Phil Buckley wrote a marketing blog article in response to my question at a recent Raleigh SEO Meetup — “Is SEO now moving at such a fast pace that normal small business owners should just hire a professional?” If you decide to take the self-serve SEO plunge, he recommends resources like the SEOmoz blog, blogger Lisa Barone, Google’s Webmaster Channel, and the Google Webmaster Forums.
If you don’t want to become an SEO expert on top of running your business, I don’t blame you — as one of my clients (a dentist) says, “I just want to work on teeth!” But just as you should know about about taxes to oversee your CPA, you should learn enough about search engine optimization to evaluate and hire a good SEO consultant.
8 Interview Questions to Ask SEO and Online Marketing Agencies
In my experience, here are some important questions to ask prospective SEO agencies, if you’re considering hiring one (disclosure: I work for an SEO agency in Raleigh, NC):
- What’s the difference between on-site and off-site SEO, and so what?
- My answer: On-site SEO is about making your website better, and off-site is about getting quality sites to link to you, using a variety of tactics. You need both to improve your rankings, but having a poor on-site content and organization will defeat the purpose of getting in-bound links.
- My answer: Coalmarch uses Google Analytics to track clients’ website visitors and we use SEOmoz to track and report on SEO campaigns’ effectiveness over time, to show that we’re doing our job. Depending on the size of their retainer and the scope of our services, clients get monthly or quarterly update meetings. No SEO agency can guarantee specific rankings (e.g., “you’ll rank #1 in two weeks”), so be wary if they claim specific outcomes.
- My answer: Google has stopped rewarding “content farms,” which means getting dozens of links from eZineArticles.com or eHow.com won’t help your rankings. Also, if you have a business that focuses on local reviews, Google changed how it aggregates reviews from third-party sites, which means you might need to update your online reputation management strategy.
- My answer: The resources Phil mentioned are important places to start. SEOmoz, Search Engine Land, Google’s publications, and SEO by the Sea are all helpful. I’m sure Maria, my SEO colleague at Coalmarch, could elaborate, since she’s the one reading those articles all day long (keeping up with the wily search engines’ every move). And of course, we participate in (and sponsor!) the Raleigh SEO Meetup each month.
- My answer: Likely at least a few months, and potentially a year or more. It depends on your targeted keywords. A one- or two-word keyword is harder to optimize than than a multi-word “long-tail” search term. It also depends on how convoluted your current site is — we might need to spend several months straightening our your on-site SEO before we even start off-site SEO. Once you start your SEO strategy, you should plan on making it a permanent commitment. It’s not like doing a email blast or putting up a billboard… it’s a long-term process of continuous improvement, if you want to keep growing.
- My answer: SEO is a good long-term strategy, but you need to be aware that it’s an ongoing commitment. Pay-per-click (PPC) is good to get a short-term spike in traffic (and hopefully sales, if you have good landing pages with good offers), and it’s a way to appear on the first SERP (search engine results page) in a competitive category while you use SEO to improve your organic ranking. But basing your entire business model on PPC prices is risky — as CMO Stephen Chiles saw at Insurance.com, when pay-per-click prices quadrupled from $15 to $60 in six months.
- My answer: Keyword stuffing reads as spammy and probably won’t help your rankings (3-4 times in an article is fine; 20 times is excessive, and no one wants to read it). Reminds me of the joke about, “An SEO expert walks into a bar, pub, restaurant, saloon, dining establishment, club, …” Likewise, the keyword META tag has become superfluous — Google wants the keywords to appear naturally on the page, rather than in an artificial list in the page’s header. You’re just telling your competitors (when they read your HTML source code) what your keywords are.
- My answer: At Coalmarch, you get a dedicated account manager (me or account coordinator Carolyn Frazier). Your client service contact is familiar with SEO but we’re not necessarily the experts — marketing coordinator Maria Mayorga is handling your SEO strategy and execution. She creates and presents your monthly or quarterly reports. Questions typically go through our project management system, and you’ll get a response from Maria directly or via your account manager. I think it’s a good balance — accessible, but not to the point that your SEO consultant is also juggling client calls on an hourly basis, which helps to reduce your SEO retainer costs.
Don’t Forget the Marketing and Client Service Fundamentals!
Of course, any marketing agency should be asking you some core questions about your business — starting with “What’s unique about your business?” and “What are your short-term and long-term business goals?” Online marketing is still marketing, and the fundamentals still apply.
As with any agency, ask about their approach to client service. Once they understand your needs, you and they should be straightforward about budgets — trying to rank for a single-word keyword like “insurance” or “lawyer” on $500 a month isn’t going to go far, and paying $20,000 a month to do SEO for a local business is likely overkill.
Ultimately, you need to be comfortable working with them — I don’t recommend asking for limitless pre-sales freebies, but especially once you’re under contract, your SEO consultant needs to be willing and able to explain their work in non-technical terms. “Expert” shouldn’t equal “arrogant.”
What would you add to my list of SEO agency interview questions?