Search engine optimization is a process of making your website as relevant (ie, detailed and descriptive website content) & trustworthy (links from relevant and trustworthy websites) as possible so that search engines rank your site when people are searching for relevant keywords.
Hiring someone to help with marketing – specifically an SEO marketing campaign – can, unfortunately, be tough & confusing. But here are the Do’s & Don’ts along with processes I recommend when hiring an SEO consultant or agency:
Do’s of Hiring an SEO Consultant or Agency
When you’re trying to figure out how to hire an SEO consultant or agency, it’s best to have a clear understanding of what you’re looking for and trying to achieve.
1. Do Understand Pricing Structure
SEO campaigns can be either a one-time flat fee project or retainer-based. Both have upsides & downsides.
A flat fee project usually involves doing a technical audit of your site to find duplicate content, broken links, and ways to improve site architecture. A one-time project should also have an “on-page” component which means identifying common search terms and looking for ways to improve your website content to “target” those terms.
A partial flat fee project will basically be a consult where someone looks at your site and provides you with a custom checklist to execute on. There might be regularly scheduled check-ins, but no regular reporting or “deliverables.”
A retainer project is where you hire someone to work on your behalf for X number of hours per month. They provide a list of things they recommend to work on that month, and then they do them and report on the results. You pay a monthly retainer fee for those hours.
What to consider with pricing structure
What kind of help do you really need? Flat fee projects are sort of like hiring a running coach to give you amazing shoes and a training plan and letting you execute it. That’s great if that’s what you want and it’s something you can execute on, but often it’s not what you may truly need.
What kind of accountability, reporting, and performance metrics do you need? SEO success takes place over the long-term. One-off projects need to have different success metrics than retainer projects.
What kind of expertise do you have? SEO strategy & recommendations are worthless unless they are implemented on your website. Can you implement recommendations or do you need ongoing help? Do you know how to balance different marketing priorities?
What kind of budget do you have? Do you have the budget to invest in long-term efforts or do you only have a budget to solve specific problems?
2. Do Identify Your Budget
Identify your marketing budget, then hire based on scope (ie, how much you get) – not on the cheapest price per se. If someone’s pricing is out of line, there’s probably something going on. Typical rates in the US start at $70/hr for someone just starting out, but still savvy. Be sure to screen anyone new and that inexpensive. Ask who they read and what their process is – Ahrefs and Search Engine Land are a couple websites any reputable SEO will be regularly reading. Most SEOs with a portfolio, some experience, and processes in place will run between $100 and $400+/hr.
Ongoing retainers for most sites with good SEOs working on them should be minimum $500 to $1000/mo (for the smallest effective retainer in the US with low goals) and go up according to industry, competitiveness, resources to implement, and your business goals. Anything less and you should be especially clear about expectations, deliverables, results, and timelines.
*Aside – about those companies that promise SEO for $50/month…don’t bother. Bad SEO can hurt more than doing nothing. If you don’t have the budget to do SEO right, then invest your money in education and other marketing channels.
Project rates can vary across a huge spectrum depending on what you need and what you want. A full SEO audit for a small WordPress site might be 5 hours / $500 or $10,000+ for a large site with full on-page recommendations and competitive analysis.
3. Do Ask for References & Specifics
Ask for references, a portfolio or even a “high-level” overview of what an SEO’s plan would be. As with any professional service, it’s going to be hard to give specifics before beginning the actual work. However, there are usual starter examples that apply across the board. For example, a large e-commerce site will always need technical & duplicate content recommendations. A locally focused business will need a local citation & profile audit. Everyone will need a competitive analysis for off page marketing ideas.
Bad answers include “improving your rankings” or “building your brand in search.”
4. Do Understand the Basics of SEO
Just because you aren’t a doctor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand the basics of bacteria, viruses, and medicine. And just because you are hiring a professional to make search engine optimization recommendations, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know the basics.
5. Do Understand the Role of SEO as a Marketing Channel
Organic traffic is not something that operates in a silo. And SEO isn’t something you sort of “do” and then check off. It interacts and builds with your social, paid, and other channels. Be sure to look at your Analytics and know the percent of your traffic that you get from organic – and how much of it is new visitors.
If you can look at multi-channel analytics, do that too.
6. Do Have a Plan & Budget for Implementing Recommendations
Keep in mind that SEO/organic is a long-term channel for traffic. Just like in the physical world, it takes a while to earn trust and become known by people. Often the changes you make won’t really have an effect until 3 months later. Organic traffic operates on a “flywheel effect.”
It’s immensely hard to get it rolling, but once it gets going, the momentum allows you to easily keep pushing it faster and faster.
For more immediate traffic, paid traffic through Google Ads is a great medium. You can pay to rank #1 in a set of search results whenever you like. It’s also a great place to test messaging and keywords to see if investing in SEO will be worthwhile.
Don’ts of Hiring an SEO Consultant or Agency
Unfortunately, the SEO and digital marketing industry has a lot of bad actors and a lot of snake oil flowing about. So here’s what to avoid.
1. Don’t Buy “Packages” or Automated Solutions
Packages sound nice. They are easy and simple to buy. They are also very rarely a good fit for professional services. Sometimes you’ll get what you need, but often a good bit of it will be a waste.
There are plenty of great software packages for pulling data, analytics or diagnostics relevant to SEO but there are exactly zero automated solutions that will “do your SEO.” The days when those tools were useful are very long gone. In fact, automated SEO packages in 2019 are more likely to damage your organic traffic than help it.
Sometimes agencies frame their retainers as packages. That’s fine, but be sure to clarify that the work and recommendations will be custom for your website and your business.
