Submitting a request for proposal (RFP) or request for information (RFI) for search engine optimization (SEO) is standard for mid-to-large sized companies. It can be a daunting and seemingly impossible task to decipher the information you receive from multiple agencies and extract the gems from the status quo. The good news is that there are best practices for SEO you can consider when evaluating a proposal that can help you disqualify certain contenders quickly and bring the most relevant and qualified candidates to the next level –- the presentation. Let me take a step back for a minute and explain why, exactly, you should obtain an SEO proposal.
Who should get an SEO proposal?
I am going to cite examples throughout this article that are really aimed at mid-to-large-sized companies. Small companies who can only afford, say, $1000-$3000 for their total SEO project (generally provided by a microscopic-sized SEO firm or a consultant) simply cannot cover the depth of services that a large company ($5,000-10,000 plus per month for SEO services) enjoys. While it is still important for the smallest of companies to obtain, at the very least, an estimate for SEO services, it is the large, multi-faceted jobs that obviously cost the most money, and it can be difficult to understand what companies can truly handle complex SEO jobs if you don’t have a thorough understanding of the industry.
Thus, it is helpful to educate yourself about key industry practices in order to do an apples to apples comparison of the SEO proposals you receive. These are things that should inherently be included and, if they are not, should most definitely be addressed at some point either during the presentation or before signing any contracts. If you’ve done any research at all, you’re probably familiar with some or all of the issues addressed in this article. My aim is not only to define them, but to arm with you with enough knowledge to help you identify what companies actually address the issues you need addressed, and what companies offer just smoke and mirrors.
An SEO project, no matter how small, should include some kind of up front strategy prior to implementation. Strategy is typically addressed at the start of the proposal with some or all of the following components included as part of the strategic planning process.
- A website analysis (if your site is already live) to evaluate your site’s content, layout, internal linking structure and to initiate keyword selection/research based on existing site content.
- A competitive assessment to evaluate what sites currently enjoy the top positions in Google, Yahoo and MSN for your preliminary keywords and also where your top three to five competitors rank for the same list of keywords you use (these are not necessarily the same sites).
- Keyword selection and finalization based on the first two steps listed above.
- A benchmark positioning report that demonstrates your current position for your targeted keywords and how many pages of your site are listed in each search engine.
- An inbound link assessment which tallies up the total sites linking to yours (MarketLeap.com has a great tool for this), and the average inbound links to competing websites.
Not only should an SEO proposal include a line item for strategy, it should also spell out exactly what that means in terms of the deliverable and approximately how many hours it will take to complete. Not all projects will need to go through each of the above-listed steps. For example, you may not need an exhaustive website analysis (for very small websites). Likewise, you may not need to do much keyword research if your client has a predefined list of keywords based on their own data.
The more information that is included about methodology, e.g., how the actual work will get done and what exactly is involved in doing it, the better. It is understandable that SEOs do not want to give away all of their methodology before you sign on the dotted line, but you should absolutely understand and comply with the techniques that will be applied to your website. I personally believe in giving as much information as possible so that there are no doubts about how I would approach a project (strictly white hat, for example). An SEO vendor’s methodology should be summarized somewhere in the proposal in such a way that it addresses the following issues.
How are pages optimized?
Ideally, this section will address specific techniques and methodologies employed by the SEO, including such things as what tags are optimized (Meta, Title, Alt, and so on), how on-page content is optimized (e.g., heading tags, bold text, and so forth) and anything else relevant to page/site optimization, such as internal linking structure. Look for examples that are specific to your website –- this demonstrates that the agency has done its homework and is a good sign that service will be customized to your specific needs.
How are code changes addressed with the client?
It should be clearly delineated somewhere in writing how code changes will be implemented. Will the SEO or agency make the changes directly to the site (this is pretty rare) or work with your programming team to get the changes implemented? If it’s the latter, how will the changes be communicated to the programmers?
What quality control processes are in place?
