?
This will provide you with a clear answer of what the firm thinks is success and what they will be focusing on (e.g. rankings, organic traffic, leads etc.). It will also help you determine if their goals are in line with yours.
What metrics do you use to measure success?
An agency should measure success based on the real, concrete results it brings to your business. Keyword rankings and traffic in themselves are good indicators of progress, but they don’t pay the bills. If an agency is only focusing on keyword rankings, they could be missing the bigger picture: revenue for your business. A successful SEO campaign should not only have improved keyword rankings and traffic, but should bring in tangible results like leads, sales, clients and other valuable metrics to your business. If that’s your business’s bottom line, it should also be your agency’s.
Digital Marketing Manager
What KPIs do you use to measure success?
Of course, this will vary based on your SEO goals and general industry. But, a good SEO agency will have done their homework and will be familiar with the KPI set that best aligns with your organization. Don’t get hung up on vanity metrics, like overall website visits. Rather, look for a holistic KPI set that focuses on both the quantity and quality of site visitors and what they are doing on your website. How will the SEO efforts you are investing in help achieve larger organizational goals, like increase leads and/or sales? Metrics to look for might include increased rankings (but not a promise of a #1 ranking) for high-value, relevant keywords throughout the sales funnel, increased conversion rate on target pages, and an overall lift in organic search metrics.
Content Marketing Manager
7. How will you report your SEO results?
How will you report your SEO results?
You want to make sure that the SEO agency is transparent and that they will tell you everything about their results, warts and all. You also want to make sure they report to you at least twice a month. If not, they might become complacent and it’s a good thing that you stay on top of things at all times when you work with a third party.
Head of Digital Marketing
Your Parking Space
How can we track results? How do I know your SEO services are working?
Several of my first SEO clients have been people who previously paid another SEO company to “improve their SEO.” They were told that they have to wait a few months and they’ll start seeing results, but they weren’t given a way to actually track and see the results. I think this is a very important question to ask when you’re considering hiring someone to help you with your SEO. Are they going to help set you up with an SEO keyword tracking tool to monitor your rankings? I’ve even been known to just create a quick Excel sheet where we can manually do some searches every now and then to record the progress of a client’s website.
Simplified SEO Consulting
What is the frequency for communication and reporting? And what will our report include?
Determining ROI on your SEO investment is important, so you’ll want to be sure that you are getting regular reports and you have a regular point of contact during the relationship. Ask to see a sample report, if available, and ask for specifics about what the report entails and the frequency of reporting and in-person (or virtual) meetings.
Content Marketing Manager
8. What’s the pricing model?
Would you mind explaining your pricing structure?
SEO can be expensive. It’s (usually) not a limited time engagement. Understanding how you’re going to be charged can make a huge difference to your bottom line. Do they charge on a fixed-fee project basis? Do they charge by the hour? Are they open to contingent pricing based on performance? What kind of documentation will they provide you so that you know that you’re getting what you’re paying for?
Dr. Sean Carton
What’s the pricing model?
Goal-Based Pricing: A model where you pay only when one of the agreeable outcomes is achieved ranging from organic traffic to a boost in the organic keyword(s) to increase in search traffic across different geographies.
Backlink-Based Pricing: A model where you pay only when the agency makes backlinks from high authority websites. Filter with various parameters such as the domain authority, minimum search traffic the site gets, minimum organic keywords the site ranks for, and others.
Head of SEO
Mercer – Mettl
What is your pricing structure?
You want to make sure you aren’t being up-charged or locked into long term commitments without your knowledge. You should be made aware of the structure for pricing and payment up front. Monthly agreements provide you the most flexibility as a client because you can terminate your relationship if you become discouraged with results.
9. What happens if we decide to end the contract?
What happens if we decide to end the contract? Do we keep all the work you have done?
Knowing who owns what is an important part of your SEO investment decision. For example, you might be paying your SEO company to “build” you links, when really they’re subscribing to link network services. When you stop paying them, they might turn off the service and all your links go away. This raises another flag in that typically these links aren’t great quality and might speak to the level of service you’re going to get. Asking the question above is a good way to raise several possible flags. I like to think of SEO as a long term strategy where you’re investing in the equity of your site. Investing in work here that can get turned off can possibly be a big waste of your marketing budget.
Staying above your competitors in search engine results is never easy. Choosing the best SEO company can be the antidote to falling off the first page of results. The questions in the above list will get you closer to a final decision on an SEO company. Good luck in your hiring process!