What to Know Before Hiring an SEO Agency


Hugo Guzman recently outlined several questions to ask when interviewing SEO agencies. But interviewing an SEO company is the second step – if you don’t know what your expectations of an SEO agency are, who should you reach out to in the first place? How do you know when it’s time to reach out?

Not long ago Lisa admitted that taking the first step is hard, so here are some questions to ask yourself to help get your team started. The questions are designed to help you determine what kind of SEO agency you need to bring in, to what extent you require their services and to help define what questions you’ll eventually need to ask prospective agencies.

Your Website

What known issues exist?
You probably already know a lot about your website. For example, you know if the site was built in Flash, whether you are ranking above the competition (or at all) or whether you have any specific issues like a reputation management problem or a redesign that made your site drop in the search results. You also know if there are more specific issues, such as a penalty from Google, the need to launch an international or other language site, or figuring out what to do with all your domains.

Having this info researched and ready will not only help you to know where your online marketing currently stands, but you’ll be ready when that future SEO firm asks you for this information.

Do you have ownership of and access to your website?
This may sound like a silly question – of course you own your website! – but it’s not. I just spent two months helping a friend get back her site that was controlled by a company who, I’m pretty sure, was just a guy in his basement with a few hosting reseller accounts [Not that there’s anything wrong with that – Lisa]. Anyone who’s worked in web for a long time has had to help clients steal their sites back, start over with a new domain, or even take legal action.

Read the fine print on your contracts. Some companies find themselves in the awkward position of learning their hosting provider or domain registrar owns their site. Or that the developer claims ownership of the code their site is built with, and won’t let anyone else have access to it. Make sure you have your domain login, your FTP login, and ownership of all code and designs before your SEO agency asks for it.

The same goes for your other accounts and social profiles. Make sure you can access any AdWords, local search profiles, analytics, webmaster accounts or other tools used to market your site.

What is your website’s history?
Do you know the timeline of your website? Did you buy it from someone, or start from scratch? When was it originally launched? What are the dates of important redesigns and development launches? Did you change direction in strategy or goals at any point? Was there any specific date when you noticed your site drastically lost or gained traffic or rankings? Have you previously engaged any SEO or link development agencies? Have you been penalized by the search engines in the past?

Pulling this information together might help you spot issues you’d previously missed, and your SEO agency will asking for this information to help diagnose potential problems.

Your Company

What capabilities do you have in-house or with other agencies/contractors?
Some companies already have in-house marketers or marketing coordinators, but need to bring in extra talent for the more technical aspects of Internet marketing like planning out strategies or performing site audits. Determine what relationships you already have and what you can leverage. Do you already work with a great copywriter for your offline marketing materials? Do you have a web team or developer on staff that can implement the changes recommended by your SEO agency or do you need them to do the work for you?

Also think about who will be managing the project from within your organization. Do they have the expertise or time to be able to take on such a project? Are they a decision-maker who can task out the changes and resources needed, or are they just going to be a point of contact?

Your Expectations

What is your time frame?
It can take months to see results from natural link building and SEO. Do you have that kind of time, or do you need a fix RIGHT NOW because you sell Christmas trees and the holidays are in a week? That will determine whether you need to find an SEO agency (and how aggressive they should be) or a paid search agency. Or if maybe it’s best to wait until January and get a head start on next year.

Do you have internal timelines you have to meet? Knowing that ahead of time can help your SEO agency prioritize their services so you have enough time to implement their recommendations and see results from their efforts.

What can you afford?
Of course, search strategies can be customized to any size budget and schedule, but this will be a determining factor in how much work can be done, in what time-frame and by what type of SEO agency. I was once told there were three variables that clients wanted from any project: fast, cheap, and good – unfortunately, you can only pick two.

With that in mind, what is your marketing budget? Can some of your offline marketing budget be allocated to the web? Know how your budget is allocated; is it all up front, or can you spend the same amount each month? Do you have budget approval and can you reasonably get the work done that your SEO agency will recommend?

What kind of company would you like to work with?
This is a really big question that can often overrule all of the other factors. We all have expectations when it comes to business relationships. And let’s face it, not all will work out perfectly. Companies can have different management styles, points of view, or values. Determining what yours are first will help you make a better decision as to which SEO agency you should hire.

Are you looking for an SEO you can call any time of day, or do you prefer scheduled calls only at milestones? Who do you want to be in on the calls – your account manager, or everyone from the janitor to the president? What about size? In a company the size of Outspoken Media, you’re likely to have each one of us working on your site. But maybe you prefer more of a traditional agency structure, where you don’t necessarily know who is involved behind the scenes, just that your work is getting done.

