How to Hire the Right SEO Agency

Kyle Freeman, SEO Team Lead

For many organizations, the work performed on their digital marketing campaigns can make the difference between success or failure for the entire business. Search engine optimization is a critical element of a well-rounded digital marketing strategy, as millions of people use search engines every day to find information, products, or answers to their questions. There are more than 60,000 searches each second on Google, and most users search three to four times a day.

SEO has come a long way in recent years and is continuing to grow at an increasingly rapid rate. Keeping up with these changes, the competitive landscape, and the impact of new algorithm updates and technology provides both a challenge and an opportunity for organizations, and requires dedicated SEO support.

Why Hire an SEO Agency

Once your organization has welcomed the need for SEO (or additional SEO support), you must decide whether you want to hire someone in-house or work with an SEO agency.

There is a lot of value and advantages of hiring an in-house SEO or having an SEO team. However, some organizations do not have the support structurally or financially to do this work in-house. In these instances, hiring an agency can be a cost-effect solution for a company’s SEO needs.

Meanwhile, organizations that may already have an in-house SEO team face different challenges that can be solved by hiring an SEO agency. They may be managing a large or complex website, be low on bandwidth, or the team may be missing a key piece of expertise.

While it may seem like hiring an in-house SEO is the ideal solution, finding someone with the experience level needed can be challenging. Plus, hiring an agency can also bring in a fresh perspective and new ideas.

How to Identify an Inadequate SEO Agency

The process of finding and hiring an SEO agency can be daunting if you are not familiar with SEO yourself. There are many reputable SEO agencies out there. But there are even more bad ones, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the real deal from a total fraud. Just as hiring a bad in-house SEO can be very costly, so can working with a weak SEO agency.

Following are some of the warning signs and things to look out for to help you identify an inadequate SEO agency:

Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing is a spammy SEO technique that targets a keyword an excessive amount of times in order to gain an unfair rank advantage in the search results. You can read more about keyword stuffing in Google’s Quality Guidelines.

The screenshot below is of an agency’s homepage, which I found on the first page of Google when I searched for “SEO Agency Seattle.” The company used the keyword “SEO agency” on its homepage a total of 60 times!

Screenshot of an SEO agency's landing page with red boxes around 12 instances of the keywords "SEO Agency"

If the agency has a page stuffed to the brim with keywords, then they’re a danger to themselves and others and should be avoided. Do you want this quality of work on your website and potentially run the risk of being negatively hit by search engine algorithm updates?

The keyword stuffing technique may work for a month or two, but it’s a faulty tactic that will land anyone with a long-term business plan in trouble.

Charges Per Link

As tempting as $10 per link may sound, those are penalty-generating links. Even if the agency charges based on the “link quality,” the quality of a link can be hard to measure, and the link may not appear for weeks or months. Selling links also means that they likely have a link network (which is very bad), or they’re naive. Either way, avoid any agency that charges per link.

Makes Promises

If an agency promises #1 rankings (or anything that seems too good to be true), RUN AWAY! If they make these promises, among many others like, “we promise 1,000 new visitors to your site next week,” or they know someone at Google and have insider knowledge around Google algorithms, then don’t work with them. As tempting as it may sound, it will hurt your organic search performance in the long run. Even if it is a “money-back guarantee,” your site’s recovery from a penalty is not guaranteed.

Automated SEO

I’m not 100% sure what agencies mean by offering “automated services,” so I won’t go too far. But anyone claiming any automated technique for SEO should make you suspicious. While there are plenty of SEO tools out there, none of them can perform an SEO analysis or optimize a site as well as a living breathing human can.


If the SEO agency you’re researching can’t do SEO for themselves, that’s the most evident sign you’ll be wasting your money. Simply look at the essential on-page SEO elements (title tag, meta description, and headings) and check how well they are optimized (if at all).

You can easily see all on-page elements for any webpage using Portent’s SEO Page Review Chrome extension.

Get Familiar With Black-Hat SEO Tactics

While search engines are getting smarter every year, there are still many black hat and spammy tactics SEOs use to deceive search engines into ranking a page when the page does not deserve to be ranked.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with black-hat SEO and spam tactics to make sure you aren’t being sold these tactics, and your agency isn’t implementing them on your site. As mentioned earlier, black-hat SEO strategies may work for a little while, but they will eventually result in your website getting penalized by search engines.

