OK, I'll give it to you straight: I have an insider perspective when it comes to what goes on behind the scenes in the Web development and search engine marketing businesses. For 10 months from September 2008 to June 2009, I worked at a Web design firm that sold SEO services, and it was here that I learned what clients should absolutely ask of their SEOs before doing business with them:
1. How much of your business is search engine optimization (pay per click, organic SEO writing, dedicated, legitimate link building)? The reason for asking this question is that even bad SEOs aren't cheap. And if a company only spends 2o percent of its time on SEO work, chances are good that SEO is not a high priority for them. So, they may be doing the bare minimum--submitting your site to a bunch of useless search engines and generating Google Analytics reports that create the false impression they have spent hours working on your campaign--and then leaving your SEO at that. Yikes.
2. How much time will you spend on my account each month? If you are paying an SEO management fee, you should know exactly how much time your account will get each month. Don't pay a company hundreds of dollars a month just to run an analytics report once a month. Yes, that happens.
3. How long have your SEOs been doing this work? Make sure an actual SEO, who has other accounts they can show you results from, is doing your SEO work. Now, an SEO copywriter (like yours truly) can assist you with organic rank and link building, but that person, too, should have knowledge of how search engines work. What you don't want is an administrative assistant or whoever happens to be available assigned to generate a keyword list and throw together a fast, but useless campaign.
4. Do you ever outsource your SEO? If the answer is "yes," you can bet dollars to doughnuts, the company isn't a serious SEO. It may want the revenue SEO work generates, but if a company is paying folks in India 25 cents an hour to write SEO articles or submit your site to hundreds of search engines no one has heard of, you might as well burn your money.
5. Who will be handling my account? Make sure the company has a dedicated SEO who can advise you on which strategies will best serve your needs. And if you meet a senior level SEO, clarify with him that he, and not a junior SEO, will be handling your account. If the account is to be handed down to a junior SEO, inquire about the person's credentials and make sure that he, too, is well-qualified.
6. What kind of on-going SEO training does your SEO team partake in? Run, don't walk, away if the answer is "None," or "Our SEOs learn and train on their own." A reputable SEO--especially because SEO is such a burgeoning and ever changing field--WANTS to continually learn the latest information, so they can be genuine SEO experts to their customers. These types of companies don't settle for letting their SEOs read a few articles once a month and call that "training." The bottom line: A company that does not value on-going education when it comes to SEO is not serious about it.
7. What kind of promises can you make me? The answer should always, always, always be NONE. A reputable SEO realizes that you can manipulate search engines, but that you can't ever wholly guarantee which Google page a site will show up on. Now, you can buy advertising to come up on the first pages of Google, but those are paid ads. Organic rankings, which happen naturally and increase when your site is updated and quality information is provided, take time--usually months, if not years--to achieve. SEOs that promise you the world just want your money.
8. How many links can you get me? Any SEO can get your Web site listed on thousands of search engines, but if they are search engines no one has heard of, they won't do you much good. You want an SEO who will explain to you the importance of legitimate link building; that is, linking to sites that offer your Web site users value and getting others that also serve your audience to add your links to their sites. The higher the quality of your links, the more heavily Google will weigh them. And the higher your ranking will be.