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Selecting an SEO Firm: The What, How, and Who

Mark Jackson
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who-what-where-when-why-howBuying into SEO is a difficult process. Without at least a basic understanding of SEO, it's really tough to tell the difference between someone who knows their stuff and someone who talks a great game without backing it up with results.

I’ve previously written about why I talk folks out of SEO programs, much of the time. But, let’s assume that you do want to hire someone (an agency?).

Many companies looking for SEO help – even those with a decent understanding of SEO – try their best to shop around, but they always end up with two simple questions:

  • What is this firm going to do for me?
  • How much do they cost?

When you're hiring for a particular position in any business, you're looking at that individual's background. You aren't just hiring them based on how much they cost, or what they say that they will (or can) do. You're hiring them based on their resume, their references, and their history of performance.

For some reason, these basic principles get lost for people when they search for an SEO company (or hire an in-house optimizer). By selecting an agency or employee purely on cost, you could be setting yourself up for trouble ahead.

The "What" of SEO

You need to know what the scope of work is when proposals are put together for SEO efforts. That is one reason why creating a SEO request for proposal (RFP) is important.

If you were designing a website, or even building a house, wouldn't you determine the scope of work? So, too, should you determine the scope of work for SEO efforts:

  • What needs to be done? 
  • What is the competitive landscape
  • What will the SEO firm do, and what internal resources will you put against the effort? 
  • Do you have a blog? Can you create one? 
  • Can you add copy to existing web pages? 
  • Can you create new pages of content? 
  • Who writes the content? 
  • Can structural changes be made to your website? 
  • Will the SEO firm provide link building
  • Will social media marketing be part of the project?

The "How" of SEO

After you've developed a scope of work, let's assume that two different firms send proposals that look very similar. It's safe to assume that different SEO firms have a different approach/process to how they work.

  • Does the SEO firm have a process that they follow? 
  • Is their methodology for link building ethical? That’s become even more important after recent Google changes, such as Penguin
  • Does the SEO firm work to help you enhance your web presence, or are they vague in telling you how they will go about their business? 
  • Do they dig into analytics, usability, and conversion rate optimization?

Transparency in SEO is very important. If an unethical individual does something to your site that's against search engine guidelines, you are still the one responsible for your website, and it will be your site that's penalized.

The "Who" of SEO

Let's assume that you're still looking at two similar proposals. It's the individuals working on your SEO who will determine the success of this effort.

This is a major reason why some SEO companies charge $300 per month and others charge $20,000 per month. A recent graduate is going to cost a lot less than a 10-year SEO veteran. That's just a fact. Mind you, there are a number of large agencies that still have junior-level staff doing a lot of the heavy-lifting, so be sure that you’re aware of who is doing what.

If you were hiring for any other position in your company, this would make perfect sense to you. For some reason, this is lost when people are "comparison shopping" SEO companies.

Even after considering the "who," it also boils down to how much of that individual's time you can afford. SEO companies are a service-based business. They're selling their time.

Certainly, they will have tools that they pay for (and these costs are shared among the clients), but time is money. And some people's time costs more than other people's time. You should also consider all the time that these seasoned professionals have put into research, reading, studying, attending conferences, and otherwise honing their craft.

The "Who" and "How" are Every Bit as Important as the "What"

If you were to hire a company that was less than ethical (their approach to link building was buying as many links from whatever cheap sources that they could find), or put individuals on your project that had perhaps a handful of SEO efforts under their belt, or work was outsourced to individuals that don't even work for the company that you've hired, that is arguably more important to know than the "what." Keep this in mind as you're going through the challenge of hiring an SEO company or an individual.

Check references, see rankings for yourself (against keywords that "matter"), get information on the individuals that would be working on the efforts, and talk to the company about their process. Think of this in the same manner that you might if you were interviewing an individual for any other position with your company.

You want someone with high integrity, energy, enthusiasm, a likeable personality, and a good approach to business. They should have a solid understanding of the job that you're hiring them for, and a plan for success.

After you’ve sorted through all of this, the other thing that I highly recommend is to get some case studies.

You can ask these individuals to show work that they’ve done, describe the types of deliverables that were associated with the efforts and then cross-check their work with a tool like SEMrush, so that you can see the types of exposure their previous/current projects have across various keywords, the “value” of the traffic (SEMrush estimates this by estimating how many clicks they get for various keywords and what it would have – otherwise – cost them to purchase the traffic via AdWords).

If you can take what you see from SEMrush, what you glean from your discussions with the individual/company, and piece that together with what you hear from their references, you’ll have a much better sense as to whether you’ve found the right person/company to assist you with your efforts.


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