The idea for this post has two sources. The first was a post on SEOmoz about someone's failed attempt to get quotes for SEO. In light of that firestorm, I was asked if I would write a blog post about how potential clients should approach SEO companies they are looking to do business with. A few days later, while reading David Ogilvy's classic Ogilvy on Advertising, I came across the chapter which is an "open letter to a client in search of an agency." This post is modeled after (stolen from?) that.
Sir or Madam,
If you have decided to hire a new SEO firm or consultant, permit me to suggest a simple way to go about it.
Don't delegate the selection to a secretary, webmaster, your IT department or a low-level employee. They usually get it wrong. Do it yourself.
Start by looking at search results. No, not searches for "SEO" or "Search Engine Optimization company." Those don't produce quality leads so most SEO agencies don't bother trying to rank for them. Instead, look at sites that rank in the search results and then find out who does their search engine optimization and online marketing.
Read articles on SEO and make note of the authors that you find most knowledgeable and helpful. Talk to them, find out if they do SEO or who they recommend. Get recommendations.
By this time you have a short list. Research each company yourself. Read through their websites not just the testimonials page. Look to see if their knowledge and experience in SEO is clear.
Call and talk to the head of each agency and their head SEO (it may be the same person, that's OK.) Make sure the chemistry and communication between you and them is good. You'll be working together for a long time so make sure you're a good fit.
Don't worry about meeting the whole team. Each agency is different and you may or may not be working directly with anyone else. Not all SEOs are good with customer interaction and you have no real way of judging the talent of an individual. Good SEO is the result of the everyone working together, not just that of an individual.
Ask each agency to provide you with client references. Not printed materials, but phone numbers of current clients that you can call and talk to. Find out if the SEO has improved the overall success of their business, not just improved search engine rankings. Pick the consultant or firm that you feel has the best record of success and is most likely to help you grow your business.
Ask for a quote. If you get a stock cost of services then you've got the wrong company. If you get a price range, pursue it further. If you get a customized quote but it falls out of your budget range, consider it anyway. Find out what services the company will be engaged in while marketing your website and the cost/benefit of each.
Don't haggle over price only over the specific services provided (cost will change as services change.) Its entirely possible that the SEO company can reduce their fees by trimming services such as social media marketing, link building, content development, etc. You can always add those back in later if they are determined to be necessary for the success of your campaign. If you haggle over cost then you'll likely come up on the short end in the long run. You can also ask for the same amount of work be performed over a longer period of time. This will create a slower path to improved performance, but will fit your budget better without cutting essential services.
Insist on a twelve-month contract. SEO takes time to implement and to see the results. The larger the site, and the more keywords there are to target, the more work needs to be done. SEOs can cram everything into a few months, but the up front cost will be extremely high. Longer contracts give both you and the SEO more security and reduce the pressure of having unwarranted expectations that cannot be met.
Now that you have your SEO firm or consultant, are you going to get the best out of them? Clients get the SEO they deserve. Some clients tie their SEO's hands by disagreeing with most change recommendations. Others use up all their account time keeping the SEO on the phone "discussing" the account. Some clients slow the process by not responding to the SEOs queries and requests. Others are an absolute dream to work for, responding promptly, providing feedback as needed and letting the SEO do their thing. There is nothing wrong calling your SEO provider if it helps the SEO campaign progress, but too many "updates" slow the process to a crawl.
Anybody can perform their own SEO based on an article they once read somewhere. It takes a genius to leave the SEO alone to do their work and implement the changes they request. I had one client rewrite all the copy we fixed. He believed his audience was too sophisticated for calls to action. He's wrong.
Give your SEO access to your website analytics data as well as all sales and conversion data. This will help them assess performance (real performance, not rankings) of their optimization efforts. It will also help them steer the optimization efforts into the most profitable direction.
Give your SEO a single point of contact, and make sure it is someone who has the power to make decisions. Too often SEO recommendations are shot down by someone who is not involved in the process and has very little understanding of why the recommendation was made. These people can include VPs, web developers and IT staff. I have found that web developers are often the least knowledgeable about SEO but can be the biggest hindrance to it's success. They don't want anybody telling them that their product needs to be fixed. It's too bad, because it does.
If you do have to reject recommendations, be sure to investigate it first. Too many recommendations are shot down because someone doesn't feel it's necessary, when in fact it is critical to the optimization process. Yes, some recommendations are lower priority than others and some will cost money to implement. Reject a recommendation only after you have discussed the reasoning, urgency and impact with the SEO. Then you can reject it with full knowledge of the potential result. Never reject a recommendation because a developer says it can't be done. It can be done, but perhaps just not by them.
I have one client that has gone through three different development companies since we started working for them. None of their developers have liked me. People don't often like those that point out their flaws. I also have clients where the developers are quick to work with me on any and all recommendations. We don't always do it my way, or their way but together we develop solutions that work for everyone. Those are often our most successful clients.
There is a convention that SEO firms should never have more than one client in a particular industry. When we work for a site selling kids winter clothes, we are not supposed to work for a site that also sells kids clothes for all seasons. It sounds simple but its impracticable.
Suppose our client sells kids winter clothes and another that sells winter clothes and snowboards for adults only. Then one year the snowboard shop starts selling clothes and gear for kids while the clothes shop starts selling kids snowboards. Do we have to fire one of these clients, and if so which one? The one that was with us longer or the one that pays more? I see no conflict when optimizing two or even three sites in the exact same industry. Often what is learned on one site can benefit the other, and vice versa. After all, there are ten top 10 positions. But even still, it's likely that the keywords being targeted will vary. And where there is some overlap, one site may rank slightly higher with one keyword and the other will rank slightly higher on another. You are competing for business, not rankings, and the visitor will click the other top ranked spots regardless of who optimized them.
I'd think twice about demanding exclusion. If the SEO improves your business, then that is all you need to care about. On the other hand, if the SEO gets a better paying client in your industry, you may be the one that gets fired.
P.S. If your budget is too small to interest a good agency, find one that offers hourly consulting. Good advice is worth a few hundred dollars an hour and you won't have any long-term commitments.
Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.
If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.
Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.
Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.
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