When outsourcing your SEO, know what questions to ask before you sign.
Knowing where to turn once you’ve decided to outsource your search engine marketing campaign can be daunting.
While it’s not necessary to be an expert, it is important to know what to look for in a quality search engine marketing firm. Just as with any other vendor, knowledge base, cost efficiency, and results are among the most important factors when selecting a company to trust with this piece of your business. And, as the search engines are continuously updating their own methods of providing accurate search results, it's even more important to find a search marketing agency that is up-to-date on the latest strategies.
Sometimes the best recommendations for a search agency can come via a colleague or trade organization. Absent referrals, completing a proper and thorough interview process is paramount to finding the best firm. Things to consider include the firm’s technical expertise and general SEM tactics, their ability to provide a full analysis of the results of your investment, any specific expertise they have in your industry, and general marketing experience. You should plan to interview at least 3 agencies and compare notes to select the best one to fit your needs.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) consists of ongoing changes to websites with keyword rich, user-centric, quality content and links, both on your site and off. Therefore, this list provides questions you should ask any search firm you are considering, and some of the answers to look for related to this model and other business issues. Search firms include technical communication as well, so this guide refers to some of the common terminology used in the field.
1. Do you guarantee top search engine rankings?
The truth is – nobody can guarantee results, as nobody owns the search engines, except the search giants themselves. They keep that ranking algorithm locked up and safe. SEO is a practice of both art and science, and when done right, yields results for the best pages and sites for relevant rankings, and for traffic and conversion. Run, don’t walk from any claims of guaranteed results from a prospective agency. Make sure the company is not offering ranking services to others in your same industry, and that they are not talking about PPC (Pay Per Click) advertising, which can be placed on the first page via paid search programs.
2. Will my website need to change?
Keys to a successful search effort are: ease of use, eye appeal and quality content on your website. If this doesn’t describe your site - expect changes. Your site’s pages should be keyword/content rich, and easy to navigate. Not only must you add content on a regular basis, but pages need to be optimized for the right keywords. You can visit some of the client sites of your prospective search firms and look for keyword use in the TITLE and body of the pages. Use free keyword tools like Google AdWords: Keyword Tool (select 2nd option, “Website Content” and enter the website address) to see what keywords they have optimized for. Changes to content, architecture and links on your site will no doubt be required. The agency you hire must ensure all pages will be attractive to search crawlers, or “spiders”, that come to review your site for indexing and can return these pages as results after words are typed into a search engine such as Google.
3. How can I ensure you’ll operate ethically?
Since there is currently no formal standards body to enforce unethical practices such as spamming: keyword stuffing, hidden text or links, automatic content generation, link farms and more, you may want to ask your firm about their ethics upfront, and how they will safeguard and protect your site against unfair manipulation for search gain. References from previous clients should also help you feel comfortable with their practices. Search engines do provide their own webmaster guidelines. Make sure to read and bookmark this guide from Google.
4. What is your process for keyword research?
Any SEO program is only as successful as the relevant keywords it is trying to optimize for. Your firm should be able to provide keyword research from interviewing you, collecting data from your site, reviewing the competition, and learning about your industry through trends, forums, blogs and competitive tools. Your unique sales or value proposition should be clear; keywords and content chosen should serve to support it. The goal is to uncover the most qualified searches and traffic generating opportunities for keyword phrases. Running a PPC (pay-per-click) program for a period of time, and extracting from it the highest valued keywords, including keyword trends and traffic from your server and analytics logs, is smart and necessary. Keyword research can be done via paid tools like WordTracker, Wordze, KeywordDiscovery and free tools like the Google Keyword Tool and Google Traffic Estimator. Please note: Wordtracker, a popular tool - offers limited keywords (up to a 100), and you can find a free service at Wordtracker. Final keyword selections should be based on optimum traffic and conversion opportunities. Note: some SEO firms like Chaos Map will provide complimentary website and keyword analysis up front.
