Shopping For An SEO Vendor?
Melissa Cahill

By now it’s fairly obvious to anyone who owns a business that their website is an essential, if not primary piece of the company’s marketing collateral. The way customers find and interact with your business website has made it crucial that it be a “well-optimized” — that is, that it can be discovered through popular search engines, like Google, and viewed across the widest possible range of mobile devices. The work the SEO vendor undertakes concerns itself with both of those aspects.

While there are still many snake-oil salesmen around peddling outdated SEO services, more and more small businesses are starting to understand that real SEO is essential — and more digital agencies are offering SEO as a service. That makes sense. While SEO is only one component of an integrated marketing plan, it should be the foundation upon which campaigns across other online channels (e.g., email, social media channels) are developed and implemented.


Needless to say, because SEO and online marketing are both time and resource intensive, you may opt to hire an agency to help you. It can be the wisest investment you make, or it can be money down the tubes. As with any purchase you make, it pays to educate yourself before signing any contracts.

Never hire anyone that guarantees top rankings in search engines. Click to Tweet

Three Important Areas To Consider Before Shopping:

1. Know your business.
You know your business and its customers/clients better than anybody else; be prepared to talk to an SEO or online marketer about it. How has your business been performing over the last year or two? Where are its strengths and weaknesses? What’s the demographic make-up of your customers? What does your company offer that is unique and/or valuable to your potential customers?

2. Know your budget.
Yes, you are going to have to spend money. Generally speaking, the more time you spend on marketing activities yourself, the less money you will have to spend for an agency to do it for you. But there are downsides to trying to reduce costs this way. The experienced online marketer knows how all the pieces fit together. And an agency, by its nature, has the creative resources to produce copy and content for websites and blogs, the tools to manage and monitor social media activities, and the analytical expertise to monitor and report on progress. These are not assets the typical small business owner usually possesses. Investing wisely in SEO and an integrated online strategy will have a far greater impact on sales (and may even save money in the long run), than whatever ad-hoc marketing activities a business owner can manage in their spare time.

3. Know what you want to achieve.
More often than not, our clients want more leads and higher sales as a results of the work they contract us for and expect us to deliver, but every case is different. One client had all the local sales she could handle but was interested in engaging us to provide more national exposure for her brand in the run up to offering franchises of her business. Establishing clear and reasonable goals at the outset will enable potential agencies to determine whether or not they have the capabilities to assist you and will help you gauge your SEO agency’s performance as you move forward.

Marketing is an iterative process: you plan, implement, measure and refine over and over again. Click to Tweet

When You’re Ready To Start Searching For An SEO Agency

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of SEO and digital marketing agencies in every corner of the globe. Even whittling down the choices to a reasonable list can be daunting, so much so that I always start by providing one simple piece of advice that can be used to scratch at least half of the potential vendors off your list:

Never hire anyone that guarantees top rankings in search engines. It’s impossible for any vendor to make this claim blindly and without first conducting a thorough audit of your site and extensive research into search phrase usage patterns and the competitive landscape. Search engines are wise to many of the old tricks and tactics that these “black hat” companies were once able to successfully employ to gain first-page rankings for their clients — but those days are over and the results were never long lasting anyway. Hiring one of these firms will not only result in wasted time and cash, it can also have a serious negative impact on your website’s ability to rank in search results at all.

So, once you have a reasonable list of SEO vendors to contact, what should you be looking for?

Here are five items to ask as you interview potential candidates:

1) Ask for a consultation and insist on talking to a principal or client account manager to find out how they develop strategies and online marketing plans for their clients. Any marketer worth his or her salt will be happy to share success stories; really good ones will also admit to what didn’t work and how they set about correcting course. Don’t be shy to ask about failures. Marketing is an iterative process: you plan, implement, measure and refine over and over again. It’s obvious that not everything works all the time, and it’s important to have a digital marketing partner that you can trust to be honest about progress and results.

2) Ask them for references from clients/former clients and follow up. Many digital marketing firms, even some of the really bad ones, produce beautiful case studies that they point to as evidence of their success. Are they willing to put you in touch with the clients featured in case studies or quoted in testimonials published on their website? You can learn a lot about the vendor by interviewing the clients. How did the engagement go generally? Was the vendor responsive to inquiries and input? When speaking with former clients, ask why and how the engagement ended.

3) Ask for a few sample reports, and if you don’t understand how to interpret them, ask for a walk through. It’s shocking how many people don’t receive meaningful reports from their SEO vendor and we’ve uncovered one reason why that might be. Shopping for technology partners is often stressful for the non-technically inclined business owner and a great many web developers and SEO vendors speak in technical terms or use industry specific jargon that can come off as intimidating at best, condescending at worst. Someone who has built a business, whether it’s an attorney, a dentist, the owner of a hair salon or an industrial parts manufacturer, has other talents and expertise. The good SEO provider will understand that and not make you feel small or stupid; the great one will take time to educate you around online marketing.

4) Ask if link building is included in their services; if it is, ask how they go about building backlinks to your website. Other websites that link back to yours are thought of as votes of confidence by search engines, however, too many spammy backlinks (links that come from low quality sites) can adversely affect your search rankings. Above board SEO and online marketing agencies will focus on building content for your website that relevant third-party websites will want to link back to. They will seek to build relationships over time with people that manage authoritative websites in your niche or industry and acquire backlinks naturally.

5) Ask what they will expect of you as a client and be prepared to participate in the process. We’ve come full circle. You know your business and customers better than your SEO vendor ever will; it’s up to you to provide the raw material the marketer needs to do his or her job. The clarity of your message needs to shine through every piece of content published on your website, blog, email newsletters and social media channels – and authenticity is essential. In order for that to happen you need to form a real partnership with your SEO agency and not expect them to operate in a vacuum. A good agency can help you distill your ideas and thoughts, and communicate them to your target audience. But it’s up to you to give them to tools to do so.

Melissa Cahill is the owner of Panoptic Online Marketing, LLC, an SEO consultancy and digital marketing agency based in New York City. She’s also a founding member of the Tadpole Collective, a worker-directed WordPress web development shop.