10 questions to evaluate an SEO

Ian Lurie

One tradition in marketing: If something works, you beat it to death, and then some more, until it’s a broad, flat spot on the ground.

Face it: If there’s one industry that’s even rifer with con artists than social media, it’s SEO. One way to deal with it is to just say “Screw SEO, it’s all a sham anyway. After all, Scoble says it doesn’t matter.” If you want to do that, fine with me – one less competitor.
Another way to deal with it is to ask questions that’ll make an SEO faker squirm like an inchworm in a frying pan. These 10 questions come with my personal guarantee – they’ll filter out all but the best con artists, and they’ll filter out all the folks who think they know SEO because they read a book about it in 2002.

  1. What metrics do you use to measure success? If they say “PageRank”, they’re clueless. If they say “keyword rankings”, and they’re cheap, go for it. If they say “organic search traffic and conversions”, go on to question 2. They’re probably a keeper.
  2. What will you do to optimize my site? If the answer is “We have a secret technique that’s guaranteed to work!”, they’re up to no good. If the answer is “Optimize your meta tags”, they have no clue. If the answer is “It’s really complicated…” and then a detailed description filled with terms like “semantic” and “page clusters”, you’re probably in good shape. Go on to question 3.
  3. How do you stay current regarding SEO? “I talk to Google” means they’re good for comic relief but little else. “I read a lot of blogs, including…” is satisfactory. “I have a set of test sites” would make me weep with joy.
  4. Do you guarantee results? “Yes” = liar, liar, PANTS ON FIRE. Show them the door. “No, it’s just not possible” = an honest person. Keep going.
  5. How do you choose keywords? “Google Adwords Keywords Tool” may seem OK but it’s not. “We use a bunch of different tools”, even if they include the Google Adwords Keywords Tool (which I love, by the way) is just fine. The important part is that they use more than one source.
  6. How fast will I get results? “Oh, really fast” means they’re a recent graduate of the Donald Rumsfeld Academy of Campaign Planning: You may see early success, but prepare for quagmire city. “It varies, but figure 1-6 months depending on the industry” is satisfactory. “I’ll have to look at your site and competitors” is an excellent answer. Hug them for me.
  7. How do you build links? “I submit you to 40,000 search engines and directories” = send them back to 1999 to look for their wallet. Almost anything else is probably OK, as long as it doesn’t include sending spam e-mails to 5,000 people looking for links. They likely won’t admit to anything worse anyway.
  8. Have you ever done SEO for a business just like mine? If they answer “Sorry but that’s a hopelessly irritating question. I’ve never done SEO for an online hedgehog seller, no,” give them points for brains. If they answer “Why YES, just last week!” question their sanity. Even better – just don’t ask this question at all. Thanks!
  9. Do you have partnerships with major search engines? If they answer “Yes”, make sure they’re not calling you from prison: They’re a total fraud. Any credible SEO will make a sound like they just choked on a lemon and explain that no one has a partnership with a major search engine.
  10. How often will you report to me regarding results? What will I get in those reports? If they say something like “We’ll send you a list of rankings once a month,” save your $99.95 a month and buy yourself basic cable, instead. You’ll learn more. You want to hear something like “We’ll send you organic traffic data and explain the results in a weekly or monthly call”.
  11. Bonus: How will you work with me regarding site changes? If you hire the guy who says “We don’t make any site changes,” buy a very large bottle of Tums. Instead, look for someone who says something like “Depends – do you have your own development team, or would you rather we make the changes? Either way, we’ll review them with you, first.”

There you have it. To any seasoned, competent SEO these questions are ridiculous. I’m sure they’re laughing at me right now – hear that? But they’ll trip up most of the ignorant folks who refuse to learn, as well as the con artists and the SEO chop shops.
I make fun, but the truth is, hiring a competent SEO is your responsibility. Knowing how to sniff out the frauds is, too. You own your business or run your marketing department. To learn how to tell smarts from schmalz. These questions are a good start.


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  1. Thanks for this post, Ian.
    I am amazed at how many people claim to specialize in this.
    Would love to hear your thoughts on how to suss out a “social media expert,” too.

  2. Right on! I wish I had this list 9 months ago when we started out. It would have saved me at least 3 false starts. I think a good question is “can you show me a site that you have optimized?” then try out a bunch of key phrases (not supplied by them)to see how it ranks.

  3. Ian,
    You mentioned this in a different post but I think it bears repeating here that you can forget about SEOs who cold call you. I wasted a lot of time before interviewing each SEO that called our office. In the end, they all try to sell you some package deal except that in this case one size doesn’t fit all.

  4. If you pop in keywords like SEO and then your capital city on google, you’re likely to find the one who has optimised his own site the right way. That would be a good example of work. Just ask them, how they’ve done and how do they keep it on the top results.

  5. Ian,
    I found your blog a couple months ago and I have to be careful when I read it. I usually end up appreciating the insight, but end up also laughing out loud at your sense of humor. I have to admit that this post finally motivated me to comment. I have spent over 25 years in sales & marketing management and if I had a dime for every SEO guy that solicited me with some of the ‘pitches’ you mention I’d be retired by now. I wish I had your list about 10 years ago, it would have saved me some time.
    I’m currently starting up a company that will focus on helping SMBs with lead generation efforts. I’d like to be able to share your list, with attribution of course, if that’s alright with you. I certainly don’t want you sending anyone out to break my legs over alleged plagiarism – I have been paying attention to your posts. 🙂
    Keep up the great work.
    Phil Lauterjung

  6. Great tips (as usual) we’ve recently hired an external company to manage one of our domains (because i am only 1 man and theres only so much i can do) and these were exactly the types of questions i asked.em to want to work around our businesses marketing

  7. As the preeminent online hedgehog seller SEO, I take exception to this list. You have no idea what it’s like to compete in that space. It’s cutthroat I tell ya.

  8. I particularly loved number 8:
    “Have you ever done SEO for a business just like mine? If they answer “Sorry but that’s a hopelessly irritating question. I’ve never done SEO for an online hedgehog seller, no,” give them points for brains. If they answer “Why YES, just last week!” question their sanity. Even better – just don’t ask this question at all. Thanks!”
    The amount of people who insist on knowing if you have already had success with a similar website (ie their competitor?) is crazy to me. I always avoid taking on work for direct competitors of currently clients as otherwise you are only trying to beat your own results.
    I think the perfect answer is “I have had a lot of success with sites in all sorts of industries, but not yours specifically – if I had we wouldn’t be talking, as I don’t do work for direct competitors of existing clients so that I can focus only on outranking your competitors, not outranking my own work.”

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