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Why you should read this article before hiring an SEO
There are a bazillion SEO consultants and most of them aren’t worth hiring. I didn’t realize how bad it is out there until I almost fell out of my chair while browsing Fiverr’s selection of SEOs for hire (I was appalled, not impressed).
With so much noise, finding the right SEO for your business, for your current or planned website, can be challenging.
How do you know which SEO freelancer will be a good fit for your growth plan? How can you see through the hyped up ads? I’ll tell you here.
Why trust my opinion?
I’ve worked online since 1999, specializing in search and user experience design, enterprise level e-commerce, and revenue generation for a VC-funded social shopping startup before starting my own website, WineClubReviews.net, in 2009.
As the world of search became more and more complicated (especially in 2022), I found I spent much less time reviewing wine clubs and much more time learning how to better optimize for search engines.
I consider myself an SEO expert who happens to have a website that reviews wine clubs.
More importantly, I’m an SEO expert who has hired two other SEO firms to help me along the way. Here’s what I consider when I want to hire an SEO to help me get unstuck (it happens to the best SEOs, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying).
Figure out what kind of SEO work you need
Before you assess whether a particular SEO might be a good fit for your business, you need to honestly assess your own knowledge base and needs. This particularly activity can be challenging, but here are the key pieces:
What is your personal (or team’s) technical knowledge? Do you have someone who can implement recommendations from your SEO? If not, you’ll need an SEO who can code and ideally is familiar with the platform your website runs on (WordPress, Wix, Shopify, etc.). Also, do you have the time to implement your SEO’s recommendations? If not, you’ll have to pay for that, too.
What have you done to improve your SEO so far? Have you already shored up SEO basics like title tags, meta tags, headings, content quality, and internal links? If those components haven’t been touched by an SEO, start with a content and internal link audit to see if you should prioritize those types fixes before moving on to advanced SEO services (like speed optimization and structured data). Have you engaged in robust link-buying campaigns? Make sure you ask potential SEOs about a link audit, too.
What are your specific SEO goals? If you’re looking for an SEO with the goal of “I want to rank #1 for my top keywords,” you’re going to end up hiring someone who can’t deliver on your goal (because that’s often not achievable). Reasonable goals include:
- Improving ranking for important keywords
- Growing leads or revenue via the organic search channel
- Trying to rank for more SERP features
If you don’t know the answers to any of those questions (or all of them), I recommend hiring an experienced, independent SEO freelancer to interview you, assess your site, and guide you toward your next steps. For me, this is a 5-10 hour project depending on the size and complexity of your site and competitive market.
Identify the right kind of SEO consultant
There are a lot of “marketing firms” and “search marketing firms” that offer a one-stop shop. The arguments for hiring this type of firm include: everything is handled in house, they bundle services for a lower fee, and there is a benefit to having one firm which understands your business.
I personally would never hire such a firm. Different people will handle your paid ads, your SEO, your email marketing, your social marketing, and it’s entirely possible any or all of them will be junior team members. You don’t want to spend your money on juniors, let them learn on someone else’s website (preferably your direct competitors).
You want a dedicated SEO specialist. Every month Google changes the game and someone who isn’t 100% dedicated to search engine optimization isn’t going to be up to speed. I read about SEO every single day and sometimes dedicate most of my day to learning a new topic in depth.
You need the right firm (or freelancer) with the right strengths for your business and your current needs. Every consultant has different strengths and weaknesses.
Are you a local business owner who barely understands how to use your website?
I’m not judging, that’s where a lot of people are at and it’s perfectly okay. Your speciality is something else, and likely it doesn’t involve computers, much less websites.
Even if you know how to keep your website up to date, you should hire a local SEO expert. They should be both local to you — i.e. they understand your local market — and someone who specializes in optimizing for search for local businesses like doctors, dentists, CPAs, lawyers, real estate agents, restaurants, brick-and-mortar stores, hair stylists, carpet cleaners, house painters, etc. You don’t need an SEO specialist for your industry (meaning you don’t need to find an SEO who specializes in hair salons if you own a hair salon).
Are you just now starting to think about leveraging SEO to grow your business?
Do you have a business that has done well with paid ads and social media marketing but you’re pretty sure you could capture more customers with a better presence among organic listings at Google?
