So many times potential clients come in to buy Search engine optimization (SEO) who have previously had poor experiences with other companies. Throughout the conversation i consistently here "i wish i would have known that when I was buying SEO last time". For that reason I thought I would do an article to answer the question "everything I need to know before buying SEO".
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is often pitched to companies as a “secret sauce”, magic potion, or some “proprietary solution” that some companies claim to have some magical formula for successfully getting you listed on the first page of search results. Simply put, there is no magic formula or secret tactics to successfully listing you #1 in the search results pages (SERP’s). The reality is that it just takes expertise, experience, and strategy.
There are many articles and blog posts out about how to select an SEO company for your website but the goal of this article is to share 20 years of experience in the industry and be absolutely transparent about the different types of SEO companies and teams so you can make an informed decision about the SEO Company that is perfect for your business’s website.
When you hire a company to do your SEO you are hiring an individual's or team’s knowledge of that process and as is the case in many markets, SEO Specialists are comprised of many types. For the sake of this article I’ll break them up by experience and describe briefly their attributes.
SEO interns have little or no SEO strategy experience and if you have a first year SEO intern working on your account they should be taking direction and strategy from a Senior SEO Specialist and performing delegated tasks directed by a strategist (i.e. install Google Analytics and Google’s Search Console on your website). Because SEO strategy takes years of trial and error as well as exposure to dozens of factors that can determine how fast, how effective, and how far up the rankings your site can go, an intern really is not capable (even if very competent) of assessing a strategy that is your quickest path to return on investment (ROI - which should be your goal on a long term strategy).
Website Developers practicing SEO
I have had the privilege of both presently and in the past, working around some amazing and brilliant website designers and developers and although absolutely capable of being great SEO Specialists, without the experience and expertise, you should not really count on them to deliver definitive SEO results for your website. When you are paying for SEO your expectation should be the person doing that SEO specializes in SEO and is doing it as their career.
Internet Marketers Practicing SEO
Many internet marketers understand website user experience, click through rate, Pay Per Click (Adwords), advertising optimization, social media ad buys, and wealth of related services that all can augment and/or impact SEO, but again, when you are paying for SEO, your expectation should be the person doing that SEO specializes in SEO and is doing it as their career. Hiring an online marketer to do aspects of SEO can be effective but similar to the two previous types of SEOs you should not count on them to assess an SEO strategy that is your quickest path to return on investment (ROI).
I Teach Entry Level SEO, Therefore I Can Do
Teaching, workshops, writing high level articles and blog posts alone are not credentials of experienced SEOs who have a history of actually successfully implementing SEO.
There are many teachers, workshop hosts and writers who conceptually understand some SEO but have no business implementing SEO services because theory alone does not produce results without experience and expertise. I have seen firsthand SEOs who over-sold themselves in the interview process and couldn’t perform SEO at a professional level, go on to become workshop hosts, speakers, and even guest teachers in an effort to sell services they can’t produce. The real ambassadors and teachers of SEO offer knowledge and actionable solutions for SEO not high level overviews that are essentially a sales channel.
If you are talking to an SEO you met at an event or workshop about possibly working on your SEO, be sure you know who will be doing that SEO and what their actual credentials are.
Company (or In-House) Level SEOs
Hiring an SEO consultant that is primarily doing SEO for an individual company or organization's website and has made a career of moving from one job to the next, where their primary job function was to deliver SEO for a single website or a set of websites all directly related, can be very tricky. These SEO specialists can be very effective and have a strong understanding of SEO, but many times their knowledge is limited to SEO from a chronological perspective because of the their limited exposure to websites at a variety of maturity levels. Working on a lot of different websites at a full spectrum of maturity is what makes expert SEOs. They can quickly asses strengths and weaknesses, and strategize the most effective way for your site to rank in a manner that delivers a return for your business throughout the SEO process. If you work with this type of SEO, be sure the SEO consultant has SEO agency level experience or has a full time career doing SEO for a website that is in a very similar state and market that your is in.
1 Man (or Woman) Show SEO Specialist
Many very capable, experienced SEOs do consulting work after-hours and can provide you an excellent opportunity to save money working with them directly. But hiring a consultant or a very small (1 to 3 person team) has some challenges you should be aware of:
- Inquire as to how many SEO consultant projects they have actively going; more than a couple while they are working a full time job can be a red flag.
- Consider if they are an SEO consultant that recently started their own company. I literally would ask to see their resume and check their references. Many times these consultants have spotty careers with no longevity. They have learned the “SEO lingo” but have no practical knowledge of how to achieve results.