5. What things do you look for in a search engine friendly site?
“Search friendliness” is a way to gauge how attractive your site will be to the crawlers, or “spiders,” that look for sites to be indexed. You can adjust certain components (listed below) to create a more search-friendly site, which is both a technical and business oriented endeavor. By giving a prospective search firm the opportunity to express their views, you can learn how they might apply their methodology to your site and pages. Ask for a list of recommendations about your site versus the competition, including things like appeal, functionality, navigation and ease of use. More specifically, your search firm should be able to explain each of the following to you (partial list)
- Content Size – Pages should have content with targeted keywords, not just images or flash with little/no text.
- Keywords/Themes - They should clarify how keyword(s) can map to a page(s) and directory structure(s).
- Sitemap – Do they build out both HTML and Google Site Maps, and at least the latter?
- 404 “file not found” error messages – Are they addressing them on the server? For more information, see Wikipedia – Do they handle proper redirections to unique pages/domains? For example, at the simplest level, there is a difference in how Google sees www.yourdomain.com and yourdomain.com (without the ‘www’).
- Robots.txt – Your search firm might recommend excluding pages/directories that should not be indexed by search engines, such as any non-relevant internal pages or directories, or duplicate pages/content.
- Google webmaster – Your search firm might recommend you set up an account for ultimate diagnostics of your site. This will help you diagnose issues with links, share site issues with Google, check crawler and indexing statistics, submit sitemaps and more.
- Keyword Rich Anchor Text – For example, instead of a hyperlink indicating “click here” for download, create a better link: download the credit repair whitepaper now, where ‘credit repair whitepaper’ is hyperlinked, i.e. clickable, and ‘credit repair’ is one of the keywords you’re targeting.
- Duplicate Content - Make sure pages are unique, and no duplicate content exists, both on your site, or ‘borrowed’ from other sites. Copyscape is a tool that can check pages for you automatically.
- Linkchecking - Make sure your search firm does regular updates of broken links for your site. Tools like XENU LinkSleuth and LinkTiger are must-haves.
A firm that’s current should be able to explain that it’s not all about rankings anymore, but also traffic and conversion. They must optimize the site via keyword rich HTML tags. Most of these are invisible to the user, but should be properly coded into your page through HTML: Some examples are:
- TITLE tag – the head>...
- DESCRIPTION tag – the META tag “description” that can act as a short ad copy for your site – and if properly implemented, can be seen in the organic listings (search engine results).
- ALT-tags (attributes) – these are little snippets of descriptions for each image on your page. Example: alt="Big Boat">. Keep them short, relevant, descriptive, no keyword spam.
- Keyword Prominence – using keyword phrases early and often in your page seem to have a good effect, starting with the TITLE.
- Keyword Proximity – keyword phrases that are related, and closer to each other in the body text seem to have a good effect.
Your search firm should strive for a balance of the right amount of relevant quality content, number of links (internal/external) and reputation backlinks (keyword rich anchor text). An analysis on how your site stacks up against the competition should also be included, explaining how competitive your top keywords are, how many backlinks they have and overall index penetration (how many pages are in the search engines’ index).
7. What is your overall approach to back linking?
Links are very important to your online success. Google rankings are based in part on how many sites link to yours, so a detailed analysis of backlinks (incoming links from other sites) is necessary, not only for your site but also for those of your competitors. This analysis should indicate how your site’s search efforts fare among others in your category.
You should be able to review a ranking of highest quality links to least, as well as the number of sites that are linking to yours and their respective values and reputation. Your competition might be ranked ahead of you, even with less links. This is because the value, i.e. quality, of links are higher, and deemed to be coming from a stronger or more trustworthy, authoritative source. Submitting to directories like Yahoo Directory (fee based) and DMOZ (the free, open directory project: human-reviewed, owned by Google) is smart. Content creation of articles and press releases, along with their distribution and syndication, should be discussed as well. Remember, link building is a lengthy, ongoing process, and quality and idea generation for link acquisition takes time. It’s much easier to build links for information based sites versus commercial-only based sites, as info-sites are naturally more text-heavy. Your SEO firm should always be working to supply quality links and traffic results, and if you feel they are becoming at all lax in the follow up, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up.
