How to hire an SEO expert or SEO agency

How To Hire an SEO Expert or Agency? Key Questions to Ask

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One of the toughest tasks for decision-makers is to ensure, they work with a qualified team to drive results. It is no different when it comes to Search Engine Optimization Professional (aka SEO Professional).

The business owners and decision-makers who have already burned their fingers working with SEOs might not have the proven track record, or the expertise needed, or the experience needed to solve a specific problem.

Having an SEO expert who specializes in a niche of SEO where you need help can help you increase Search Engine Rankings, drive qualitative organic traffic and conversions, in form of Sales, Qualified Leads, or Demos/Trials.

The question is, How do you make sure you hire an SEO expert or SEO Specialist who can truly help you in your objective?

This guide is an attempt to answer this question. I hope, it will help you make a better decision.

Validate if SEO is the right strategy to achieve your objective?

Even if you have already made a decision to hire an SEO, I would propose to reconsider the same. It is possible that there might be a lot of search demand for your products/services, and potential users might be searching on Google/Bing. You might be thinking of improving Search Rankings might be helpful but it might not be the best bet always.

Because, when you consider SEO as a strategy, The SEO Consulting Fees is only a part of the investment you need to make to implement the full SEO Strategy. There are other factors involved such as copywriting/content creation and development work needed to implement the SEO recommendations given by an SEO expert.

When you consider Organic Search as a channel, you need to evaluate if it truly makes sense to invest in SEO. At times, I have seen Search Ads( such as Google Ads) as a better investment to fulfill the business objective.

So if your objective is to get as many customers as early as possible, then Search Ads might be a better strategy, and your Customer Acquisition Cost (aka CAC) might be a way lower.

I highly recommend validating the investment in the SEO channel to ensure you are making the right investment. As a part of my offering, I help decision-makers like if

  • You want to explore and evaluate if organic traffic can be a game-changer for your brand.
  • You want to validate and formulate a business case so you can ask for buy-in for organic search.

If you are wondering what kind of questions you should be asking SEOs so they can help you evaluate, then don’t worry, I have formulated a list of questions you should ask SEOs. This will help you understand if they are being truthful or at least you will be able to get multiple perspectives if SEO is the right strategy.

Assess what kind of SEO expertise is needed for business?

Once you are sure that making an investment in Organic Search is an efficient business strategy, then you should dive deeper into what kind of SEO expert you would most likely need. 

Let me explain, 

There are various facets of SEO. The SEO practice is getting broader every year, and the best consultants are specializing in the niches. The kind of specialization you would need differs based on the type of business you are in.

Firstly, I am going to touch upon various facets of SEO practice. And then I am going to attempt a few broad cohorts of businesses, and how SEO practice differs for each of them.

What are the types of SEO Expertise that can be hired?

  • Google My Business Management & Optimization
  • Keyword Research & Keyword Mapping
  • Content Production Briefs & Workflow
  • Technical SEO
  • On-Page SEO
  • Off-Page SEO (aka Link Building)
    • Local Citations Building & Data Aggregator Submissions
    • White Hat Qualitative Link Building
  • SEO for Website Redesign or Migration
  • SEO Reporting

The magnitude of work and the skill level needed for each of the SEO processes for different types of businesses are completely different.

To understand this, we need to dive deeper into the different types of businesses, and how SEO plays out for all of them.

What type of business are you?

City Specific Small Business

E-commerce Business

  • Local E-commerce business
  • National E-commerce Business (Less than ~200-500 products)
  • National E-commerce Business (More than ~1000 products)
  • International E-commerce Business

Marketplace Website

Aggregator Website

SaaS Businesses

News Website

Affiliate Websites

Enterprise Businesses

  • B2B Businesses with National or International Focus
  • Multi-location Businesses

Why is it important to find an SEO Expert with specific skills and experience?

Depending on your type of business, the website will be different. And hence the website is where most of the implementation of SEO happens, the expertise needed can differ greatly. 

For example, the SEO expert needed for an E-commerce company with an international market focus, such as Wayfair, needs a strong Technical SEO and project management skillset to achieve organic traffic growth. While a City Specific Small Business, such as Dentist, needs a completely different skill, such as Google My Business Optimization, Basic On-Page SEO, and Local Citations Building to build local relevance.  Both are completely different processes. The latter is a more commoditized offering and it could be available at lower rates.

