Thinking about employing an SEO agency? Here’s 21 questions to ask, and the sort of answers to listen out for.
If you choose the right one your reputation (and career) will take a wonderful turn - choose badly and you’ll be out of a job in 6 months.
SEO is complicated and with all the other stuff you’ve got going on in your marketing day, you don’t have time to learn the minutia of all the elements.
The problem is, this situation leaves you vulnerable to being massively played by one of the many dodgy SEO agencies out there. To give you some armour against the rip-off merchants, I spoke with our Technical Director Jon about the kinds of questions he would ask to ensure you’re not going to get burned by an agency that will just fritter away your budget on techniques that might actually damage your rankings. On the topic of the price of SEO, open this blog in a new tab, for later…
In the meantime, take my hand and I’ll guide you through the minefield of questioning a prospective SEO agency...
Questions to ask a new SEO agency
1. Can I talk to some of your previous clients?
Good Answer: “Why don’t you check out our reviews on Google and in the meantime, I’ll put you in touch with some happy clients in your sector.”
Bad Answer: “Uh, my clients are busy people - I don’t want to waste their time”
If your prospective SEO agency says “Uh, well, I don’t want to bother my other clients” or any other form of “no” then immediately hang up. A bad agency leaves a trail of disgruntled customers in its wake and they don’t normally want prospective customers to talk to them.
If your new SEO agency says “Yes” they’re probably the right sort of people to be speaking with. They might not give you access right away, but if they ask what you want out of your SEO and then consider which of their clients is best suited for a discussion, you’re off to a cracking start.
2. Can I see some of your SEO case studies?
Good Answer: “There are a few on the website, but if you can spare 30 mins I’ll take you through a blow by blow campaign we did for a business just like yours.”
Bad Answer: “Yes - you may not have heard of any of them, but we grew traffic by 10,000% every time!”
Lots of SEOs will say “With this client we had 10,000% growth!” but it’s really easy to get these kinds of figures.
For example - if the SEO agency is showing you a case study from a very new company who only saw 2 visitors from Organic Search in month one, then the client would only need to see 200 visitors from Organic Search in month two to see 1,000% growth. And those 200 visitors might have little or nothing to do with SEO!
Case studies of established businesses, with graphs from Google Analytics are good.
Even better - when those SEO case studies outline what the agency did and how it made a difference to the customer’s organic growth.
3. Describe your ideal client
Good Answer: “A good client relationship is more like a partnership, your team and ours should pool ideas and resources to get the best results”
Bad Answer: “Anybody quiet. SEO works best when you leave the experts to it and don’t ask dumb questions”
Get the SEO agencies you’re considering to describe their ideal client and see whether your business fits that mould.
Some agencies might do their best work with start ups, other SEOs might work best with businesses who have large marketing teams, agencies like Noisy Little Monkey enjoy working as part of a multi-agency team (with PR companies, media buying agencies and branding agencies all in the mix) but there are many SEO practitioners who don’t enjoy playing in a team.
In terms of what they need from you:
- Do they need you to pay within a certain timeframe?
- Do they need weekly calls, monthly meetings or similar?
- Do they need you to be available at a moment’s notice?
Being the ideal client for an SEO company is beneficial because you’ll likely get more bang for your buck. Because you’re easy to do business with, they’re likely to look after you way more than someone who isn’t an ideal client (even when those big spenders are paying more than you).
4. In which industry sectors do you specialise?
Good Answer: “We’re strong in <insert your industry sector> and a few others”
Bad Answer: “We’re strong in all sectors because it’s all about the technology we use”
If your SEO is a specialist in your sector, they’ll probably not have to do as much groundwork as an agency who are already knee deep in the jargon inherent in your industry.
For example, suppose your business is in the legal sector. If an SEO agency has experience in the legal sector, that’s a good thing.... While it would be unethical for an SEO to simply duplicate work they’ve done for another solicitor, if they already know about some of the nuances in the legal sector they're more likely to get off to a flying start so your business sees results more quickly.
5, What CMS (Content Management System) does your SEO team prefer to work on?
Good Answer: “We’re pretty agnostic about the technology, but we’re particularly used to working with <insert your CMS>”
Bad Answer: “We’ll probably need to rebuild your site. Probably on Drupal.”
If your SEOs love WordPress and your website is on WordPress, great! That’s the system that powers most of the websites out there. You might want to check they’re not going to install any plugins other than the wonderful Yoast SEO for WordPress plugin. To use any other SEO plugin for WordPress is probably a sign that you’re talking to the wrong SEO.