8. What is your pricing and when can I expect (ranking) results?
Cost and return on investment are important in regard to your search effort, as in all other elements of your marketing mix. You can find firms that charge anywhere from a few hundred dollars to as much as thousands and tens-of-thousands of per month, based on their sophistication level and types of clients they service. You have to evaluate cost versus return, based on your type of company, niche and the competitive marketplace. It’s recommended that your search firm demonstrate positive ROI within a given timeframe; otherwise you may need to find help elsewhere. Keep in mind, most firms should have programs to fit your needs and budget. However, if you have in-house staff that is savvy in this regard, you may want to rely on your team to write text copy, but outsource the function of page optimization and ongoing linkbuilding, for example. It may be possible to see small gains in ranking and traffic results in as little as 2-6 weeks, depending on how competitive your niche and how aggressive your SEO firm is in pursuing results. Most programs, however, take months of finessing and effort to sustain any real gains in results/rankings.
9. How will I be able to gauge progress, and what level of communication should I expect?
A quality firm should be able to provide you with as much or as little as you request. They should keep you informed and educated before, and during the process. You should expect weekly or monthly status reports for the project overall, including full email and phone support during normal business hours. They should also provide input relating to the business you’re in, trends and your brand.
Progress reports for ranking and overall results should be updated at least monthly. An open form of communication among all members engaged with the project is important. A simple milestone driven project management system outlining responsibilities, alerts, messages, forums and document upload capability, such as Basecamp.com, is common in the industry and works well for updating multiple teams.
10. Are you visible in the industry? Where can I find you?
Industry associations like Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) can be a good place to start to see if the firm you’re considering is listed. You should contact your local Chamber of Commerce, join networking events in the industry such as Meetup, SearchEngineStrategies (SES) or Search Marketing Expo (SMX), or find referrals from Craigslist or social business networks like LinkedIn. You can also contact webmasters of sites you like (webmaster info is often listed in the Contact Us section), and ask if they can recommend any companies for SEO assistance.
11. Describe your firm’s general SEO Experience and a few client references.
Interestingly, length of years in the business doesn’t necessarily mean great experience. Some SEM agencies only provide minimal services. Ranking is a metric to look at, but make sure to review their entire scope of offerings and results. You should also ask for examples of traffic boosts and conversion results as part of their successes.
However, keep in mind some of them might be bound by non-disclosure agreements with their clients. Ask also what their typical size of job/website is. If you have a large site (hundreds of webpages), a smaller firm may not be able to scale, but it depends on scheduling and how much work your site really needs, as well as your overall business goals. Lots can be accomplished with a really good information architecture and layout.
12. How long will our agreement (contract) last?
SEO is a never-ending task, but it doesn’t mean that a firm should try to sell you more than you need. During the agreement review, make sure that your top goals are understood and written down, and ask to speak with the Account Manager that will be working on your project. A typical search contract can last for up to 6 to 12 months. However, this can be dependent on your goals, timeline, budget, competition, faith in the chosen agency, as well as the extent of your own personal involvement. You may decide to re-invest money from successful programs as well, and keep building more over time.
13. What should my SEO agreement include?
By the time you reach agreement stage with your SEO firm, you should already be comfortable with everything you’ve heard. So a good agreement will merely rehash the terms that have already been discussed. These may include:
How many pages will be optimized (consider new pages to be developed as well as existing pages)
How many keywords will be prioritized (Should indicate what the keywords are, or at least a preliminary idea)
How many external links will be built per month, and what types of links
What metrics will be tracked (ranking, traffic, conversion) and what the reasonable expectations or goals might be for improvement
Overall cost per domain and pages
Analysis of web usability and search engine friendliness
What specific services such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Pay Per Click (PPC), and Social Media Marketing (SMM) will be employed and why
What steps (process) will be included – (this may include a high level milestone plan and timeline)
You should be able to refer back to the agreement now and then, and make sure you are receiving what was signed for. Some firms may charge a setup cost. Find out what is included in this cost and if it is considered separate from the program itself. Some firms will provide an “out-clause,” and you may also want to bring this up in your earlier discussions. Different pricing models exist because of differences in clients, and you’ll see plans from:
a) fee for service,
b) monthly retainers,
c) hourly consulting fees, to
d) performance based plans, where you both share in success of campaigns.
