What to Consider When Hiring an SEO

If you’re a small business person with a web site, you’re probably working 12-hour days to keep things running. You may or may not have heard of search engine optimization. If you have, you’re wondering what you can do to get a better position in Google and receive more traffic. Hiring an SEO might be the answer.

I say “might” because search engine optimization isn’t for everyone. I know, it’s a strange thing to say on a site devoted to SEO, but it’s true. Hiring an SEO to help you with your web site is an important business decision, and if you’re not ready for it, it can cost you a lot of money. If you hire the wrong company, it can cost you a lot of money plus your position in Google’s index. I’m not kidding; I just finished reading some horror stories about TrafficPower, now 1P, a scamming SEO company that has its own hate site and a thread in the SEO Chat forums.

So how do you know whether you should hire an SEO? SEO Engine suggests that you should ask yourself three questions:

  • Are my customers searching for my products and/or services online? That’s easy to determine by putting the appropriate keywords in Wordtracker. It’s not just about whether people are searching for your kind of offerings online, though; it’s also about how many people are searching. If too few people are looking for you online, SEO would be a waste of money.
  • Are my competitors showing up for the terms I want to target? This could indicate that your competitors have found it worth their while to spend money on SEO. That doesn’t automatically mean that you will as well, however.
  • What effect would an increase in targeted traffic to my web site have on my business? This is really the most important question. If your web site effectively converts traffic into sales already, then you can expect SEO that increases your traffic to also increase your sales. If it doesn’t, more traffic is not going to translate into more sales.

So let us assume for the moment that you think your web site and your business will benefit from SEO. (If not, you can stop reading and get back to doing the kinds of things that will really benefit your business!). Should you do the SEO yourself, or hire someone else to do it? That’s a valid question, and I’ll address it in the next section.

You need to figure out how much time and money you have to spend on SEO for your site before you can answer that question. It also helps to know how much of a control freak you are. Whether you decide to do it yourself or have someone else do it, it’s a good idea to read up on SEO techniques. There are plenty of sites that can help you with this; in addition to SEO Chat’s articles, we have a very active forum area. You might also want to read an article I wrote recently that shares my online SEO resources for other sites to check out.

If you’re up on the basics of SEO techniques, you’ll be able to talk intelligently about the topic with anyone you consider hiring. You’ll also have a better chance of catching a scammer. Unfortunately, they’re still rife in this field; there is no special educational or certification process that SEOs must go through before they can put their shingle out, unlike doctors, lawyers and accountants. Some do have certifications, though, and the educational process is ongoing.

But let’s talk advantages and disadvantages. If you do your own SEO, it won’t cost you any money, at least not directly. There’s always the opportunity cost of whether you’d get more money investing your time in another part of your business, but let’s leave that aside for the moment; I’m not an economist. Also, if you do your own SEO, you maintain complete control over the site. Further, no SEO can know your business or your field as well as you do, so if you have the time to learn SEO you have a fair shot at getting good results. You’ll have to be patient, however, because good SEO takes months before it starts having an effect, and it is a never-ending process.

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve decided you don’t have the time to devote to doing your own SEO, and you do have the spare cash to pay someone else to do it. It can be a great idea to hire an SEO to take care of your web site in that case. You won’t have to divert any in-house resources from the part of your business that’s really making money. A good, honest SEO offers a wide range of knowledge and resources that you might not have. They’ll talk with you to get a better understanding of your business so they can help you get the most out of your web site and its position in the search engine results pages. So what is your next step?

Remember the warning I gave you earlier about the SEO field being rife with scam artists? You’ll need to do your research to find a good SEO company just as you would with any contractor. Stuntdubl offers a list of steps to take that he describes as the best techniques he’s seen and heard for hiring an SEO company or consultant:

  • Call lots of companies and have good questions about SEO strategy to ask them. This is why it’s often a good idea to do some research into SEO basics first. (I’ll have some good questions for you to ask in the next section).
  • Ask each company who they’d recommend if they couldn’t take you on as a client. Believe it or not, many good SEO companies are really busy, and won’t have any problems with giving you a good referral.
  • Give each company some choices of other SEO companies; throw in a bad SEO company as a ringer. Ask them which one they’d recommend you use.
  • Do some searches for two-word phrases that aren’t hugely competitive (don’t use “real estate” for example). Contact the companies in the top spot for those phrases and ask them who does their SEO. Make sure the keywords are NOT related to your field; companies will be a lot more forthcoming with this information if you can tell them honestly that you’re not a competitor.
  • Try out some of the smaller SEO services. Don’t sign a year-long contract; just try out some of their offerings and see how their customer service responds. 
  • Search for the names of the SEO companies you’re considering, as well as the most important people at the companies (“C” level executives). This will give you an idea of their reputation.

Okay, now you’ve done your homework and you’ve narrowed things down to somewhere between three and five companies. What kinds of questions should you ask?

Before you ask your candidates any questions – indeed, before you start searching for a company, really – you should have a solid picture in you mind of what kind of SEO services you’ll want. Do you want someone who’s all about in-page optimization? Link building? Blog writing? Do you want someone who already “knows it all” or is newer to the field (and therefore likely to charge less)? SEOs that specialize in different areas are going to have different skill sets, so it makes a big difference. That said, here’s a “cheat sheet” of sorts from Jon Rognerud, writing for Entrepreneur.com.

  • What ranking guarantees do you provide? No honest, reputable SEO will make any kind of ranking guarantee. If you see anything like “#1 position for your keywords in six weeks!” run the other way.
  • Are you going to change my web site? The answer to this had better be “yes;” SEO is based on site content and structure.
  • How do you handle linking? Honest SEOs will explain their approach in great detail and let you see what they do. If they get evasive or claim that they use proprietary software or techniques, they might be engaging in black hat and/or spammy practices. 
  • What are your other services and what is your pricing model? This should be clearly explained, not “sold.” Sure, SEO may be the company’s main service, but it may also do web analytics, pay-per-click, e-mail marketing, social media optimization, and more.
  • Who are some of your competitors? An honest firm will tell you who their competitors are and provide details.
  • What are your qualifications? Though no certifications are required for SEO, some things can help, like the Google Advertising Professional program. You may also want to consider time in business, though that’s no guarantee of expertise. Does the firm specialize in certain market segments? This would also be a good time to ask for customer references, just as you would for any contractor.
  • What kind of traffic results can I expect to see, how soon, and how much will they cost? Don’t judge them on price alone. Some scammy SEO companies will set up a pay-per-click campaign without their clients’ knowledge; the client pays fees every month, and the minute they stop paying, their traffic disappears.

Ideally, you and your SEO form a partnership. They should keep you apprised of what they’re doing and the effects, with weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports. With patience, planning, cooperation, and a lot of research, getting an SEO for your site could be an excellent decision. Good luck!

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