How to choose an SEO agency or consultant
Let’s be upfront – choosing an SEO company is hard.
The market is crowded, with thousands of SEO suppliers in the UK alone. Each offers different services or results, making it confusing to know who to trust.
With the SEO market set to reach almost $80 billion in the US annually by 2020, that competition is only going to get fiercer.
With so much choice, how do you choose the best SEO company for your business?
The choice of agency or consultancy to use is going to have a huge impact. A reliable, reputable expert will help you understand the different pieces to your SEO puzzle, and guide you on a path to putting them together.
How do you choose an SEO expert when you haven’t got the time to master it yourself? It’s important to be careful, but with SEO, the proof is often in the results they produce, and by then it can be too late.
So we want to answer your questions on how to find an agency who can help.
To find the SEO agency who will work well with you, you need to be thorough and give yourself a process that helps you make an informed decision on whether prospects will be a good fit. Such a process can help you weed out the ‘experts’ you wouldn’t want to let near a line of your code from those who are worth your time.
Here, we present a guide for such a process you can use.
Step 1. In-house preparation
Before you can start asking for recommendations, let alone speaking to any SEOs, what preparation work should you do in-house first?
Set your goals.
It sounds obvious but is often missed out or only given cursory thought.
To make the most of your SEO investment you need to know what you are looking to get out of it. We suggest speaking with all the relevant stakeholders in your business and developing a consensus on *why* you are doing SEO, and what you want to achieve from the campaign.
If you don’t clearly define your SEO goals you’ll never be able to measure success.
When it comes to your goals, aim for defined, measurable ones that you can monitor. Using a framework such as SMART goals[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMART_criteria] can help make sure your SEO goals are trackable.
Some examples of good SEO goals include:
- We want to increase the number of sales from organic traffic as part of a wider revenue increase from the site
- We know that email subscribers convert well, so we want to use SEO to generate more organic traffic that subscribes to our newsletter
- Our business works on leads generated by our site, so we need to get in front of our audience as they are researching a major purchase – so we need our SEO to help us get traffic for specific topics our audience search for
Weaker goals that are harder to measure or get value from include:
- I want to beat competitor X for a specific keyword – Rankings fluctuate daily and what you see is different from what anyone else sees. Basing as SEO campaign on ranking specifically for a vanity keyword, unless there’s evidence of it converting users at a spectacular rate, can be hard to achieve and might not help your bottom line
- We want more organic traffic – we all want more traffic, but what we _really_ want is more revenue. Asking as SEO company just for more traffic can lead to you getting a lot more visitors who aren’t interested in what you offer as a business. If you say, “_we want more organic traffic on these topics because we’ve seen it converts well for us_”, then it becomes a measurable goal
- We want X number of links built per month. With the power of links, this is a common goal from potential clients. However, it is easy to build you many rubbish links that will do little and might even cause you problems, but hard to build you a few links from trusted websites which will positively impact your organic results. More links aren’t the goal – better authority from the right kind of links is
Step 2. Gather and select from a shortlist of potential suppliers
Now you know exactly _what_ you want our SEO company to achieve, it is time to start getting together a shortlist of who to speak to.
This can be tricky.
Knowing where to begin, when there are so many options, can stop you in your tracks.
Common mistakes made when choosing an SEO
Using Google to find local SEOs:
- At first, this seems counter-intuitive – surely those ranking well have proved they can do a good job, right? Companies that spend their time optimising for ‘SEO + [your city name]’ and dozens of other locations tend to spend more of their time doing this than delivering quality client work. Of course, finding a local SEO expert can be a huge advantage, but just be sure to vet their work and reputation just as carefully as other options you find.
Using ‘top SEO’ lists:
- If you search for SEO companies, especially terms like “best SEO company”, chances are you’ll come across sites that purport to show lists of the top-ranked suppliers. These sites are essentially aggregators, which target these terms. What they don’t tell you is that they are paid for – the company ranking at number one has simply paid the most – the ranking isn’t based on skill, results or reviews. There are of course some recommended lists curated by other independent experts and some services that help out you in contact with relevant experts. Those can be much more useful resources.