You want someone who can perform a content analysis and get you up to speed on the basics: title tags, meta tags, headings, keyword-focused content, and internal linking. This SEO should be great at keyword analysis and creating outlines for content you need to support your goals. This SEO should also understand user behavior and how to get you leads or sell your products.
Are you a publisher who needs help organizing your site better?
Hire an SEO who specializes in content silos, pillar or skyscraper pages, and internal link analysis. This person (or team) will crawl your site, perform a content audit, and find instances of content cannibalization. I have outsourced these functions in the past, learned from the SEOs I hired, and am now specialized in this process. Sometimes the best way to learn a skill is to hire someone and build on what they teach you.
Are you an online store who needs an e-commerce SEO expert?
E-commerce SEO is different from other forms of the trade. First, it’s highly competitive, especially with Google itself. Google now has free Merchant Listings and loads up the results pages with a lot of those free shopping listings. How will you stand out? How will you get your category pages to rank on page when there are 25 (or 2500) other stores selling the same products you do?
Have you checked all the boxes for basics and are ready to take it to the next level?
Maybe you have been working on your SEO for a while and you feel like you’ve finally nailed the basics but now you’re stuck in neutral. You want a technical SEO who can do all of the things listed above, but will also help you with the nitty gritty bits — structured data, core web vitals, mobile optimization, and crawl budget. These SEOs are programmers who can either do the work themselves or direct your in-house team on how to proceed.
I’ve casually mentioned a number of skills SEOs should have, but here are some other common SEO skills to consider.
- Link building. I used to talk about SEO being a three-legged stool. These days I think it’s a centipede, but link building is still one of the legs. Be very careful when hiring a link building firm. Google considers paid links to be spam (no exceptions). You may get away with paid links for a while, but eventually Google will (at best) discount them and (at worst) penalize your site.
Instead of paying for link building, I advise my clients to hire a PR firm. It will cost you about the same for the same number of campaigns, but the links will be more valuable because they will be “natural.” There are also DIY PR options out there.
- Writing. SEOs should be good at writing (about any topic), be able to hire quality content writers, or be able to work with you and your team to help you write great content for your site.
I do not recommend hiring SEOs who use AI content writers/generators to get words on your site. At present, it’s not clear how long Google will tolerate this content, which it is actively targeting with its Helpful Content System, or where it will draw the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable.
Please don’t hire SEOs who use ChatGPT to write your content either: you can’t be sure the sources are accurate, you can’t be sure the text isn’t copyrighted, it all sounds like a third-grader with a thesaurus wrote it for an essay.
- Internationalization. A fairly specific area of expertise is how to do SEO when your website serves customers in multiple countries. Google doesn’t work the same in every country, there are very technical language-related details to know (that are easy to screw up), and you have to be very careful about duplicate content. This is not a common area of specialization and not all consultants are prepared to do it well. Ask your potential SEO a lot of questions if Internationalization affects your business.
- Reporting. Every SEO needs to provide some kind of progress report to every client. I’m not a fan of using reports from tools like SEMrush or Ahrefs and slapping your logo on them (the tools are useful, the reports are myopic). Hand-written quarterly reports that discuss topics (not just ranking progress) and new recommendations are perfect. Don’t focus too much on reporting, rather focus on how much time you and your team get to spend working with your SEO.
- Communicating. If an SEO can’t communicate with you well and in a timely manner, how are they going to communicate with your potential customers? (That’s what SEO is!) Aside from answering emails in a thorough and clear manner, a good SEO knows what their limitations are and communicates those to you clearly both before you hire her and after you’ve begun work.
Learn how to spot red flags
Every field has charlatans and snake oil salesmen, and it’s possible SEO has more than average because it tends to attract people who like to win (often at any cost). Here are red flags that indicate the person or firm you’re considering is not a good SEO.
- I can guarantee rankings. This is a 100% dealbreaker. No one can guarantee rankings, not even for your brand name. Don’t be fooled by this one.
- I can get high DA or PA links. This almost always indicates someone is buying links and probably in a manner that will run afoul of Google’s Terms of Service.
- I’ll write hundreds of pages. That’s too much, almost certainly will cause new SEO problems (like keyword cannibalization), and also likely means there’s some AI involved somewhere.
- I can do everything. I have spent most of my career as a generalist, and what I know about generalists is that we *can* do everything, but we rarely do any specific thing well enough. Usually really good generalists are great at figuring out what’s wrong, not necessarily solving the problem efficiently. Now that I’ve focused almost entirely on SEO for the last five years, I see the difference and how much being a specialist matters in a technical field.