2. Don’t Buy Search Engine Rankings
Get reporting based on organic traffic broken down by landing page – not rankings. If someone is selling rankings, that’s a tell-tale sign that they aren’t quality.
Rankings only make sense in the context of volume, relevance, and intent. If a keyword has zero search volume; it’s not actually relevant to your website, and the 1 or 2 searches per year that it does get – the person isn’t actually looking to buy or research – is ranking “#1” actually worth it? NO!
This topic is too huge for this post (read more here or here or here if you’re interested) but reputable SEOs report on organic traffic that actually comes to your site and converts. Rankings will often be tracked, but only as a diagnostic or leading indicator for the true success metric – organic traffic & conversions.
“Ranking #1” is not a result – it’s part of a means to the actual result – organic traffic. Don’t pay for rankings.
3. Don’t Buy What You Should Do Yourself
Agencies and consultants are in the business of helping businesses do marketing. And they are often quite good at it. The best brands in the world use 3rd party agencies.
However, there are a lot of inherent transaction costs in time and money whenever a 3rd party in charge of marketing. Don’t pay a 3rd party to be 100% in charge of building the business. Especially now, everything has the potential to impact organic traffic. Treating SEO as an advertising expense that’s bought and done won’t be successful but it will be expensive.
4. Don’t Try To Go Cheap for Cheap’s Sake
Marketing is an investment. SEO is an investment. When it works, the money should return more than you originally put in. While you don’t want to hurt your return by overpaying, you also really do not want to kill off any chance of a return by hiring low quality.
Like many professional services, there is an incredible range of skills, productivity, and ideas among SEO agencies and consultants. There are some consultants that can (and do) charge $1000s of dollars per hour because they really are 10x to 20x more skilled than even the top 10% of SEOs.
Don’t go cheap because you are trying to cut down on business expenses. Go cheap because a young but promising college student doesn’t have a portfolio and will give you more quality work than you could get from a well-known agency. Treat SEO like an investment and pay for quality.
5. Don’t Have Unrealistic Expectations
Building organic traffic is a long-term play. It’s also not something that you can pay for and directly control. Search engines’ results aren’t even human curated. They are a ruthlessly cold algorithm dedicated to finding the most relevant result for every single search.
Even the perfect SEO strategy will fail sometimes. The key is to work closely with your agency or consultant on aggressive but achievable key performance indicators. Understand what is the true opportunity out there and understand what is currently ranking and why.
In other words, if you start a brand new shoe store, you should not expect to rank #1 for “online shoes” tomorrow. Nor should you expect 100,000 visits to your catalog of Nike shoes that every other online shoe store has.
6. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
The best thing you can do for your SEO-focused marketing strategy is to diversify. Just because Google can drive 75% of your customers, doesn’t mean you should let the 25% fall away. Sure, you should definitely focus on Google because that is where the volume is.
But oddly, often your success in Google is dependent on your success with the other 25% in this example. I co-hosted a full podcast episode on how SEO isn’t just Google.
The Process of Hiring an SEO Consultant or Agency
1. Get specific traffic, revenue, and profit numbers from your website and business. Get a sense of what return on investment you are looking for. Although no consultant or agency should be able to promise XX% ROI from the beginning, you should be able to put all quotes in the context of your own numbers so that you have specific expectations.
2. Gather a list of a handful of agencies. The SEO world can be very difficult to navigate. I’d recommend going where good SEOs tend to hang out, finding a good selection, then ask those contacts for referrals if they themselves aren’t taking clients. Check out these for a starting point:
Aside: be very, very wary of any “SEO Company Review” sites. That is a notorious vertical that is almost always pay to play.
2nd Aside: there are a few people in the industry that I can personally recommend – send me an email w/ your budget here.
3. Put together a specific request for proposal. It does not have to be formal. It should be specific. Using industry jargon that you understand (such as “technical audit” or “on-page” or “off-page” or “content strategy”) will get you much more accurate estimates than “do my SEO.” Include your business goals, what you can do in-house, and your general budget in your proposal.
A good informal example would be:
“Widgets.com is a direct to customer manufacturer with several retail outlets. We are looking to grow our website revenue by 50% in 12 months. Increasing organic traffic is a key part of our strategy. We are requesting a proposal and cost estimate for an ongoing SEO retainer. It will consist of, but not be limited to, technical & on-page recommendations for widgets.com and ongoing content recommendations. Additionally, it will have an off-page component which the widgets.com internal team will be able to assist with 10 dedicated hours per month and a separate budget for asset development. Our site is self-hosted with WordPress as a CMS and an in-house developer responsible for technical implementation. Our primary KPIs will be increasing organic traffic and increasing organic revenue (both direct and assisted).”
4. Get in touch with the consultants/agencies and have a conversation. Ideally, the conversation will help you weed out the smooth talkers from the serious professionals. Ask about risks, project plans and what they need from you to be successful. A good marketing engine works best when everything is working together – SEO should be able to guide and work with any other planned initiatives.
The last thing I’ll say before getting outside the scope of this post is to have a bias towards action – not planning and measuring. Planning and measuring are important, but remember that they take away from time doing stuff. As the client, you set that vibe for better or for worse. I co-hosted a podcast episode on “Agile” SEO that goes into this approach in depth.
Decide if you want to try to do SEO yourself or hire for it, but either way, make sure you understand the essentials of organic traffic and SEO. Start with Google’s Guide to SEO and the Moz Beginner’s Guide to SEO.
Also, if you want to keep up with the best of online marketing with sifting through the fluff and misinformation, you might like my newsletter where I pull together a lot of SEO & marketing content in a single series. Sign up below.