How to Hire an SEO

Trust is a huge challenge for businesses using or potentially buying SEO (Search Engine Optimization) services.  Relative to other industries, SEO is still brand new in the realm of marketing and advertising.

It is largely unregulated and misunderstood which makes it ripe for unethical behavior.  In other words it can be incredibly difficult for business owners to know if they are working with an ethical company or not.

It is not always clear how businesses can verify what SEO companies are telling them and often the first signs that something is wrong happen when it’s too late to turn things around.

With the majority of search market share and one of the most trusted brands in the industry, Google is a company people can trust when it comes to optimizing their websites.  They’ve come out with the video (featured below) which contains guidance and tips for choosing an SEO provider.

Video Transcript

Hi I’m Maile Ohye and I work with Google Search.  I’d like to share advice to help you hire a useful SEO and prevent hiring a bad SEO.  One who you might pay a lot of money without positive results, or even worse, one who implements shady practices on your website that result in a reduction in search rankings.

SEO stands for search engine optimization.  To some, SEO seems like black magic.  Having worked with Google search for over a decade, what I’ve learned is that first: it’s not black magic, and second: if you want long-term success, there aren’t any quick magical tricks that an SEO will provide so that your site ranks number one.

Maile makes an important distinction here.  SEO is a long-term investment in marketing your website and your brand online.  Implementing a conservative, diversified and thoughtful strategy will pay dividends consistently into the future.  Moving fast, making hasty decisions or using unethical practices may get your site penalized.  Sometimes those penalties can completely tank a website.

It’s important to note that an SEO’s potential is only as high as the quality of your business or website.  So a successful SEO helps your website put your best foot forward so that it ranks appropriately; in the spot where an unbiased potential customer would expect your site to be seen.  A successful SEO also looks to improve the entire searcher experience; from search results, to clicking on your website and potentially converting.

A good SEO will recommend best practices for a search friendly site.  From basic things like descriptive page titles for a blog or small business to more complex things like language markup for a multilingual global site.  SEOs ensure that you’re serving your online customers a good experience, especially those coming from a search engine and that your site is helpful whether they are using a desktop computer or mobile phone.

What does it mean to be an SEO expert?

Right in the beginning of the video, Maile points out the important qualities and professional savvy that a qualified SEO should have.  This is important to understand because anyone can say they are an “SEO Expert” and there is really no governing body or certified credential that a business owner can use to verify that statement.    

It’s important to note that an SEO’s potential is only as high as the quality of your business or website.

In most cases, the SEO will need 4 months to a year to help your business first implement improvements and then see potential benefits.  My strongest advice when working with an SEO is to request that they corroborate their recommendation with a documented statement from Google.  This could be from a help center article, video or a Google response in a forum.

A note on hiring an SEO freelancer

The strategy mentioned above from the video is great to use if you’re working with a freelancer.  Perhaps it’s someone that is new at SEO or simply doesn’t have a long track record to show you.

That does not mean they don’t know what they are doing, but if they are able to find authoritative sources to back up their recommendations, that’s a plus. 

Not only does that show you they know what they are talking about, it indicates that they also study those sources to know what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to optimizing a website. 

[The request should support]

  1. The SEO’s description of the issue that needs to be improved to help with ranking and…
  2. The approach they prescribe to accomplishing this task

Requesting these two bits of information will help prevent hiring a poor SEO who might otherwise convince you to do useless things like add more words to the keywords meta tag or buy links.  If you search for Google advice on this topic, you’d see blog posts and videos from us that clearly explain that adding keywords to the keyword meta tag wouldn’t help.  Furthermore, while Google uses links for PageRank, our documentation highlights that we strongly advise against buying links for the purpose of increasing PageRank.

In most cases, the SEO will need 4 months to a year to help your business first implement improvements and then see potential benefits.

One basic rule is that in a majority of cases, doing what’s good for SEO is also doing what’s good for your online customers.  [This includes] things like having a mobile-friendly website, good navigation, and building a great brand.  Additionally, if you’re a more established brand with more complicated legacy systems, then good search-friendly best practices likely involves paying off some of your site’s technical debt.

[This could be things like] updating your infrastructure so that your website is agile and able to implement features faster in the long-term.  If you own a small local business, you can probably do the initial work yourself.  Check out our 30 minute video series on ‘How to build an online presence for your local business’.

Now, if you still believe you want to hire an SEO, here is a general process.

  1. Conduct a 2-way interview with your potential SEO. Check that they seem genuinely interested in you and your business.
  2. Check their references.
  3. Ask for (and you’ll probably have to pay for) a technical and search audit.
  4. Decide if you want to hire.

Let’s break this down and start with step 1 (conduct a 2-way interview).  In the interview, here are some things to look for.

A good SEO doesn’t focus only on search engine ranking but how they can help your business so they should ask questions like:

  1. What makes your business, content, and/or service unique and therefore valuable to customers?

They’ll want to know this information so that it’s highlighted on your website for your current and potential new audience.

  1. What does your common customer look like? How do they currently find your website?
  2. How does your business make money? And how can Search help?
  3. What other channels are you using? Offline advertising?  Social networks?
  4. Who are your competitors? What do they do well online (and potentially offline)?

If the SEO doesn’t seem interested in learning about your business from a holistic standpoint, look elsewhere.

