Snake oil salesmen. Scam artists. Outdated, ineffective tactics.
When you’re thinking about hiring an SEO agency or an in-house SEO team, you want to avoid any and all of the above. But with so many people claiming to be SEO experts these days, how can you weed out the con men and find a capable SEO partner that’s worth the investment?
There’s good news. Even if you don’t know much — or anything — about SEO, there are still questions you can ask that will help you determine if a digital agency is worth hiring or just making promises they can’t keep.
This in-depth guide will not only tell you the questions to ask an SEO agency you are considering hiring, but also the answers you want to hear and the rationale behind them.
1. Can You Guarantee Specific Results?
The best answer: “No. Nobody can.”
Anyone who tells you they can guarantee you a top spot or that they have a “relationship” with a search engine is either lying or doing something shady and/or dangerous.
While most agencies will tell you they’re confident based on their past work that they can help you achieve your business goals, anyone who promises a specific ranking or traffic level is blowing smoke.
With that being said, your SEO Agency should be able to work with you to forecast general scenarios based on your budget, your specific strategy, and your competition.
2. How Long Will It Take to See Results?
The best answer: “I’ll need to check how competitive your niche is, but typically it takes about three to six months to start seeing results.”
As an immediate disqualifier, write off any businesses that promise “instant” results or tell you you’ll be at the top of the search engines two weeks from now. The SEO techniques they’re using aren’t sustainable, and they’re not being upfront with you about what’s really possible with SEO.
The simple truth about SEO is that it takes time. It may sound like a prospective SEO company is stalling when they tell you that it may take three to six months to see results, but it helps to understand that SEO is not some sort of dark magic. There are measurable metrics at work that need to be influenced in order to improve your ranking.
For example, part of what search engines measure to determine your rankings are the number of links pointing to your website as well as the quality of those links. If you’re a brand-new website in a competitive niche, your competitors have already had time to get a head start in building links and driving up the metrics that influence search position.
Different niches come with different levels of competition. There are some that may only take a few months to see results, and others that could take significant time to see any returns.
That’s just the nature of SEO — so if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
That said, there are some reasonable expectations you can have when choosing an SEO agency. For starters, they should be sending you deliverables from the moment the campaign kicks off, detailing what they’re doing, why, and how the impact will be measured. Some of these deliverables might include:
- A strategy document.
- A keyword-mapping document (with proposed page titles, meta-descriptions).
- Recommendations for improvements to your on-page content.
- Recommendations for technical improvements (site architecture, load time, etc.).
- A report on the links they’ve been able to secure.
- A monthly report on changes in rankings, traffic, and onsite metrics.
What you’re watching for is deliverables that tell you what changes are being made, which links are being built, what content is being produced, and so on.
If you’re not receiving ANYTHING at all, chances are good the agency isn’t doing very much, either.
As for the results you can expect — that’s a tricky one. Sometimes, traffic may actually get a little worse before they get better. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and as your agency revamps your website, re-maps your keywords to be more relevant, and improves the overall experience for customers, Google may need to re-crawl your site to better understand the changes being made.
However, if you do experience drop-off, it shouldn’t persist for months before the trend is reversed. What you want to watch for is incremental growth in qualified (buying) traffic, not just traffic on the whole. Keep an eye on year-over-year sales numbers and metrics like back link counts, rankings, and qualified leads.
3. Have You Ever Worked With a Business Like Mine Before?
The best answer: “You bet! Here are a few examples,” or, “No, but we’ve worked with businesses in a similar situation — here’s how we helped them.”
One of the best ways to know if an SEO agency can handle your project is if they’ve already achieved demonstrable returns in the same niche. If they have, they’ll know what it took to get results and should be able to explain the strategy they used.
But if they haven’t, it shouldn’t immediately disqualify them as a lead — what you’re really trying to learn through this question is how well your company is a fit with their agency, and vice-versa.
