There have been quite a few articles on this subject over the years; trust me I've read most of them, yet very few of them seem to ring true. Most appear to be thinly veiled attempts by firms to convince you that they are the best thing since sliced bread and only a handful, including this great post by Rand Fishkin are anything more valuable.
What many of them fail to do is to give you any clear direction on what could be some real differentiators between SEO firms. It's not that difficult to throw up a shiny website and add on some generic 'we're brilliant at what we do' text but that in itself won't really tell you if the firm knows anything about SEO.
The problem is that SEO has managed to get something of a bad name for itself over the past few years, primarily down to an inability to deliver for clients. So many people have stories of firms that are just not there when they need them, have had no success at all and more often, have simply taken the money and done nothing. In the worst cases, and there are countless tales of this all over the internet, they have actually harmed the website they were supposed to be working on.
To help you make something of a more informed choice, here are my top five pointers for choosing your next SEO firm.
Find a firm that are a good strategic fit
This might surprise you, not least of which because it's number one on my list but the reason it is there is because a good SEO firm must be able to align their work to your business strategies and help you towards your goals. Far too often SEO firms bowl in and start talking about 'how much for how many keywords' without actually having any understanding of what your firm actually does. In fact we should right now blow the 'keywords' idea out of the water. It's not the most important thing in your strategy and focusing on far too many short tail keywords at inflated prices is guaranteed to do only one thing - help you spend your cash quickly.
Ideally therefore you want a business that understands your business, your vertical and has a deep understanding of the market. Only with this approach can they truly advise you on the best course of action rather than the best one for their pockets.
Find a firm that you actually like
This might sound obvious but you will be working with them on a long term basis. At the start of the contract you will probably be speaking to them quite a bit, so you need to be comfortable that you get on with the people you are talking to and that they understand what you need. Let's be clear, it's not going to be plain sailing and the road will have bumps, twists and turns, so when you encounter difficult situations you want people who are on your side; people who want to help you. They need to be part of the team; think of it as your outsourced marketing team. Oh and make sure they do the work themselves in house. There's nothing wrong with bringing in external expertise when needed but what you don't want is to find that you've contracted £5000 a month for SEO and it's an individual working in their bedroom and outsourcing all the work for £1000 a month to a firm in another country (trust me, it still happens).
Find a firm that is current and has an opinion
Finding a firm that is up to date with the latest changes in the Search Engines, who understand where Social Media fits into the strategy and who understand how technology is changing the way we search and find things online, is critical. It is no longer about buying the most links you can and ranking at number one, it's about understanding what is important to rank both today and tomorrow and ensuring that the work they do brings long term benefits to your business. Check out their website, their blogs and find out if they are published anywhere else online? Do you like the tone of what they write? Are they the same as everyone else or are they different? Do they have a different viewpoint and does it make sense? Just search for the name of the business and/or the owners and see what comes up. Writing a blog for something like the Huffington Post might count in this respect...
Find a firm that thinks beyond SEO
You want to find a firm that is technically proficient but you also want someone who can help you beyond the relatively simple process of optimising your website. Do they have any background in Marketing or Advertising, Digital Marketing or Strategy and can they bring that to bear on your firm? For example, do you want a company that can tell you that the issue lies, for example, with the way your staff answer the phone rather than just telling you that they have got you the traffic it's your job to make sure it converts? Thinking beyond SEO means that they understand the overall strategy (see point 1), have the ability to tell you about what needs doing (point 2) and are prepared to help you move quickly to meet changes in the environment (point 3).
Find a firm that speaks plain English
Of course you want them to know the difference between 301's and 404's*, however whilst you want to be sure that they know their stuff you don't want them to baffle you with it.
Now these are just my top five suggestions for how to choose a good SEO company but there are lots of other indicators you can use such as, can you visit them at their offices, are they VAT registered and can they offer you different payment options including Direct Debit? Finding firms that tick these three boxes can help to quickly weed out your short list.
You might also want to look at the experience of the workforce to see whether they are purely 'digital' or if they have experience in other fields? Quite often people who work in other disciplines bring some excellent transferrable skillsets and particularly those who have worked in Advertising, Marketing, Journalism and PR. In fact with the way Google is currently going it is these people along with Content Marketers who have a distinct advantage.
If possible you should also seek out a firm that doesn't work for one of your competitors. This might sound daft but there are a great many SEO firms out there who prefer to work within a single vertical such as travel, legal or finance. Whilst there are some excellent single sector agencies out there that specialise in a particular vertical and these firms are generally very good at what they do there is always a concern if both you and your competitors are going after the same market or keywords. If two companies in the same vertical are with one agency and going after the same keywords, success generally comes down to who is spending the most. To avoid getting into an escalating price spend war it may be better to consider an alternative agency that have no conflicts.
Finally, don't be fooled by the guff that people write on their websites. As a great example there are many SEO firms out there who will put up lists of both the firms they work with and the results they have obtained for these clients. If they are foolish enough to do this then the least you can do is check this out. For example, if they say they have got a client to page one on Google for a search term, why not check yourself? The majority will be nowhere near where they say they are.
In the final analysis your decision may well be motivated by other factors that I haven't mentioned here, such as price, availability or location. Whatever criteria you choose remember that there are a great many excellent SEO firms out there, all you have to do is choose one!
This article first appeared on www.aqueous-seo.co.uk
*Just in case you have some of these and want to know what they are, in plain English, a 301 is an instruction to search engines that the page they are looking for has moved to a new address, and a 404 is when a search engine goes to an address and finds nothing there. They are important, they are part of SEO and whoever you choose will help you to sort them out.
Follow Jonathan Guy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AqueousDigital