Check out our SEO Starter Guide
If you’re in a hurry, here’s the one-page version.
How to hire an SEO
What is an SEO?
SEO is an acronym for “search engine optimization” or “search engine optimizer.” Deciding to hire an SEO is a big decision that can potentially improve your site and save time, but you can also risk damage to your site and reputation. Make sure to research the potential advantages as well as the damage that an irresponsible SEO can do to your site. Many SEOs and other agencies and consultants provide useful services for website owners, including:
- Review of your site content or structure
- Content development
- Management of online business development campaigns
- Keyword research
- SEO training
- Expertise in specific markets and geographies.
Advertising with Google won’t have any effect on your site’s presence in our search results. Google never accepts money to include or rank sites in our search results, and it costs nothing to appear in our organic search results. Free resources such as Search Console, the official Webmaster Central blog, and our discussion forum can provide you with a great deal of information about how to optimize your site for organic search.
If you run a small local business, you can probably do much of the work yourself. Here are some good resources:
- Check out our 30-minute video series on building an online presence for your business.
- Google Webmaster Guidelines
- Google 101: How Google crawls, indexes and serves the web.
- The SEO starter guide describes much of what your SEO will do for you. Although you don’t need to know this guide well yourself if you’re hiring a professional to do the work for you, it is useful to be familiar with these techniques, so that you can be aware if an SEO wants to use a technique that is not recommended or, worse, strongly discouraged.
Remember that it will take time for you to see results: typically from four months to a year from the time you begin making changes until you start to see the benefits.
If you think that you still need extra help from a professional, continue reading about how to choose an SEO.
Choosing an SEO
If you’re thinking about hiring an SEO, the earlier the better. A great time to hire is when you’re considering a site redesign, or planning to launch a new site. That way, you and your SEO can ensure that your site is designed to be search engine-friendly from the bottom up. However, a good SEO can also help improve an existing site.
- Be committed to implementing the recommended changes. Making the changes recommended by an SEO takes time and effort; if you aren’t going to take the time to make these changes, it’s not worthwhile hiring a professional.
- Interview your potential SEO. Some useful questions to ask an SEO include:
- Can you show me examples of your previous work and share some success stories?
- Do you follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines?
- Do you offer any online marketing services or advice to complement your organic search business?
- What kind of results do you expect to see, and in what timeframe? How do you measure your success?
- What’s your experience in my industry?
- What’s your experience in my country/city?
- What’s your experience developing international sites?
- What are your most important SEO techniques?
- How long have you been in business?
- How can I expect to communicate with you? Will you share with me all the changes you make to my site, and provide detailed information about your recommendations and the reasoning behind them?
- See if the SEO is interested in you and your business. If they’re not interested, find someone who is. Your SEO should ask questions such as:
- What makes your business or service unique and valuable to customers?
- Who are your customers?
- How does your business make money, and how can search results help?
- What other advertising channels are you using?
- Who are your competitors?
- Check your SEO’s business references. Ask past clients if they felt that this SEO provided useful service, was easy to work with, and produced positive results.
- Ask for a technical and search audit for your site to learn what they think needs to be done, why, and what the expected outcome should be. You’ll probably have to pay for this. You will probably have to give them read-only access to your site on Search Console. (At this stage, don’t grant them write access.) Your prospective SEO should be able to give you realistic estimates of improvement, and an estimate of the work involved. If they guarantee you that their changes will give you first place in search results, find someone else.
- Decide if you want to hire.
While SEOs can provide clients with valuable services, some unethical SEOs have given the industry a black eye by using overly aggressive marketing efforts and attempting to manipulate search engine results in unfair ways. Practices that violate our guidelines may result in a negative adjustment of your site’s presence in Google, or even the removal of your site from our index.
When your SEO comes up with a set of recommendations for your site, ask her to corroborate these recommendations with a trusted source, such as a Search Console help page, Webmasters blog entry, or Google-sanctioned response in the webmasters’ forum.
