…And the Answers You Should Expect to Hear.
The search engine optimization field is extremely fragmented, with companies ranging from solo independent consultants working from their garages to large established organizations. The barriers to entry are low. There is a ton of information online, allowing anyone who is interested to pick up information and profess themselves an SEO expert.
I wrote about this in my blog entry SEO Industry Has Some Snake Oil, But Also Much Success. I do think there are good SEO vendors out there now. But, in the fragmented SEO industry, the wide range of capabilities and prices make it more difficult to know which vendor provides the best value. Furthermore, SEO is a technical specialty that not many of us understand. The fact that we are dealing with a fragmented industry and uninformed buyers begs the question, “How does a lay person who doesn’t understand SEO choose a vendor?”
Below are the 12 questions you should ask any SEO vendor before hiring them. Before you talk to vendors, try to educate yourself about search engine optimization best practices so that you can make an informed decision. One source of SEO information is Search Engine News by Planet Ocean Communications. For the past ten years, I have found this to be a great source of SEO best practices. Planet Ocean rewrites the book on SEO and publishes the results to subscribers each month. Planet Ocean provides timely information on search engine algorithm changes and how to deal with them. With their service, you can get accurate, high-level information and the ability to drill down into the how-to when you want. Even if you don’t do the SEO work, it might be a good idea to subscribe to stay current so that you can better select and then manage your SEO vendor.
12 Questions to Ask When Choosing an SEO Vendor
1. Can you provide me with references I can contact about your performance, results, responsiveness, etc.?
The SEO vendor should easily give you at least 3 references. Ask the references if their expecations were met and how (timeliness, results, professionalism, ability to explain technology, etc.).
2. What methodologies or best practices do you use in search engine optimization?
You should hear that the vendor uses white hat SEO techniques, focuses on keyword analysis and content updates, manually generates quality inbound links, and uses cascading style sheets or other techniques to separate a web page’s content from its design. The vendor should NOT do black hat SEO practices such as link farming, keyword stuffing, or doorway or gateway pages.
3. What steps does the SEO vendor take to understand your business before search engine optimization?
The SEO vendor should take some time to learn about your business so they know which audiences you need to target and the best way to reach those audiences through SEO. You should get a sense of how strategic the vendor is and how much they can think outside of the box to make your SEO project a success.
4. How do you conduct an analysis to determine what needs to be done for our SEO project?
The SEO vendor should have a proven methodology including a checklist of steps they go through to anayze your SEO needs. Find out if they reverse engineer competitor sites to uncover techniques and opportunities. Ask them what tools they use for keyword analysis, and find out if they use any other automated tools to assess your web site.
5. What methodology do you use to you submit our web site URL to online directories?
Submission to key online directories should be done manually, not through automatic submission programs. The automatic programs have been recognized by certain search engines who dismiss the submissions as spam.
6. What features do you recommend we add to our web site to enhance SEO?
Current practices call for inclusion of a variety of media to improve search engine performance. This is mainly because Google places more emphasis on video, audio and blogs on web sites in search engine results.
7. How do you recommend we go about building links to our site from other sites?
There are programs that automate creating links to your web site. But the major search engines recognize when you get large numbers of links into your web site in a short period of time and will rank your site lower as a result. You are better off getting a few links from related, quality web sites each week to build your incoming links.
8. Is SEO your only service or do you have others?
Find out if search engine optimization is the focus of the vendors you talk to or if it is a sideline to other services they offer like web development and marketing. The most important factors in your decision are the quality of the service the SEO vendor provides and the results their work gets for you. But it’s important to know if SEO is the core service a vendor offers or a sideline that they provide using someone else’s automated tools.
9. How many years of SEO experience do you have?
The longer an SEO vendor has been practicing the art, the better. More years experience means that the vendor has dealt with more optimization issues and challenges and (presumably) has found solutions. SEO vendors with more experience will have a better perspective on the history of search engine optimization and understand how work-arounds to search engine algorithms are negatives once the search engines figure them out and rank web sites that use them lower or delist them altogether.
10. How do you stay up-to-date with the ever-changing search engine algorithms and techniques for optimization?
SEO vendors should have some process for staying up to date on algorithm changes and proven techniques for SEO success. The Search Engine News service that I mentioned above is one of several reputable service that you can follow. In addition, SEO vendors should be part of industry associations and professional groups (see next question).
11. From Lee Odden’s blog entry: Have you been vetted and listed in industry directories? Selection guides?
If SEO vendors are serious about SEO, they probably will have a presence in the industry and may speak at industry conferences and programs. Some directories and listings of SEO vendors include SEMPO, SEOConsultants, TopSEO.com, Marketing Sherpa’s SEO Guide, and Marketing Profs Vendor Selector.
12. How do you charge for your services? Hourly or project? Are there ongoing costs to maintain the SEO?
Any vagueness in the SEO vendor responses about pricing or ongoing, monthly maintenance fees and length of the process should raise a red flag. It is not unusual for a good SEO project to begin with initial programming and changes and then continue for at least six months with monthly analysis, tweaks to keywords and programming changes. The analysis and tweaks on an ongoing basis should not be expensive, especially if the SEO vendor uses automated tools to do the analysis. Small keyword and program tweaks take do not take much time to do.
I hope these 12 questions help those of you who are choosing an SEO vendor. SEO vendors – did I leave anything out? Please comment using the link at the end of the page.