10 Questions to Ask When Hiring an SEO Firm Startup founders shopping for SEO services can save themselves time, headache and money by considering these critical variables.

By Josh Steimle

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Based on anecdotal evidence I've collected after working in the digital-marketing space for 15 years, I'm confident saying that the vast majority of those hiring an SEO firm end up being disappointed.

While even the best SEO agencies won't have a perfect track record, some are better than others. Clients shopping for SEO services can save themselves time, headache and money by asking the following simple questions:

Related: 10 Questions to Ask When Hiring an SEO Consultant

1. Have you done work before for a business like mine? Perhaps no other question goes to the heart of the matter like this. If you own a self-storage business and want an SEO agency to help you obtain more customers, the ideal shop would have a proven history of securing them for other like companies. The same applies when hiring an SEO agency to target a certain language or geography.

Yet, just because an agency has worked with a company like yours doesn't necessarily mean it will do a better job than another outfit that hasn't. But this is definitely a factor to weigh heavily.

2. Can you show me case studies? Whether the agency you're considering has worked before with a company of your type, case studies of its work will enable you to see the results delivered to other clients. In theory, this means the company can also come through for you. Talking with an agency representative about the case studies will also help you understand how the organization works.

3. Can you provide references? No agency will intentionally give out as references the names of clients unhappy with its work. But if an agency can't even provide three positive references, what does that say?

4. What metric do you focus on the most? Surprise! The right answer is not rankings -- or traffic or links. The kind of SEO agency you want to work with won't ignore rankings or traffic as metrics in measuring a campaign's success but will primarily focus on customer leads, sales or conversions of prospects into clients.

5. How long until I start seeing results? A representative of a good agency will underpromise and overdeliver. While every situation is different, this generally means the company will promise early positive results within four to six months and more substantial results within six to 12 months.

It's not unreasonable for an SEO consultant to say you will start seeing things moving in the right direction within two to three months, but he or she should make it clear such results will likely not be the kind that affect the primary metrics cited above.

SEO is a long-term tactic, and if it is sold to you as a short-term solution to get sales, then move along to an agency where you'll be told the frank truth, even if it isn't what you'd like to hear.

6. What is your link-building philosophy? The right answer emphasizes quality over quantity. Any SEO agency promising a certain number of links a month deserves skepticism if not outright rejection. The best links come naturally, from high-quality sources like news or industry websites.

Therefore link building is more like traditional public relations. Any SEO firm worth hiring for link-building services should be able to provide samples of high-quality links built for other clients and explain the process of how they were procured. If there's an explicit mention of buying links or anything that suggests the agency pays for links, run away.

Related: 5 Ways Google Is Changing SEO

7. How has SEO changed over the past few years? It can be tricky to parse the answer to this. It's just as correct to say that SEO practices haven't changed at all as it is to remark they have been completely transformed. People at a firm that has always engaged in SEO through creating high-quality content and building high-quality links might feel that not much has changed.

On the other hand, Google has rolled out major changes to its search engine that make high-quality content and links more valuable than before, while penalizing low-quality content and links. In addition, more searches are being performed on mobile devices.

And today more searches use "natural language," or complete sentences, rather than just a keyword or two. This has changed keyword strategy to a focus on more on long-tail results rather than just those "golden keywords" that many clients think will bring them the most traffic.

8. What is your reporting process? The industry norm seems to be to promise monthly reports and then not deliver them. The ideal agency should promise monthly reports (and more frequent ones when necessary), and when you talk to references, verify that the company follows through.

Related: 5 Things Most People Forget About Local SEO

9. How do you price your services? The answer you're seeking isn't whether the firm overprices its services or offers a good deal, but whether it's offering fixed-price packages or custom options.

If you have a small business want local SEO that costs several hundred to a few thousand dollars a month, a fixed price-package might be a good fit. If your budget is $5,000 per month or more, then probably SEO is a more critical service for your business and you want a customized service from an agency that can accommodate your changing needs.

10. What other services do you offer? Are they integrated? Maybe you need an agency that does nothing but SEO. But chances are that you could benefit from other digital-marketing services like web design, paid-search management, content marketing, conversion-rate optimization or marketing automation.

It's not enough to know if the agency offers these services. You will want to know how these services are tied together behind the scenes. If your SEO is being managed by one guy and paid search by another, but they never talk with each other about your account, then valuable data is being squandered and a strategy is lacking.

Your agency consultant should explain how everyone connected to your account works together in an integrated fashion so that the tactics used match your digital-marketing strategy.

Most clients trying to hire an SEO firm don't ask these questions. That's why many clients end up disappointed. Asking these questions and understanding the answers will help you avoid agencies that might take your money and give little in return. Find the one that will help your business grow.

Related: SEO for Business Explained: A Conversation With Rand Fishkin

Wavy Line
Josh Steimle

Speaker, writer and entrepreneur

Josh Steimle is the Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling author of "60 Days to LinkedIn Mastery" and the host of "The Published Author Podcast," which teaches entrepreneurs how to write books they can leverage to grow their businesses.

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