edit Becky Engel on November 18, 2010
edit A great SEO firm can explain what it does
If you have a website, you’ve probably thought about hiring – or already tried to hire – a search engine optimization (SEO) firm. From the boardroom to the marketing department, everyone knows a search-friendly site can drive qualified leads and build your company’s brand.
I’m no SEO expert, but I have hired SEO firms for a number of my clients. I'm here to share the signals that tell you whether an SEO company will be a real business partner in driving your online visibility - not a mere technical consultant.
edit Start with the basics
Ask for references. Any reputable firm should be able to provide the names and contact information of previous clients. Even better if they refer you to people whose business needs are similar to yours. For example, if your goal is to get visitors to download a free trial of your product, the firm should refer you to another company with a similar goal.
Try to shortlist firms that are familiar with the technology of your website. If your site is built on Wordpress or a Java platform, you’ll want an SEO firm that understands Wordpress or Java.
If you’re in a very specific industry – say, extruded concrete machinery – you’ll want an SEO agency that has worked with other industrial-product companies.
edit The cobbler's children should be wearing nice shoes
Take a look at the firm’s own website. Can you quickly and easily figure out what the firm actually does? If you can't, something is wrong with the firm's messaging - after all, you are their target audience.
Does the firm have a blog that’s regularly updated? If the blog has thoughtful pieces about SEO trends and other related topics, that’s a good indication the firm understands the role a blog can play in building a strong online presence.
What about social presence? Does this firm have a Facebook page, Twitter account, or any other social-media identity? Take a look at what the company says in the social space. Does the firm share interesting ideas about SEO and related topics? Social media are such a critical part of online visibility that you really should think twice before engaging any SEO company that lacks a strong social presence.
Last but not least: Search for the firm on Google and Bing. Can you find it when you search for “SEO” and the company's home city? In some cases it might be better to search for SEO in combination with the firm’s specialty – for example, SEO for healthcare companies.
edit Pros know SEO is part of a larger marketing mix
Smart marketers would never expect an advertising campaign to be the only contact someone has with a brand. It’s the same story with SEO. Ranking high in search results is critical, but that’s just one of many factors in the marketing mix.
Smart SEO firms expect to help you, their client, fit your SEO program into the larger context of your marketing strategy. During your conversations with an SEO firm, if you hear something like, “This data can inform your PR strategy by providing opportunities and direction for writing new content,” you’ll know you’ve found a good firm. They’ll help you find ways to improve other parts of your marketing program.
edit Good firms focus on results, not the process
Request a sample of the report a firm provides to its clients, outlining the monthly or quarterly performance of an SEO campaign. This report should make sense to you, be written in simple, clear language, and highlight the results of the firm’s work.
If the report is unclear or difficult to understand, the firm isn’t doing its job. All too often, SEO experts develop long reports detailing all the work they’ve done, without giving the client a sense for the bottom line: what the firm has done to improve search rankings and qualified leads.
edit They’re communicators at heart
SEO services should go beyond keyword research, coding and analytics reports. The SEO team you hire should include people who are adept and fluent communicators. They should be able to explain everything to you in terms you can understand, so you can actively participate in SEO planning and strategy.
If you ever sense any deliberate attempt to steer you away from digging deeper, that’s a warning sign. People who use their expertise as a way to fend off clients are probably not doing great work.
Any SEO team you hire needs to think like your target market. They should understand what kind of content your customers and prospects want to see when they come to your website. They should understand which elements on your site will convert visitors into qualified leads or customers.
If a firm you’re interviewing exhibits all these qualities, you can bet it will get you showing up in search results in a manner that aligns with the brand experience you want to create. And make no mistake: When you hire an SEO firm, you are placing a bet on your company’s success.