Agency SEO Specialists
SEO Specialists with 2-5 years agency level experience are the equivalent to an NFL Football player, compared to the previous listed SEO Specialist positions, which would consist of youth football, high school football and college football levels (sorry for the sports analogy but it is one everyone typically understands). Experienced agency level SEOs typically work between 12 and 22 ongoing client websites a month and do one-time tasks for another dozen or so. They will see websites with a vast amount of disparity in domain equity, PageRank, lifespan (i.e. new website launches, 20 year old websites, and everything in between), and dozens of other variables that will dictate the strategy they use to reach client key performance Indicators (KPI’s).
They have to be experts at identifying the quickest path to finding a client’s return on their investment in SEO, implement that strategy and then ultimately communicate that strategy to the client and show the results of the work that was done to achieve their placement. The only real way to achieve those results is by actually working on many client websites and continually getting those clients ranked number 1 for their primary keywords. By hiring someone at this level you avoid the learning curve and trial and error of less experienced people, and although you typically pay more for SEOs at this level, the returns far outweigh the additional expense. Another very important thing to consider is that your exposure to mistakes by less experienced SEO consultants, that can actually hurt your websites placement, is avoided because SEOs at this level know how to see around the corners and avoid big mistakes that can hurt your websites placement.
Senior Agency SEO Specialists
SEO Specialists with 5+ years agency level experience are the Hall of Famers in SEO. These SEO Specialists have typically strategized, implemented and analyzed SEO for at least hundreds of websites in a vast spectrum of scenarios. They are experts in every aspect of SEO strategy, SEO implementation, competitive SEO analysis, and SEO bench-marking and analytics analysis. Experts at this level can quickly assess “low lying fruit” and quickly implement solutions that start to show a return while setting the foundation for placement of the higher profile keywords that may take longer to get ranking. Because expert SEO programs are not inexpensive, it is very important that clients are working with experts who can deliver sales, leads (or whatever the goals or KPI returns are), throughout the process of doing the SEO. Veteran agency level SEO’s are absolutely the best choice for delivering those returns!
When hiring an SEO consultant or company, experience is one of the primary factors that dictate results. SEO is ever changing and SEOs learn from every search algorithm change, every possible scenario they run in to, and from every keyword they achieve number 1 placement. When you’re working with an SEO, you need a team, consultant, or company that can easily assess, strategize, implement, and report results fast and effectively. Experience, history and the ability for an SEO to see around potential corners are the biggest factors and indicators of potential success.
Just as important as the credentials and experience of the SEO who is working on your account is, the business model and experience of the company or consultant you hire is equally as important. Because SEO has become a very lucrative market, many SEO consultants and companies have popped up to capitalize on this growth market. An inexperienced SEO management team or company can be as disastrous as a bad SEO specialist. In 20 years in this market, I have learned the most effective business model for success is trust, transparency, results, and reporting! To that end, assembling a team of SEO experts, implementing a frame work and client SEO programs that compliment that team of experts, and ultimately sticking to the “strategize, implement, analyze and report to the client” format is an important part of the model.
The SEO companies that have the experience, understand that success in this market comes from delivering clients consistent results, and communicating those results effectively can achieve client satisfaction, retention and results whic equal long term viability and a win/win relationship.
Types of SEO Companies
As of mid-2016, SEO was a $65 BILLION dollar a year industry (study by Borrell Associates) and when done effectively that number is tiny compared to the value that competent SEO teams have delivered to clients in Return on Investment (ROI). Further, Borrell Associates predicts that the SEO industry will continue to grow to an estimated $72 billion by 2018 and $79 billion by 2020. A Forbes article surveyed marketers and found that more than 90 percent plan to increase their SEO budgets or keep them the same over the next year. When reading this it becomes apparent that SEO is successful and can dramatically grow your company.
The fact that SEO is a lucrative market and offers companies practicing SEO or working with SEO companies a massive Return on Investment (ROI) also works against the industry. Because it does attract a slew of SEO companies and consultants that are not focused on providing clients excellent returns but who are focused more on generating revenue, growing other departments without the adequate infrastructure in their existing business, or simply setting up a cash grab sales model, it can be deceiving to the business owner to know if the person contacting them is a legitimate SEO agency or not. Because this can be the case I feel it’s important to understand the types of SEO businesses out there, what their typical business models are and provide insight into how to assess which one you are talking to:
These are the absolute worst because they take your money, provide no value (best case scenario) and give the SEO industry a bad name. If you have soaked in the article to this point you already know the quickest way to sniff these companies out.
