How to Choose an SEO Company: Ignore Top SEO Lists


Finding a SEO company can be hard work! The process of hiring a SEO vendor or consultant in a sea of spam and fake merits has to be exhausting and who has money to gamble with? The SEO industry as a whole doesn’t make it any easier by perpetuating a very real reputation management problem through pay-to-play “Best SEO Company” lists. This post is a word of warning with actionable steps on how to choose a SEO company that’s right for you and builds a long-term, trusting relationship.

Before we get to the actionable stuff, I have three reasons for writing this today:

  1. Outspoken Media recently went through a SEO audit RFP process in which one of the other vendors was a “Top 20 SEO.” We didn’t consider the other firm a direct competitor, so this was intriguing to say the least. What they did have was a badge on their homepage that proudly stated they were a TopSEO! In this situation, we weren’t a good fit for the client regardless of the badge, but the situation really bothered me. Rather than diving into a tirade on TopSEOs, I’ll let Aaron Wall explain why TopSEOs is a scam.

  2. Within a few days of that situation, Jill Whalen was solicited for inclusion in a paid list of the “top search engine marketing firms” from the International Business Times. Here’s the email she received:The IBTimes list of top SEO companies was just published here.

  3. The last nail in the writing of this post came from the application process for their list of Top 500 Advertising and Marketing companies. To be considered, you manually apply hereas long as you meet their minimum criteria:

    – at least $2 million in revenue in 2011 and
    – at least $100,000 in revenue in 2008.

    I don’t think’s list has a shady set of criteria–they’re looking for established, sizable SEO companies. That’s great, but I only saw a couple recognizable SEO firms on the list, which tells me most of the companies we respect aren’t listed (even though they meet the criteria) and highly qualified individual SEO consultants are excluded due to size restrictions.

I decided to take a look at five top SEO company lists and compare them. The results were interesting:

Not a single SEO agency appeared on more than one list and I’ve never head of most of them. Now, this doesn’t mean those firms don’t provide great service, but I’ve been in this industry for seven years and own my own SEO company in which we’ve done extensive competitive research. I have to think that if these are the best SEO companies, I would recognize more of them.
What value do these lists provide when so many require paid inclusion or they are limited by the reach of their community and brand?

I personally see little to no value in these lists for someone who is trying to find a SEO agency with which to partner. Maybe I’m wrong and if you believe that I am, please tell me why in the comments.

The question remains–how to choose a SEO agency?

First, ignore the “TOP SEO, OMG I’M AWESOME, BECAUSE I PAID FOR THIS AND BELONG TO THIS COMMUNITY!” lists. The same goes for the banners on their sites, because we know those help convert customers regardless of merit or criteria. I hate to point out the obvious, but sometimes, we’re really stupid when it comes to the Internet and there is a generational and digital divide that puts certain researchers at an immediate disadvantage.

Second, look into more quantifiable and qualitative signals that can help you make a choice about the SEO company that is right for you. These might include things like:

  • Request case studies and contacts from like industries/site size to ensure they can handle your work
  • Testimonials (if these aren’t published, ask for them, it may simply be that the SEO company has NDAs that protect their clients — like Outspoken Media does!)
  • Talk to their current clients
  • Along the same lines, if they display client logos, call them
  • Google them and check out their online reputation
  • Look at how the site is written and identify warnings (e.g. big guarantees or language that sounds too good to be true)
  • Check the site’s own rankings, community engagement, backlink count and domain authority, etc.
  • Check industry visibility
  • Ask for their methods
  • Question their ethics for grey areas to see if they align with your needs
  • Question their tool set (Does it sound outdated? If it’s proprietary, do they keep the data if you leave? Can they report on what you need?)

For more guidance on how to choose a SEO company, Google also has warnings and questions to ask here. Rand Fishkin published some great tips on how to choose a vendor here. And, Stephan Spencer outlined the SEO RFP process here on Search Engine Land.

If you’re responsible for the RFP, remember:

  • Take advantage of the preliminary call to get a feel for the SEO company’s values and communication style. Does it work with yours?
  • And, always be honest with the agency prior to their work on a proposal. E.g., don’t hide your budget/needs, because time may be wasted if that’s a deal-breaker on either side.

In summary–SEO buyer beware. Do your due diligence when shopping around for an Internet marketing company and make sure the SEO you choose is going to be transparent about their methods and abilities. Happy shopping!