If your new SEO claims to be an expert on the CMS you use, ask to see some examples.
As marketing automation and personalised content systems become more popular, finding an agency with experience of your marketing automation platform will become increasingly important. Noisy Little Monkey is famous for HubSpot SEO, if you happen to be using that one :)
If your potential new SEO agency starts talking about building you a site from the ground up then that’s probably going to cost you a lot of money. In some cases it is necessary, but you’re going to need more budget.
6. Ask yourself - what are my potential new SEO agencies blogging about?
Good Answer: “They blog about SEO and things that might make marketing more effective”
Bad Answer: “They blogged about a sponsored run they did. Two years ago”
An SEO that doesn’t blog is probably secretive and don’t practice what they preach. AVOID.
If they are blogging, is it useful advice rather than telling you how to game the system? This is important because Google creates algorithms that are designed as a proxy for human trust. The algorithms try to work out how humans indicate trust and then how to measure what is most trustworthy, The most trustworthy sites which are most relevant to a search query are those which show highest.
Is your new SEO is just interested in ‘gaming the system’ and trying to beat the algorithm rather than producing quality, helpful resources? If so, when they employ this methodology for your business you’ll lose out. Google’s algorithms are designed to get rid of the chaff and learn what’s most useful, so by always working to make your website a useful resource you’ll hopefully stay as the wheat.
In short, seek out an SEO agency that blogs with some regularity and provides useful resources - that’s what they’re going to tell you to do, and you’re going to need some help, training, sympathy and encouragement from an SEO who feels your pain.
7. Tell me 3 things I should fix immediately on my website
Good Answer: Starts with - “Hmmm, let me have a look - Aha! First you should think about changing….”
Bad Answer: “I can send you a 5 page audit”
A prospective SEO practitioner should have a look around your website for couple of minutes and then be able to give you some interesting and useful tips about what you could change and the benefits that might bring to your organisation.
It doesn’t matter if you already have an SEO doing work on your site, another SEO should be able to find more stuff to do, and quickly!
Technology rapidly evolves and the way humans interact with it changes too, so Search Engine Optimisation is never finished. There’s always more to do… The best SEO service providers never rest on their laurels and should always be able to spot something that can be improved.
Anyone who relies on templated audits and repeated explanations that everything in SEO is very expensive and very difficult is pulling the wool over your eyes - there are usually lots of smaller things that are easy to change to improve your website’s ability to rank.
8. Can I see your management accounts?
Good Answer: “What? Um, let me get my accounts team to send you something… What exactly is the information you need to see?”
Bad Answer: “No”
This might seem like an odd question, but you need to know how profitable your prospective SEO agency is, and it’s also a test of how well the business is structured
If you’re going in for a long term relationship, choosing a disorganised agency that could end up going out of business next week isn’t ideal…
Sometimes it’s difficult to get eyes on a new agency’s accounts. It shouldn’t be a deal breaker but it is worth checking. Go to Companies House and assuming your SEO company is a limited company or partnership, (which they probably should be) you can download their accounts for the last few years and see what their profit and loss was. Companies House only provides the basics, so it might be worth running the new SEO company’s name through your account department’s credit checking system, if you have one.
9, How much does SEO cost?
Good Answer: “At these early stages, it’s impossible to put an exact figure on it but typically there’s an upfront cost of about £X, and our average retainer is about £X, but let’s talk about what will work for you.”
Bad Answer: “Depends on how many backlinks we need to buy”
There are typically two options offered when you're talking to a reputable SEO agency.
There will often be a fixed sum for some initial project work, and then maybe an ongoing retainer.
The key thing, if they are suggesting ongoing costs, is whether they are writing or producing content on your behalf. It shouldn’t just be ‘doing SEO’, because once SEO is “done” to your website, it's done. What you want is fresh, relevant content that is link-worthy, so any ongoing cost should include content production.
10. How many people will be working on my account?
Good Answer: “Depends on the size of the job at hand - do you want to pop in and have a coffee with us so you can put names to faces?”
Bad Answer: “Only me. I outsource all the article syndication”
If the voice on the other end of the phone says “Oh, it’s just me - I’m a freelance SEO”, then that’s cool - assuming you’re paying a fee that fits that model. Perhaps if you’re considering paying thousands per month and there’s only one person in the SEO agency, that’s not such a good sign.
