How to Quiz your Prospective SEO Agency
in 8 Easy Steps

By Nicole Louw | Search engine optimisation (SEO)

Feb 25

You totally get why SEO is key to your marketing plans. But you’ve had enough of the supposedly hot-shot agencies promising the universe but completely under-delivering.

But there are good guys out there. By asking the right questions, you’ll find the right SEO ninjas to unlock the digital superpower that’ll skyrocket your online marketing into the stratosphere… Leaving your opposition eating your dust.

So what do you need to know?

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Here’s 8 absolutely essential questions to ask when looking to hire an SEO agency:

1. What is your SEO philosophy?

There is no #1 school of thought on how to thump your competitors with SEO. Different agencies have different approaches and values. For some the focus will be on building brilliant content, while others are far more concerned about link building or the technical aspects of SEO.

There are also some who feel its OK to bend the rules a tad – provided you don’t get caught. On the other hand, there are those who maintain a white-hat, or 100% ethical, approach throughout. Some may require you to sign a long-term contract, others may be happy to work month-to-month.

What it really boils down to is that their SEO philosophy will largely be dictated by their confidence in achieving results, past successes and their available resources.

Find out what they’re really all about

Can they confidently and concisely relay their approach to SEO?

If they can’t, either they are hiding something or they don’t actually have a real plan.

Ask them if they’re future proof?

If Google has a brainstorm and completely turns the way they assess site quality or backlinks on its head overnight, are they nimble enough to adjust and to continue delivering results?

What risks are involved?

If they want you to sign a long-term contract, dig a little deeper into the real motivation. Then ask them how they’ll manage your expectations if you agree to signing something that locks you in for a while.

2. Which SEO guidelines do you live by?

This is where you tune in and assess how they answer. Is it techie talk BS or are they doing what it takes to keep Google happy?

Google have set guidelines for webmasters to ensure their websites are optimally crawled, indexed and ranked without using dodgy practices to fool the search engine or users.

Your prospective SEO agency should be intimately familiar with these and able to highlight how their approach plays by Google’s rules.

Some of the violations that could cause you the most grief fall under Google’s Quality guidelines, which include:

  1. Link schemes
  2. Scraped content
  3. Pages with little or no original content
  4. Pages stuffed with irrelevant keywords
  5. Cloaking

 Your SEO’s first job is to sort out any existing violations on your site. And then optimise and promote your site within the guidelines.

[ Unsure about your current SEO agency’s performance, take our quiz and receive a FREE SEO Best-Practice Guide that you can use to ask the right questions]

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3. How do you diagnose algorithmic penalties?

If your organic (SEO) rankings take a dip around the time Google updates an algorithm, what does your SEO do to get to the bottom of the problem?

One of the most obvious starting points is to find out if Google or the SEO community has published a date (or date range) for an algorithmic change, which coincides with the drop in ranking / organic traffic.

This info is often widely available on popular SEO forums (such as WebmasterWorld) and Twitter. So any SEO worth his (or her) salt will be aware of these changes.

 If the drop in ranking and organic traffic DOES match the date of an algorithmic change then your site probably took a hit. Ouch!

 It’s up to Dr SEO to diagnose the problem and formulate a plan for recovery.

 The first step is good old-fashioned investigative work into the nature of the update and how other webmasters or SEOs have been affected, by reviewing forums such as WebmasterWorld, search engine news sites such Search Engine Land, following remarks by industry gurus on Twitter and seeing if Google has published anything on their webmaster blog (here is an example).

Once your SEO has a list of characteristics of the suspected penalty, they will probe your website to see how closely it matches these criteria.

Typically, penalties relate to web spam or poor usability.

FYI

  • Web spam could be from brokering low quality backlinks or stuffing text with keywords.
  • Poor usability generally means lots of duplicate or not enough copy on your website. Otherwise chunks of text is the same or similar to other websites or it could be as simple as poor page layouts or too much advertising. 

In most cases, your SEO should be axing the stuff that’s causing the problem, rejigging website content and / or design. 

Like any good superhero, your SEO ninja should have a genius plan of action aimed at setting your web world right again. This, of course, should be backed up by motivations of why all this is necessary, citing reliable sources. 

Google seems to have a passion for naming their algorithm updates after animals beginning with “P”. 

In the case of Google’s bamboo-chomping chum (otherwise known as Panda), the cure might be improving the quality of your site’s content by rewriting some of it. Or removing spammy links due to the Penguin update.

While a whack from our feathered friend (Hummingbird) means your SEO will have to know that Google is getting smarter at understanding the context behind the keywords being written.

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4. What analytical tools do you use?

Here you want to know that your prospective SEO agency is using their time effectively and that they have access to all relevant data. 

If they’re doing a lot of manual analysis and only use free – limited subscription tools – warning lights should be flashing. 

Ideally, they should be using a combination of free tools (such as those offered by Google) and paid subscription tools to reduce manual work when it comes to mining and organising data, as well as reporting. 

Make no mistake, free doesn’t mean useless. There are some great no-charge analytical tools out there, including: 

  • Google Analytics
  • Google Webmaster Tools
  • Bing Webmaster Tools
  • Google Tag Manager
  • Google Adwords Keyword Planner
  • Google Pagespeed Insights
  • Panguin
  • FeedTheBot
  • Keywordtool.io
  • QuickSprout Website Analyse
  • Copy Scape
  • Siteliner
  • ScreamingFrog (Free Version)

While some of the most effective paid-for tools include: 

  • Moz’s OpenSiteExplorer
  • Ahrefs
  • Majestic SEO
  • SEOProfiler
  • ScreamingFrog (Paid Version)
  • Advanced Web Ranking
  • Cognitive SEO 

5. Do you offer guarantees?

Short answer: Raise a big red flag if they answer yes. SEO is constantly evolving, so it’s impossible to offer guarantees or surefire results. 

We believe that the existence of a guarantee may actually encourage agencies to implement grey or even black hat techniques to get results so they can get paid.

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6. How often will you communicate with me?

 If your SEO agency isn’t in touch with you every few days or at least once a week, ask why. Contact should be even more regular during the setup phase, when there’s a lot of online changes that will need to be approved. 

After that, they should be sending you ranking reports at least monthly, with conversion reports and rates, social media and a log of work done, as well as forecast work for the next month. 

Preferably, all of this should be neatly tied together in an executive report with commentary that is easy to interpret. 

If they only offer automated reports with little to no commentary, this should raise questions about whether they are in fact analysing the data to improve your website optimally. Or is it just pretty paperwork.

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7. If we should ever go our separate ways, who owns what?

You’ll need to have access to, and ownership of, all your Google accounts – such as Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools and Tag Manager – as well as admin access to your website, WordPress and FTP accounts. 

It is a good idea to keep an inventory of any tools or accounts that were set up during your time with them and use this as a checklist of what they hand over when you part company. 

8. Are you well-known in the industry?

What’s well-known?

 Probably a more realistic question is how much do they participate in the SEO world? 

  1. Do they have a blog that’s well read in the industry? 
  1. Do they have team members who regularly speak at SEO conferences or workshops? 
  1. Are they part of online forums and social communities? 
  1. Do they have a sizable following on social media and regularly share news and insights? 

If they make their knowledge public and actively engage with the SEO community, chances are they have nothing to hide and are open to scrutiny – key ingredients of a transparent SEO company.

Hmm. So finding a genuine White Hat SEO agency can be challenging, but using the 8 points above as a framework to “interview” potential agencies can help you sort out the good guys from the bad. Another useful tactic is to get them to brag a bit about their successes then use this as a source to check their credentials. You’ll soon see whether they are just blowing hot air, or are the real deal.

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