- They send you the “spam emails”, call you on an auto-dialers with a prerecorded line of bullsh*t, and prey on your fear of loss (if you don’t sign up your competitor will).
- They make a claim to be associated directly with Google, except Google does not sell any SEO services, ever…
- They guarantee you top placement on the first page but don’t tell you that you are buying AdWords Ads (and paying a ridiculous premium for them) not organic search placement.
- When you ask them their company name and what keywords they rank for, they stutter and try to deflect or they tell you some line of crap about not having time to work on their own SEO. The easiest keyword for a company to rank for is their company name and most of these companies don’t even rank for that much less any SEO service related keywords.
- Their whole practice of selling SEO is based on lies and knowing if they call and spam enough people they will find people to spend money with them. These companies need to be avoided at all costs.
These are major companies and brands you know for yellow page services, domain name registration, online directories, products and services other than SEO services. They have flocked to the market because they have databases of hundreds of thousands of companies who have used other services they offer (or once offered) and they can easily mass market new services. Many of these companies sell you a website or doorway page you don’t own, sell you Pay-Per-Click search, badly done SEO and “guaranteed leads or phone calls” that you and hundreds of other companies get or that consist of a phone call that originates from a paid advertisement (that you are paying for) that are often times phone solicitors calling to sell you something. They hire low hourly wage employees with little to no experience so they can maximize margins and sell you garbage.
These companies seem attractive because they offer low rates (which in most cases equates to no or very low value) but make it nearly impossible for you to cancel and when you do, they shut down everything they put in place, so what little you are getting will go away. That practice is nothing like a reputable expert SEO company that builds organic search placement to your website that still has very valuable returns even after you mature out of their premium services.
Website Companies Trying To Do SEO
There are many website development companies out there that do very competent SEO. Then there are also many website development companies that get so many requests from clients to do SEO, they decided to stop turning away that business but have not adequately invested in a solid SEO team. Many of those companies have their web developers just do some entry level SEO and bill you monthly.
The questions you need to ask to identify which is which is basically;
- Do you have a separate SEO department? SEO is a career and if you are paying for it you don’t want even the best web designer doing SEO for you if that is not their career. SEO and website developers have comparable pay scales in the industry and they are separate jobs. Most of us wouldn’t pay a plumber to fix the electrical panel on our house, why pay a designer to do SEO?
- What are the credentials of your SEO team? I know this is a common theme in questions but it is a huge indicator of successful SEO. If they only have a couple people on their SEO team, I would even ask to meet with them and ask them their experience level, how many accounts they handle, and do they do SEO full time?
Sales Office SEO
Similar to the homogenized SEO companies these are companies that have decided SEO is a lucrative market and they need to be selling it. These companies are typically started by business people that have very little if any actual SEO experience but really understand business and most importantly to them sales! They market their companies very effectively, they have expert sales staff and they have many clients. For the company looking for an SEO company to work with, these are the hardest companies to distinguish as “less than competent to deliver SEO results” because they come off polished, professional and competent.
Side note: You need to have your proposal clearly state that your work will be done in-house because many of these companies are outsourcing a large number of their clients to India and have little control over the quality of the SEO being done.
The easiest way to distinguish whether they can offer you real results is focus on their in-house team and in particular the SEO that will be working on your account. Ask questions regarding the team, like:
- How SEO specialists are assigned clients and besides management, who are and what are the credentials of the SEO team members? Request to meet the specialist that would be working on your account and don’t be afraid to interview them asking questions like;
- How long have you been doing SEO?
- How long have you been with the current company?
- What credentials do you have that qualify you to work on my website?
- How many active clients do they manage that have first page Google results for generic keywords. Who are they and what are the keywords?
TIP: One of the best ways to weed out these first 4 types of SEO companies is:
- Ask them, “On how many SEO keywords is your website ranked #1 for and what are they?" This is such a basic question and any answer below a dozen that are not high quality and directly related to their business is a massive red flag. Businesses who sell SEO but don’t have ranking for their own website have absolutely no excuse!
Assembly Line SEO
These are also tough ones to spot because they are a lot of times run by someone who is actually an expert SEO or a speaker that teaches workshops and/or seminars who knows a lot of “conceptual” SEO but not so much about implementation. If they are dynamic speakers who host an amazing seminar or understand a ton about SEO but aren’t the ones who will be working on the SEO, they should know a ton about the team that will be doing the SEO work. Even better, if they hired the team, they should know their resumes pretty well. Ask previously outlined pointed questions about the team.