When there is a team of people working on your account, then you’d expect to pay more because, if they’re any good, they’ll throw plenty of resources at your project.
There’s no right or wrong answer to this, it’s more about getting a clear picture of how things are and ensuring that you are comfortable with it.
11. How do you store passwords?
Good Answer: “You can give us admin access to anything - that way we don’t need your passwords. For any passwords we do store, we use LastPass”
Bad Answer: “I just use them once and let the browser remember”
Working with an SEO company invariably means that you’ll end up sharing some confidential data with them. Asking how they plan to protect that data ensures you have an understanding of how much they care about the details.
The correct answer to the storing passwords question is something like LastPass or another secure online program.
The wrong answer is on a spreadsheet or password protected hard drive, because spreadsheets can get hacked and hard drives can get stolen.
It could cause seriously bad damage to your business’s reputation if your SEO company inadvertently let your confidential data out into the world through lax security procedures.
12. Do you manage PPC (Pay Per Click)?
Good Answer: “Sometimes - getting the balance right between the budget for SEO and PPC can be a difficulty”
Bad Answer: “Yes! Google just bought us all jet-skis… but don’t worry, it won’t cloud our judgement”
Taking money for paid clicks while being paid for activity which improves a clients’ organic search rankings is a tough balance. We’ve never been able to make it sit comfortably, so Noisy Little Monkey avoids the problem altogether and partners with one of the country's most respected PPC agencies. Keeps us all focused!
However, If your new SEO agency does manage PPC, you need to know how they will wean you off spending on Google AdWords as your organic traffic grows.
Let’s say you spend £3,000 a month on AdWords - you’ll see huge results. But because it’s an auction (you bid on the price you’re willing to pay per click) - bidding will inevitably go up and eventually you’ll have to spend more money to get the same amount of website visitors. You might initially get thousands of visitors, but that will dwindle away to nothing unless you start spending even more on PPC.
With SEO it’s the other way round. You might not see many results organically to begin with, but they should continue to rise once they get started.
It’s very tempting to not invest in this foundational period of SEO because the results aren’t as good as PPC to begin with, but if you want that long-term return on investment you’ve got to do it. Get it right and in a year or so, you won’t pay Google as much and for very little money you’ll get loads of “free” traffic from organic search results.
13. How do you choose the keywords?
Good Answer: “First we think about your potential customer …”
Bad Answer: “Google AdWords Keyword Planner and Keyword Shitter 2”
Primarily the answers you want to hear should include the word ‘people’ and your ‘buyer personas’, rather than them talking solely about keyword planning tools. As good as those tools are (and to be honest, Keyword Shitter 2 is a bit of a loose cannon), they’re only tools.
A good SEO thinks about who your potential customers are and what they’re typing into Google. Then, once they’ve thought about those phrases, a great SEO looks for the “search terms” (keywords strung together which become phrases typed into Google) where your website can beat the competition and get some decent visibility on Google.
A poor SEO using just keyword suggestion tools and little or no imagination will likely recommend building content clusters around search terms that have no real involvement in your user’s buying process.
Typically, if your SEO doesn’t talk about buyer personas or potential customers, they’re not going to be very commercially aware.
14. How do you do link building?
Good Answer: “We don’t do link building. Link building is bad.”
Bad Answer: “We’ve got this amazing system that keeps us one step ahead of Google”
The best answer is that your SEO company will work with you to create amazing content and then outreach to relevant people in the sector to get them to read it. If the content is wonderful, it will naturally acquire links because people love to share useful, unique resources.
If your SEO agency tells you that for £500 they can get you 500 links then run for the hills! Spammy link building is a terrible strategy and your website will almost certainly suffer a penalty from Google at some point. You will lose face and possibly your ability to pay the mortgage,
15. How much involvement would you want in the CRO (Conversion Rate Optimisation)?
Good Answer: “If we can, we’d love to be involved - sometimes the results for the client are quicker and better than simply driving more web visitors”
Bad Answer: “We’re all about the traffic, baby.”
Let’s say you’re getting 100 visitors a day to your website right now, and you get one order per day - that’s a 1% conversion rate.
It might cost you £1,000 of SEO to get 200 visitors to your website, but before you spend your budget it might be worth checking if there’s anything you can to do improve the user journey on your website.
