Search engine optimization (SEO) can open many doors for businesses. People are going to Google more frequently than ever to find products and services, and as a result, businesses are becoming increasingly competitive with each other for top search keywords. Finding an expert to help with SEO can bolster a company’s exposure on the web, ultimately taking it to the next level. So, what qualities and experiences should you look for in an SEO partner?
As a source of research and reviews on SEO service providers, we at Clutch are frequently asked this question. To help answer this, we first analyzed Clutch’s user reviews of SEO service providers, which reveal what people say about their selection process.
We then interviewed representatives from successful SEO services companies to gather their opinions on the topic.
Based on these perspectives and on our own research methodology, we created a structured tool that makes the vendor evaluation process more thorough, organized, and objective.
How do businesses typically select SEO companies?
Evaluating 150 of the most recent client reviews of SEO and digital marketing companies on Clutch revealed some interesting trends.
The vast majority of the client reviews published on Clutch are conducted over a 10-15 minute phone call. We ask questions in a case study format to gather the project background, the challenge, the solution, and the results. One of the questions we ask is how and why their business came to hire the SEO firm.
Some people are able to answer this question very thoroughly, including information on how they found the company originally, how their selection process was conducted, and what factors ultimately led them to select the company. Others only provide part of this information, indicating what they remember most about their hiring decision.
We looked at reviews specifically for SEO companies, and then some for general digital marketing companies if SEO was a significant portion of the work performed. We tallied up the responses and bucketed them as best as possible into categories, translating our qualitative information into quantitative data. Below is what we found.
(Note that some people mentioned more than one factor, so this won’t add up to 100%.)
- 45% of choices were based on established relationships: the client either had an existing personal connection with the company or was referred by a friend or colleague. Tweet this
- 43% stated that company attributes factored into their decision, including thought leadership, knowledge, staff experience, reporting and transparency, or customer service.
- 15% wanted to use a local company.
- 14% explicitly mentioned evaluating past performance, such as online reviews, references, case studies, and client lists.
- 13% mentioned culture fit or personality.
- 12% emphasized price or value as a deciding factor.
- 11% cited the importance of company focus, as in the company specializes in the exact type of service that they needed.
- 5% decided to work with the company after receiving a cold-call or email pitch from them.
The data reveals that no set method of choosing an SEO company exists. Many people rely on referrals, and many evaluate the company’s processes and proposal in some way. However, with something as valuable as your online presence at stake, we believe that more work can be done to ensure that businesses are selecting SEO companies that are the best fit for their needs.
Another interesting data point in the reviews is that 19%—nearly one out of five companies—mentioned that they had a negative experience with an SEO firm previously before finding their current service provider. We did not directly ask reviewers a question about this. This information was offered up unprompted, and the actual percentage could potentially be higher.
So, what more can you do in the selection process to ensure the best fit?
How should businesses select SEO companies? - Advice from thought leaders
SEO experts shared their insight on what to look for and steps to take when choosing an SEO agency. Their suggestions focused on four factors: focus areas of expertise, past performance, company attributes, and value.
Because an online marketing company’s focus, or specialization, can be very important to some businesses, especially those with narrower needs, selecting an SEO agency that caters to your specialization is necessary to accomplish your goals. Some of these needs may include website redesign, on-site SEO, local SEO, and mobile optimization.
For example, a company may know that they need to redesign their website and improve their on-site SEO. Since both services are closely tied, the company would look for a vendor with expertise in both areas.
On the other hand, another company may want to work with a full-service firm that specializes in many different areas of digital marketing, to ensure access to a one-stop shop for all their needs.
On a more micro level, within SEO, you may need help in a particular area. For example, small businesses with a strong focus on local customers, such as restaurants or barber shops, may need help with local search, which requires a specific skill set.
“With regards to local SEO, there really are some unique local ranking factors that have to be taken into account versus trying to rank a national, enterprise-level client. Finding a company that’s very well-versed in ranking local clients – in the nuances and separate techniques that need to be implemented specifically for local businesses – is very important.”
— Mike Rosa, Director of Marketing,180fusion
Additionally, with the recent Google algorithm change favoring mobile-friendly sites, some companies may need specific assistance optimizing their website for mobile search.
