I wrote an article last month about things to look for and questions to ask a pay-per-click (PPC) consultant. Now, let's talk about search engine optimization (SEO) consultants.
Here are nine questions to ask:
1. What concrete results can you show me for three recent client accounts?
So many people talk the SEO talk. You want someone who can walk the walk.
2. What's your philosophy on SEO "tricks," also known as black-hat tactics? Do you consider these tricks to be unethical or necessary in a competitive online landscape?
Their immediate answer will be quite telling. There should be NO hesitation. They should say they don't use or approve of black-hat tactics. Unethical SEO tactics can actually get you in trouble with Google, as JC Penny has recently learned.
3. Do you provide all the research for SEO, such as keyword research and competitor research?
You want to know what services the SEO consultant is providing, what the fees will be, and what out-of-pocket expenses you'll incur for "extras." A quality SEO should provide, at a minimum, competitor research and keyword research in his or her fee.
4. Do you provide all the steps necessary for effective SEO: on-page optimization (e.g. providing suggestions for keyword-rich headlines), off-the page optimization (e.g. inbound links), and Google Places (for local) or Google Merchant (for products)?
Your SEO consultant should be clear on his or her deliverables. The items outlined above are the minimum requirements for delivering a comprehensive SEO package.
5. Do you understand the technical aspects of website architecture, URLs, and redirects? Do you use Google webmaster tools? Do you set up analytics for tracking website performance, and, if yes, what analytics package do you use?
These are essentially "test" questions. If you're met with a blank stare, if the person stutters over his or her answer, or if the person makes it sound as if these things aren't important, run. A good SEO consultant will be happy to talk about his or her SEO philosophy and the tools he or she uses.
6. Who will do the changes to the website, request links from other sites, submit to directories, and generate new content?
Your SEO consultant needn't be the person to do all of these things. What this question reveals is the SEO's comfort level in working on a team (with your web developer, for example), and it shows what sort of stable of experts the SEO is affiliated with. A good SEO consultant will likely have solid recommendations for things like SEO copywriters. Be clear about what you want – do you want them to provide these services or do you prefer to do them in-house?
7. What follow-up reports do you provide?
Communication is critical to the success of your SEO campaigns. Your SEO consultant doesn't work in a vacuum. He or she should provide you with regular updates on recommendations, how changes/adjustments are performing, etc. And yes, this should be part of the standard fee.
8. Have you ever worked for my competitors?
If the person has, tread carefully. Listen to what the person has to say about why the relationship ended. If it was a long time ago (over three years), it's probably not an issue. But if the SEO worked for your competitor within the last year to 18 months, you might want to dial on. Why? Because who's to say this same SEO won't be shopping everything he or she learned while working on your account a year or so down the line to one of your other competitors.
9. How do you measure success in SEO, especially now since rankings are geographically and personally determined and so different for each searcher?
Every SEO's answer might be a little different. What you don't want to hear are guarantees or promises. For example, if someone promises you first-page positioning in Google for your keyword phrases, walk away. No one can guarantee that. A good answer will likely include the SEO consultant stressing the importance of monitoring analytics and testing landings pages and different keyword phrases. The SEO should also talk about your Google Places listing and the importance of optimizing it for local businesses.
Do you have any other questions you've used when vetting SEO or PPC consultants? Share them in the comments.