Posted by randfish
When it comes to choosing a reputable company to manage your SEO, there’s both a right way and a wrong way to go about the hiring process. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand identifies common pitfalls to avoid and advice to take when it comes to selecting an agency or consultant to optimize your site for search engines. SEOs, take note: there are great ideas here for how to market yourselves to clients, as well!
Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about how to choose a good SEO company, a consultant or an agency. It could be an independent person. What I want to do as we get into this is help you to understand some of the mechanics behind SEO consulting work. This is a critical hire, because if SEO is important to your business, then the choice of which company or person to use is going to have a huge impact, probably one of the biggest impacts on whether you get great results. There are a bunch of mistakes that people make when they go down this selecting an SEO company path.
Don’t make these mistakes
Mistake #1: Using Google as your filter
The logic makes a lot of sense here if you think about it simplistically. Simplistic thinking is a good SEO company will do a great job ranking for SEO company or SEO consultant or SEO consultant plus my city name. So if I’m looking for the best SEO in Seattle, I have only to Google “best SEO Seattle” and surely the number-one company will show up at the top. But, unfortunately, what happens is most of the very good companies, the ones that are in high demand, the ones that do consistently great work and get great referrals, they don’t actually need to rank here. They’re overwhelmed with clients all the time because their clients refer them to people and lots of people in their network refer folks to them. They have a high retention of clients. Lots of people are very satisfied. They’re making plenty of money and they’re incredibly busy, so they don’t spend any work optimizing their own website to get new clients.
As a result, you are often left with some of the dregs here. Many of the companies that rank well for best SEO plus city name or best SEO plus a region or plus a particular specialty, like best ecommerce SEO, are not the best. They are, in fact, the folks who are simply without any client work and so they’re concentrating all their energy on trying to get new clients. Sometimes, maybe, you can find some good folks in there. It’s just not a great filter.
Mistake #2: Trusting “Top SEO” lists
Many people will search for “best SEOs” or “best SEO consultants” or “best SEO companies,” “best SEO companies United States.” They’ll get to a website like, I don’t know, bestSEOs.com or topSEOs.com. There are a number of these types of websites that are essentially just aggregators. Their business model is they try and rank for terms like this, and then they sell those listings, the listings on their page, to SEO firms and companies. Back when Moz was a consulting company many, many years ago, they’d call us up and they’d say, “Hey, do you want to be number 3, we can make you number 3 on the best SEO companies list for $20,000 a year. Or we can make you number 1, but you’re going to have to pay $75,000 a year.”
That is not a great… I mean it’s a great model for them. Don’t get me wrong. But that pay-to-play scheme is not trustworthy for you as a consumer of SEO companies. You would never trust someone that said, “Oh well, what’s the best restaurant in this particular region?” You’d never go to a list where the restaurants just paid. That would give you the conglomerates and the people who can afford to spend the most and the worst. Don’t trust those types of lists.
There are a few lists, there are a few websites, places like getcredo.com run by John Doherty. There’s obviously Moz’s recommended SEO list, which is just my personal recommendations and the recommendations of my network. You can’t pay to be on there. You can’t pay to be listed. Some of those are more trustworthy. We’ll try and link to a few of those good ones at the end of this whiteboard.
Mistake #3: Believing there’s a “secret sauce”
Mistake number three is believing the sales pitch that unfortunately many I’m going to say low-quality SEO consultants use, which is there’s a secret sauce. There are no secret sauces in SEO. If you hear like, “This is how Google works blah, blah, blah, and then here’s how we do our secret optimization techniques. I can’t tell you what those are. It’s a proprietary methodology, but it works really well,” that’s baloney. You should reject that. If you ask, “How do you do it,” and they say, “I’m sorry I can’t tell you, it’s a secret or it’s proprietary,” that is a very, very bad sign. No one has a secret proprietary process. SEO is a very, very open field. It’s well understood. It has origins in a lot of secrecy, but that is not the way it is today and you should never accept that as an answer. That is a red flag.
My recommended process for choosing an SEO company:
I want you to establish, sit down with your team, with your CEO, with your executive team, your board, whoever you’ve got, and figure out the goals you’re trying to achieve with SEO. Why do you want to do SEO? Why do you want to rank organically for keywords? Then, figure out how you’re going to judge success versus failure. In this process, there are good goals and bad goals.
- I want to get in front of a lot of people who are researching this, and so we need traffic from these specific groups. I know that they perform searches for this. Great.
- We’re trying to boost revenue, and we’re trying to boost it through new sales and SEO is a sales driving channel. Fine, great.
- We’re trying to boost downloads or free sign-ups or free trials. Also a fine goal.
- We’re trying to boost sentiment for our brand. Maybe if you Googled some of our branded terms today, there are some poor reviews, there’s lots of good reviews that rank below them, and we want to push the good reviews up and the bad reviews down. Fine. Sentiment, that could be something you’re driving as well. You know a lot of people are researching your brand or branded terms. Those are all good goals.
- We just want traffic, more traffic. Why? Well, because we want it. Terrible, terrible goal. Traffic is not a goal in and of itself. If you say, “Well, we want more traffic because we know search traffic converts well for us and here are the statistics on it,” fine, terrific. Now it’s a revenue driving thing.