“If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, you’re not going to rank on mobile search. Your website has to be responsive. Does it fit on an iPhone? Does it fit on an iPad? Does it work on desktop? Google is getting better and better at making sure to rank businesses that have responsive websites. Offsite, there’s mobile optimization that can be done as well, and that’s more along with your business profiles, your calls-to-action, your maps optimization; those things can definitely influence your mobile rankings.”
— Kelly Shelton, VP of Marketing, Boostability
Companies that do not know the specific areas of improvement on which to focus should commit to learning about the intricacies of SEO through both independent self-education and conversations with agencies. Specific information and recommendations, as well as multiple opinions often prove the most helpful.
"Most folks know that they want to change, and they understand and believe the power of SEO and the power of getting to the top of Google. They understand what that can do to their business, which is great. But in terms of the nuts and bolts of SEO, they usually don’t know what they need. That’s why they come to companies like ours—to become more familiar, to be educated, to understand the ins and outs of SEO, to understand the overall strategy of what it means to get to the top of Google and how that works. What’s the right path for them? Is it SEO; is it a mix of PPC, remarketing, display? Is it straight up paid search and no organic? They need help figuring that out, and that’s our job—to help them understand the opportunities.”
— Ian Stevenson, VP of Sales, Straight North
2. Past performance
Careful consideration of SEO companies’ proven performance should factor into the selection process. Proven performance includes examples of past work, case studies with specific metrics, positive online reviews, and endorsements from clients who are willing to speak with you directly. All factors form a detailed picture of an SEO firm that show the type of work it is doing for its clients and whether the clients are happy.
Proven performance was the consideration mentioned most frequently by SEO experts. Here are just a few of their comments on the topic:
“Make sure that you call maybe three to five current clients of a particular SEO vendor to vet them. Ask them how they like working with that particular company. Learn as much as you can about their SEO process, how the company is run, and their reporting. That way, you're getting a third-party view of your SEO vendor before you're jumping into a financial partnership with them. A company that's well-rounded isn't going to have anything to hide, and they'll have a whole bunch of clients that are eager and willing to share their experience working with them.”
— Trevin Shirey, Sr. Business Development Manager, WebpageFX
John Lincoln emphasized the importance of speaking to clients in a similar business sector and preparing specific questions about the SEO process.
“You have to be able to speak with their current clients, and don’t just ask to speak with any current client. Ask to speak with a couple clients that are in either a similar space as you, or they have some similarities to their business, and ask those people specific questions about the process, about the campaign, and how the entire thing has worked. That’s going to allow you to have the right expectations and for you to understand what the process has been like while working with that company.”
— John Lincoln, Co-owner and President, Ignite Visibility
“Does this company walk the walk? Do they have a plethora of clients that would be willing to talk to you about them? Do they have great reviews online? Can you show me case studies that quantify performance? Without question, that definitely weeds out the amateurs from the pros.”
— Ian Stevenson, Straight North
3. Company attributes
Company attributes, specifically reporting and transparency, customer service, thought leadership and knowledge transfer, and position on outsourcing are important to consider when choosing an SEO partner.
Reporting and transparency
One essential characteristic of a great SEO company is transparency in their work. A detailed record of the work being done month after month is imperative to ensuring that you receive value for your money and that ethical SEO strategies are implemented. SEO companies should distribute regular, custom reports that not only detail the results of their enacted strategies but also indicate improvement over time in key areas of performance.
“Reporting is really important. Are they transparent? Are they showing you the work that they’re doing? Are they showing you the results and progress that you’re making? Can you see the traffic that you’re getting and that you’re actually improving in rankings?
A lot of customers want to know, ‘Is this investment working? I’m not seeing results yet. I know it takes time, but how do I know I’m on the right path?’ A good SEO company will give you key benchmarks or checkpoints so that you can see that the work is leading you to the result that you’re looking for.”
— Kelly Shelton, Boostability
“Transparency in work being done is one thing this industry still has an issue with at times, depending on which agency you go to. I believe strongly that transparency and knowing where each dollar you’re spending is going is really important for the client.”
— Doug Reader, Director of SEO, 180fusion
“You want [the SEO company] to send a manual, custom-built report to you, so that you know what they did, why they did it, and what happened.”