Questions to Ask an SEO Agency Before Hiring

Before you begin on the journey of hiring an SEO agency, you need to have a set of questions to ask each agency, so you can accurately compare each one. You’ll also want to do your background research to familiarize yourself with each agency before you meet with them.

You can start with the standard questions like, “Have you worked in our industry before?” Most agencies will lie, but it won’t help you make the best decision. Instead, start with these questions to get the conversation started.

1. What is Your SEO Process?

If the agency can explain their SEO process in 60 seconds or less and it makes sense to you, then that’s a good sign. If they talk until your ear goes flat, or if they make no sense, then it may be best to move on from them.

It should go without saying that if the SEO process seems shady or the agency keeps many of their processes a secret, then it’s not safe to work with them.

2. What Kind of Work Will You Do on My Site?

Make sure the agency includes details on providing recommendations around technical issues, improving on-page elements, optimizing existing content, creating a content strategy, and acquiring backlinks. Bonus points if the agency talks about quick wins and long-term growth.

3. Can I See a Sample of a Recommendation Report You Give to Clients?

Look at how the agency provides SEO recommendations to their clients. Is the report easy to understand, actionable, and insightful? Or did the agency not have a report to share? If not, then it would be best to say goodbye and work with someone that knows how to provide SEO recommendations.

4. How Do You Acquire Backlinks?

Backlinks are very valuable in SEO, and it takes a lot of hard work to acquire them. It’s always a good idea to get high-quality natural backlinks rather than buying links, as mentioned earlier.

Buying backlinks is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and will very likely result in a penalty if you are caught.

If the agency you’re talking to says they don’t reveal their backlink sources, then don’t work with them. Your SEO agency should want to tell you all about the links they got you and where they came from.

Some acceptable strategies for getting backlinks are guest posting, link reclamation, content promotion, HARO queries, and creating high-quality content.

5. Do You Guarantee Results?

As I mentioned earlier, if the agency promises they will get you to rank #1, run away from them. Even if they promise first page rankings, that doesn’t mean that the traffic for those keywords they get on page one will be any good.

Instead, you will likely get the famous SEO response of, “it depends.” Which, in this case, is an acceptable answer (with hopefully some additional details).

6. How Do You Measure Success?

Everything should be around your goals. If an agency answers “rankings” and nothing else, then they are not a good fit. Stuff like “traffic” and “organic revenue” is what drives results.

Whatever the answer, that’s how the agency determines if their efforts are successful on their end. Does it align with how you define success for your investment?

If you aren’t sure how to measure the success of an SEO campaign, you can read our article on how to measure SEO performance.

7. What Kind of Reporting Do You Provide?

You will want to know what to expect from the agency each month and how they plan on reporting on their efforts, so it’s a great idea to ask for an example of their reports.

Feel free to let the agency know how in-depth you want your reports. Some people prefer high-level stuff they can share with their executives. While others wish to see the finer details. Don’t be afraid to ask for both.

8. What Significant SEO Trends Do You See Coming up in the Near Future?

For 2020, SEO agencies should be talking about zero-click searches (featured snippets), structured data, BERT and high-quality content, E-A-T, and mobile performance, just to name a few.

Don’t expect agencies to go down the list of trends to impress you, but ask which trends will be most relevant to your organization. This question helps you know which agencies have a pulse on the SEO landscape, and they know how to leverage it to benefit your organic performance.

This is, of course, just a partial list of questions you should ask before hiring an agency. The bottom line is that you have to use common sense. SEO is not supposed to provide instant results and guarantee #1 rankings on Google. The SEO agency you hire should be trustworthy, a good teacher that shares knowledge and empowers their clients, and someone you can have a positive relationship with.

Getting The Most Out of Your SEO Agency

Begin with a clear understanding of what you’re looking for from an SEO agency and include all stakeholders in the process. By the end of the rigorous process of interviewing numerous SEO agencies, there will hopefully be a unanimous decision on the best agency for your organization.

Once you are ready to hire the agency, make sure your stakeholders all know what is expected of them. A good SEO agency will tell you everything they will need from you to be successful. Take this input from them seriously.

Without internal adoption, you will likely see minimal improvements, if any, at all. And trust me, we have seen this more times than we can count.

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