- Rankings alone, unfortunately this is a vanity thing that many people have where they want to rank for something simply because they want to rank for it. Usually a bad sign for SEO companies considering clients. You shouldn’t have that on your goals list. That’s not a positive goal.
- Beating a particular competitor out for specific keywords or phrases. Again, not a great goal. Doesn’t drive directly to revenue. Doesn’t drive directly to organizational goals.
- Vanity metrics. I still see people who are saying, “Hey, does anyone know a great SEO company that can help bring our domain authority up or our Majestic trust flow up or, worst of all, our Google PageRank up?” Google dropped PageRank years ago. It’s terrible. Vanity metrics, bad ideas too.
Once you have a list of these good goals that you’re trying to optimize for, my suggestion is that you should assemble a list of usually three to five is I think sort of the right comfort zone. You can do more if you have the bandwidth to evaluate more, but three to five, at least, consultants or agencies. Those could be by a bunch of criteria. You might say, “Hey, look we really need someone in our region so that we can meet with them in person or at least someone who can fly to us on a regular basis.” Maybe that’s a requirement for you. Or you might say, “That’s not important. Remote is great.” Fine, wonderful. You might say something like, “Our price range or our budget is this particular thing.”
You want to find whatever those criteria are and make sure you’ve got a list of three to five folks that you can consider against one another. Have some conversations with them and dig into references.
- Your friends and personal networks and professional networks as well.
- Similar non-competitive companies. You will find that if you’re, for example, in a B2B space or in an ecommerce space and there’s a non-competitive ecommerce company whom you’re friendly with, you can build those relationships. You should certainly already have those relationships. Talking to those folks about who they use and whether they were successful, great way to find some good people.
- Industry insiders. If you’re watching Whiteboard Friday here on Moz, chances are good that you follow some great SEO people on Twitter, which is a very popular network for SEOs, or that you read SEO blogs. You can reach out to some of those influential insiders with whom you have a relationship or whose opinion you really like and care about and ask them who they would recommend.
Good questions to ask:
- By the way, I like asking SEO companies: What process are you going to use to accomplish our goals, and why do you use those particular processes? That’s a really smart one to start with.
- Ask them about their communication and reporting process. How often? What’s their cadence like? What metrics do they report on? What do they need you to collect? Why do they collect those metrics? How do those match up to your goals and how do they align?
- What work and resources will you have to commit internally? You should know that before you go into any arrangement, because it could get very complex. If your SEO company says, “Great here’s a list of recommendations,” and you say, “Fine, we don’t have the development bandwidth, or we don’t have the content creation bandwidth, or we don’t have the visual or UI or UX exchange bandwidth to make any of those. So what do we do?” Well, now you’re road blocked. You should’ve had that conversation much earlier in time. *By the way, SEO usually requires some intensive resource allotment. So you should plan for that ahead of time.
- What do you do when things aren’t working? I love asking that question, and I like asking for specific examples of when things haven’t gone right and what they’ve done to fix that in the past and work around it.
- I like asking broadly. Especially when you open a conversation, especially if you’re feeling like, hey I want to get to know this company’s approach to SEO and their understanding of Google, you can ask them something like, “Hey, tell me how does Google rank results, and how do you as a company influence them?” You should hear good answers about, yes, this is how Google does things, and here’s how we know that and here’s how we do our process of influencing those results. That’s great.
I like to recommend that folks choose on these four things:
- The trust that you’ve established with a company. That’s through references, through the conversation, through people that you’ve talked to in your network.
- Through referrals. If you hear great referrals and you trust those referral sources, that’s a wonderful signal.
- Through communication style match. If your communication style, even if everything else is good, but when you have conversations, you walk away from them feeling a little frustrated, maybe you got the things you needed, but it didn’t flow smoothly, I would suggest that maybe that’s a cultural mismatch and you should look for another provider.
- Price and contract structure. Many SEO firms have a contract structure that’s month-to-month and that has a certain length of time. You should expect to pay some upfront payment and then some ongoing monthly fee. There’s usually a time at which the payment will recur and the contract will renew. It’s pretty similar to a lot of other services, consulting types of agreements, so you should expect that. If you’re seeing very non-standard stuff, that can be a bad thing sometimes, but not always. A lot of times SEOs have more creative pricing, and that’s all right.
Three pro tips:
- If SEO needs to be a core competency at your company, bring it in-house. An agency or consultant can never do as much with as much resources, with as much communication, as someone in-house can do. Starting with a consultant externally and then bringing someone in-house is a fine way to go.
- If the quality SEO folks that you’re considering are too pricy, my suggestion might be to say, “Okay, how about you just advise us on the work, and we’ll hire an in-house person, maybe who’s more beginner-level and you coach that person?” That can work well, again especially if you have that budget to bring that person in-house.
- Remember that SEO is not for everyone. SEO is extremely competitive. Page 1 gets 95% plus of the clicks. The top 3 or 4 results are getting more than 70% of those clicks, 65% or 70%. So a lot of the time, if you can’t afford yet to do SEO or to engage in it seriously, it may not be all that valuable to go from ranking on page five for a lot of your key terms to page two or the bottom of page one. Unless you have the budget and the energy to really commit yourself to SEO, it might be a channel you consider later down the road.
All right, everyone, hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday. Would love to hear your thoughts on how you’ve picked good SEO companies in the past and the experiences you’ve had there. We’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.
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