— Garrett Mehrguth, President and CEO, Directive Consulting
Quality customer service ensures a vendor will provide top-notch service throughout the entire SEO process. To assess the caliber of customer service, meet with the team members who will support and manage your account beforehand.
“When you call, will somebody answer the phone? Are they available? Are they responsive? Do you have an account manager or somebody that’s responsible for your campaign that you can talk to? Is there a team of people? What kind of level of service are you going to get? A lot of times we find customers coming from other companies that have been very disappointed in the responsiveness and in the explanation or support that they get from their SEO company. Making sure that they are going to have access to someone that will help them is very, very important.”
— Kelly Shelton, Boostability
One objective way to assess customer service is the employee-to-client ratio. How many clients does the company currently serve, and how many employees does the company have who manage or support those clients?
“One of the reasons that we started Ignite Visibility was that in the past, at some of the other agencies I worked at and some of the other agencies we had seen, they would really overload the employees with a lot of clients, which wouldn’t allow them to be successful. What you should be looking for is an SEO strategist who’s only working on a handful of accounts and can do a very, very good job with those accounts. If they have too many clients, there’s no way that they’ll be able to deliver the resources.”
— John Lincoln, Ignite Visibility
“The structure of the company, having an organization that is dedicated to keeping that client happy, is very, very important. …Staff experience is very important, but I want to emphasize that corporate structure is equally important. You need to have somebody dedicated to your satisfaction, who will pay attention to you and who will service your needs.”
— Bruce Clay, Founder and President, Bruce Clay, Inc.
Finally, the quality of customer service you receive may correspond to your overall fit with the company’s other clients. If you are a smaller client than the company would normally take on, you may not receive the top level of attention and service you might get from a boutique company with fewer or smaller clients.
“[I would consider] overall fit, in terms of the company’s culture and communication style, but most importantly, in terms of the types of businesses that they work with. Do you really want to be the smallest fish in the ocean? Let’s say most of their clients invest $20,000 a month and up, and you’re investing $3,000. They took you on as a customer, and it feels good to be in that boat because of the caliber of clients they serve, but you’re going to get their junior level people working on your account. Is that really what you want? I would argue that’s probably not a good fit.”
— Ian Stevenson, Straight North
Thought leadership and knowledge transfer
SEO is a field with a sizeable learning curve that is evolving over time. Thankfully, there is a thriving SEO community that seeks to pass on their knowledge to others and engage in active discourse.
It is important to make sure that your SEO company not only continues to educate themselves but also shares that knowledge with the greater community and/or with their customers, whether through attending conferences, running experiments, writing white papers, or engaging in online forums.
Bruce Clay, Inc. and Ignite Visibility serve as two examples of SEO agencies with a stolid commitment to pushing the learning curve.
“We’ve published three books. We have multiple speakers within the company who speak at conferences. We’re constantly striving to add thought leaders to our process. We have a significant number of people in the company that have been here five or ten years. We provide roughly 25% of everybody’s time not dedicated to projects, and some people much more, when they’re empowered to do research, write papers, blog posts, and articles.”
— Bruce Clay, Bruce Clay, Inc.
“We do two trainings every single week on all the latest things that are happening in the industry. We’re constantly blogging, and we write for all the major publications, such as Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, and Search Engine Journal. We really keep our ear to the ground with all of the latest things that are changing, and teaching these two courses at UCSD, both the search engine optimization course and the analytics course, has really, really helped us.”
— John Lincoln, Ignite Visibility
It is important to know SEO work is done completely in-house or partially outsourced with oversight. Some SEO agencies outsource a portion of their client work to freelancers or other companies. And, while the SEO agency typically monitors the quality of that work in some way, it is important to consider whether you embrace this approach.
Some factors to consider relating to outsourcing include lower price points from outsourced work and the agency’s process for managing their overseas partners.
“Do they do the work outside of the US? I would ask them, ‘Where does the writing take place?’ How much of this are they outsourcing versus doing in-house? If it’s being outsourced, they need to know. If their blog is being written by somebody whose second language is English, that’s something they should at least be aware of. Although there are companies that I’m sure can do that well.”
