The world of search engine optimization can be fairly confusing. Every online business can benefit from improving their ranking on search engines like Google and Bing, and the benefits to ranking in the top are too good to pass up. But as soon as you start looking for help, you begin to get email after email and call after call from search engine optimization firms, stating that they can help you “get to the first page in Google” or “help you build links for SEO.” How can you tell which one is the best partner for you, and what are some things to look out for? Here’s a quick guide:

Check their own SEO

I don’t mean their ranks, because if they’re newer, or by nature of being a SEO firm in a really competitive niche, they may not rank on the top page (especially if they’re white hat – it can take a year to have strong, consistent rankings) – but rather if they do things correctly. When you search for their company name, are they the first result – and what are the other pages that come up with their branded search? Does their meta description make sense and compel you to respond by clicking? How do they rank locally (you can change your location in Google searches to select their local area by following these instructions). Do they cover the basics like have their Google+ page set up, are they visible in other places as well?

Look at their Portfolio

Do they actually list companies they work with, case studies, have reviews online, etc? There are some reasons to keep your clients private, but the majority of SEO clients are more than happy to have their name and link on the consultant’s site – it’s more free publicity. If you can’t find any evidence of them doing work for real companies, maybe there’s a reason they hide it. And don’t be fooled by logos of major companies on their pages – this is a trick we see often – they might have a press release that got listed on Yahoo! news or helped a middle manager fix an email problem who just happens to work at Toyota – or they often just list major companies as “clients” because they know they won’t be checked. Ask them for referrals and links to sites that they worked on, and verify!

Selecting a SEO company can be tricky.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but your portfolio seems to be page after page of blank white paper… do you actually have ANY experience?”

What is Their Price Point?

If they’re offering packages like “15 keywords for $500” or any kind of standardized pricing, then they are usually not a firm that will work for your best interest. They basically plug you into their system and let it go. A real SEO company will be doing an in-depth investigation before they offer you a quote, as each company has different markets, competition, and goals. In fact, in most cases, there will be no limits on keywords from a reputable firm – it’s a non-issue for a web marketing company as limiting the keywords means that they aren’t best working to market you – and your results won’t be as strong, so it would make them look bad. Some ways that good firms charge are hourly (and they’ll track and report all of their hours), a fixed-price point per month, or a fixed price for a one-time job like a SEO overhaul of your site without continued support. Regardless of the way they charge, there will be a clear and concise description of what they’ll be doing, how long it will take, and the price will be personalized to best suit your needs. Imagine a painter quoting you a low price without ever looking at your home and finding out how many total square feet they’d be painting and offering you a quote – you know they’ll either do a shoddy job, not finish, or come up with all sorts of hidden fees. Try to avoid these types of SEO companies.

Are They a SEO Company that Cares?

What kinds of questions did they ask you? – A good SEO firm will do their best to understand your customer base, your present SEO position (often asking for view access to your analytics) and your goals. They’ll lay out reasonable goals (no guaranteeing first page results in a certain amount of time) and try to offer you the best ROI on your investment. If they just sent you a document showing SEO improvements, they’re not looking very hard at you and how to make you succeed. Oftentimes, an interview with a SEO firm will turn into them interviewing you – don’t be intimidated, it’s just them trying to understand your business on a technical and cultural level. When SEO firms write your content, they want to make sure that the information is correct, and reflects the company culture that you want your customers to see. Especially if you’re a local-based business, your personality is often less corporate and more personal – a SEO company that cares will make sure they reflect that in your online marketing.

What Kind of Relationship Will You Have?

You’re building a relationship with, if they’re good, a company that is going to be in constant contact with you for a long time. They’ll be calling/emailing trying to understand your market, targets, etc. If you can’t communicate effectively, it won’t work well for either party. Look at it as if you’re hiring an employee; vet them thoroughly and make sure you can work well together long-term. Make sure they will constantly report to you what they’re doing and the results, and in such a way that you can understand. Make sure that their work isn’t actually hurting you by being poorly-written or designed, or just flat out wrong. You’re trusting your online reputation with another company – make sure they have your best interest in mind, not just their bottom line.

After vetting the company using these steps, you’ll likely find yourself with a much better partner who is genuinely interested in helping your search rankings and organic traffic grow and improve over time, and stay strong for years to come. So don’t be timid hiring your next search engine optimization company – there are a lot of great ones out there who will absolutely help your business grow – just be diligent and you’ll find yourself the beneficiary of great online marketing!

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