How to hire an SEO company, 2012 edition

Ian Lurie
Bad SEOs make Ian go INSANE

I’ve written other posts about hiring SEO firms: How to hire good ones. How to hire bad ones. But an update’s in order:

Questionnaire for an SEO agency

Start each agency you interview with 10 points. Add or subtract as indicated.

  1. Ask yourself: How did this firm get in touch with you?
    1. They cold-called or e-mailed you.
      No. -1
    2. They answered your ad.
      Sorry, but good SEOs don’t spend their days scouring the internet want ads. Ads are good for comic relief, not smart hiring. -5
    3. You found them.
      Good. That’s a good start. +1
  2. Can you give me some references?
    1. No.
      Well, duh. Don’t hire them. -1
    2. Yes, but can we wait until we’re closer to signing a deal?
      Excellent! They’re nice to their clients and don’t want to bug them. +1
    3. Sure (immediately sends you 20 references, all suspiciously located on the same block of downtown Somewhereville).
      Research carefully. These may be friends, not clients. +0
  3. What kind of work will you do on my site?
    1. None! We don’t have to touch your site.
      Show them the door. They’re clueless. -1
    2. We’ll need to check your site for technical issues, and we’ll have recommendations around title tags and content.
      Not bad! +0
    3. We’ll need to check your site for technical issues, make recommendations around existing content, and start a content strategy.
      Kiss them. Try not to weep for joy. And for God’s sake, hire them. +1
  4. What kind of reporting do you provide?
    1. Rankings.
      Ask them how life’s going in 1999. And don’t hire them. -999
    2. Site traffic from organic search, conversions from organic search and some health metrics. And yes, we track rankings as a diagnostic.
      Good. +1
    3. Everything from answer b, plus time on site, visit quality, and stuff like keyword diversity.
      Awesome. +2
  5. Do you guarantee results?
    1. Yes! We’ll get you number one ranking on the Googles!
      Don’t even show them the door. They can undoubtedly teleport back to their office. They’re full of crap. -99999
    2. No. I’d love to, but no one can do that, because the algorithms change all the time.
      Good. They’re honest, or smart enough to pretend they’re honest. Either way, +1
    3. No. Answer b, plus it’s not totally up to us. We’re your partner in this, but we need your help.
      They rock. +2
  6. Can I pay you by the link?
    1. Sure! $10/link.
      Does it seem OK to you that they could get 900 godawful, penalty-generating links and charge you for them? Fail. -5
    2. You can, but I’ll charge you based on link quality as determined by…
      Ehhhh, OK. At least they’re trying. Still seems awfully hard to measure, since organically-acquired links may not appear for weeks or months. Which either means they have a link network (bad), or they’re really naive. +0
    3. Sorry, no, and here’s why (reasonable explanation).
      Solid. +1
  7. Will you optimize my meta tags?
    1. Yes, keyword and description meta tags.
      GONG. The keywords meta tag is worthless. The description tag doesn’t impact rankings, although it’s worth optimizing for clickthru. Still, they lose a point. -1
    2. Nope, that’s silly.
      A little simplistic, but at least they read occasionally. +0
    3. We’ll remove the keywords tag, and refine the description tag for better clickthru.
      Sweet. +1
  8. Will you put keywords in my URLs?
    1. Definitely! Keyword-rich URLs are the ticket to a high ranking!
      Mor. Ons. -1
    2. We can. It can help with clickthru. But barring an exact-match domain, it may not help much with rankings.
      Give them a hug and tell them it’s from Ian. +1
  9. Do you need my server log files?
    1. Uh, what’s that?
      Never hire a doctor that can’t take your temperature. Don’t hire an SEO who can’t analyze a log file. -5
    2. I may need it if there are problems.
      A good answer. +1
    3. Yes, we want to check for crawl issues right away.
      Sniff. My hero. +2
  10. Can I see a sample recommendations report you give to clients?
    1. I’m sorry, it’s part of our sekrit process.
      OK. Enjoy that. Without me. -1
    2. Yes (and they give you something totally general, or totally incomprehensible.
      If they can’t explain it, they can’t do it. -1
    3. Yes (and they give you something that makes sense).
      Niiice. Hire them. +2
  11. How do you build links?
    1. We use our Link Optimizer Replication Energization System to get you thousands of links every month!
      Buh-bye now! -10
    2. We only do 100% pure, white-hat, content-based link acquisition.
      Perfectly good. +1
    3. We do a mix of stuff: Content marketing, social media curation, legitimate directory submission and some nice, useful commenting.
      They get an A! +2
  12. Can you contact someone at Google for me?
    1. Sure! We have a former Google employee working with us, actually.
      Congrats, you hired Google’s ex-chef. Which has nothing to do with SEO. -10
    2. We can try through a re-inclusion request. Or I can whine until Matt Cutts answers.
      Not a good idea, but honest. +0
    3. That’s really only a last resort if you’re in deep poo poo.
      I like them. +1


21+: Nice! They’re a keeper.
15-20: Solid. Go for it unless you have a 21+.
10-14: OK, but keep an eye on them.
0-10: Any port in a storm…?

It’s your call

This is, of course, a partial list. And it’s (partly) tongue-in-cheek. Bottom line: You have to use common sense. Behind every SEO disaster is a firm or consultant that should have screamed ‘fraud’ to any non-SEO type. Use your brain: SEO is marketing, which means it takes time, and it’s hard work. Hire accordingly.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. EXCELLENT article! I am putting this on my required reading list for anyone who wants to learn about SEO.
    And it made me laugh. +99999 🙂

  2. Excellent post, Ian. As a content man I loved the questionnaire format as a way to illustrate some subtle yet complex differences between good and great agencies.
    There seems to be quite a few articles coming out at the moment on how to spot SEO cowboys. I can’t help feeling that the Penguin update is to thank for this. I see that you mentioned changing search algorithms in 5b, but will you be mentioning any specific updates in your 2013 quiz?

  3. This is fantastic and everyone who has every hired, is planning on hiring or has even the tiniest thought about hiring an SEO company has to read this. Clever and enjoyable as it was to read, the information was spot on. If we keep hiring SEO’s using pre-2012 tactics we will continue to see our sites get search engine slapped with future animal updates. Some of these genuinely made me laugh out loud because they are so true. A lot of SEO companies have far better salesman than they do SEO’s. This is the perfect system for weeding through the… bologna. Thanks!

  4. Dan,
    Right at the top Ian says to start the SEO firm out with 10 points. So the highest is actually 27.
    These are some really great indicators for identifying low quality SEO agencies. Not all SEO is created equal. Not even close, really.

  5. Good fun to read that one Ian.
    But you forgot to mention you need to like the people. Nothing worse than working with an agency full of douche bags.
    And I know you always write with a pinch of salt/irony but if you want to get pedantic I’ve worked on a few CMSs that use the meta keywords for internal search functionality so probably wouldn’t +1 the “We’ll remove the keywords tag” statement.

  6. I don’t get the echoing throughout the SEO world about how rankings are not a factor you want to hear from an seo company.
    Ranking high for the desired keywords is pretty much the point of Search Engine Optimization. If I have a client who owns a car wash in suburbX, and “car wash suburbX” is the term with the highest amount of monthly local searches for that area, and will most likely drive the highest amount of qualified leads to whatever site is ranking for that term, why talk down “rankings”?
    Perhaps I’m missing an obvious insight, or perhaps other people’s insight’s aren’t as obvious as mine, who knows 🙂

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