Unsolicited calls for help:
- It can be tempting to use a social platform, such as LinkedIn, to ask if anyone knows a ‘good SEO’. You’ll find yourself inundated with folks putting themselves forward, and little that can help you sort the wheat from the chaff. Recommendations from those you trust, however, can still be valuable.
Creating a shortlist
So, how should you create a shortlist of potential SEOs?
You can first set out criteria that are important to you.
As already discussed, having somebody local, or at least close enough for regular face-to-face meetings might be key for how you want to work. And depending on your goals, you might need someone who is an expert in technical SEO or in content production. The type of support is also important – do you need a large agency with lots of resources to run a large campaign, or do you need an independent consultant who can work closely with your in-house team? Finally, you might want to look at your budget – many agencies will have a minimum spend for example.
Once you’ve established these criteria it is much easier for you to see if a company should make your shortlist.
But we still need to find some SEOs to see if they hit that criteria.
As well as searching for them online (as discussed above), you likely have some other great sources:
SEO insiders: If you are already following some industry experts on social media, such as Twitter or LinkedIn or you regularly read some blogs, you could reach out to ask for advice. The SEO industry is a friendly one, and if you reach out politely, many experts will be happy to help
Your friends, work colleagues and professional networks: Chances are, someone you know has worked with an SEO company they’d be happy to recommend. Your friends and professional networks (such as business networks, local meet-ups you attend and so on) can be a great source of personal recommendations
Similar companies: As an extension of your networks, if you can find non-competing businesses in a similar position or working-model to your own, you could build a relationship with them, or search for their name and SEO to see if any firms have written a case study about working with them
Look at case studies and referrals
When you start looking at recommended SEO agencies, the next step in your process should be to look for proof of success.
How? Case studies & testimonials.
Most agencies list those they’ve worked with, often with full case studies or even testimonials from happy clients. Use these not only to find a firm with signs of a strong track record but also signs that they’ve worked with a website like yours or on a project similar to your needs.
Questions to ask your potential SEO company
Once you have your shortlist, it’s time to start speaking with them. In many cases, the agency will be happy to do some preliminary research into your industry and talk through some of the relevant strategies they have used in the past.
A consultation meeting like this will give you a feel for their personality, their passion and how they work. It also gives you the perfect opportunity to ask them questions to help you make a decision.
Here is a list of questions you could ask (or you at least want to be comfortable you know the answer to) to sort the good fits from the bad:
What do you know about our industry?
- This will show you how much time they’ve spent researching you beforehand and if they have any experience in your sector. For SEO to be truly successful, the agency needs to understand your business so it matches how you work and what your audience wants help with
Who will be managing our account, and who will be doing the day-to-day work?
- You want to know both who is in charge of your project in-house, and who will be doing the actual work. They are often not the same people! The high-level management who come to sales meetings might never look at your site again. You also want to establish who you will communicate with – an account manager, or the delivery team
Can I meet the team who will work on my project?
- If those in the meeting won’t be doing the day-to-day work, make sure it is to possible to meet those who will be
How much work will be done in-house?
- Many smaller agencies outsource some of their work, and you want to know where your work is being done, even if carefully reviewed by your agency
What is your approach to SEO – what do you like to do to influence Google’s results?
- Open-ended questions like this will let you see a little more into how they approach their work, what they emphasise and if they follow a set processes for everyone or act in a more bespoke manner for each campaign
Can you provide an overview of the work that will make up our strategy? What process are you going to use to accomplish our goals, and why will you use those particular processes?
Most companies will provide an itemised schedule of the work they intend to provide as part of a proposal. However, even at the consultation stage, they should be able to give some rough figures on what they hope to do for you
What will you need from us to make this work?
- This can get complex very quickly. The SEO agency needs to be an extension of your team, rather than an external subject that you never have contact with. Similarly, it is likely they will need input from yourselves to make the campaign a success, such as making technical SEO fixes, communicating with developers and the PR team etc. If they are going to give lots of recommendations, will they act on them for if (if allowed) or will you have to do it? It can be tempting to handover all SEO responsibility to your agency, but usually, you want to be involved in the project, if only to fully understand what is being done – SEO is a cumulative process, and the more input that goes in, the better the results that come out
Can we see some examples of content you have researched and created for a client?