The model of an SEO expert teaching a dozen entry level marketers all their tricks so they create a team of “low priced rock star SEOs" is a pipe dream! In my 20 year career I have personally tried to do this with the best of intentions, I know half a dozen other experts who have tried to do this, and the bottom line is - it doesn’t work! In an nutshell and over simplifying some of the reasons this doesn’t work are: turnover is high, results are inconsistent, and as the resident SEO expert, there is too much strategy work for one person to do and still double check interns' work, the need to continue to effectively train and deliver decisive value to the client. Unfortunately the one that suffers the most is the client.
Just remember, when you are talking to an expert they still need to make you understand who will be doing your SEO and what their credentials are. An SEO team is not the sum of its greatest link. It’s a sum of experts+ experience+leadership+business model+strategy= results.
Niche Website SEO Companies
There are many niche SEO companies that specialize in just certain markets. There was a time when this was effective and served a purpose but this model has largely gone away. These companies typically do law SEO, home services SEO, and some medical related SEO. This was a lot more prevalent Googles pre-Panda update because many of these companies gained popularity reusing the same content in different geographical locations, and used very similar keyword portfolios and SEO optimization for their clients. They were very affordable because they were simply reprocessing very similar websites, SEO strategies, and content for many clients in the same market.
Since Google’s Panda algorithm addressed duplicate content on a wide scale many of these companies moved on, had to dramatically change their pricing structure and even a handful still exist selling websites and SEO that have little to no chance of placing in search.
When purchasing from these companies be absolutely certain that all website design, content, and SEO related research and strategy are 100% based on your business and 100% owned by you should you ever cancel service.
Expert SEO Agency
The best SEOs have optimized a vast amount of websites in a wide range of maturity and have placed hundreds if not thousands of keywords on the first page search engine results pages (SERPs). They make a career out of advanced SEO and keep up with search algorithm changes, they regularly are implementing new SEO best practices and, because the diversity in client's websites they manage, they understand local SEO, organic SEO and can assess and strategize the absolute most effective way for your website to achieve the quickest return on investment.
At the expert SEO agency level, most of which companies have been around for years, the teams have a strong understanding of the processes that enable the SEO experts they hire to thrive and deliver results for their clients. The environment encourages team analysis, strategy and implementation all focused on client results, collective team growth and knowledge. Definitive KPIs, goals, results for the SEO team are set and regularly tracked, so client satisfaction is clear by monitoring retention rates, conducting full client website result audits, and ensuring client keyword search placement is achieved. You need a team that can audit your website and analytics, audit the competitive landscape, assess your quickest paths to a return on investment (ROI), and implement an ongoing strategy to that end.
Businesses are in the business of making money, but effective long term businesses create a win/win scenario so that they make money and build relationships but also effectively provide value and profit for their clients and customers. Expert SEO Agencies understand and embrace that model!
The SEO Kiss of Death
Switching gears, an area we haven’t talked about much is proposals, and in this section it is particularly relevant. A proposal can tell you a lot about what types of SEOs are employed by the company you are talking with. Many times when talking to an SEO company about your website you receive a proposal that is comprised of check boxes that outline the range of services you will receive and associated packages that provide different pricing and different range of services. In many cases this can be a really bad sign that the company you’re hiring is one of the previously mentioned less-than-desirable SEO companies.
Here are the 2 most common reasons why you might have concerns:
- In the check box proposal you have to select a package that suits your websites current state of “search maturity” and associate a range of services that will propel your website to the next level in search results. Well, in a vast majority of cases, if you knew that you wouldn’t need an SEO company, you could simply delegate someone to do those things for you.
- Another huge problem that many of you who understand basics about the SEO process will totally understand is, only the most expensive package accounts for all the variables you may need to get the quickest ROI for your SEO investment. Simply put, the less expensive package likely lists some services you don’t even need and are missing some of the services you absolutely need.
There are many reasons why some SEO companies do check box SEO quotes but here are some common ones:
- The scariest reason of all is, they simply don’t understand SEO enough to know that for 100 different websites there could likely be 100 different paths to the quickest search engine results return on investment (ROI).
- In the lower packages, the range of services are fairly elementary and SEO companies can assign interns to do many of the tasks associated to those programs. So basically you’re paying a premium to have someone who may have been deciding what corsage to wear to prom 6 months ago do SEO on your website.
- In some of the previously mentioned SEO business models the management may be choosing to just be unethical. They understand that a large majority of people don’t understand what they're buying and will pay for peace of mind. So they put the company in a low tier SEO program knowing they will need more services and they can be upsold throughout the process.
