Few would argue that most businesses can benefit from improving their online presence. Even traditional brick and mortar businesses can benefit by attracting new customers looking for relevant services online.
Because of this, the online landscape is becoming more and more competitive, and ranking on the first page of Google's search results can be extremely hard in certain industries.
We’re all busy people, just running the day-to-day operations of our business can take up more time than we have – so it can be difficult to give marketing and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) strategies the attention they require to be efficient.
Handing over your online marketing to an SEO specialist can have great results, but can also be a risky strategy. There are no formal qualifications or regulating bodies to keep standards high within SEO.
Because of this, pretty much anyone can call themselves an SEO specialist and claim they can get you to the top of search results.
To help you avoid making a costly mistake, I’d like to share some advice on what to look for when trying to find an SEO specialist. Here's what to ask for and – more importantly – what to avoid.
Do you need an agency or a freelancer?
The first thing you need to think about is whether you need an SEO agency or a freelancer.
There are pros and cons to both, which I will briefly cover here, but ultimately the decision probably comes down to the size of your business, your budget, and your expectations.
Pros of selecting an SEO agency
- Usually a diverse range of skills within a single company, allowing for different inputs and perspectives
- A larger collective pool of experience
- Multiple points of contact available if needed
- They will have previous experience across multiple industries
- There is the possibility of full service integration, such as paid search and email marketing
Cons of selecting an SEO agency
- Often more expensive hourly rates and minimum term contracts
- Possibility of dealing with an account manager rather than a dedicated SEO specialist
- A wider portfolio of clients may mean you get less attention – depending on your budget of course!
- Possibly less chance of short notice requests being possible due to other client commitments
- May take a bit longer to get started if they have a backlog of work
Quick disclaimer – I’ve generalised massively here, not all agencies are the same on these points.
Pros of selecting a freelance SEO specialist
- Lower hourly rates
- Can often start very quickly
- You feel like you get more of their time
- They can offer the “personal touch” that is missing from some agencies
- Often well connected within the industry – more trusted with “inside info” than agency staff
Cons of selecting a freelance SEO specialist
- Work alone and don't have a team to bounce ideas off
- Project scope is harder to scale with the growth of your company
- Smaller portfolio of clients to learn from and share insights from
Of course, there are other advantages and disadvantages, but this gives you a good idea of the broad pros and cons of each course of action.
Ultimately – if you’re just getting started with SEO – then either a freelancer or small agency will probably be a good starting point in terms of both the scope of the project and the costs.
The last thing you want to do is dive in with a large, expensive agency, as they will struggle to show ROI if your business isn’t ready for their advanced methods.
Something else worth noting is that an agency is a better choice when you have someone within your organisation who has the skills and time to “own” the relationship.
Agencies can do their jobs far better when they have someone as a main point of contact, who can help them get stuff done. If you don’t have someone like this, then a freelancer can help plug this gap in the short term.
Where to find SEO specialists
I’m fully aware of the irony in what I’m about to say, but I would not choose an SEO agency based solely on their Google ranking.
The main reason I say this is because I feel an agency shouldn’t need to rank number one for SEO in order to get clients.
The best agencies I’ve worked with and heard about get most of their business from referrals and word of mouth recommendations.
It is perfectly possible for an agency to rank well in Google AND have this – which is great – but, I’d be wary of any agencies that rank well but don’t seem to have much else to prove they are a good company.
Also, remember that just because their website can rank well for SEO related keywords doesn’t mean they'll automatically be able to do the same in your industry.
Instead, I’d recommend a few things:
- Attend online marketing events and meet-ups where you can chat to potential agencies in person
- Look for companies who share insight via blogs/webinars etc. to try and find out if they’re passionate about SEO and improving traffic for their clients
- Look for people who seem to understand how business works and the realities of competing online
What to look for in a proposal
Once you’ve found a few agencies or freelancers, you can contact them and register your interest – at which point they will probably start putting together a proposal for you. Here are a few things I’d recommend looking for during this stage of the process.
1 – They ask you LOTS of questions
If you get sent a proposal very quickly, and you haven’t even been asked any questions about your business or what you’re looking for, then I’d probably bin that proposal straight away. It either means they’ve used a template, or don’t really care about your business.
Instead, I’d be looking for someone who asks me questions about my business and appears to truly want to understand what makes it tick.
They shouldn't just ask about SEO activity, they should want to know as much as possible about how the business makes money, where it wants to go, and where opportunities may lie.
2 – Their plan is clearly customised to you
A template proposal is bad enough, but if the plan of SEO activity is also a template, then that’s a real bad sign.
I’d be looking for evidence that the plan of action is customised to my business, and the market I operate within. Every website is different, so the approach an SEO specialist takes and the tactics they use should also be different.
A bonus here would be for them to have looked at your company's strengths and weaknesses, and then identified opportunities off the back of these.
This not only shows they’ve spend time learning about your business, but also means they’ve spent time coming up with a unique proposal.
3 – They demonstrate real-life experience
Whilst many companies will not, by default, give you their client list, I’d still expect to see at least a couple of examples of the work they have done before, and how it has helped clients.
Bonus points are available for those who can show examples of work that directly relates to your business and what you’re looking for.
What to ask them
I’d recommend asking as much as possible during the proposal stage. Here are a few good questions:
1 – What is their approach to link building?
The Google Penguin update (April 2012), meant a number of link building techniques came under scrutiny from Google and, for the first time, websites that used them dropped in the rankings.
The two core techniques that you DON'T want to hear from an SEO company are article syndication and directory submissions.
These are very risky techniques, and ones that can actively hurt your website.
Instead, I’d want to hear about creative link building techniques that build upon the USPs of your business and website. These techniques are low risk, and involve building links from websites that relate to your target market.
2 – What is their opinion on the importance of technical SEO?
There's no doubt building links is one of the best ways to influence your rankings – however technical SEO should not be forgotten.
Building a solid base to work from is vital and, if you have big technical problems, the best links in the world won't get you anywhere.
There are a wealth of opportunities within technical SEO, and you can add a variety of features to your website to help drive more engagement and sales.
A good SEO specialist will be able to identify these and focus on technical wins – as well as link building wins.
3 – What does the future holds for online marketing?
This is always a fun one to ask, and there isn’t really a right or wrong answer. The answer given can provide you a good insight into the bigger picture thinking of the company, and how forward thinking they are, however.
4 – What they feel the key reporting metrics will be
As part of any engagement, they will be measured on a set of metrics. At this point, I’d recommend asking what they feel are important metrics to measure their success on.
My preferred answer here is pretty simple – revenue.
The bottom line for any business is revenue, and while there are a range of other useful metrics – such as traffic, rankings, social shares etc. – these should all tie back to the bottom line.
I’d be wary of any SEO specialist who doesn’t even mention revenue (or whatever your main goal is online, such as lead generation).
5 – Ask for references
Always, always ask for references and contact those references. Some SEO companies will be under NDAs for certain projects, but they can ALWAYS give at least a few references. You can even offer to sign an NDA if that will help.
If they’re not prepared to give you any recent or relevant references, I’d be very wary of using them.