How to Choose an SEO Company
The following is the decision maker’s guide to selecting the right SEO service provider. It’s a comprehensive resource aimed at educating website and business owners on the how to shortlist search engine companies and choose the best of them.
Numerous companies from one-man consulting services through boutiques to small, mid-size and large agencies offer SEO services. Qualifying and selecting the right company for SEO is a relatively difficult task for a business owner for many reasons, mainly:
- The SEO industry is not regulated.
- There are a large number of web development, web design and traditional agencies with limited experience and knowledge offering SEO services.
- There are no standard service fees.
With this in mind and to help business owners with their decisions, we are going to publish the decision maker’s guide to selecting the right SEO service provider. Since this is a complex subject we’ll break the guide into several few sections:
- SEO is a Long-Term Investment
- SEO Budgeting
- SEO Agency Pricing
- Proof of Expertise & Transparency
- Your Involvement & Question to Ask SEO providers
1. SEO is a Long-Term Investment
You have to think long-term to achieve your SEO objectives, and also to examine how long the prospective service provider has been in the SEO business.
By now, every marketing professional knows that SEO is a long process requiring extensive resources, and that results won’t happen overnight. Treat SEO as a business investment to grow your business. Plan properly: How much you want to invest? How will you measure the success of the campaign over what period of time? What are your metrics to measure success?
Proper planning will help you clearly determine the value of SEO, whether or not the vendor is delivering results, and whether you want to continue investing or not. Without a proper plan, you might not take the right decisions, wasting money and losing valuable time.
When you shortlist SEO agencies, check how long they’ve been in business. More specifically, check how long they’ve been providing professional SEO services. For example, there could be a web design agency that has been providing design services for 10 years, but SEO services for only 1 year. You don’t want to hire a relatively inexperienced web design agency thinking they have 10 years of SEO experience.
As a rule of thumb, any agency with more than 5 years experience is a decent candidate for your short list. There are only a handful of agencies that can honestly be proud of providing SEO services for more than 10 years (Google itself only opened its doors in August of 1998), so any agency claiming 10+ years experience should be properly verified.
When selecting a vendor, clearly determine what SEO techniques will be used to rank your website. Does the vendor use techniques that are in compliance with the policies and guidelines of the search engine you want to rank in? Does the vendor use only white hat SEO techniques, and provide guarantees that they won’t risk penalizing your website rankings with black hat techniques?
Why is this so important?
Because search engines like Google are very serious about what you do to get your website ranked. If your vendor uses techniques that aren’t recommended, then Google will penalize your business by removing your website from their index. The result is not only lost investment in time, effort and money, but also lost revenue because of missed rankings. Not to mention the future investment that will be required to rank in top positions again in search results.
It is also important to select a partner who knows how to grow your SEO organically, without risking your business with the type of SEO techniques they are implementing. If you hire an agency to spam the search engines within a short period of time, prepare to get delisted from search engine listings.
- Shortlist companies with at least 5 years focused SEO experience
- Aim for long-term strategies, rather than fast and dangerous SEO spamming techniques
2. SEO Budgeting
According to Econsultancy’s Marketing Budgets 2012 Report, the 238 companies surveyed are spending an average 36% of their total marketing budgets on digital advertising. Over half of responding companies (54%) are spending under 30% of their marketing budgets on digital channels, and just under a third (31%) are investing more than half of their marketing budgets on digital.
If we cross reference the above data with the Marketing Research Chart: Allocation of online marketing dollars from Marketing Sherpa, we find that the SEO budget takes about 21% of the digital marketing budget.
Keep in mind that the above is just high level SEO budgeting, and does not take into consideration competition, time frames or where your target market is located. These factors also have to be taken into consideration when you allocate budget for SEO, making it crucial to get guidance from a trusted SEO company before making final decisions.
As with everything, you get what you pay for with SEO. Unless you are in a highly specialized niche targeting low competitive keywords, you won’t get results if you budget for only 5 hours of work per month. While it is possible to do SEO with very low investments, agencies and/or consultants that offer services at very low fees might be engaging in automated spam strategies such as article spinning and syndication, spam commenting, or building links from banned or penalized sources. These are not only ineffective, but they also pose the risk of your website being delisted from search engine results.
In terms of time frames, it is important to understand that if you target competitive terms and markets and want results faster, you should invest more. This will allow the agency you work with to allocate more resources in terms of both the amount of time spent and the type of tactics they use on the project, helping to deliver better results within the desired time frame.
- If you want to be in the top 30% performers with digital marketing, allocate at least 50% of your marketing budget to digital
- Allocate a minimum 25% of that digital budget to SEO
- Faster results requires higher budgets
3. The SEO Agency Pricing
Understanding how an SEO agency prices their service will help a marketing manager chose a partner that charges fair rates, delivers results and meets expectations.
SEO pricing takes the following factors into consideration:
- The number of keywords you want to rank for
- How difficult it is to achieve high rankings for those keywords
- The geographic region you want to target (locally, stately/provincially, nationally, internationally)
- The current authority of your site
- The authority of your competitors with the search engine(s)
- Your expectations in terms of getting quick results
Any SEO agency you interact with should at minimum conduct a keyword difficulty and competitor analysis prior to providing you a quote. If they don’t, then don’t bother engaging with them.
There are two major parts of SEO service, the onsite SEO and link building.
Onsite SEO is the work performed on your website (such as audits, technical implementation, content changes and so on), while link building is work done externally of your site.