The reason all of these things are relevant in this section is because, when an agency hires and has only expert SEOs work on your account, they don’t need check box SEO!! They simply assess where your website is in the SEO process, determine competitive search rank, strategize, and ultimately conclude how many hours monthly the team or SEO expert will need to consistently provide you results on your SEO investment. So essentially when you are dealing with SEO experts, there is no range of SEO service outside of the scope, they are capable of implementing all tasks that directly relate to your search placement and you shouldn’t be paying extra for that.
Last but not least important, it’s important to note over time as higher profile, generic keyword placement is achieved, SEO has a diminishing return for new dollars invested. In this case SEOs typically have to vary strategies like using schema for expanding listings to push competitors further down the SERPs (search engine results pages), a/b test meta descriptions to improve CTR (click through rates), focus on UX (user experience), do more off page optimization, etc. The point is that in the “check box” SEO environment your bill would require you to go to a larger package and increase the investment you were already making to get less return. Most expert SEO teams understand this and have reduced hour programs so you can still work on improving your results but lower your monthly cost and continue to improve your ROI.
Assessing Your SEO Needs
SEO should be treated like any other marketing product. You should generally understand the product you’re buying, who you’re buying it from first (which you should now know) and secondly, you should understand your goals, key performance indicators (KPIs), deliverables, options, budget and expectations.
- Goals for Your SEO
- Identify main keywords searched by your target market.
- Make sure you receive a keyword analysis and portfolio report, with derivative keywords from your SEO company. You should receive this before actual SEO begins and for clients who have cyclical changes in their market, they should be repeated cyclically.
- Tracking and Reporting
- If not already set up it is imperative to set benchmarks before SEO and check in consistently. Google Analytics and Google’s Search Console are mandatory
- Site Audit
- Site audits should also be done initially. Most expert SEO agencies will make SEO audit results available to you via online dashboard so you can monitor changes between meetings. You may also get these in printed format but they should be done early in the process and updated regularly.
- If you purchased a checkbox SEO program then you will likely have deliverables monthly. If that’s the case you should review those in your meetings.
- When hiring an expert SEO team many times the scope of your work will be determined at the beginning of the month, implemented throughout the month and then analyzed and reported at the end of the month.
- The reason this approach can be so successful is because your team or specialist can consistently be reassessing the best strategy to the quickest path of return on investment for your business.
- Baseline statistics and information on your SEO KPIs and goals should be pulled before SEO begins and monitored a minimum of monthly.
- In advanced scenarios where advanced or potentially sensitive SEO work is being done reporting should be done more aggressively.
- One Scenario where reporting would be monitored much closer would be a launch of a website redesign.
- Cheap vs. inexpensive is something to really consider. If something costs you $150 a month and makes you no profit, is it less expensive than a program that costs you $1,000 a month that makes you thousands of dollars in profit?
- Typical expert SEO programs range in price dramatically depending on market, size of website, target keywords and goals but most business can expect to pay between $500 and $3,500 monthly.
I realize there is a ton to absorb in this article but because search engines provide so much value to virtually every type of business, its imperative you make the right decision when you purchase SEO.
Putting Return on investment into perspective, lets do an exercise on SEO ROI:
A Hot Tub company paid $950/month for 12 months of SEO.
$11,400/year SEO budget. They got 9,946 visitors thru SEO for the same period of time. Now if this company had been doing a paid Google Adwords campaign, to see these results they would have had to maintain a $1.14 cost per click. That is within the realm of possibility but the massive differentiator is that as soon as they turn off the Google Adwords, all leads stop, but in SEO as organic and local search placement is achieved, they could lower or cancel the package and retain all the placement they currently have for an extended period of time. It is really the difference between owning your leads or sales channel and renting it.
Now, the really important numbers in this scenario are the profit margins.
In this case 9,946 organic search visitors have an average conversion of 4% with an average profit from a hot tub purchase of $950 per client.
Doing the math; 9,946 (organic users)*0.04 (sales conversion rate) = 397 (sold units) at $950 per unit.
So essentially, off an $11,400 SEO investment the client’s organic traffic would have yielded them roughly a $365,750 profit ($377,150 in sales less the $11,400 SEO investment).
When combined by the fact that over time the SEO investment should go down and the yield should continue to grow it is very easy to see why search engine optimization is imperative to your marketing strategy and absolutely worth the time to vet the vendor that is performing your SEO.
I am sure that for buyers of SEO this article creates many questions and for folks in the SEO industry it may illicit many comments, both are absolutely welcome so please feel free to ask questions or comment below.