HOW DO I HIRE A SEO CONSULTANT

Matthew Carter
Hello friends, my name is Matthew Carter. I’m a professional link builder for a large SEO agency in New York City.

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Advises on one-dimension only. Optimization is more than just keywords, you need conversions. At the very least, your SEO professional should have a basic understanding of user experience principles and be willing to consult with you on UX best practices. Ideally, you want someone who offers holistic strategy.

Check the SEO’s SEO. Many people don’t know enough about SEO to judge effective SEO. You can use simple free tools to show basic metrics for any website. Or try searching Google with keywords that a site might be targeting (other than brand name), do you see the site in organic results?

Controls your business assets. Your domain, website, content, social platforms, and Google accounts are assets of your company. You need to be an owner on all accounts to remain in control of your brand.

Some of the questionable practices listed above are due to a lack of experience versus intended deception. Everyone starts out at ground zero — and initiative plus curiosity and smarts can outweigh inexperience. But SEO is largely a self-taught endeavor, so at what point is someone qualified to call themselves an expert?

Read reviews. Is it easy to find positive reviews? When evaluating skill level, look for comments with substance. Give more weight to feedback from seasoned professionals or mature businesses, versus inexperienced solopreneurs who don’t yet understand search and are simply excited to see their brand name show up in results.

Watch out for the following:

And SEO is somewhat of a business consulting service, you’ll want someone who can understand your business beyond keywords and title tags.

Treats SEO as a cookie cutter checklist. Yes, there are standard, repeatable SEO best practices that apply to every website — and a generic checklist can help new businesses launch on solid footing. But in many cases, a tailored plan that is specific to your industry, services, and customers is the best approach for long-term growth. At the very least, you need to understand what will be required to progress from a checklist to where you really want to be.

What website platform is your site built on? Why? Everyone is partial to one platform over another for different reasons. Insights you might glean from asking this question include:

Have you worked with someone in our industry? This is a common, but misunderstood question. Regard this question from a high-level versus granular perspective. If you own a local business, you want to ensure the SEO freelancer is skilled in local SEO strategy— it really doesn’t matter if you own a hair salon or build pools (read below about SEOs working with competing local businesses).

How much time will be required from our team? Think about the on-boarding process, initial site audit, and any on-going meetings. Some businesses prefer a do-it-for-me approach, while others want as much education and training as possible. Regardless of your preference, good SEO consultants will usually kickoff with an in-depth discovery meeting to learn about your business.

Will the SEO agency want you to switch to their preferred platform? A website migration might be needed, but this is detailed work for an experienced SEO.

Be ready to implement and have patience. If you want to see actual change and progress, you will need to execute on your SEO’s recommendations. And if you are just starting out, you’ll have to accept that SEO can be a slow process.

Overstates results when keywords used are all but meaningless. Or as Google puts it: “obscure, long keyword phrases you would get anyway.” If you own a hair salon, common sense tells us that you want to be found for “hair salon near me,” but some people will use unproductive terms and claim a site ranks.

If bio information is hard to locate, check LinkedIn. Or tools like Who Is or Wayback Machine may help you determine how long a group has been in business.

Many small businesses do their own basic SEO, but when your website needs a second set of eyes, how do you hire the right SEO expert? How do you know who to listen to and what is relevant to your situation?

How to Hire an SEO.

Read the About page. Does the agency leadership look reliable? What is the consultant’s educational or professional background? Experience level?

Uses undifferentiated, unnecessary content. Some of the agencies mentioned above simply copy content from site to site for the industry sites they maintain, swapping out only names and addresses. And sites they manage often share unnecessary, ineffective, duplicated blogs.

Who will we work with? Does the agency outsource their SEO work? Is the person on the call a sales guy or an SEO expert? Any arrangement can work as long as it meets your expectations.

Ask questions. See the section below for suggestions and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification on any topic. Keep in mind, an experienced SEO will probably have more questions for you than you have for them.