Another example, if you are a SaaS or Technology startup then Technical SEO might not help you very much since your website might be hardly 50 pages. At this time you need someone who has expertise in building search insights-driven landing pages, top-funnel educational content to capture your potential customers in their awareness phase. To achieve this, you need someone who has experience in doing keyword research & keyword mapping for various businesses.

Additionally, if an SEO expert has a proven process to build content briefs, working with copywriters to educate them on SEO elements and optimizing the content based on insights from various Content Optimization tools such as SurferSEO, MarketMuse, Frase.io, etc. If your consultant has a lot of experience working with local businesses like Dentists, Lawyers, etc, then they might not be able to as much value as you would anticipate.

The point I’m trying to make here is, if the advice you are getting is not coming from an SEO practitioner who has a relevant skill set as well as experience, then you might not achieve the desired result.

You might wonder, how do you evaluate or decide if someone has the relevant experience you are looking for? Well, I have tried to formulate some questions you may ask them.

Should you hire an SEO Agency or SEO Consultant?

Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Here is how I look at it.

SEO Consultants are work on their own, their forte is usually SEO strategy, and recommending SEO changes based on their SEO Audits or research. At times, SEO consultants might be working with external copywriters and they might be able to provide content/copywriting as well. 

As a rule of thumb, If you have an in-house team of developers, designers, and copywriters then it’s better to hire an SEO consultant who can collaborate with them to amplify their efforts. Because most experts who are deep in their career may be freelancing and working in specific niches.

You might have a better chance of finding someone skilled in being a consultant. This is most useful in the case of mid to large businesses such as SaaS companies, E-commerce companies, Marketplaces, or Enterprise businesses. 

SEO Agencies could be extremely helpful when you need an SEO expert to identify SEO issues, and implementing those issues as well. Because they often have Account Managers, SEO Strategists, Copywriters, Designers, and Developers. They will be able to help you with a range of SEO elements such as Writing titles & Descriptions, Optimising existing content, building a Content Strategy, Fixing Technical/On-page SEO issues, doing Keyword Research, Writing Content for Blogposts, etc.

In my limited experience, I realized that SEO agencies might not be a great fit when you have a full in-house team, and you need someone to collaborate with different teams to get things done. It’s best done by an SEO consultant. But this is just my opinion, and I reserve the right to be wrong.

In some cases, when SEO consultants are working on Small Business SEO they might be implementing all the SEO recommendations themselves. You better ask what’s their niche expertise, and you might be able to understand better.

In my case, my expertise is Technical SEO, On-Page SEO, large-scale SEO Project Management, and Keyword Research SEO-driven Content Production. Also, I exclude City Specific Small businesses and Local Ecommerce Businesses from my scope of work.

I focus on working with mid-large E-commerce companies, Marketplaces, Aggregators, News Websites, Affiliate Sites, and Enterprise Businesses. I work with the client’s in-house team to help them implement my recommendations, produce content, and review SEO strategy on a bi-weekly or monthly basis. So by the nature of this work, I don’t implement any of these things myself. 

I highly recommend assessing your needs if, 

  • You want to assess and identify the most impactful challenges to solve to increase your organic traffic.
  • You want to plan and strategize a comprehensive tactical roadmap to accelerate organic traffic growth.

How much does it ACTUALLY cost to hire an SEO expert?

By now, you understand that there is a lot of different expertise in SEO so there is no one answer or one range. But I would draw some bullet points from a survey done by Ahrefs involving 357 respondents.

    • Most SEOs charge a monthly retainer for some or all of their services.
    • In the US, $2,501-$5,000/month was the most popular pricing tier.
    • For hourly pricing, $100-$150 per hour is the most popular pricing tier.
    • SEO agencies charge more than freelancers and consultants.
    • More experienced SEOs charge significantly more than less experienced SEOs.
    • SEOs that only serve their local market charge significantly less than those serving the worldwide market.

How to find SEO experts who best fit your needs?

Now you might be clear about what kind of SEO expertise is needed to achieve your objective and probably the SEO fees you are looking at. Now it’s time to find good fits for your project. In my opinion, you might want to look for the following.