Here are some things to consider:
- One common scam is the creation of “shadow” domains that funnel users to a site by using deceptive redirects. These shadow domains often will be owned by the SEO who claims to be working on a client’s behalf. However, if the relationship sours, the SEO may point the domain to a different site, or even to a competitor’s domain. If that happens, the client has paid to develop a competing site owned entirely by the SEO.
- Another illicit practice is to place “doorway” pages loaded with keywords on the client’s site somewhere. The SEO promises this will make the page more relevant for more queries. This is inherently false since individual pages are rarely relevant for a wide range of keywords. More insidious, however, is that these doorway pages often contain hidden links to the SEO’s other clients as well. Such doorway pages drain away the link popularity of a site and route it to the SEO and its other clients, which may include sites with unsavory or illegal content.
- Finally, avoid getting involved in link schemes, such as buying links from other sites to increase your ranking. This is against Google’s quality guidelines and can result in a manual action against some or all of your site, which will negatively affect your site ranking.
If you feel that you were deceived by an SEO in some way, you may want to report it.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) handles complaints about deceptive or unfair business practices. To file a complaint, visit: http://www.ftc.gov/ and click on “File a Complaint Online,” call 1-877-FTC-HELP, or write to:
Federal Trade Commission
Washington, D.C. 20580
If your complaint is against a company in a country other than the United States, please file it at http://www.econsumer.gov/.
- Be wary of SEO firms and web consultants or agencies that email you out of the blue.
Amazingly, we get these spam emails too:
I visited your website and noticed that you are not listed in most of the major search engines and directories…”
Reserve the same skepticism for unsolicited email about search engines as you do for “burn fat at night” diet pills or requests to help transfer funds from deposed dictators.
- No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.
Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a “special relationship” with Google, or advertise a “priority submit” to Google. There is no priority submit for Google. In fact, the only way to submit a site to Google directly is through our Add URL page or by submitting a Sitemap and you can do this yourself at no cost whatsoever.
- Be careful if a company is secretive or won’t clearly explain what they intend to do.
Ask for explanations if something is unclear. If an SEO creates deceptive or misleading content on your behalf, such as doorway pages or “throwaway” domains, your site could be removed entirely from Google’s index. Ultimately, you are responsible for the actions of any companies you hire, so it’s best to be sure you know exactly how they intend to “help” you. If an SEO has FTP access to your server, they should be willing to explain all the changes they are making to your site.
- You should never have to link to an SEO.
Avoid SEOs that talk about the power of “free-for-all” links, link popularity schemes, or submitting your site to thousands of search engines. These are typically useless exercises that don’t affect your ranking in the results of the major search engines — at least, not in a way you would likely consider to be positive.
- Choose wisely.
While you consider whether to go with an SEO, you may want to do some research on the industry. Google is one way to do that, of course. While Google doesn’t comment on specific companies, we’ve encountered firms calling themselves SEOs who follow practices that are clearly beyond the pale of accepted business behavior. Be careful.
- Be sure to understand where the money goes.
While Google never sells better ranking in our search results, several other search engines combine pay-per-click or pay-for-inclusion results with their regular web search results. Some SEOs will promise to rank you highly in search engines, but place you in the advertising section rather than in the search results. A few SEOs will even change their bid prices in real time to create the illusion that they “control” other search engines and can place themselves in the slot of their choice. This scam doesn’t work with Google because our advertising is clearly labeled and separated from our search results, but be sure to ask any SEO you’re considering which fees go toward permanent inclusion and which apply toward temporary advertising.
- What are some other things to look out for?
There are a few warning signs that you may be dealing with a rogue SEO. It’s far from a comprehensive list, so if you have any doubts, you should trust your instincts. By all means, feel free to walk away if the SEO:
- Owns shadow domains
- Puts links to their other clients on doorway pages
- Offers to sell keywords in the address bar
- Doesn’t distinguish between actual search results and ads that appear on search results pages
- Guarantees ranking, but only on obscure, long keyword phrases you would get anyway
- Operates with multiple aliases or falsified WHOIS info
- Gets traffic from “fake” search engines, spyware, or scumware
- Has had domains removed from Google’s index or is not itself listed in Google
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