— Kelly Shelton, Boostability
Budget constraints often influence a business’ choice of service provider. But, as with most purchases, cheaper is not always better when it comes to SEO services. You need to allot a monthly budget that ensures your account receives the attention it deserves.
“Your rate has to be competitive enough and expensive enough for you to actually pay your employees well enough to deliver the value. You can't do SEO for $250 a month. If you look at the hours, you can't do a good SEO project for quicker than 10 to 15 hours. …That means, if they sell to you with no initial project, month-to-month, at $450 you’re having them outsourcing the work somewhere, they're doing half of the work, the research isn’t done right, and it's just not worth your money. It's kind of like painting half your house. That's what you do when you only pay half the market rate for a service – you’re going to get half the work.”
— Garrett Mehrguth, Directive Consulting
Price ranges for SEO work correspond to the increasing complexity of search engine algorithms.
“When we started way back, we could get a site to rank in a week, maybe less. It was really, really simple. The search engines weren’t very exotic in their algorithms, and it was pretty straightforward — once you fixed the page, you could get some rankings. Three years after we started, Google started. Then, things started to get really complex.”
— Bruce Clay, Bruce Clay, Inc.
Clay attributes businesses’ unrealistic budget expectations to a lack of understanding of the heightened complexity of SEO.
“We still find people contacting us that think for $500 a month they can be number one against ten million competitors. That is just not the way it works.”
— Bruce Clay, Bruce Clay, Inc.
To ensure you receive a fair price, request a custom price that takes into consideration your website’s specific needs. The company will need to do some fairly extensive research on your market and competition in order to determine the amount of time that should be dedicated to your account.
“We see oftentimes that businesses will overfund or underfund a campaign, so it’s really important that you look at an SEO company that’s going to do an audit and understand your market, your market size, [and] the competition within the industry and market. When you’re looking at keywords, how competitive are those keywords that you think consumers use to find you? Those are some key things that an SEO company will evaluate to determine what budget is ideal to get you results. Companies that take the time to analyze your industry and what you do and your competition, I think can give you a better quote as to what it will take to get you to rank for certain keywords. If you don’t look at your competition, if you don’t look at the marketplace and understand that, then your whole campaign will fail.”
— Kelly Shelton, Boostability
Above all, an evaluation of price should focus on attaining the best value possible. Seek out firms that engage in sustainable SEO practices – which do take more time and therefore cost more – as opposed to link-farming. You will be better off in the long run.
“Finding somebody who believes in doing SEO the right way, the sustainable way, even if it’s sometimes the slightly slower way, is your safe bet in the long term. That’s the way to make sure that the rug isn’t pulled out from under you and you’re left with a mess for another SEO company to come in, where you’ll have to spend twice the money and twice the time to clean up the mistakes of the first.”
— Mike Rosa, 180fusion
“While price is important, I would say proven performance, transparency, focus, company attributes, and proactiveness are more important from my point of view. Price would definitely be towards the bottom of that list.”
— Doug Reader, 180fusion
Clutch's SEO Company Evaluation Tool
Based on what we learned from our reviews data and in our interviews with SEO firms, we created a tool to serve as a framework for selecting an SEO company. We also drew upon our own research methodology at Clutch, which we have used to evaluate over 1000 digital marketing, design, and development services firms.
We created the tool in an easy-to-use, downloadable Excel format. It allows you to compare multiple firms, side-by-side based on many important characteristics and provides a more objective, quantitative measurement. It also complements the learning process about what is involved in SEO and what traits or experiences are important for SEO companies to have.
The tool has some suggested settings but is flexible – you can customize the weighting of each component according to your own priorities.
The spreadsheet is broken up into three main areas to consider when hiring an SEO company:
- The firm has a focus on the services that you need
- The firm has a proven ability to deliver quality results
- The firm provides great value for the price
Within each of these three areas, there are several components to consider. You can adjust the weighting of each component based on your needs and opinions.
Choosing an SEO company takes time
Evaluating multiple SEO companies on all of these aspects can be a lengthy process. It will take a while to learn more about what is involved in SEO and to define your priorities. It will require conversations with service providers, evaluations of their past work, calls with their past clients, online research, and more.
But, with the right partner, SEO can be a game-changer that takes your business to new heights. Spend the time upfront to seek out someone you trust, and you will be on track for long-term success.