Finding the right White Hat SEO company for your business can be challenging. The digital marketing industry is entrenched in jargon, making it difficult for marketers to decipher what’s real, what’s realistic and what’s hype. We talk a lot about White Hat SEO and why we think it’s the only sustainable organic search approach for businesses. Since we have the inside track on how SEO works with an effective online strategy, we thought we’d outline the questions businesses should ask when interviewing an SEO company. Here are our top 7:
1. Does Your SEO Company Offer A Guarantee?
Actually, this is a trick question. If an SEO company says yes… run. Run away as fast as you can. Read why in Google’s own words about their guidelines:
Since you can’t control Google’s algorithm, how can an SEO company guarantee ranking? The simple answer is they can’t. As a professional and SEO instructor at UC Berkeley Extension, I regularly read up on the latest trends and techniques encouraged by search engines. I also make sure we don’t cross the line on practices that will get my clients in trouble.
If I had to boil it down, I ask this question of any optimization technique: Is it good for the human searcher? This is important as search engines want to provide the best user experience. Why? There are two main reasons. The first, Google and other search engines want to eliminate websites that use Grey Hat tactics as a way to cheat their way into search results. That’s why Grey Hat techniques are a time bomb waiting to go off. The second is related: the better the user experience with Google and Bing, the more frequently the searcher will return… so they can present more ads and make more money.
2. How Do You Help Your Clients Get Ranked?
An SEO company can wear one of three hats: White, Grey, or Black. Let’s toss out Black Hatters, as they use malicious practices that sabotage websites. We’re going to assume that you want to use ethical SEO practices for your business, so we’ll skip ahead to examples that illustrate the difference between White and Grey Hat techniques:
- Grey Hat SEO: adding content to a page so it’s invisible to the human but detectable by search engine bots. An old grey trick placed white type on a white background that’s full of keywords. This trick has been penalized by search engines. Keyword stuffing is another common technique. So is adding content that’s software-generated or pages that add little or no value to the reader.
- White Hat SEO: optimizing content so it focuses on one keyword per page. This avoids keyword stuffing and content is well written and focused with the human in mind. The accompanying meta description is crafted to entice a human click. The description matches the content, so the promise made to the searcher is delivered. In essence, the content answers a question, provides helpful information, and demonstrates a brand’s value.
Beware of an SEO company that is secretive or purposefully misleading about how they actually help clients. We subscribe to a transparent approach so we’re definitely White Hatters. Not only do we explain — in as much detail as a client wants — what we do, we also train them on our practices. We are sticklers for using only ethical approaches because we won’t play Russian Roulette with our online reputation or our clients’ good name.
3. What’s Your Experience?
Having a background in marketing is a definite advantage because online and offline marketing is connected. By all means, ask for references and credentials when interviewing an SEO company. Also be sure to dig into your consultant’s or agency’s marketing philosophy. White Hat SEO isn’t a standalone function; it’s part of a holistic approach to promoting and growing your business. Having experience with a particular vertical or industry may be helpful. Word of warning: some agencies that specialize in a niche (e.g., dentists or lawyers) re-purpose or duplicate content which is a dangerous practice.
Keep in mind that you want to choose an SEO agency that best matches how you run your business. You’ll be working side-by-side so ethics and personality are an important consideration.
4. Who Owns the Data?
Typically an SEO company will use a software program to track keywords, competitors, rankings, etc. They may label this as a “propriety system.” In actuality, they are probably white-labeling services like Moz, Raven, gShift, etc. The problem with this approach is that you don’t control your data. Now you are a technology hostage. Now you’re dependent upon a “black box,” hoping your SEO delivers the right data. If you can’t see where the data comes from, how can you make sure you’re analyzing the right trends?
Here are the systems we insist that our clients own: a Google Analytics account linked to Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools). If you want to use a third-party SEO software — like call-tracking or heat maps — you should own the account.
By the way, SEO and SEM (Search Engine Marketing or AdWords) work hand-in-hand. So if you advertise online, make sure these systems funnel information (e.g., conversions, goals) into your Analytics account.
We suggest granting your SEO company access, maybe even administrator status. Fundamentally we disagree with abdicating control. Even if you have two left feet when it comes to analytics and reports. By managing your accounts, you’re in control. That way, if you want to hire another SEO agency or bring the function in-house, you don’t lose all your hard work.
5. Do You Outsource? If So, Where?
Keyword research is at the root of any sustainable White Hat SEO strategy. And it’s typical that many keywords have regional nuances. These differences can be subtle, and English-as-a-second-language keyword researchers or marketers may not pick up on those differences.
Let’s use a real estate law as an example. Back East there are several states where you need to hire an attorney when purchasing or selling a piece of real property. In California, we hire a real estate agent. Use the wrong keyword and you’re attracting the wrong audience. Depending upon the location and type of business, your optimal keywords can vary. Whoever does your keyword research needs to pick up on these differences as it can have a huge impact of whether or not you drive qualified leads to your website.
Outsourcing may be a legitimate strategy to keep costs down. However, it becomes a tactical disadvantage when the quality of the work suffers. Ask specific questions about any outsourcing and what quality checks your would-be agency has in place. An ethical SEO company will be upfront on their methodology and who actually does the work on your behalf.
6. What’s Included?
Before you begin interviewing an SEO company, we recommend making a list of your must-haves and wants. That way you can determine what you can afford and how an SEO company can best meet your needs. Here are a couple of questions to ponder:
- Do I have SEO equity to be retained? This is especially important if you’re creating a new website. Then a 301 redirect strategy should definitely be on your list.
- Will I supply the original content for optimization or do I need full-service writing service?
- How often do I want to meet — weekly, monthly, quarterly?
- Do I need training on writing optimized content for web pages or blog posts?
- How much tactical support do I need?
7. Do You Have Sample Reports?
It’s not uncommon for an SEO company to subscribe to this old adage: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, dazzle them with a technicolor data puke.” Web and SEO Analytics can be confusing. You can drill down to a startling amount of detail. The amount of data isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with that data. We recommend these types of reports:
- Benchmark reports – so you accurately measure your starting point
- Monthly measurements – what gets measured gets done. Agree upfront what metrics you want to track and the activities that support those metrics.
- Strategic Insights – this separates the wannabe SEO experts from the big boys. Being able to sift through volumes of data and provide actionable insights is a professional SEO company offers. This kind of ability and experience is amassed over years and simply can’t be faked.
What Does Google Say About Interviewing an SEO
Google released this video about how to hire an SEO. When it comes to algorithm changes, Google is notoriously silent. They don’t broadcast upcoming changes with few exceptions (e.g., mobile-first index, interstitials). The video covers many of the high points we discussed earlier. So if you need validation, it’s well worth spending ~ 12 minutes.
We covered a lot in 7 questions. We hope our answers got you thinking. What other questions would you add when interviewing an SEO agency?