When it comes to choosing an SEO provider, it is my experience that companies often pass on the more hands-on, results-oriented boutique firms, in favor of the more formal façade, dare I say the glitz and glamour, of agencies. What they often get is a much bigger bill, lots of reporting and not a lot else.

Now, if you are reading this and you yourself own or work for an agency, relax. I am not saying that all big agencies are bad. However, it’s my experience having worked for one and having dealt with clients that use big agencies, that the service levels and results are not as they should be – especially in light of the low-to-mid five digit retainers they are charging.

I think this is especially true when it comes to SEO. What many people do not understand is how labor intensive good SEO is. This reality doesn’t fit well into the financial constructs of bigger agencies. Add together their high overhead, plus the high hourly rate for a truly experienced SEO professional, and you would have one big, customer-frightening bill. So, what companies tend to get from agencies are highly formulaic SEO services, from junior associates, and lots of reporting.

When it comes to achieving meaningful results in natural search, you cannot confuse motion for accomplishment, especially in this hyper-competitive and ever-evolving era of search. Reporting does nothing for ranking and formulaic SEO services often miss the critical subtleties almost always required to move the needle in natural search; period, end of story.

Therein lies one-half of the paradox. Larger companies with real marketing budgets often, if not almost always, pass on quality smaller boutique shops in favor of the perceived safer path of engaging an agency. And, given that most people, even qualified Marketing Managers, don’t know enough about SEO to ask the right questions, they can get “snowed” by fancy technical speak and selective reporting.

The other half of this paradox is that choosing an SEO vendor is challenging. There are no degrees and no accreditation. There are thousands of people who have hung out their shingle. To add to the confusion, there is a perceptual veil around SEO as some kind of dark art, or voodoo. It’s not. SEO has strategic fundamentals like any other marketing vertical. Granted they are not as distinct and quantifiable as PPC or email marketing, but they do exist.

My advice is as follows:

  1. First, ask your potential SEO candidate to speak in a language you can understand. An experienced SEO professional should know the subject well enough to teach it.
  2. Ask to see case studies of past work, including how they have helped increase revenue for other clients – not just traffic. This is an indication of more advanced thinking; more traffic is meaningless unless it converts.
  3. Further to point #2, ask your prospective SEO candidate for some representative ROAS (return on ad spend) numbers from past clients. A good SEO professional should know this, because he or she was focused on value to client.
  4. Ask for referrals.
  5. If you are being offered guarantees, walk.
  6. Ask for complete transparency. There should be no secrets. There are no magic formulas. This is not the same as reporting. Reports can be selectively pulled and would mislead even the most seasoned business veterans.
  7. Know that good SEO often takes a team; one person can’t be good at everything, there are simply too many individual elements that go into a successful SEO campaign these days.

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