- You want to see proof of their ability to create content that does a fantastic job of matching what a searcher wants, is useful and is well optimised. If these experts are to be let loose on your site, you want evidence they can create content you can be proud of
Will you be editing the content on my site? What content pieces will you create?
- Unless you have done outstanding content creation in the past, an SEO agency will likely want to optimise, expand or edit some of your existing content – relying purely on building links misses part of the puzzle. It is likely they will also be considering adding new landing pages to target new keyword targets. You can also ask how they go about optimising content, and why it is important. Expect a good agency to want to look at your Google Analytics stats to find pages they can improve
Can we see some examples of links you have earned for your clients? And what sort of link building would you do for us?
- This is another key aspect of SEO you want to see evidence of. You are looking for links from important sites (either by popularity such as newspapers or highly respected within a niche or industry), and want to see how the agency goes about creating attention for their clients. Hopefully, you will see how they use creative ideas to come up with stores, research or tools that other sites want to talk about and share
How often will you be running audits?
- After the initial auditing period, you might feel the technical SEO is complete for your site, but a good agency will run periodic auditing to make sure everything is working at it should
Do you follow Google’s best practices?
- A bit of a trick question (as a lot of SEO work by is nature goes slightly against the grain of Google wanting to sort websites’ value by themselves), what you are looking for is anyone who talks about working around best practices in the name of results (be cautious) and those who talk of implementing code and tags in the way Google respects (a positive sign). Make sure they don’t go against anything in Google’s webmaster guidelines like clanking or generating spammy links (run!)
What recommendations can you make about our site’s technical structure?
- Sadly, you won’t be getting a full audit for free at this stage (!), but a prospective agency will have taken a look at your site before a consultation. You are looking for evidence that they have taken the time to understand how your site works and can explain improvements they would make in language you understand
What changes would you make to our site?
Another question that tests both their preparation and ability to communicate, you will likely hear answers about changing some of your content, perhaps how your site is laid out and more
How will we communicate and how often?
- Online communication is great, and you don’t want to be chasing your agency or spending all their time in meetings, but this is where you can find out how often they expect to speak to you and whether that will be over calls, email or in-person. The agency might use a project management tool, communication tools like Slack, email or phone as their primary communication method. Make sure it fits in with how you want to work and any internal processes. Make sure you are happy that clear and consistent communication is the norm
What is your SEO reporting process? How do you measure the success of a campaign – which metrics do you track?
- You want to be kept fully informed of progress and what is happening with your SEO performance. Good answers will include references to tracking conversions, traffic and rankings, as well as work updates. Often agencies use reporting platforms like Google Data Studio to report traffic and SEO platforms to provide an overview
How do you choose the keywords to target?
- You want to get an idea of their keyword research process, and if they will target popular, but very broad, search terms that will be hard to go after, or very niche phrases that few people search for. You can also ask if there are any topics they’ve already thought about which you should be going for
What does success look like?
- This is where you can see if the agency’s idea of success matches your goals, or if they are rigid in determining what makes a good result. The cases you are looking out for are when the agency thinks success is simply them delivering some promised work each month with no strategy behind it
What results do you expect, and over what timeframe?
- As well as the end goal we are working towards, it is important to understand how long they think improvements will take, and what some of the initial results will be. This is a tricky question to answer, as no agency can say where you will be ranking by when. No-one has control over the search results except the search engines, and good rankings might not mean strong traffic. Instead, you want to see how the agency answers this question, and how enthusiastic they are about what they can achieve. Anyone who gives you a very specific answer (‘You’ll be ranking in 4 weeks!’) is likely talking nonsense
Do you provide performance guarantees?
- Reputable agencies won’t, as it isn’t something you can guarantee. They can guarantee the work they’ll carry out or the time they will spend on your project, but no SEO can guarantee what will happen as it is up to the search engines
What do they do if the campaign isn’t going well?