Do you have specific location requirements? Some people believe it makes no difference in an internet world, but others prefer a company they can meet with face-to-face. If you’re doing a regional campaign, perhaps you would prefer someone located in the area you’re targeting.

How about age, experience, or length of time the company has in business? We don’t like to play the gender card, but some companies have chosen to work with us specifically because we are currently all women, and others have chosen not to work with us for that same reason.

Are you looking for a specialist – someone who focuses solely on link development or ORM – or do you want a company who can tackle all areas of Internet marketing from paid search to PR?

Many companies think they need SEO just because they’ve heard it’s important. But only by truly knowing your own capabilities and expectations will you be able to make that decision wisely, and hire the best SEO agency for the job.

Your Comments

  • Lyndsay Walker

    Nicely done Dawn! In my experience, many potential clients’ eyes would glaze over at even the most simple of those questions. Business owners MUST take more ownership and responsibility for their web properties.

  • Jack Leblond

    Nicely done Dawn – sometimes I wonder if there are people who just call a Realtor and say “I want a house….oh, no I have no idea what kind, how big or where…that’s YOUR job” Unless you have more money than brains, SEO is a partnership.

    • Lisa Barone

      Ha! That’s a really awesome analogy. :)

    • Dawn Wentzell

      Exactly. I’m not a real estate expert, but before buying my place I made sure I had pre-qualified for a mortgage so I knew my budget, I knew the neighbourhoods I was interested in, and I knew I wanted a 1 bedroom condo. It made my realtor’s job easier to find place I would like, and in the end we were both happy.

      Do your research, everybody wins.

  • Gil Reich

    Nice post, Dawn! Really, there are companies that told you they won’t work with you because you’re all women? [Though you can know if that’s the real reason].

    I’d add one more thing: I’d need a recommendation from somebody trusted. We’ve had some slimy people trying to sell us SEO services. One of them gave us fatherly advice as he was leaving that we really should hire some SEO on a percentage basis to get us traffic to our hompage (we’re a long tail site) because we had nothing to lose. I think he meant that he had nothing to lose. I’ve actually heard this guy speak at conferences and say things like “that’s when you tell cry to Google and say we were using an SEO from Malaysia and we didn’t know he was doing bad things, we’re really sorry, please let us back in.” There are also SEOs who will find clever ways of using your site to build his or her other sites. There are a lot of bad guys out there who talk a good game but can do your site real harm that you may not detect. I would only work with somebody recommended by someone I trust.

  • Hugo from Zeta

    Thanks for the mention, Dawn! And great article. Something that most companies (even the big ones) fail to do (not just for SEO, but for a variety of marketing channels).

    P.S. I also dig the real estate analogy. I may have to “borrow” that.

  • Thos003

    Thank you for posting this. I constantly don’t know where to begin when people ask me for advice… I wish there was a SEO grade level they could give me… “So are you a 1st grade SEO?… Oh.. What’s SEO? Got it. Let’s start with, your domain name… You do have a website, don’t you?”

    BTW, For first time I am dealing with the “Do you have ownership of your website?” – Really don’t do work on the side, but its my father-in-law, and the guy that built it registered the website to himself, Eeerkkk. So glad you included that, serious problems there.

    • Dawn Wentzell

      Right? I’m not sure what people think they’re going to get out of screwing small businesses over like that. It doesn’t prevent clients from leaving them, and likely makes more trouble for them in the long run.

      • Thos003

        It’s a short game business strategy. Not one I’d recommend.

        I don’t want to sound too Sensei-ish, but I really like the sand in your hand analogy. Imagine the sand is your commodity. People get so tied up into trying to keep what they have that they close their fist around the sand to keep it safe. In doing so they can only carry a small amount of sand. But if you were to open your hands up and leave them open you’d be able to carry a lot more sand.

  • Shawn McConnell

    I think those are great questions to know about from either side of the equation, either to ask or to be ready to answer, I think all to often it’s about educating your client on what you expect,


  • Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire

    It’s critical to make sure that you have a consultant that understands your SEO objectives as well. You really need to know what search terms and keywords that you want to target. If the consultant steers you into a high-ranking term that your target cutomers are not using, then you could miss out on a lot of business. You have to know YOUR market before you seek out the help of others, or at least have a good idea of where you are headed.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

    • Dawn Wentzell

      You’re absolutely correct on that. It really is a complex relationship between agencies and their clients, and even the slightest misstep can doom the relationship and the project.

      I only scratched the surface of what the client needs to do to prepare. Perhaps my next post will be about what the agency’s responsibilities are ;)

  • Jamie

    I think it is very important to keep the client updated throughout asit can be a timely process