- If you’re a very large company with a content-heavy website (thousands of pages), a company used to working with small businesses may struggle to deal with the scope of the work necessary to help you.
- If you’re an e-commerce website, an SEO firm who has limited experience in e-commerce may have a tough time adapting to the content and structural limitations of an e-commerce website.
- If you’re in a niche with strong governmental restrictions or tricky legal requirements (like pharmacy, law, etc.), a company who isn’t well acquainted will need to be brought up to speed on what’s acceptable and what’s not relative to your niche.
4. How Has SEO Changed in the Past Few Years?
The best answer: “Things have changed an awful lot …”
Asking how an agency “stays current” with their tactics and strategies is all but worthless if you don’t know how SEO has changed yourself. They can tell you they read a lot of industry blogs and watch videos from Google, but what does that actually tell you?
But this question is still hugely important, because it gives you a chance to assess three things:
- Does the agency know the specific names and timelines of Google’s important changes to search?
- Can they explain how those changes have impacted the way SEO is done?
- Can they explain all of this in plain English?
If an SEO agency maintains that SEO is “more or less the same,” tread carefully. While it is true that the core fundamentals haven’t changed, there are a lot of specific tactics that have had to be updated in order to keep up with the updates. If they can’t walk you through specific updates and tell you how they’ll impact your business, take caution. You need an SEO provider that can speak both tech and business in plain English.
5. What Parts of the SEO Process Do You Outsource?
The best answer: “While we handle all of our strategy in house, we do outsource X to [credible provider]” or “We handle everything in house — would you like to meet our team?”
Let’s make one thing clear: Outsourcing itself is not a problem. Most agencies outsource at least a part of their process, and that can be a very good thing:
- Outsourcing mundane or repetitive tasks to capable workers can help cut overhead and reduce the cost of your SEO campaign.
- Outsourcing specialized tasks (like outreach) to highly qualified third parties can expand an agency’s capabilities and improve the quality of the work you get back.
But outsourcing is also tricky, because if the agency gives too much leeway to outsourced help or outsources the work to unqualified parties who don’t really know what they’re doing, the results can be disastrous.
This question forces agencies to own up about not only the parts of the process they call in help for, but then opens the floor up for follow-up questions into what that outsourcing process looks like and how they choose their vendors.
There are a few outsourced jobs you should pay particular attention to, however:
- Strategy — If the agency doesn’t have the know-how to craft a strategy on their own, there’s absolutely no reason you should be hiring them.
- Link building — How an agency builds their links is vital, and if they’re shipping off the task to a cheap third party without doing quality control, that’s a fast track to finding yourself slapped with a penalty. If a potential SEO provider mentions they outsource link building, question #5 on our list becomes crucial for them to answer correctly.
- Content creation — Your content is your message, and the message you send online is how your business will be perceived by your customers. You want to be VERY careful about who gets to handle the content you put your brand name on. If the agency outsources content, you’ll want to know if the writers are native English speakers, where they are based, and what quality assurance measures are in place to keep things consistent.
6. What’s Your Link-Building Process?
The best answer: “We take a content-first approach to attracting links while also capitalizing on safe, proven outreach and content promotion methods.”
This question is incredibly crucial, because a poor link-building strategy will not only waste your money — it could land you on the wrong end of a manual penalty or algorithm update. What you’re looking to hear is that the agency in question understands that:
- The sources of links must be relevant to your specific business.
- Links need to be accrued naturally over time, not blasted out.
- Anchor text (the text of the link) should be varied and natural.
- Tactics like bulk blog commenting, spamming in forums, or submitting to low quality generic directories are not valid approaches.
- A manual approach to building links is best. Blasting out links via software is an easy way to get in trouble.
You want to hear that the agency considers your audience and your niche before building links, and knows how to avoid being penalized for breaking Google’s terms of service.
(Want a quick primer on link building? Our “SEO 101: Does Link Building Still Work?” article will help!)
