One of the biggest decisions you can make for your business can also be the toughest. At some point in the life cycle of a business, it becomes apparent that the brand’s online presence matters as much — if not more — than the swathes of physical collateral, pamphlets and stickers you can mail to followers.

It’s a familiar crossroads: hiring an SEO company. The tricky part is understanding what to look for.

At the very least, SEO 101 teaches us that search engine visibility can be the difference between a lean quarter and a strong quarter for leads, sales and traffic.

To many business owners, that part is obvious.

What’s not so obvious — especially if you lack the time and technical know-how to implement best practices for SEO yourself — is what drives this search engine visibility.

It’s important to choose carefully. Search engine optimization is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and finding the right SEO partner will probably require wading through a sea of promises and industry jargon just to find what makes the most sense for your unique business needs.

Ok, so you’re here. What’s next?

How do you choose between SEO agencies?

Red Flags to Avoid

If you’re hiring an SEO company and you notice any of the following red flags, run in the opposite direction. These warning signs often demonstrate a glaring lack of transparency or blatant dishonesty — practices that can severely hinder your company’s SEO efforts.

  • They Offer “One-Size-Fits-All” Packages – Every business has unique needs, requiring customized strategies that can work most effectively for their distinct verticals and determined KPIs. Bad SEO agencies will promise their offerings fit every business like a snug blanket. Reputable SEO companies, on the other hand, won’t make that promise.
  • They Promise Fast Results – Ranking on the top spot on Google for valuable keywords is often an exercise in patience and perseverance. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either blatantly lying or relying on “black hat” strategies to game the system.
  • They Don’t Have References – If an agency claims they are the best SEO company for your business needs, their track record should prove it. And if they don’t have a track record or references you can reach out to? It probably means they don’t have a list of satisfied customers.
  • They Follow Outdated (or Shady) Practices – Unless we’ve mastered time travel and we’re all heading back to the year 2004, developing a site in Flash or in frames and a driving focus on keyword density are major red flags. What constitutes “good SEO” now? Well, it’s not Flash, frames, and keyword density — that’s for sure. And it’s definitely not something fishy like buying backlinks.

5 Questions to Ask an SEO Agency

It’s not easy to recognize quality SEO services in a raging sea of marketing imposters. Fortunately, there are questions to ask when hiring an SEO agency that can help clarify the noise.

#1 – Are You Familiar with Google’s Algorithm Updates?

While most agencies will be familiar with Panda and Penguin updates, the best SEO companies will have a deeper understanding of other Google search algorithm updates. Many of these have major implications on SEO and marketing strategies; the right SEO company will be able to show you why.

#2 – What Is Your Link Building Strategy?

This is a critical question to ask, and reputable SEO companies will have clear answers for this. A lot of this hinges on their understanding of the marketing landscape in a post-Panda and post-Penguin world, where advanced link building strategies have trumped black hat practices.

The “right” answer to this question may include some combination of the following:

  • Crafting guests posts that send targeted referral traffic
  • Building exposure through owned and earned media channels to build natural links
  • Reaching out to webmasters to replace their broken links with links pointing to relevant pages on your site instead

The “wrong” answer here would be: We buy our backlinks. That’s pure black hat. Any reputable SEO agency would know that.

Two people working over documents and laptops.

Link Building requires a great deal of strategy and planning.

#3 – How Good Are Your Content Creators?

Good SEO practices hinge on being able to create [link id=”433″]high quality content[/link]. A fundamental value of SEO is to establish and build authority on a topic and in a vertical — skilled writers make this happen. The best SEO companies will be able to produce high quality content that aligns with your business objectives.

Great content strategy may include elements of the following:

  • Guest posting
  • Social media marketing
  • Content marketing
  • Infographics

In a survey by MarketingSherpa, 53% of marketers said content creation is the most effective tactic in their SEO arsenal.

Great content matters. That’s not an overstatement.

#4 – What Is Your Payment Structure?

The average cost of SEO services can differ because of how payment structures are set up. And different SEO companies work out payment structures differently. But it’s an inescapable fact: You need to be prepared to pay for “good SEO.”

According to a Moz survey, 70.1% of SEO agencies offer project-based pricing. In particular, monthly retainer pricing is extremely variable, but the cost of full-service SEO offerings is often upwards of $5000 per month.

You should know what pricing model and relationship works best for your business. From there, find out when you’d be expected to pay and if there are interest fees for late payments.

#5 – How Well Do You Know Local SEO?

For many businesses, this is one of the most important questions you can ask. And vetting a local SEO expert or company can be critical in increasing your brand’s local search visibility.

According to research from Google:

  • 50% of consumers who made a local search on their smartphone visited that store within the same day
  • 80% of consumers actually want ads that are customized to their location and immediate surroundings

Long story short: Local SEO matters. Reputable SEO companies will be able to provide examples of how their strategies have led to upticks in measurable results for their past clients. That experience and their ability to adapt those strategies to your company’s needs can help move the needle for you, too.

Your Bottom Line Matters

There are right SEO companies for your business and there are wrong ones. Armed with the right questions to ask when hiring a good SEO company, you’ll be able to distinguish the right solutions from the white noise.

Above all, the key thing to remember is to hire an SEO expert or company that values your company’s objectives. Before your pen hits the paper and the ink dries, there should be a clear understanding of how SEO changes will be made, tracked, and how success will be measured. Reputable SEO companies will be transparent, and they’ll be able to tie successes back to your KPIs — and they’ll report their progress in a way your team will understand.

Understanding how to choose an SEO company can be the difference between your marketing strategy either stagnating or blowing up. Know your values, avoid red flags, ask the right questions, and trust the process. Your audience will thank you for it.