- Not every campaign is a roaring success, so find out how this agency adapts. Look for examples of what they have done to reinvigorate campaigns in the past
Have you done work like this for similar companies, or carried out similar projects
- Not a necessity, but different markets have different nuances and it can be a real advantage to have experience in your specific industry. Similarly, if you are looking for a specific SEO project, such as link building, content marketing or a migration to a new domain, you want to know the agency has experience doing that type of SEO work
Can I speak to some happy clients?
As well as the case studies you’ve looked at before, you want to ask if the company can provide you with some references of those they have worked with. This can be a great way to sort good agencies from the bad. Poor agencies won’t have long-term clients, let alone those they’d be happy to let you speak with. Sometimes an agency will say they have NDAs preventing this, but question whether this is likely for all their clients
What happens after our work together finishes?
- What is your notice period?
- Make sure there is an out clause in your contract, but also expect there to be a minimum starting period. If you want an SEO agency to do their best, they need some commitment from you that you are serious about working with them
What questions should I expect to be asked as a potential SEO client?
This consultation is a two-way process. The SEO company needs to show genuine interest in your business. Asking what your USP is, how customers find you, who your competition is and so on helps give them a complete picture of how they can help.
- Can you tell us some more about your business, how you make money and how your website fits into that?
- How do customers find you at the moment? What is a common user journey?
- Can we have access to your Google Analytics and Google Search Console accounts?
- What are some of the keywords you would like to appear for?
- What are your goals for this SEO campaign?
- Who are your competitors, both online and offline?
- Which Content Management System (CMS) is your site built in?
- Have you conducted any SEO activity in the past?
- Do you have any other websites or online properties?
- Are you running any pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns?
- What other types of marketing online and offline do you do?
Red flags to look out for
A ‘secret sauce’: If you prospective agency talks of their ‘secret formula that guarantees results’, they likely aren’t going to be worthwhile. Ask them what they do – if they claim they can’t tell you, don’t use them
Instant results: Beware of too good to be true promises, such as overnight rankings or instant leads.
Search engines submissions: An old favourite, you don’t need to submit your site to any major search engine
Thousands of links: The only way to build thousands of links quickly and without spending millions on PR is to buy them. That will mean spammy links you don’t want to be associated with your site. If they use other low-level link building tactics such as directories, comments, article syndication or private blog networks (PBNs), you likely want to leave alone
‘Knowing’ someone at Google: Google doesn’t have an organic search team you can speak to. They have a large and active team for Google Ads, their PPC platform, but they hold no sway over, nor share any extra ‘secret’ knowledge about, the organic rankings
Choosing your SEO agency, consultant or expert
Having done your research, spoken with your candidates and asked your questions, it’s decision time.
In fact, you might have already made your mind up.
Either way, there are some key factors that can help your decision:
- Trust: Having met the SEO expert you should have established some trust with the company, through their references, through those in your network that have worked with them and through their answers to your questions
- Goal alignment: Do your goals and their working practices match? You want to be happy that the SEO agency understands your goals and will provide a campaign dedicated to achieving them
- Evidence of relevant previous work: Either in your sector, with a business with a similar business model or website to yours or with the type of SEO work you need help with
- Price and contract: The price has to be in your budget, and the style of contract (whether a project or longer-term retainer) must also be something you are comfortable with
- Transparency: Do you believe the agency will let you know everything they are working on? Will they
- Communication style: Between the reporting provided, planned communication and who will be working on your account, you need to be happy that the communication will be clear and consistent. It needs to be at a level that allows you to be in control of the campaign, and able to monitor progress without feeling you are having to chase the agency. Sometimes it can come down to ‘is their culture a good match with ours?’
Ultimately, research is the key to finding good options, and then speaking with the shortlisted candidates will help pinpoint the best fit for your needs and working practices.
Be sure to find an agency with experience in a field that matches yours, and are always available to answer any questions you have. And above all, don’t compromise – if you don’t feel comfortable with any of the options, keep on searching.