It’s difficult to do good SEO without knowing about a business’s goals, their customers and other existing marketing efforts.  SEO should complement your existing work.

What a good SEO specialist will do

As the video mentions, it’s hard for an SEO to do good work without knowing your business goals and about your company in general.  A good SEO will always perform a comprehensive discovery and audit process.  This is where they learn about your site’s current status as it relates to search and more about your business.

The fact is, even the best SEOs cannot be successful without first going through some questioning.  If they don’t know your business goals, how can they successfully optimize your site to achieve those goals?

The second step in hiring an SEO is to check references.

If your potential SEO provides prior clients, be sure to check their references.  You want to hear from past clients that the SEO was able to provide useful guidance [to].  [You also want to see evidence that the SEO] worked effectively with their developers, designers, UX researchers, and/or marketers.

A good SEO should feel like someone you can work with, learn from, experiment with and who genuinely cares about you and your business; not just getting your site the highest rank.  Ultimately, [unethical] techniques rarely last long if they work at all.

They’ll [a good SEO] want to educate you and your staff on how search engines work so that SEO becomes part of your general business operations.

Step 3 is the request a technical and search audit.

If you trust your SEO candidate, give them restricted view (not full or write access) to your Google Search Console Data and even your analytics data.  Before they actually modify anything on your website, have them conduct a technical and search audit and give you a prioritized list of what they think should be improved for SEO.

A good SEO should feel like someone you can work with, learn from, experiment with and who genuinely cares about you and your business.

If you’re a larger business, you could hire multiple SEOs to run audits and prioritize improvements, see what each has to say, and then determine who you could work with the best.

In the audit, the SEO should prioritize improvements with a structure like:

  1. The issue
  2. The suggested improvement
  3. An estimate on the overall investment

In other words, the time, money or energy it would take for your developers to implement the improvement and for Google Search (as well as searchers and customers) to recognize the improvement.

The SEO will need to talk with your developers to better understand what technical constraints may exist.

  1. The estimated positive business impact

The impact might be a ranking improvement, that will lead to more visitors and conversions, or perhaps the positive impact comes from a back end change that cleans up your site and helps your brand be more agile in the future.

  1. Plan of how to iterate and improve non the implementation or how to experiment and fail fast should results not meet expectations.

That covers the structure of the technical and search audit.  Now lets talk about each of these audits individually.

In the technical audit, your SEO should be able to review your site for issues related to:

  • Internal linking
  • Crawlability
  • URL parameters
  • Server connectivity
  • Response codes

(to name some)

If they mention that your site had duplicate content problems that need to be corrected, make sure they show you the specific URLs that are competing for the same query.  Or that they explain it should be cleaned up for long term site health not initial growth.

I mention this because lots of duplicate content exists on websites and often it’s not a pressing problem.

In the Search audit, your potential SEO will likely break down your search queries into categories like branded and unbranded terms.

Branded terms are those with your business or website’s name.  Like a search for gmail is a branded term while the search for email is an unbranded or general keyword.

An SEO should make sure that for branded queries such as Gmail that your website is providing a great experience that allows customers who know your brand or website to easily find exactly what they need and potentially convert.

They might recommend improvements that help the entire searcher experience from what the searchers sees in search results to when they click on a search result and use your website.

For unbranded queries, an SEO can help you better make sense of the online competitive landscape.  They can tell you things like, “here are the types of queries it would make sense for your business to rank [for] but here is what your competition has done and why I think they rank where they do”.

One of the biggest holdups to improving a website isn’t an SEO’s recommendations but it’s the business making time to implement their ideas.

For instance, perhaps your competition has great reviews, really sharable content or they run a highly reputable site.  An SEO will provide recommendations for how to improve ranking for these queries and the entire searcher experience.

They’ll introduce ideas like:

  1. Update obsolete content

They might say “your site is suffering because some of your well-ranking content is obsolete, has poor navigation, a useless page title, or isn’t mobile friendly.  Let’s improve these pages to see if more website visitors convert and purchase or if they can micro-convert meaning that perhaps they subscribe or share content”.

  1. Improve internal linking

Your SEO might say “your site is suffering because some of your best articles are too far from the home page and users would have a hard time finding it.  We can better internally link to your content to feature it more prominently”.

  1. Generate buzz

The SEO might say “you have great content but not enough people know.  We can try to get more user interaction and generate buzz perhaps through social media or business relationships.  This will help us attract more potential customers and perhaps garner natural links to your site”.

  1. Learn from the competition

Your SEO might explain “here’s what your competitors do well.  Can you reach parody with this and potentially surpass them in utility or can you better show customers your business’s unique value?”

Again, a good SEO will try to prioritize what ideas can bring your business the most improvement for the least investment.  And what improvements may take more time but help growth in the long term.  Once they talk with you and other members of your team, such as developers or marketers, they’ll help your business forge a path ahead.

The last thing I want to mention is that when I talk with SEOs, one of the biggest holdups to improving a website isn’t their recommendations but it’s the business making time to implement their ideas.

If you’re not ready to commit to making SEO improvements, while getting an SEO audit may be helpful, make sure that your entire organization is on board.  Else, your SEO improvements may be non-existent regardless of who you hire.

So that wraps it up.  Thanks for watching a best of luck to you and your business.

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