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Hiring an SEO Consultant

Don't outsource your search engine optimization without asking these 10 questions.

Finding and hiring an outside firm or consultant for your SEO can be daunting. In today's marketplace, a professional search optimizer is a combination of copywriter, web designer, product designer, developer, marketer, advertiser, analyst and entrepreneur. It can be hard to find someone with these qualifications, and if you're running a business, you may not have the time.

So how do you determine if a firm is selling search marketing snake oil? To select the best organization, you should first look to yourself. If you feel uneasy about anything they tell you, if they don't call you back, or if all you get is a sales pitch, it may not be a good match.

It's important to know that some firms use questionable tactics to sell their services. They might have purchased a lot of domains, applied scraped content and created link structures solely to showcase their projects. They may charge you for so-called "secrets." Avoid these deceptive companies at all costs. In a worst-case scenario, you could go from a page one ranking today to a complete ban from search engines tomorrow.

To avoid that, here are 10 things to ask a potential SEO consultant or agency.

1. What ranking guarantees do you provide?
If the answer is anything but "none," look elsewhere. You might tell them you heard a page one ranking can't be guaranteed, since nobody owns the search engines, except search companies. A superior search firm may add that while ranking is important, keyword research, relevant traffic and a steady increase in traffic that turns into sales are more important. Don't be dazzled by hype, a known brand or a professional-looking site. Stick to your guns, ask questions and get references.

2. Are you going to make changes to my website?
Changes are crucial for SEO, especially changes to content and structure within your site. If you have a lot of graphics, flash and complex navigation with pull-down menus and hierarchical trees that spiders can't follow, you have a serious problem. Visit some of the sites they have optimized and see what SEO tactics they have applied. Conduct keyword research using the free tools at Overture suggestions and think about content you could write for your website today using popular, searched keywords.

3. What is your approach to linking?
Link programs are key to long-term success using SEO. PageRank, a site voting system from Google, was created to measure importance via link counts (the number of links pointing to you) and link reputation (what the links say about you and your keywords). If you hear about proprietary link programs and custom software, find out if the firm belongs to or uses any FFA (free for all) link exchanges. Honest SEO companies will let you see every step of their approach, including weekly update lists for links. They should provide a detailed link analysis and tell you where your competition stands and what steps they would take to get links from topical sites, directories and social networks. It's difficult to determine the number of links required, but the firm should provide competitive link research and analysis.

4. What reporting and overall communications will I receive?
A professional SEO firm will have a workflow in place for client/vendor deliveries and overall expectations. Depending on the type of project, more work may happen in the earlier months, but it's still very import for you to understand all changes, when they are applied and for what reasons. You should receive ranking and analytics reporting weekly, monthly and quarterly. The most important thing is that you understand the reports and that the strategy is being applied and adjusted. SEO takes time and is a never-ending task.

5. What does your pricing model include and what other services do you offer?
The firm should provide a clear description of deliverables and pricing up front. Many make this an evasive exercise, but it should be clearly explained and not "sold." Professional firms will show you how value and ROI go hand-in-hand. Some firms only provide SEO services; others provide PPC, web analytics, multi-variate testing, e-mail marketing, social media optimization (blogs, videos and podcasts), linking and more. A company that provides more complete search marketing services could help you save money by serving as a one-stop shop.

6. Why is your own PageRank low?
Sometimes SEO websites display a lower PageRank, but appear very well put together with a sound design and relevant, useful information. It could be a new site or a recent domain shift. Or the owners may be busy building client sites rather than optimizing content and working on link strategies. It doesn't necessarily mean you're dealing with people that aren't experts.

7. Who are some of your competitors?
An honest firm will share the competition and provide details. If the pending relationship isn't a match, they might even refer you to another SEO firm. That isn't as common, however, unless a partnership or referral arrangement has already been established.

8. What are your qualifications?
Time in business doesn't necessarily mean better SEO; you'll have to decide for yourself. But learning about the staff and their qualifications and certifications, such as Google Advertising Professional, can help. Some firms specialize in certain market segments, which could benefit you.

9. Can you provide references and successful rankings?
Testimonials from clients are a great way to find out about your potential vendor. Much like when selecting a doctor, plumber or gardener, word of mouth is powerful. Their list of successful rankings should have traffic for relatively common terms. A low search count per keyword doesn't necessarily mean poor traffic, especially if the firm focuses on the long tail strategy.

10. How much will the traffic results cost and when can I expect to see them?
Price alone can't determine quality SEO work. You may see packages for $200 to $300 per month and some that are several thousands of dollars and higher. But you often get what you pay for. Traffic can be generated quickly depending on your niche keyword choices, saturation in the marketplace and competition. Make sure they aren't talking about pay per click.

Now that you know what questions to ask a potential SEO firm, here's a question you should ask yourself:

Will I be a good partner?
As a client, you have responsibilities as well. If you ask for everything up front, are overly cheap, can never make a decision and don't sign contracts on time, you're not being a good partner. If you put a lot of pressure on your SEO vendor for a first page ranking of all your keywords in a short period of time, you may have false expectations.

Experienced firms will educate you about the process and will get you top positions; it just takes time. As the sponsor, you should be ready to commit some of your own time, support the project and help push the recommended changes. This can be done by building a detailed discovery, analysis and SEO strategy document on day one.

Hiring a firm has its advantages, including diverse experience, a network of resources, quicker rankings and time savings. On the other hand, if you keep SEO in house, you can retain control, learn faster and save money. It's a matter of evaluating whether you have the time and knowledge.

Jon Rognerud is a recognized authority on SEO, who has spent more than 20 years creating and managing web and marketing projects from small to large companies, including positions at online giant Yahoo!. He is the founder of Chaosmap.com, a leading search marketing company in Los Angeles, CA. He plans, builds and delivers profit-making SEO, PPC and Social Media training, consulting as well as breakthrough speaking seminars. He also blogs on his website, http://www.jonrognerud.com

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