Your Comments

  • Conor MacEvilly

    Good to know! Sounds like 1-800-Dentist. If you’ve got the cash, we’ll add you to our fabulous list.

  • Ross Hudgens

    Any thoughts on SEOMoz’s Recommended List? It’s biased a little I’m sure, but seems pretty accurate.

  • Dana DiTomaso

    Thanks for this! I just had to deal with a “TopSEOs” company and they were most assuredly _not_.

  • Rand Fishkin

    Just to clarify how that particular list is done – we basically have an anonymous group of industry professionals (in-house folks, agencies, bloggers, the lot) who will watch for particular excellent work/companies. When they find one, they submit it to a list and every few months, a survey is taken by the anonymous members.

    Those folks who receive at least three “seconds” on their work/companies and no “vetoes” make the list.

    It’s anonymous, so no one can actively pitch the group members. While it’s certainly not as scalable as other methodologies, we’ve found it keeps quality high. However, it does mean that we list a lot of folks who are overwhelmed with existing work and often may not reply to inquiries (which I know is a frustration, as mentioned in the comment above). That said, we think it’s the right bias to have.

    Thanks for bringing it up here Ross.

  • Ankit

    Hi Rhea,

    Awesome analysis ! Tho i also belong to SEO community, have a small startup in Outsourcing with ambition to become provider of all online needs of a Startup, we call us, “Backoffice for Startups”.

    I agree with you 100%, there is lot of Gray area in SEO. But there people who are genuine too ! But very few..sadly.

    I just mentioned you on twitter, hope you will respond ! :)

    Cheers !

  • Sandeep Dash

    I loved the bulleted points which is extremely important to make sure before hiring any SEO vendor.


    “Not a single SEO agency appeared on more than one list and I’ve never head of most of them.” (head of – should be ‘heard of’ I believe)? Thanks!

  • Jonathan Hochman

    Great article Rhea. Anybody who’s uses astroturfing as a marketing tactic is probably not somebody worth hiring. Good people are always in high demand so they probably wouldn’t waste their time or money with Top SEOs.

    The best way to find an SEO, and for an SEO to get clients, is via references. Attend a reputable show, such as SMX, or a local search marketing association meeting. Identify one or a few speakers who you like, and ask who they would recommend for your needs.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    Great post. It’s crazy that some firms benefit just because they can afford to be on some list. There’s no way a smaller firm could afford the fees that are associated. This obviously doesn’t mean that they don’t do good work. Reading client testimonials and case studies is a much better indicator of trust.

  • Joel

    You can’t even trust Google these days. Googling “Cityname SEO” is generally more evidence of who can spam the best than who is the actual best SEO company in that city.

    • Nick Ker

      I don’t know if it is always a spam indicator, but probably 7 out of the top 10 anyway.
      And it usually makes the search results look kind of stupid too. Imagine you are looking for a local SEO consultant. You search and see 7 results that all look the same with almost identical titles starting with “Cityname SEO…”

      One thing I have also found to be pretty funny about that is that “Cityname SEO” is usually not a high volume keyword, so how many of the searches for it are made by the city name SEOs themselves? Even more laughable is the drastic measures some will take to rank for this trophy keyword. Sure, I suppose they can then show clients “look we’re #1 for city name SEO” if they don’t have any other proof of their abilities. But I know in my area, some SEOs are buying links, participating in black hat private blog networks, putting out press releases on paid PR sites – for what? To get on the nerves of other SEOs? (resisting the temptation to try to get a “cityname SEO” link here)

      • Jonny Ross

        HI Rhea/Joel/Nick

        This is so true, and people not in the know take it that being included in the list or having a badge is something that makes them a trustworthy company!

        Actually i was having a similar conversation on linkedin recently about “SEO cityname” details of which can be found here…

        is the best seo, the SEO company that appears top for “SEO cityname” and if not how do you explain that to a business that doesn’t have a clue about SEO!

        thoughts and simple to understand explanations welcome!

        • Nick Ker

          It is tough to get some clients to understand. Many really don’t care how they get to the top of the results, they just know they want to be there. What I try to explain is that it is more than just the keyword position. Things like click-through, brand recognition and reputation are also important. Pointing out the same-ness of the “cityname seo” results can help too. Ask if they are more likely to take seriously on one of the identical “CityName SEO Company | SEO CityName” results, or the one with a recognizable brand. Most people do understand that they want to stand out at least a little bit.

  • Mike Feiman

    Hahahahaha @ the inclusion of on that list. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been coldcalled by those guys who would claim they worked for Google and that they would guarantee #1 on terms that were so low traffic and low competition that an untrained chimp could rank within 24 hours.

