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I got a lot of stick recently for daring to say we Small Business types should try to do Search Engine Optimisation for ourselves instead of hiring expensive agencies or consultants.

So let me clear a few things up.

I think hiring an SEO type is fine if:

  • You don’t want to learn SEO – We all have a lot on our plates, and making informed decisions about what you do and don’t want to learn/do yourself is crucial to your business success.
  • You can afford it – You’re looking at anything from $1,000 (for the cheapest) to $15,000 or more a month. And most will ask you to commit to at least six months.
  • You can justify it – You feel the cost will be worth the return on investment.

But remember – SEO is a gamble

(In fact, if they offer any kind of “Page 1 in 6 weeks” type promise, it’s a good sign that they are f**kwits.)

Often, the only way to find out if using an SEO consultant is right for your business, is to give it a go and see what happens.

But if you’re going to take the plunge and use an SEO agency, how can you tell if they’re legitimate experts?

How can you be sure they’re not snake oil SEO salesman trying to steal your hard-earned dollars with big promises?

Here are few questions that could help you out:

How will you measure my site’s success?Snail Oil SEO

If they say rankings, put the phone down immediately. While ranking is important, it’s not the be all and end all. You need an SEO type who can see the full picture and not only help your site rank but also help you turn prospects into customers.

What’s your first move?

A good SEO type will generally start with an audit of your existing site. They’ll evaluate it against a set of technical criteria—structure, content, back links, social media reach and many other factors. Then they’ll create a list of fixes.

What’s your plan?

A qualified SEO type should be able to map out what they plan to do each month, and explain why they’re following that particular plan. If they talk about a secret formula, ask them to explain it.

SEO is not a dark art that only the technically-minded can comprehend.

If they start talking in terms of numbers, such as 1,000 directory listings or 100 article submissions, be worried. Good SEO is about quality, not quantity, and one good piece of content can trump a thousand crappy links.

How will they update me?

Find out how and when they’ll be sharing results with you. Who is your point of contact? When will you meet to discuss tactics? Open communication is one of the main reasons SEO relationships fail, so it’s important to get it locked down from the start.

Some of the things you should be asking for are:

  • Link building reports – so you can check on the link quality
  • Monthly results reports
  • Quarterly reviews – where you sit down together and work out next steps.

What’s your speciality?

Most SEO types specialise in one area or another. For me, it’s content. For others, it might be link building.

Ask them to talk about their area of expertise in more detail, and why they think it’s important. If you hear passion and enthusiasm in their voice, it’s an encouraging sign.

How do you get links?

Give your SEO three link target websites, and ask what strategy they’d use to get a link from each of them. Again, listen to their answer. Are they clear or confusing? Does their answer sound feasible or fanciful?

GoogleWhat will the next Google algorithm update mean for SEO?

No SEO has intimate knowledge of exactly how Google’s algorithm works, and if they pretend they do they’re big fat liars. Sure they can guess, but they shouldn’t be absolute about anything. There are fine lines between confidence, arrogance and idiocy.

Oh, and as for the whole “We know someone at Google” line, I call bullsh*t.

Who else have they worked with?

Ask for the contact details of previous clients, and then get their feedback. Are their previous clients happy with what they got? If your SEO company is reluctant to give out references, I’d be a little concerned.

Anyone can get a site ranking short-term, but dodgy tactics will burn them after a while.”

Luke Chapman, SEO Manager at VroomVroomVroom

Of course you could ask many other questions, but these should give you an idea of your SEO’s character. If you want more tips, check out this excellent advice from Google themselves.

Two questions to ask yourself

1. Did they contact you?

You may be okay with a little cold selling now and again (personally I’m not). But I’ve never emailed or called a client out of the blue trying to sell my services. I get most of my work through word of mouth, so I don’t need to.

If a company has to randomly email you, what does that say about their expertise and demand for their services?

As Dave Elliott from BBI Brandboost puts it:

“If they get in touch with you through your enquiry form, RUN!”

How did you feel after the call?

  • Are they easy to talk to, friendly, understandable and calm?
  • Do you feel you were getting straight answers?
  • Did they give you time to ask your questions, or was it a monologue?

If they jabber gobbledygook about processes, waffled on about algorithms, used a heap of techie jargon and generally made it sound totally confusing, I’d recommend moving on.

If your SEO gives you a bad vibe, don’t brush it off. Trust your gut, and never ignore your instincts.

Three quick SEO scams to watch out for
Ranking Chart

  1. ‘We’ll add your site to hundreds of search engines’: No doubt your audience uses only one or two search engines.
    Which ones are they using? They’re the only ones you should care about.
  2. ‘We’ll get you first page ranking’: A page one position sounds pretty good, right? But in reality it can mean as little as 2.4% of the traffic share for that keyword.As outlined in this article ‘4 Golden Rules of Buying SEO”:“Page 1 is great, but positions 7-10 are not.”
  3.  ‘We’ll get you position one ranking for <random phrase>’: Getting you to the top spot for some random phrase (that no one searches for and has zero competition) is pretty easy.Again, from Tolliday:
    “For an obscure keyword that no one is actually using, ranking at #1 doesn’t count for much.”

Setting Key Performance Indicators

Agreeing on specific goals for your SEO company is important. So what should they look like? James Norquay recommends the following in his article ‘Tips for Selecting a company to do your SEO’.

1. Increase in organic and branded SEO traffic by x per month.
2. Increase in conversions from organic traffic by x per month.
3. Increase in referral traffic as a result of link building by x per month.

You may also have additional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for your business, such as increasing newsletter signups or subscriptions to your YouTube channel.

Self-education is STILL important

Even if you do decide to pay an expert to do your SEO, it’s worthwhile understanding what’s what.

I don’t care what anyone says. You can learn the basics of SEO in a few weeks. The Beginner’s Guide to SEO is a great place to start.

Beginners Guide to SEO

Over to you

Are you working with an SEO company? How is it going? What questions did you ask to make sure they were right for your business? Share your thoughts below.

Thanks to the people I’ve mentioned, as well as Alistair Lattimore, Kyle Bullock, Joel Chudleigh, and Neha Bawa for their thoughtful contributions to this article.

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