Sometimes a task as simple as moving and simplifying a form can double a conversion rate. Which in our example is now a conversion rate of 2%. That’s 2 orders per day.
Which means that for every 100 visitors you now get two orders and it didn’t cost you a penny on SEO.
Before you dive in and spend loads on growing traffic, the best SEOs should suggest ways in which you can improve conversion rates with the traffic you already receive.
16. Assuming there is an ongoing relationship, how often will we meet?
Good Answer: “It would be good to meet once a quarter… speak on the phone weekly”
Bad Answer: “We don’t need to meet - this is the internet!”
Meeting with a geeky SEO bod every week is a bit too much for most of us and your SEO won’t enjoy it too much either.
A quick catch up call every week, a conference call for an hour every month to discuss how things are going, and then a quarterly strategy meeting is about where you want to be.
17. WHAT ABOUT BING??
Good Answer: “Well, it gets about 20% of search traffic so we don’t ignore it but we primarily make your website work on Google”
Bad Answer: “Bing, Yahoo, Dogpile, Altavista, Hotbot - we do all the SEOs”
In truth, sometimes it’s better to focus on Bing - but it’s quite rare.
18. What is your experience in multi-lingual SEO?
Good Answer: “We have offices in <cities where you also have offices>”
Bad Answer: “Why bother? The international language of trade is English”
When you’re engaging a company to help with multi-lingual SEO you should be looking for an agency with offices in the territories where you wish to target because they’re much more likely to understand the cultural differences, in addition to the linguistic ones. “Mother tongue nationals”, as they’re called in translation circles, also know what idioms work in their native language and which will end up as confusing word mangles.
Also - anyone who believes that because the international language of trade is English they have the right to be so impolite as to not bother to learn the language of their potential customer probably voted UKIP in the last election. As such they are the personification of evil and should be avoided at all costs.
19. What conferences do you attend?
Good Answer: “BrightonSEO and Digital Gaggle and we host a local meet up for marketers”
Bad Answer: “We don’t bother - we never learn anything new”
You want to hear names like Digital Gaggle, BrightonSEO, SearchLove, SMX London and maybe Inbound or MozCon if they fly to the USA occasionally. These kinds of events are about improving knowledge. You want a partner in SEO that won’t be resting on their laurels about something that worked yesterday - they should challenge themselves and their team to discover what might work tomorrow.
20. What websites do you use for inspiration?
Good Answer: “Loads! Pretty much daily I check Search Engine Land, weekly I’m looking at the wonderful Noisy Little Monkey blog… I’ll send you a list.”
Bad Answer: “We don’t have time, and anyway - we rarely learn anything new”
Positive answers would be sites like the Noisy Little Monkey blog, HubSpot, Kissmetrics, Moz, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Watch, and Bill Slawski’s excellent SEO By The Sea. These kinds of websites give great SEO advice and are forward thinking.
If your SEO is looking at things which are a bit more ‘beginner’, or they start talking about closed groups or forums that they’re in to discuss black-hat SEO techniques that only the cool kids know, you should avoid at all costs..
21. How often do you get it wrong and how do you deal with that?
Good Answer: “Rarely but it’s not something we shy away from - we grasp the nettle and put things right.”
Bad Answer: “Uh, we never get it wrong. Why all these questions? Who even are you?”
This is a good test of their honesty because if they say that they never get it wrong then they’re either angels or they’re lying. Check for wings at this point.
By asking them how they deal with it, you’ll learn a lot about their business culture. If they stammer and say something like “oh, we, uh, gave them 3 months of free stuff” it probably means they didn’t actually deal with it like that.
This answer should be about conversations because SEO isn’t even a science, let alone an an exact one and occasionally things go wrong. Sometimes as SEOs we need to have hard conversations with clients.
Any SEO agency should be able to address that question without getting scared, angry or defensive. If they’re defensive at just the question, imagine what they’d be like when something things don’t go exactly as planned.
How to ask these questions
Finally, remember to try keeping these questions open. How, why, where, what, when, who… questions that can’t be answered with a yes / no answer. It keeps it conversational and you’ll learn a lot more about the SEO companies you’re interviewing.
Partnering with the right agency is so important, not just for you but for the agency themselves. Something like SEO is rarely going to be cheap or fast, so getting on with your agency and having mutual respect for each other’s work is vital to ensure your long term partnership is one that delivers a win/win.
If you'd like to learn more about how you can implement SEO tactics on your lonesome, why not download our free SEO guide?