Posted by randfish

It’s been a while since I saw a post that I felt really did this topic justice, and, to be honest, I’ve worked on this one on and off for a couple months now (which means, of course, that I had to rewrite largely from scratch to keep the flow positive). Rather than go into great detail or get mired in specifics, I thought it would be valuable to simply explore the process of determining what kind of SEO vendor you need and how to choose them. Here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Start with Your Goals

    Connect with your team and make sure you have a good idea of what you want accomplished by working with an SEO. Sometimes it’s as simple as an audit to make sure you’re following best practices, other times its training for your marketers and content builders to get up to speed on how to actively promote the site. If you have a solid list of things you want completed at the end of an engagement, you’ll be better able to judge the eventual results.

    We’ve worked with several companies who didn’t really know what they wanted in the past. This is OK, but it does make our job a little less structured, and it means you need an exceptional level of trust in your SEO. What I’ve done is to actually go in, establish the goals, and clear them by management – this works, too, but I worry that sometimes they don’t always end up with exactly what they wanted, but rather what I think they wanted. Quick aside – sometime the SEO will know what you need better than you will – to get the best of both worlds, you can ask them for what they think your goals should be and combine those with your own list.

  2. Connect with Your Social Network

    The people who can best assist you in finding a good match are those who know you well. Talk to friends, fellow business owners, SEO bloggers and personalities that you know and trust. If you really like my personal opinion, you could start on the recommended list, but even then, there are surely hundreds of companies not listed who might be even better matches.

    When you talk to your network, make sure you share a little bit about the project and the goals, not just "do you know a good SEO." The more information about the issues you can share, the better folks are able to assist. At the least, if you have geographic considerations or want a company vs. a freelancer, this is good to include in the request.

  3. Get Advice from SEO-savvy People You Trust

    If you’re a business seeking SEO, I love the advice from Jessica Bowman today on becoming SEO-savvy to at least the basics before investing in outsourced services. As part of that, I’d look seriously into familiarizing yourself with forums, blogs and sites related to SEO and the people behind them you respect. It’s easy to establish a relationship by asking for advice on which SEO company or consultant to hire – I get them a few times a week (actually, Scott takes most of them now – thanks Scott!). As a rule, SEOs are incredibly friendly about referring business to good companies and good people, and if your network has already given you a few names, running these by the professionals can get you valuable insight on potential winners vs. lemons.

  4. Ask for a List of Past Success Stories (not just clients)

    When you first approach an SEO, let them know what you’re seeking and who you are, then continue the conversation after they’ve said whether they’d be available for the project (no need to waste energy on folks who can’t help, though you should always ask for a referral). The next phase of communication should be to establish some trust in the provider, and a perfect way to do this is to ask for a list of "success stories."

    I’m purposely not saying "clients" because "clients" can give you a very warped sense. SEOmoz has done work for tons of "clients" who I wouldn’t consider success stories and wouldn’t want potential clients judging us against (mostly because they haven’t always taken the SEO advice we’ve provided). If you ask for clients and see sites that have some terrible SEO practices, it’s really hard to know if the SEO company is to blame or if that client simply wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t implement the recommendations. This is such a common issue that I’d urge you to ask for examples that display their expertise in practice. We might give out a company like Yelp or IncBizNet or NPR.org as examples of clients who’ve done really impressive things with the advice we provided.

  5. Talk on the Phone or (if possible) Get Together

    Email is a great initial communication medium, but a phone call or in-person meeting gives you a real sense of the team you’ll work with. Make sure you’re not just talking to a salesperson (if you go with a big company) but to the person who will be interacting with you throughout the contract execution process. There’s nothing worse than getting sold by a charismatic, knowledgable SEO leader and passed on to a junior team for management.

    In the phone call/meeting, be sure to establish a rapport. If you can’t feel comfortable on a personal level, don’t dismiss it – brilliant SEOs are great, but if you can’t work well together, the project’s unlikely to suceed. I think we can all attest to working better with people we like and people we get along with – there’s the additional pressure of not letting down someone with whom you’ve developed a relationship, and it extends subconsciously and consciously into every part of the work you do together.