  • john andrews

    I totally agree with the “top” lists which are pure marketing, but I think your suggestions are too one-sided. Many clients do not know enough about what they need to evaluate firms for themselves. I don’t think they should evaluate firms by themselves, either.

    Instead, hire a consultant.

    That’s right.. hire an SEO consultant who is too good, too busy, and too expensive to take your seo work, but able to help find you an SEO firm.

    With 1 or two hours of effort, a good SEO consultant can recommend a few firms or consultants who would be good fits for a project. For that you pay a few hours of a high hourly rate, but you establish a relationship.

    I am more likely to make myself available for a call like the following, than a typical “we are looking for an SEO” call:

    “Hey John Andrews. We need an seo firm, but don’t know which ones would be a good fit for us. We’ve budgeted a discovery phase, and we’d like to hire you to help us document our needs in a way that is actionable for the search for an SEO company, and to help us narrow down the choices. We need to choose a firm by ________ with an expected budget of ________ over ______ months for our site ___________. Can you help?”

    The process I suggest filters out some of the “problem clients”:
    * those who seek free advice, by hook or by crook
    * those who don’t budget enough for successful SEO (with any firm)
    * those who don’t budget at all (lack of planning)
    * those who won’t pay anyone a decent rate, on principle
    * those who just want a disconnected service provider (SEO doesn’t work that way)

    I think serious businesses of all sizes would do better following this method than any search-based due diligence (since marketers by nature are excellent at “marketing” themselves even if terrible at SEO). I also know it’s better than “recommended” lists which are usually driven by industry politics and traded referrals, not merit.

  • Chloe B

    Surely a quality SEO company doesn’t need to have SEO in it’s company name?! It’s more to do with brand and reputation.

  • Lannon

    Hahaha I love the image you’ve added to this post, it depicts this stupid SEO list perfectly!!

  • Jay S.

    I know quite a few companies that use SEO.COM. They all said that SEO.COM met their goals for rankings as well as ROI. But this is only for national seo, they do not do much local optimization.

  • Elyse Bernstein

    I always cringe when potential clients say they found us on Top SEOS or ask how we compare to the companies listed at the top of their site. However, I am typically honest saying that I don’t know much about the other sites, since they are usually names I have not heard of and are always changing.

    It is a double edge sword though because at times potential clients initially feel we are not a great company to work with since we are not ranked within the top 10 and they are often weary when I explain that Top SEOS is not all its cracked out to be. The idea that SEO companies could pay for top listings, which we never do, seems “too pure”.

    But as someone else said, its is just like 1-800-DENTIST or any other directory.

  • Matt

    I’ve noticed that the ranking on Top seo’s changes perhaps as frequently as Google changes its algorithms. I think it’s more important having a strong portfolio of clients ranked rather than ranking yourself. There are many awesome freelance seo’s who don’t even have their own sites.

  • Akash Kumar

    Great post Rhea. Its really important that people are educated about the SEO companies who claim to be the top SEO companies. Most of these lists are paid lists and people can pay to be listed among the top SEO companies as they say.

    And its not very surprising that these are the companies who are involved in grey hat techniques. Many of the companies from these top SEO company lists have used grey hat techniques themselves. Check their backlinks and you’ll know.

    I am not talking about a list or a site in particular but many of you SEOs must be aware of these kind of sites. These are the sites that are themselves involved in buying links for them and their clients. Many of these sites even have these footer links from all the clients they have handled.

  • Tom Schuster

    I guess I have lots of questions. What tools do marketing departments or their trusted advisors use? Where do they get their data to base their advice on? Is it a paid service from an SEO tools company or is it self generated from free tools or even just intuition?

    What is the route to the customer for SEO tools and does it differ between countries? It appears that in some countries the advertising agency provides the SEO advice whereas in others it is independent SEO agencies. Does this channel differ by size of customer? eg do enterprises buy direct but small companies go through an agency? In other words, if you’re an SEO tools SaaS provider, how do you get yourself heard by the buyer and ensure your service is sold and repeatedly used?

    I’d be grateful if someone could clarify or point me to reliable market research. As has been pointed out there is a deadly loop in searching for information on firms that specialise in optimising that search :)

  • Andy Kuiper

    I agree with this ‘outing’ of “topSEO” type lists. If I need to pay to be at the top of a list, it’s a list I’m not interested in being on :-)