Core Skills: Whether an expert has specific SEO core skills you are looking for. Because without this, you will not be able to get anything material done.

To evaluate core skills, you will have to rely on the nature of work they have done, the educational article they might be sharing, or overall industry presence on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. Often, SEO consultants who are practicing in specific niches share a lot of insights that are demonstrative of their core skills. 

Soft Skills: If an expert has core skills, but if he/she doesn’t have soft skills to collaborate with internal teams then it might not be effective. This might not be a big issue if the SEO project includes implementation, and it’s handled by an expert himself/herself. But in projects where SEO consultants work with in-house teams, it’s very much crucial.

The soft skills are best evaluated when you engage them first on email, and then when you get on a call when them for an interview. If the SEO project involves considerable investment then you might want them to be interviewed by your team with whom they will be working closely.

Experience: Having a core skill is a must but practicing with those skills in the field for years just increases the chances of success, because an SEO Consultant must have made almost all the mistakes early in their career, and what you will get is refined knowledge of years of practice.

Proven Results: Asking for specific project-based case studies or track record is crucial when you make your decision. When you find an SEO expert who has core skills, soft skills, years of experience, and proven results to demonstrate, then there are virtually no chances of failure. 

The best way to go about this is to ask them specific questions about years of experience and case studies or client references for proven results.

Steps to hire the best SEO expert for your business.

  1. Make a list of relevant & specific questions
  2. Send the same e-mail and request an email reply
  3. Assess their answer to the shortlist for interviews
  4. Set up an Interview to finalize
  5. Review Budget with Expertise, Track Record, and Niche Experience
  6. Review References, if needed.
  7. Finalize Reasonable Deliverables, KPIs & Reporting Cadence
  8. Sign a Written Contract

Questions you should ask when hiring an SEO expert

Since I am more focused on working with mid-large E-commerce companies, Marketplaces, Aggregators, News Websites, Affiliate Sites, and Enterprise Businesses – my questions might be more valuable if you are one of them.

Skills & Reliability

  • Do you have past experience in working with a specific type of website (not a specific industry)?

Please don’t confuse a specific industry with a specific type of website. If an SEO consultant has been able to achieve great results for one e-commerce website, then he will most likely be able to achieve similar success in another e-commerce website even though it’s in a different industry.

  • Would you mind sharing a couple of case studies with results?
  • Would you mind sharing specific SEO issues did you identify and help them implement?
  • What was the biggest challenge you faced while implementing these recommendations?
  • How did you overcome that challenge?
  • Could you share a couple of clients you have worked with within the past as a reference?
  • How do you be on top of recent SEO trends?

Scope of Work & Working Style

  • Does your scope include implementation or only recommendations? How deep are you involved with the in-house team to implement SEO recommendations?
  • What tools do you use for Technical SEO, Keyword Research, Content Strategy, Content Optimization, Link Building and Project Management?
  • Who will we be working with? Who will be getting on a regular call or reporting calls?
  • Who will be doing actual work? Do you have a team to work with?
  • How sooner should we expect a reply? What’s mode of communication would you prefer?

Work Updates & Reporting

  • What is the frequency and type of communication about the work being done?
  • How often the reports will be sent, what will they include?
  • How do you measure success for a project like ours?
  • How much weightage business goals have in your SEO strategy?
  • How do you evaluate the Return on Investment of an SEO strategy?

SEO Fees & Conditions

  • How do you charge? Do you have a minimum contract? Please share your SEO fee/rate structure in as much detail as you can.
  • What are your payment terms? What is the mode of payment?

What are some Red Flags when hiring an SEO expert?

  • Aggressive promises like guaranteed or fast results.
  • Too much focus on Tactics and less focus on Overall strategy
  • Doesn’t consider overall implementation cost vs benefits while making suggestions
  • Not enough case studies or proven track record
  • Vague about their SEO processes
  • Quote significantly lower prices.
  • Quote substantially high prices.
  • Use link-building strategies that aren’t legitimate.

Google's Advice on Hiring an SEO Specialist

If you don’t want to take my words, then here is a guide from Google itself on how to hire an SEO specialist. This video will help you add more points to your evaluation checklist.

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