7. How Do You Choose the Keywords We’ll Be Targeting?
The best answer: “It’s a combination of relevance, searcher intent, traffic volumes, and competition level.”
If the only thing your agency says is “traffic level,” that’s a problem. SEO is not about driving the greatest amount of traffic — it’s about driving the most-targeted traffic.
Relevance of the keyword to your offering is crucial, but equally important is trying to understand the head space of the person making the search. Are they high in the marketing funnel, or near the bottom?
Also critical is the competition level. Even if a phrase receives enormous traffic volume, if you cannot rank for it, there’s no point in wasting money trying.
8. What Metrics Do You Think Are Most Important to Measure?
The best answer: “It’s multi-faceted, but the most important thing is that we’re driving leads and sales.”
Rankings, traffic, and back-link numbers are all very important things to monitor, and I’m certainly not saying your SEO should be ignoring them.
But effective SEO means doing more than just increasing rankings, decreasing bounce rates, or improving your traffic levels. More time on-site means nothing if that traffic never buys from you, and rankings only matter if they’re helping to generate qualified leads.
Ultimately, you want an agency that’s able to tie their SEO efforts back into your bottom line. Can they measure the leads they’re generating? How will they calculate SEO’s impact on your overall sales?
You need an agency who sees the big picture.
9. What Will the Process for Implementing Changes Look Like?
The best answer: “Anything that lets you know they have a system in place and that they understand changes will need to be made.”
One of the easiest ways to spot a scammy SEO agency is that they don’t ask you to change anything or come back with any recommendations for you to implement. That’s just not how SEO works; a site needs to be changed to be optimized.
As a client, you need to have an understanding of which specific changes your SEO partner is capable of implementing without you, which will involve your input, and how recommendations will be presented. It needs to be clear from the very beginning whose responsibility it will be for making updates to things like your content, website architecture, local listings, and so on.
Knowing who you need to talk to and how they’ll communicate (monthly meetings, ongoing update e-mails, etc.) will be important before moving forward.
10. What Do Your Reports Look Like, and Can I See One?
The best answer: “Absolutely! Here’s an example of what we send out clients. Let’s talk through it.”
If you can’t understand the way the information is presented, it’s going to create all kinds of conflict internally.
This is your chance to get an inside look at how the agency presents their results, outlines their recommendations, and showcases the metrics that matter.
You want to see a report that’s clearly explained in a language you actually understand. Graphics are great, but they should make it easier to see what’s going on — not just more colorful.
The key points should be summarized for easy reading (or your C-Levels will get impatient and tune out), but there should also be a reasonable level of detail.
The report should clearly answer:
- What was done, and why?
- What have the impacts of previous changes been?
- What kinds of returns have been generated?
- What obstacles still stand in the way?
- What must be done to overcome them?
- What’s are the next steps?
Remember that what’s reported is what’s measured, and the key metrics the agency told you they measure success by should be plain as day.
Bonus: Can You Walk Me Through a Few of Your Best Case Studies?
The best answer: “Sure! Here are a few that I know you’ll find interesting.”
The single best way to evaluate an SEO agency is to look at their past work and ask a lot of questions, like:
- “What, specifically, did you do to achieve this outcome?”
- “Why did you take that approach?”
- “Have the results continued to grow?”
- “What made this client/niche challenging, and how did you overcome it?”
Case studies are shiny examples of an agency’s best work. If they don’t have any, that should be cause for concern. While numbers and names may be anonymized because of non-disclosure agreements, you should still be able to get a good story or two out of the agency as to how they helped a specific client achieve a specific outcome.
Make an Informed Decision!
While it might be intimidating to interview different SEO providers, asking the right questions at the beginning of the relationship will only set you up for success. Be bold, ask questions, listen closely, and don’t be afraid to walk away. Those who know what they’re doing will be remarkably open and friendly about their processes, while those who aren’t will reveal themselves as the unqualified options they are. If you’re interested in learning what an up-to-date SEO strategy for your business can look like, let’s talk.