See what works best for you, and check what options are available.
14. Who are your competitors and why are you better for us?
This may be a difficult question to bring up, and your prospective search firm may not know about all the competitors in their niche, but they should know the top firms overall. If they’re at all put off by discussing why you’d be better off with them, this may be cause for further exploration. Or, if it turns out they don’t specialize in a certain area you need, they might be able to refer you.
15. How long do clients typically stay with you?
This discussion is related to client retention, and it will vary. For example, if a firm has built out a 12 month program, but it ends after 6, it doesn’t necessarily mean “bad deal”. They might have educated the client about SEO, and with good results from ROI factors and process learned, the client decided to hire internal staff to take over the programs.
16. How does my team work with yours?
The importance of team management and collaboration is high. A clear ownership and understanding of the “go to” person on either side is needed. Depending on the scope of the program and company, there may be larger teams involved. Make sure that you have one person that’s in charge of results/delivery, and that he/she will take care of all services, including technical issues like FTP access. Issues around content and site updates can take a long time, make sure to discuss ownership around process/workflow.
Typically, SEO firms like having FTP access themselves. Don’t expect SEO firms to take over hosting issues and support. All teams should have access to a project management system as mentioned above.
17. I have a CMS (Content Management System) – how does that affect the SEO work?
Your prospective search firm should be able to work with your CMS and might ask you about how often content gets updated, who is responsible for this, and all administrative functions to support the platform. Upon review of your CMS, they should be able to provide tips to make your content more search-friendly and usable. Depending on the size of your site and in-house resources available, you might want to consider a full-featured SEO firm that can handle all aspects for you, but this will come at an extra price. If you have a “thin” site built on a CMS or shopping engine with little content (e-commerce shopping, for example) – content strategy ought to be included in the discussion.
18: Will you make recommendations on my site’s copy/content?
Copywriting and quality development of content for users and search engines (in that order) is massively important. Content (existing or new) must be optimized for search engines by the firm, but have a demonstrated benefit for the users first. It should not be loaded with sales copy, but directed to users in order to make a sale or whatever action you are driving towards. Ask your prospective search firm for a page or a compressed file of samples. A ‘before and after’ can be a good measurement and study. Existing experience in your field is also important.
19: What do you need from me during the engagement?
Like any business relationship, access to the key decision-makers and a commitment to prompt communication will only serve both your needs as well as the search firm that is working on your behalf. You should plan on contributing to top level strategy discussions, and make sure your organization is ready to embrace the upcoming changes and has the right personnel in place to ensure the process runs smoothly.
20. What are my options if I’m not satisfied with the results?
You might ask if there is a money back guarantee or if they include a clause for early termination in the contract. However, you shouldn’t think too “short-term” in making your judgment, as search engine optimization is an evolving, long term process. Results and expectations should be covered up front, and you should reference back to this during the course of the engagement to see how you stack up. Search Engine Optimization can be expensive and take time – but do it right –and it can be the best and most economical way to increase traffic to your site as well as enhance your trusted brand’s visibility. As your search efforts prove successful, you can leverage best practices and apply ongoing tactics via new, relevant pages that will continue to yield a positive ROI (return-on-investment) in the natural listings. Once they are accomplishing this, you may decide to push a percent of your budget spend towards paid ads, which are great for quickly targeting customers for unique products or services.
In closing, make sure the firm you choose understands your business, and is well versed in the online space – not just the technical or programming parts.
If you’ve made it this far, chances are you’ve been bitten at least somewhat by the search bug. For further exploration, consider taking an SEO class through SEMPO Institute or Market Motive. Make some time to participate in the process and you’ll have a partnership for success.
Jon Rognerud is a recognized authority on the subject of SEO (Search Engine Optimization), and has spent over 20 years developing technology and marketing solutions at companies like Overture and Yahoo, before starting his own search firm. He is a published author of the new internet marketing book "Ultimate Guide To Search Engine Optimization" (Amazon, bookstores nationwide). He is also the SEM author and blogger at Entrepreneur Magazine. His website provides a wealth of informative articles, helpful resources and complimentary email courses on everything you will ever need to know about SEO and Search Marketing.