Showcases skewed analytics. For example, Squarespace’s analytics dashboard can be useful to gain a quick high-level overview of things, but generally it should not be used for reporting or as case study material. The data is unreliable for websites with low search traffic or following a project when you, your team, your SEO, your designer, etc are all visiting the site frequently. Use Google Analytics to filter out your team’s visits to the website.

Sells you on “backlinks,” but is referring to directory listings. Not all links are created equal. Business directories can play a role in local SEO efforts, but many businesses want natural editorial links from highly-relevant and high-authority sites.

Can you show us examples? If you’ve done your homework, you’ve already read the agency’s testimonials and case studies. But when interviewing an SEO, ask them about their favorite projects. Let them show you real-world examples of their hard work and what they learned along the way.

Questions to Ask an SEO.

Does the consultant use one CMS platform (such as WordPress), but heavily market their services to a different audience (Squarespace, Wix, Magento, etc)? Did they switch platforms? If so, why? SEO is SEO, but anyone will best understand the nuances of the CMS they use for their primary business. Consider the “eat your own dog food” concept.

You probably know to avoid “black hat SEO” or manipulating search engine results in unfair ways. These tactics violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can result in penalties or removal of a site from Google’s index. And Google provides specific examples of negative techniques to watch out for such as doorway pages and link schemes.

If you own an affiliate site, does your content compete alongside large media companies for product recommendations and reviews? If you run an e-commerce site, do your products stand out among larger retailers? Consider the SEO skills your business needs: local, international, e-commerce, affiliate, content, etc.

Seems overly aggressive or spammy. Cheap SEO mills churning through clients at scale will put profit above your business goals. SEO is not a one-size-fits-all commodity service. If your SEO says optimization is a formula or a 50-point checklist, then your business will be outperformed in the SERPs.

Each business has a different need and budget, so you want to look for the best fit for your goals. Below we offer suggestions on how to hire SEO experts for your small business, plus questions to ask, and things to watch out for as you evaluate providers.

Works with competing local businesses. It is common to find SEO agencies who do “SEO for dentists” or “SEO for pool builders” or such. If an SEO company contracts with multiple local businesses who all compete for the same customers, then there is a conflict of interest. Ask how your business remains a top priority.

Uses jargon for confusing reports. These providers usually don’t offer training or education because they are happy for you to remain confused and in the dark. Small businesses in very competitive local markets are at extra risk of being approached by SEOs using scare tactics.

Technical SEO interview questions aren’t effective for the average small business owner trying to hire SEO specialists. Use the section above to do your homework before speaking with SEO consultants, then consider asking these basic questions:

Be sure to ask how often they plan to share these important analytics with you and how they would use the data to continually improve your search engine rankings and website traffic.

1. May I have a list of current and past clients? A reputable SEO consultant should be open to sharing a brief list of current and former clients and his or her contact information, says Vanessa Fox, author of Marketing in the Age of Google (Wiley, 2012) and founder of Nine By Blue, a Seattle-based SEO software provider.

The study also found that the most common retainers ranged between $251 to $500 a month on the lower end and $2,501 to $5,000 a month on the higher end, while the most common hourly rates ranged from $76 to $200. Fox said consultants who specifically serve small businesses often charge less per month and hour.

10. What happens when we part ways? When your contract expires or if you terminate it early, you should still maintain ownership of all of the optimized web content you paid the consultant to provide, Fox says.

2. How will you improve my search engine rankings? Steer clear of SEO consultants who won’t freely discuss their methods in detail, cautions Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, a Seattle-based internet marketing software company and co-author of The Art of SEO (O’Reilly, 2012). They should explain the strategies they would use to drive up your website’s search engine ranking, as well as estimate how long it could realistically take to achieve the SEO campaign goals you agree on.

Also, ask consultants if they provide “off page” SEO strategies to raise awareness of your content on other websites, often via blogs, social media platforms and press releases.

9. What are your fees and payment terms? You need to know how much you’ll be charged, of course, and also whether the consultant gets paid hourly, by retainer or by project. Project-based payments are the most common in the SEO consulting industry, and they can vary widely, depending on a project’s size and complexity. Most contract projects ranged between $1,000 and $7,500, according to Moz’s 2011 pricing survey of more than 600 SEO firms.

