If your website doesn’t show up on the first page of search results on Google, Bing, or Yahoo search engines, potential clients might not even know that your business exists. Search engine visibility is incredibly critical to boosting visits to your website, which doesn’t only lead to increased sales and revenue, but also increased brand awareness, clarity, and customers
But what if you lack the time and technical expertise to improve your site’s search engine ranking? It might make sense to hire an experienced, reliable search engine optimization (SEO) firm.
Here are ten essential questions to ask when considering a prospective SEO agency/consultant.
1. May I have a list of current and past clients?
A reputable SEO agency should be open to sharing a brief list of current and former clients and their contact information, says Vanessa Fox, author of Marketing in the Age of Google (Wiley, 2012) and founder of Nine By Blue, a Seattle-based SEO software provider.
These references can help you gauge how effective the agency is, as well as to verify that the firm did, indeed, work on specific SEO campaigns. Clients may not provide accurate analytics, Fox says, but they should be able to tell you at least if they saw a positive impact on their search ranking, especially in conversions and in gaining an audience, as a direct result of the SEO agency’s efforts.
2. How will you improve my search engine rankings?
Steer clear of SEO agencies who won’t freely discuss their methods, cautions Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, a Seattle-based internet marketing company and co-author of The Art of SEO (O’Reilly, 2012). They should explain the strategies they would use to drive up your website’s search engine ranking, as well as estimate how long it could realistically take to achieve the SEO campaign goals you agree on.
Make sure the SEO agency’s proposal includes an initial technical review of your website to weed out any problems that could lower your search engine ranking, including broken links and error pages. The SEO agency should also provide “on page” optimization, a process to make your website as search engine optimized and friendly as possible. It involves improving your website’s URL and internal linking structure, along with developing web page titles, headings, and HTML tags.
Also, ask the agency if they provide “off-page” SEO strategies to raise awareness of your content on other websites, often via blogs, social media platforms, and press releases.
3. Do you adhere to search engines’ webmaster guidelines?
You want an agency that strictly abides by Google’s publicly posted webmaster best practices, which expressly prohibit 12 common SEO tricks, including automatically generating spammy content, adding bogus hidden text and links. If a candidate doesn’t follow those guidelines, your website could be relegated to dismally low search results ranking. Or, worse yet, Google could ban it from search results altogether.
4. Can you guarantee my website will achieve a number-one ranking on Google, Bing, and Yahoo?
If the SEO agency answers yes, “turn and run in the other direction as fast as you can.” It’s impossible to guarantee a number-one ranking on any search engine, she says, some unethical SEO agencies and consultants do make such bogus guarantees.
Consider it a red flag if the SEO agency claims to have an insider relationship with Google or any other search engine that will get you priority search results rankings. Only Google, Bing, and Yahoo can control how high or low websites appear in their search results.
5. Are you experienced in improving local search results?
Appearing in the top local search engine results is especially crucial to small businesses trying to attract nearby customers, Rand says. You’ll want an agent who has expertise in local SEO techniques.
If your website is optimized for what’s known as “local SEO,” it should appear when someone nearby is searching for keywords that are relevant to your business. To achieve that, the SEO agency should add your business’s city and/or state to your website’s title tags and meta-descriptions, and get your site listed on Bing, Google and Yahoo’s local listings, which are online directories of businesses that cater to a specific geographical area.
6. Will you share with me all the changes you make to my site?
Search engine optimization will most likely require several changes to your existing web page coding. It’s essential to know precisely what adjustments the SEO agency plans to make and on how many web pages. If you would like the agency to get your permission before accessing and altering your website code, be sure to say so.
For example, will the firm add new title tags to your existing HTML code or modify the existing ones? Will they provide additional copywriting content highlighting your products and services to beef up the number of visible, on-page keywords relevant to your potential customers? And do they plan to redesign all or some of your website navigation or add new pages to your site?
7. How do you measure the success of your SEO campaigns?
To gauge the success of SEO efforts, you must track exactly how much traffic your website receives and where it is coming from. An experienced SEO agency should have experience with using Google Analytics and Google Webmaster tools to track the improvement on your site’s search engine rankings, the number of links from other websites driving traffic to yours, the kinds of keywords searchers use to find your site, and much more.
Be sure to ask how often they plan to share these critical analytics with you and how they would use the data to improve your search engine rankings and website traffic continually, and most agencies report it once to twice per month.
8. How will we communicate and how often?
The communication of an SEO agency varies in styles and customer service standards. You need to find someone whose approach best fits your needs. Ask if the candidate prefers to talk in person or via phone, Skype, texting, or email. And find out how often they will reach out to you with status updates. Most high-end agencies often share reports and let the client review it first to discuss further the work that was completed.
9. What are your fees and payment terms?
You need to know how much you’ll be charged, of course, and also whether the agency can be paid hourly, by retainer, or by the project. Project-based payments are the most common in the SEO consulting industry, and they can vary widely, depending on a project’s size and complexity. Most contract projects are ranged between $2,500 and $11,500, according to Moz’s 2012 pricing survey of more than 600 SEO firms.
The study also found that the most common retainers ranged between $251 to $500 a month on the lower end and $2,501 to $7,500 a month on the mid to higher-end, while the most common hourly rates ranged from $100 to $250. Fox said SEO agencies who specifically serve small businesses often charge less per month and hour.
Other important payment-related questions: How often are invoice payments due — every 30, 60, or 90 days? Is there an interest charge for late payments?
10. What happens when we part ways?
When your contract expires or if you terminate it early, you should still maintain ownership of all of the optimized web content you paid the SEO agency to provide, Fox says.
Accordingly, you’ll want to make sure the contract states that when you part ways, SEO agencies will not change or remove any of the content they added, modified, or optimized on your behalf. You should also ask the SEO agency whether they charge any fees for early contract termination and, if so, to specify them in the contract.