- I have a huge list of clients I’ve helped, here are the numbers. It’s tricky to spot the problem here, but I’ll tell you the secret. Look at the timeline of those numbers. Are they current, like right up to today? Even when SEO success is achieved, it can be fleeting.
Example: In December 2022 I watched a video from a conference in November 2022. The presenter provided numerous charts and graphs to show how his technique works for so many clients. The problem is that in October of 2022, Google changed how they showed listings on the SERPs in such a way that evaporated much of those clients’ gains. It’s possible the presenter didn’t even know yet (I have 20-20 hindsight on this one). This also speaks to why rankings can’t be guaranteed.
- Look at all of my certifications. This one is a mixed bag. These certifications sometimes legitimately identify technical knowledge, but ultimately are a pretty meaningless predictor of future success. They don’t offer an assessment of the SEO’s analytical reasoning skills. A good SEO needs to be able to prioritize which projects will move the needle AND have technical knowledge.
Questions to ask during the SEO interview process
Ask about deliverables. You should receive analyses, prioritized project plans, and reports on what work has been done — not just what has been achieved. In my opinion, you should also be kept informed of what is changing at Google as it changes (and as we know what the impacts of those changes are).
If you’re considering hiring a firm:
- Ask about who (specifically) will be working on your account and how long that person has been doing SEO. Also ask if that SEO works on any similar accounts (conflicts of interest are real and potentially damaging if not managed properly).
- Ask about how many hours of work your fee covers each month.
- Ask about the process. They should be able to provide specifics about how they approach a new client’s website, not generalizations. The better firms have systems in place to keep everything humming along and these systems should be well-understood at the firm.
If you are considering hiring a freelancer:
- Ask about the freelancer’s specific experience (industries worked in, not just for SEO).
- Ask what their favorite project has been and what their least favorite project has been.
- Ask if they’ve ever made a big mistake (this is not a dealbreaker, it’s to test for honesty… I made a huge mistake that tanked one of my websites, but I can promise I’ll never do anything like that again because that hurt!).
- Ask how many hours per week or month they plan to work for you.
- Ask what their business hours are.
- Get a referral (more than one really isn’t necessary, but talk to a client who is happy with the consultant and find out why).
If you’re not a consultant of some kind yourself, you might not realize when you’re asking for too much before signing on the dotted line. Here are a few tips to start off a relationship on the right foot:
- It is appropriate to interview the client (more than once) on the phone, Zoom, email, or even in person if the consultant offers it.
- It is appropriate to ask for an outline of the process in writing.
- It is appropriate to ask questions about contracts and NDAs (non disclosure agreements) if applicable.
- It is appropriate to negotiate a rate (though it’s often not negotiable).
- It is not appropriate to get a full assessment of what needs to be done before you hire the firm. Even if the consultant does one for her own benefit, you are not entitled to know what’s in it.
How to budget for SEO
Once you nail down the type of SEO you want to hire, you can start to consider your budget for this work. There are three types of billing methods for SEO consultants (all consultants really):
- A flat monthly fee. This is the most common way SEOs bill for their time and tools. Tools cost money and these SEOs share that cost with you each month. Typically you can choose a package like “starter,” “growth,” and “enterprise.” I’m not crazy about these packages because it’s never clear if you got everything you paid for and it’s highly unlikely the firm is going beyond what you’re paying them to get the job done right.
- An hourly fee. This is a common way to pay for SEO services, and it’s the way I bill. I’ve spent years developing expertise in SEO. I can’t tell you how much any given task will cost. You hire me to get to know your business and craft custom solutions for and your specific market.
At the beginning of a project expect significantly more hours on the books than later when you’re in maintenance or sustained growth mode. I prefer to be paid for the time I spend working for you, not trying to fill hours you’ve paid for in advance.
I may or may not use paid SEO tools to help you, but that comes out of my hourly rate, it’s not an additional cost to you, unless you need some kind of specialized tool that I can’t use for my other clients (or myself).
- Deferred billing based on results, typically a revenue share on demonstrated growth. This used to be more common when it was significantly easier to help existing businesses accelerate via SEO. For the entrepreneurial SEO, this is still a viable option, but you’ll find fewer of these brave souls these days.