Usually, the pricing model for onsite SEO is either project-based or an hourly rate. Link building services are priced on a monthly retainer model.
Onsite SEO Pricing
You will pay based on the experience of the SEO consultant performing the analysis on your site. An SEO consultant with 10 years experience will have more knowledge, be able to identify more issues and provide better recommendations than a consultant with only 2 years of experience. Consequently pricing will vary.
After surveying over 600 SEO agencies, SEOmoz published the following average hourly rates:
The amount of time required to perform the onsite SEO depends on how complex your website is and how many pages and/or templates have to be audited.
Link Building Pricing
There’s almost no industry, vertical or niche that can be dominated without generating quality backlinks to your site. This underlines that having a perfectly optimized site is not enough if you want to rank on the top results of the search engines. You also need backlinks.
Link building pricing is based on the number of keywords you target, keyword difficulty, current authority of your site and your competition. Generally, the investment needed to overcome established competitors in search results will be high.
While the number of keywords is easy to account for, keyword difficulty is not. Difficulty can be measured through various techniques including 3rd party tools. To avoid confusion and disputes, it’s best to use 3rd party tools. An industry-recognized tool designed to assess keywords’ difficulty is SEOmoz’s Keyword Difficulty Tool. This is a paid tool and you should use it as a reference only, for it’s not always 100% accurate. Discuss the estimates with your potential SEO service provider.
Usually, a minimum of 5 hours per month will be required for even for the easiest keywords, while keywords with a difficulty of more than 60% will require more than 50 hours per month. You can estimate about half an hour work per month for each percentage point. However, keep in mind that this number of hours is just an estimate.
Also note that the higher keyword difficulty number means more competition. More competition means more complex link building strategies to get better results.
- Pay a monthly retainer for link building and project-based and/or hourly for onsite SEO
- For onsite SEO, be prepared to pay around $100 per hour for a good SEO consultant, and $150+ for someone with a lot of expertise
- Link building monthly fees can range from $500 to $50,000+, depending on your market and expectations
- Use established 3rd party tools to assess keyword difficulty
- Budget a half hour of link building services for each difficulty score point reported by SEOmoz
4. Proof of Expertise
Ask agencies for case studies, success stories or client references. You should not sign any contracts without reviewing such information.
A trustworthy SEO company will be able to provide case studies without even being asked for them. In most instances, those case studies are publicly available on their sites for everyone to review. However, in some cases, agencies do not publicly share case studies, so make sure you ask for them.
Another proof of expertise you should ask for is success stories. Usually, success stories display some of the most impressive results delivered by a company. This is one of the few cases where it is useful to ask a service provider about averages, such as average time frames, average ROI, and so on.
We also suggest asking for client references from those SEO companies you’ve selected for your final decision (usually 1 to 3 companies).
- Ask for case studies, success stories and client referrals before deciding on your provider
- Ask for client references only from the SEO companies you shortlist for the final decision
Your SEO agency should be transparent, and fully disclose the tactics and strategies used on your site as well as in link building. Statements such as “Our methods are secret/proprietary”, or “We have special relationships with search engines” should raise a red flag.
This is especially important for link building services, since this is where you have the least control in the SEO process. You should know and approve of each link building strategy, as you should never force your agency to speed up the SEO process by implementing tactics that are against search engine guidelines.
For onsite SEO changes, someone in your organization will review, approve or implement the recommendations, which make the process a bit safer. For link building, ask the SEO agency what strategies they plan to implement to build links for your site, and how safe those strategies are considering existing and recent algorithmic updates, policies and guidelines. Choose a company that is transparent in their approach and shares knowledge of everything they do, providing detailed reports.
Also ask for sample reports to make sure you are getting the information you are looking for.
- Make sure you are aware upfront of both onsite and link building strategies
- Choose a company that readily agrees to reveal ALL tactics, in as much detail as possible
5. Your Involvement
As with any business partner, it is better to collaborate than to dictate. You should know by now that SEO is resource intensive and that it takes time for results. So don’t expect results 2 weeks into the SEO campaign. Schedule regular meetings with your vendor based on your needs – weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.
Also, businesses should know that their involvement in the process is imperative for the success of the campaign. The agency you select to work with will need content to support the link building efforts. This need will vary depending on your expectations and the campaign difficulty. Content can include press releases, white papers, articles, business profiles, key employee profiles, guest posts, videos, etc. If you can’t generate content by yourself, then budget for content creation.
Keep in mind that the more supporting work your company can provide, especially in terms of content, the better and faster the results.
Questions to ask
Following are some of the questions you should ask the SEO companies that made it to your shortlist:
- How long have you been in the SEO business?
- How experienced is the team/consultant who is going to manage my project?
- Do you target highly competitive terms, or just long tail?
- Do you use spam/automation tools to build links?
- What strategies do you use for link building? Are these strategies compliant with Google Webmaster Guidelines?
- Do you work for any of my competitors?
- Can you provide SEO case studies and success stories?
- Will you be able to provide client references later on in the selection process?
- Do you fully disclose all the tactics used to build backlinks to our site?
- What kind of results can we expect to see, and in what timeframe?
- How do you measure success?
- Do you offer any online marketing services or advice to complement your organic search business?
Of course, you should be asking way more questions that those listed below, and spend more time educating yourself before choosing the right SEO company.
- Don’t choose an SEO expert on price alone
- Cheap can be more expensive (and sometimes beyond repair)
- Choose a company that is flexible, and not tying you to a 1 or 2 year contract