  6. Present a Few Initial Issues Over Email

    I know some SEO consultants won’t engage in any work before a contract is signed, but you should at least get them to talk through how a problem can be approached, whether or not it’s an issue, and what strategies they might recommend to fix it (even from a broad level). I do this with nearly every client we take on – pouring through a duplicate content problem or finding out why indexing isn’t as high as it should be long before we engage. It builds trust in the SEOs knowledge and gives you insight into how they solve problems and what the work relationship and advice will be like down the road.

  7. References?

    I might be criticized for this, but I don’t think they’re worth much. No one is going to give you bad references, and anyone can get their friend to be the CEO of some Internet company or another. If you can’t get a read on whether an SEO is high quality and worth working with sans references, go somewhere else. Unless they’re complete dolts, the references will always say nice things.

    BTW – This isn’t to say that a client list isn’t a good idea. You can judge a lot from that list – what size and scope and focus of clients the firm/consultant usually helps. It’s just the actual phone call or email that’s usually not all that revealing.

  8. Get an Informal Proposal from your top 2-3 Vendors

    Don’t just get a quote from one vendor, even if you’re sure you’re going to use them. Multiple quotes aren’t just a best practice, they’re a really good way to tell about pricing and scope discrepencies. The quote from the vendor you don’t like might have some pieces that your preferred vendor overlooked. Pricing is harder because it fluctuates so wildly in the search marketing world. I thought for a long time that SEOmoz was one of the highest priced services on the market, only to discover that some friendly competition has been upset about how we’re undercutting. If you’re looking for SEO pricing, I’d still suggest my old post on the subject – SEO Pricing & Costs: What Should You Charge / How Much Should You Pay?

    Just a word of warning – don’t choose an SEO on price alone (or even make price the biggest part of your decision) unless your budget is a real problem. Here’s why – SEO is usually an incredibly high ROI activity. Companies that spend $50,000 on SEO services tend to make it back in a matter of weeks or months from traffic and conversion increases (remember that more targeted traffic means higher conversion rates, too). Thus, going with an SEO who’s $15,000 less might seem like a good idea, but if you don’t work as well together and think they might not do as good a job, you’re really hurting yourself in the long term. I’m not saying you should get fleeced by some exorbitantly overpriced firms (watch out – some of the biggest SEO companies have some of the most ruthless pricing models because they know that Fortune 1000s will only work with consultants who’ve done work for other Fortune 1000s), I’m just suggesting that a few thousand dollars is not the best reason to choose a different provider.

  9. Have Smart, Sensible People to Review the Contract

    Lawyers are great – we’ve got a lawyer and we love her to death. However, sometimes legal folks get overly concerned with insurance and blame details and overlook big picture items. Make sure that your savvy, business/ROI focused personnel get a good look, too. If there are legal issues that cause a rift, it can even be wise to get some c-level executives involved. Sometimes the folks from legal won’t budge on an issue that’s going to be a deal breaker (we’ve walked away from more than a couple of contracts for this reason), but if the CEO says do it anyway, you can get around the more asinine and egregious demands.

  10. Go with Your Gut

    When you finally make your choice, go with the team you feel most confident will bring results. Making a matrix of price vs. service vs. reputation vs. estimated productivity is fine if you’re into that, but I’m inclined to take Malcolm Gladwell’s advice and "Blink" onto the right choice. If you don’t feel like there is a correct company at the time, go back to the table, get more information, even try to get another bid or two – when you do find the best choice, things just "feel" right. How do you know?

    • The way they talk about search engines makes sense and the advice they’ve given lines up with the best practices you’ve seen expressed on SEO sites you trust.
    • Their level of familiarity with recent trends at the engines and the links they send or news they cite is timely, relevant and logical
    • They use the engines like Pros, combing through site queries, link information and analytics data to unveil the underlying problems that are hurting rankings or causing the competition to succeed
    • They have SEOmoz PRO. Totally kidding – if you ever see one of my posts go there, you’ll know I’ve been tied up in the backroom and someone else is writing the blog :)

I’d love to get feedback from anyone who’s been through the selection process and how you’ve felt about the decisions you’ve made positive or negative. I know how hard it is to choose an SEO vendor (or any consulting/service firm that works intricately with processes essential to your business), so I’m really looking forward to hearing stories from the trenches.

Addendum: Other posts to consider on this topic include:

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