This started out as a comment in response to someone interested in hiring an external SEO company, and got rather long.
If you’re a business owner, how do you find a good SEO company or provider? Unfortunately, SEO has a poor reputation to some due to poor providers. You’re right to worry about bad providers. Bad SEO can mean someone spinning up a thousand spammy comment links pointing back to your site, like it’s 2004. This may not sound damaging — but enough of the “bad SEO” can result in your business getting deindexed from Google, meaning you can say good-bye to a lot of your traffic. So it is very important to hire the right people, and make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
SEO: Try It In-House First
If you’ve never engaged in SEO before, have your web development staff start your SEO. I’m a web developer who can manage a lot of SEO, and I don’t think I’m a unicorn at all for that ability. Most sites in need of SEO work see major benefits from just on-page work and essential site optimization.
So have your developers work on the site, on-page SEO, and re-assess in a year or so, see if you still need to hire an external company.
As a word of warning, I would avoid doing anything like link-building and external, off-page SEO without a specialist. It is easy to mess these things up, and again — you can dig yourself into a much deeper hole than you realize with bad SEO. Most web developers will know on-page SEO fairly well, but the off-page stuff is kind of a different beast and skill-set altogether.
I’ve written a post about basic SEO for web developers that will help outline an essential action plan with existing staff.
Red Flags When Hiring Externally for SEO
If you determine you have need for external SEO, there are some things to watch out for.
Their Site: How Does it Rank?
Investigate their site and ranking.
If they’re “XYZ SEO Company” and they’re located in Jersey City, do they show in the results for that city? Be wary of judging solely on location-based searches because: your local search results can be different, and an SEO company might not focus their own site’s efforts on localization. If they’re totally absent from local results I’d probably consider that a red flag, but not showing up on the first page isn’t a big problem.
If they’re “ABC SEO Company” and they claim their niche is clothing and fashion, do they show up on the first page when you try “SEO for fashion companies” or similar? If not, I’d probably skip them. If they can’t get their own site to rank for their major industries, they’re not gonna do anything good for your site either.
Avoid “#1 Rank” Promises
Avoid anyone who promises to get you to the top/first rank/etc. This is an odd thing for an SEO person to focus on/promise. Who cares about first rank — someone engaged in proper SEO should be more concerned with the quality of your traffic and how well it’s converting (i.e., making you money).
It’s basically just something to be wary of because it’s easy for someone new/not so great with SEO to promise, without actually delivering much value to you. If they can explain how getting to first for X, Y, and Z keyword will help, then that’s not so bad! But blanket “you’ll be #1 on Google!” promises are something to avoid.
In general, be wary of promises made before they actually see your site, too — if your site is in really bad shape, it could take them a really long time to dig out of the hole, let alone to “rank number one.”
Avoid Quick Turnaround
Avoid anyone who promises super quick turnaround. Some types of SEO can actually get you to the top, and quickly! For a few months, maybe… then you’re deindexed. Those techniques are typically “blackhat” and they don’t work for sites you want to establish long-term. People who engage in blackhat SEO typically make “turn and burn” sites, not established businesses.
“Good SEO” on the other hand does take a bit of time (three-six months, depending).
Avoid Anyone Who Doesn’t Analyze
Avoid anyone who wants to dive in without investigating what’s working for your site now. If you’re getting changes before you’re getting an analysis report, this is generally the wrong approach.
Avoid Data Thieves
Ask them how data sharing works when you engage with them. Watch out for any companies that want to keep your data to themselves. Ideally, you should hold the admin/primary access to your Google Analytics or Google Webmaster Tools data, and they should be granted secondary access. That way, if things go south, you do not lose your highly-valuable Analytics data.
If an external company insists on being the primary account or won’t let you at least get read-only access to your data, I would consider this a very big red flag.
Avoid Bad Tactics
Avoid anything that mentions: automated link-building, directory or search engine submission, or automated on-site page creation.
These are all things that are “old SEO.” These techniques worked in the past, but are no longer viable: they are little better than spam, and will hurt your site in most cases. If a company’s proposal or even website mentions any of these things, run.