The question comes up periodically, and it did again recently on one of the forums I frequent. A member wanted to hire an SEO, and needed to know how to choose. How could he tell who would do a good job at a fair price?

And ya know? That's a good question, really.

The high demand for good SEO practitioners means their services often ain't cheap. Which also means the fortune-hunters have come a-flocking. Flat-out con artists who don't have any intention of doing anything for suckers their clients (other than relieving them of their cash). Newbies who have excellent intentions — but lack the skills to bring them to fruition — and still charge the same rates as experienced SEOs. Slackers who think they can offer minimal SEO services at premium prices as a route to “easy money” from clients who don't know any better.


So, how's a webmaster supposed to decide?

Google Rankings — Not All That

Photo by KB35

Photo by KB35

Some people advise checking the SEO company's website in Google. The thinking goes, if the SEO company can get their own website to rank highly for SEO-related terms, they can do the same for you and your business-related search terms.

Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily follow. Every search term is different. What works for one business in one market for one search term might be totally useless — or even counterproductive — for another business, pursuing different search terms, facing different competition. The tactics and techniques they used to muscle their page to the top might not be appropriate for your business.

Beyond that, unfortunately, a high ranking says nothing about the integrity of the people behind that page... only that they managed through some means, fair or foul, to get that page to rank highly.

My advice? Google rankings can be interesting, but don't rely on Google as a measure of quality. Just because somebody ranks highly for an industry-related term or two (or even ten or twenty or more), don't assume that means they're “the best.”

If the Budget Is Tight...

Here's an idea to consider. Depending on where you are, there are probably SEO providers in your local area. That might be a good place to start, especially if you've got a limited budget. It can be easier, especially if you've not dealt with an SEO before, to work with someone you can meet face-to-face to discuss their evaluation and recommendations. And smaller local providers are often less expensive than the “big guns” of the industry, but still provide good quality service.

My Personal Rules of Thumb

Whether you're considering a local SEO provider or you're seeking proposals from the top-tier agencies, I have a few general rules of thumb I recommend using when evaluating SEO proposals.

  • The crème de la crème providers are probably going to be very expensive. They're in demand, they know what their services are worth, and they charge what the market will bear. So beware of anybody who offers really, really bargain-basement el-cheap-o services. In my opinion, anybody who says they can optimize your site for, say, $39.95 a month, isn't going to get you results. As far as I'm concerned, you might as well take that money and set it on fire for all the good their alleged “services” will do you.

  • On the other hand, if you have a smallish site and/or you mainly want to focus on local, niche or otherwise less-competitive terms, you honestly don't have to pay premium prices for a top-tier SEO provider. If that's the case for you, there are thousands of mid-tier providers who can get the job done for you at a much more affordable rate.

  • Submitting to search engines is totally unnecessary. If a provider makes a big deal out of how they're going to submit your site to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of search engines — especially if they seem vague about anything else they might or might not do for you — drop them from your consideration.

  • SEO is not instantaneous. We're talking about a marathon here, not a sprint. Pay per click (PPC) can get near immediate results, but not organic SEO. Which means: this isn't an emergency requiring split-second response times. Take the time to stop, review and think through the SEO proposals you've received. Give them the “sniff test.”

    • Does the SEO's plan for your site stand up to a basic common-sense review when you follow it through step-by-step? Do they even have a plan for your site?
    • Is the SEO making stupid promises (such as: we can get you high rankings without you having to make any changes to your site at all)?
    • Do you fully understand what they're going to do to your site? If not, can they explain it to your satisfaction, in plain English? (If they can't, or if they attempt to confuse the issue with incomprehensible jargon when you ask, find another provider. Period, end of story.)
    • After hearing your SEO's explanation, can you turn around and explain what they're planning to do to your least web-savvy friends and relatives in such a way that even they can grasp what the SEO company is planning to do?
    • What does the SEO consider appropriate metrics of success? Remember, there's a lot more to SEO than just rankings. What reports will they furnish to evaluate your site's progress?
  • A corollary: if a salesperson tells you that you have to decide right then whether to accept their proposal/offer or you'll “miss out,” decline. Frankly, it's up to you whether you decline with respect or if you just hang up in the salesperson's face, but whatever you do, don't sign up for the “services” being offered. Especially if they “cold-called” you, sent you an unsolicited e-mail or spammed your website visitor feedback form. High pressure sales tactics are neither appropriate nor necessary, and that is definitely not the way reputable providers go about getting new clients.

  • And finally, ask to see examples of their work, including a discussion of the results they achieved and what they did to get those results. Even someone relatively new to the business should at least be able to show you some personal sites they've worked on, intelligently review the tactics they used and discuss how they would apply the lessons they learned to your business's site. (And, it goes without saying but I'm going to say it anyway, they should price their services taking into consideration the fact they're just starting out. Taking a small chance on hiring a dedicated, enthusiastic, high-potential newbie — another potential cost-savings tactic for you.)

    Those who have been in business for a while should not only show you examples of their work, but also give you client referrals you can speak to on your own. Not that you want to be a mistrustful cynic, but they should make it possible for you to see the results of their work with your own eyes and hear from satisfied clients with your own ears.

The bottom line: don't check your common sense at the door. A good SEO will be able to offer some examples of work they've done in the past, they'll be able to explain clearly what they plan to do to optimize your site, and they'll help you set reasonable expectations of the results you can achieve, how long it will take to get there, and how much it will cost.

Diane is the website manager for a manufacturing & distribution company in Raleigh, NC. You can read more of her thoughts on site optimization and marketing at BootstrapSEO.