Quality control for SEO is a straightforward process and should be spelled out somewhere in the proposal. Essentially, you want to ensure that the code changes and SEO tweaks you’ve reviewed and approved have been implemented appropriately. Enough time should be built into the project implementation schedule to cover review of all optimized text and tags to ensure that 1) there are no spelling mistakes or typos and 2) nothing is missing or in the wrong place.
Are complex SEO barriers addressed?
Flash navigation, dynamic URLs, frame-based designs and other SEO nightmares should be addressed before the work begins. This is particularly relevant for complex database-driven sites with thousands of pages of content, as well as e-commerce or retail sites. If you have a website like this, it is critical that the proposal addresses the problem of dynamic pages and complex URLs head-on. Case studies and proven successes with past clients should absolutely be included, so if they are not, then be sure to ask for them. For large companies that seek to centralize all SEO services with one agency, be sure to get specific examples of experience with SEO localization –- not every agency can handle this type of account.
How is the newly optimized site submitted to and/or indexed by search engines?
The how and why of site submission need not be addressed in extreme detail in a proposal. However, it should be stated somewhere that either the SEO will submit your website to search engines (or engage in link placement and directory submission to expedite indexing), or you are responsible for this (if it’s the latter, run screaming from the room). Any fees associated with site submission should be noted at this point (e.g., Yahoo’s $299 yearly fee for commercial site submission into their directory). Agencies that address link placement in comprehensive detail are promising; be sure to flag proposals that present concrete examples and methodology for building inbound links.
How are results tracked?
Tracking and reporting are essential components to any SEO project, and both should be addressed in an SEO proposal. The basic metrics tracked (e.g., ranking, site traffic and conversions) should be stated along with the frequency and type of reporting (e.g., weekly Excel spreadsheets, real-time web-based reporting, and so on). It is also a good idea to request a sample report with the proposal. Find out whether report customization is an option.
What assumptions, if any, are included in the methodology?
It is assumed that the client is accountable for complying with certain requests and/or providing certain information to the SEO in order for optimization to be a success. All assumptions should be stated up front to avoid miscommunications once the project has begun. For example, it might be assumed that all site changes will be made within ten days of submission by the SEO in order to comply with the approved timeline. It may also be assumed that the client will provide access to website traffic stats and past historical search data (if available).
A proposal should include the total project cost as well as a breakdown of the hours needed to complete each phase of the project. Vendors vary widely in how they represent this information. The exception to this is very large, complex SEO projects which must be heavily customized based on the client’s needs. For these types of very large SEO projects, pricing may not be included with the proposal simply because it is easier to present it during a vendor pitch, where each facet of the project can be explained fully to the client.
For smaller projects of about $1000 to $5000, a price breakdown should be included with the proposal. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification regarding pricing and how it applies to each step of the process. If you’re truly trying to do an apples-to-apples comparison, then request an hourly itemization of each step so you can understand how much time is allotted for each line item.
Itemized proposals also enable you to whittle them down so they fit into your budget. Just keep in mind that if you do that, a good SEO may refuse the job since a certain amount of time is necessary to do the job well.
Good SEO proposals are always customized and relevant to your website. Any SEO worth his or her salt will have taken the time to thoroughly interview you in order to understand your unique needs, goals and expectations. They will also have spent a bit of preliminary time looking through your website, evaluating where you stand in the search results and gaining some insight into what that means for your particular industry. A good proposal will clearly communicate that the SEO has done their homework by providing concrete examples on how SEO will be implemented and how your specific goals will be measured and reached.
Never settle for prepackaged one-size-fits-all pricing or a broad hourly rate that is not attached to a detailed proposal. It is a mistake to agree to paying someone hourly to do the work before understanding what’s involved. After all, you’d never hire a general contractor to work for 30 hours per week rebuilding your kitchen, because there’s always the possibility that you’d run out of money before it’s done and no one wants to get stuck with half a kitchen. The same goes for SEO. Understanding exactly what steps are involved, how long they will take to complete and how much they cost are the essential ingredients to a good proposal and will insure that both client and vendor are happy with the outcome of the work.