SEO is both complex and time consuming, which means there are hundreds or thousands of companies available who will happily charge you a fee to do it all for you. Some of these companies are obvious scams, some will use black hat techniques on the sly and others will be well-intentioned but poor. Some few will be excellent and reasonably priced, and the best will charge an exorbitant amount.
With the well-being of your site at stake, not to mention a sizable budget, you don’t want to make the wrong choice. Here are a bunch of things to look for when you’re investigating companies.
Warning Signs of a Bad SEO Company
These are some questions you can ask to find out whether or not the SEO company you’re investigating is going to pants you, steal your wallet and run away whooping.
1. Do they have any absolute guarantees about your search ranking?
“Guaranteed 48 hour indexing!” “Guaranteed 1st spot in Google’s search results!” SEO is a very flexible industry. It can be a trivially easy matter to rank first in a very narrow niche. In a highly competitive niche, it might take years of dedicated work. Any company that claims to offer such guarantees is just trying to make themselves sound good to people who don’t know any better.
2. Do they have a negative reputation across the Internet?
What’s the first thing you do when investigating a new company online? Chances are you Google their name and look for reviews. If the company you’re investigating has a lot of negative reviews – “1 star: this company used keyword spam and also kicked my dog” – you should avoid them. You might also want to look into signs of reputation management, so you can get a hunch if they’ve been suppressing negative reviews with a flood of positive paid reviews.
3. Do they have few or no past customers willing to recommend their services?
A good SEO company should have a handful of past clients, preferably recognizable or big-name clients, who are willing to vouch for their services. They should, ideally, provide contact information you can use to follow up. If they have nothing, or the company looks shady, you may be dealing with a scammer. They could just be new, but you should probably play it safe.
4. Do they claim copyright or ownership of the work they do for you?
It’s your website. If the company you’re hiring demands the copyright to the content or the code they write, run away. Just end the interview, walk out the door and break into a trot. What happens if you part ways? They take back the content they wrote, leave you with a crippled site, and force you to scramble for repairs.
5. Do they want access to your site for a free trial?
For many services, a free trial is great. It lets you figure out if you like the service, and if you do, you can always subscribe. With SEO, you can’t afford a free trial. The reason is, to do any detailed SEO work, a good company will need passwords to access your code. If they’re offering a free trial, they might just take your passwords, hijack your sites and disappear.
6. Do they claim to submit your site to hundreds of search engines?
If they claim they can submit you to every search engine under the sun, you should check their pulse. Clearly they’ve been dead to the world for at least ten years. Search engine submission as a whole is irrelevant. Submission to search engines that aren’t Google and Bing is even more irrelevant. Unless you really think the one hit you’ll get from WackoSearch.com is worth it.
7. Did they come to you looking to ply their trade?
If the reason you’ve heard of this SEO firm is because they showed up in your email inbox one day, I have a Nigerian prince I’d like to introduce you to.
8. Do they pursue aggressive action against competitors?
“Aggressive action” against your competitors generally means negative SEO. Unless your competitor is brand new, negative SEO probably isn’t going to do much. On one hand, even if it works, it probably won’t be traced back to you. On the other hand, it’s pretty unethical, and it’s hard to run a company when you can’t sleep at night.
9. Do they have any trade secrets?
Ask them how they’re going to run your SEO, how they’re going to modify your site. If they can’t or won’t tell you, they’re hiding something. There are no trade secrets in SEO; the best and brightest minds share their information openly online.
10. What tools do they use to assist their SEO efforts?
What you’re looking for as an answer here are things like Google Analytics, HootSuite, Buffer and the like. If they’re telling you they use LinkBuilder9000 and AutomaticKeywordStuffer Supreme Edition, well, you know the drill.
Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Company
If you’re pretty sure the company you have in mind isn’t going to scam you or use unethical black hat techniques, here are some questions you can ask to make sure the company is a good fit for your business.
11. Do they offer a free website audit to give you an idea of what work will be needed?
This is different from the free trial mentioned above. A website audit will investigate your site from the outside and give you an estimate of what issues you’ll need to take care of so you can rank.
12. How much will they charge for their services?
Obviously, you want to know how much it’s going to cost. If the cost is too low, you might want to question why it’s so low. If it’s too high, well, they’re outside of your price range and you can probably call off negotiations.
13. Will they run your advertising, social media and content creation?
Some SEO companies will give your site a once-over. Others will introduce systems you can use to keep up with proper techniques. Some will train your employees. The best will have systems to run your social media, your advertising, your content creation and everything else on an ongoing basis.
14. Will they perform a one-time upgrade, or will their services be ongoing?
Chances are fairly good that you want more than just a one-time upgrade. Without training or an ongoing contract, there’s no guarantee you won’t just make the same mistakes again. The exception to this is if you’re hiring a company specifically to undo the damage done by another.
15. How often will they keep in touch?
Frequent communication is good. You need to know what’s going on with your site. Weekly conference calls or meetings are a good idea.
16. How do they handle backlink generation?
There are a ton of ways you can get backlinks to your site. Some of them are pretty bad methods that will probably hurt you. Some are safe, if they’re done properly. Some are slow, but perfectly valuable in the long term. Figure out which your company uses.
17. What are their standards for quality content?
Teach yourself a little something about the basic quality standards of Google Panda. Then ask questions of your company to figure out where they stand. If they’re barely skirting by on the minimum quality, they may get you caught by a penalty.
18. What analytics do they use to measure success?
Google Analytics is the big one. A heatmap is also useful. If they aren’t using analytics or they’re trying to use their own proprietary solution, they’re wasting their time.
19. How long has their company been doing SEO?
A company with a long history is probably a company that’s doing something right. Either that, or they’re very persistent and very, very broke.
20. What is their contingency plan in the event of a penalty?
Google penalties are not joke, and they should not be made light of. Thankfully, you don’t need to weep and worry over one; you can fix the problems and heal the damage done to your site. Your primary question should be what recompense you get from the company that drove you in the wrong direction.
Questions Specific to Local Businesses
If you’re a company with a physical location, particularly a small local business, you have a few more specific concerns to address.
21. Does the company have an office nearby?
While it’s not essential, having a nearby office means you can meet face to face. It also means you have an extra means of contact in an emergency.
22. Do they know how to get ranked in the Google carousel?
The carousel is more influential to local businesses in most cases than the organic results, and it’s all because of Pigeon. If your chosen company doesn’t know how to get ranked in the carousel, they’re doing you a disservice.
23. Do they claim and optimize your business directory profiles?
Yelp, Urban Spoon, the Yellow Pages, Google+; all of these sites have business pages you can claim and optimize for your business. Your ideal company will identify, take over and optimize any and all relevant directory pages.
24. Do they know what local influencers can assist your business?
A link from the Chicago Tribune will do your Chicago business more good than a link from Dave’s Fun Blog. These sites rank in the organic results; get them to point to you.
25. How do they handle local keywords?
It’s important to have your location mentioned in relevant locations, but you can’t force a local keyword into a specific density, lest you fall victim to keyword stuffing.