Consider it a red flag if the candidate claims to have an insider relationship with Google or any other search engine that will get you priority search results rankings. Only Google, Bing and Yahoo can control how high or low websites appear in their search results.

If your website is optimized for what’s known as “local SEO,” it should appear when someone nearby is searching for keywords that are relevant to your business. To achieve that, a consultant should add your business’s city and state to your website’s title tags and meta descriptions, and get your site listed on Bing, Google and Yahoo’s local listings, which are online directories of businesses that cater to a specific geographical area.

5. Are you experienced at improving local search results? Appearing in the top local search engine results is especially important to small brick-and-mortar businesses trying to attract nearby customers, Rand says. You’ll want a consultant who has expertise in local SEO techniques.

4. Can you guarantee my website will achieve a number-one ranking on Google, Bing and Yahoo? If the candidate answers yes, Fox warns, “Turn and run in the other direction as fast as you can.” Although it’s impossible to guarantee a number-one ranking on any search engine, she says, some unethical SEO consultants do make such bogus guarantees.

Make sure the candidate’s proposal includes an initial technical review of your website to weed out any problems that could lower your search engine ranking, including broken links and error pages. Consultants also should provide “on page” optimization, a process to make your website as search engine friendly as possible. It involves improving your website’s URL and internal linking structure, along with developing web page titles, headings and tags.

For example, will consultants add new title tags to your existing HTML code or modify the existing ones? Will they provide additional copywriting content highlighting your products and services to beef up the number of visible, on-page keywords relevant to your potential customers? And do they plan to redesign all or some of your website navigation or add new pages to your site?

These references can help you gauge how effective the candidate is, as well as verify that the person did indeed work on specific SEO campaigns. Clients may not provide specific analytics, Fox says, but they should be able to at least tell you if they saw a positive impact on their search ranking, especially in conversions and in gaining an audience, as a direct result of the consultant’s efforts.

If your website doesn’t show up on the first page of search results on Google, Bing or Yahoo, your potential customers might not even know you exist. Better search engine visibility can be critical to boosting visits to your website, which can lead to increased brand awareness and higher sales and profits.

Here are 10 essential questions to ask when considering prospective SEO consultants:

8. How will we communicate and how often? SEO consultants’ communication styles and customer service standards vary. You need to find someone whose approach best fits your needs. Ask if the candidate prefers to talk in person or via phone, Skype, texting or email. And find out how often will he or she reach out to you with status updates.

6. Will you share with me all changes you make to my site? Search engine optimization will most likely require a number of changes to your existing web page coding. It’s important to know exactly what adjustments the consultant plans to make and on how many web pages. If you would like the candidate to get your permission before accessing and altering your website code, be sure to say so.

Bing and Yahoo also post webmaster best practices that consultants should confirm they follow.

7. How do you measure the success of your SEO campaigns? To gauge the success of SEO efforts, you must track exactly how much traffic is being sent to your website and where it is coming from. Consultants should be experienced in using Google Analytics to track improvement in your site’s search engine rankings, the number of links from other websites driving traffic to yours, the kinds of keywords searchers use to find your site, and much more.

Other important payment-related questions: How often are invoice payments due — every 30, 60 or 90 days? Is there an interest charge for late payments?

#insert related here# 3. Do you adhere to search engines’ webmaster guidelines? You want a consultant who strictly abides by Google’s publicly posted webmaster best practices, which specifically prohibit 12 common SEO tricks, including automatically generating spammy content and adding bogus hidden text and links. If a candidate doesn’t follow those guidelines, your website could be relegated to a dismally low search results ranking. Or, worse yet, Google could ban it from search results altogether.

But what if you lack the time and technical expertise to improve your site’s search engine ranking? It might make sense to hire an experienced, reliable search engine optimization (SEO) consultant.

Accordingly, you’ll want to make sure the contract states that when you part ways, consultants will not change or remove any of the content they added, modified or optimized on your behalf. You also should ask consultants whether they charge any fees for early contract termination, and if so, to specify them in the contract.

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