How to hire an SEO agency: The definitive guide


You’re ready to hire SEO help – where should you start? 

This guide goes A to Z on selecting and vetting an SEO agency, including the exact things you need to watch for as you search for the perfect one.

In this article:

In-house SEO or SEO agency: Which is right for your business?

One of the first questions many businesses face as they ramp up their SEO efforts is: Should we hire in-house or outsource? 

The answer depends on your budget and your goals. Each option has its benefits. In a perfect world, you would have both. 

However, if it’s a matter of one or the other, it’s important to understand the benefits of each and determine which is a better fit for your needs. 

SEO agency advantages

An SEO agency should be a think tank of experienced, savvy analysts. 

Their experience and talent, coupled with access to talented peers, tools and data, is an invaluable resource for any business. 

Here are five benefits of hiring an SEO agency: 

You gain access to emerging SEO strategies

An SEO agency is entrenched in the industry. After all, it’s an agency’s job to know everything about SEO as it happens. 

That said, an SEO agency can keep you up-to-date with changes that may affect your strategy while providing you with effective SEO solutions to combat search engine (or other) changes.

You have cutting-edge tools working for your campaign

SEO agencies have access to and understand how to navigate a wide range of marketing tools. 

From web analytics and conversion tools to research, monitoring and reporting tools, your business can benefit from an SEO agency’s utility kit. 

Agencies know how to select and use the tools needed for your specific project, reducing in-house costs and offering you time savings.

You get comprehensive SEO expertise

There’s not much that a strong SEO agency hasn’t seen. They are, after all, consumed with every aspect of SEO day-in and day-out. 

Because of this, SEO agencies usually produce faster results because they have more experience. 

They’ve worked with hundreds or even thousands of clients in many industries. So there’s less guesswork. 

And, because SEO agencies work with many clients, they avoid the tunnel vision that an in-house SEO can be vulnerable to. 

You probably know your site very well and understand what’s happening in your niche market. SEO agencies work to provide an added perspective based on their experience in your industry.

You can learn how to implement SEO best practices

Some SEO agencies allocate resources for research and development time. 

This is so they can experiment with different SEO methodologies and techniques and observe test results to provide more ROI to the client. 

By hiring the right agency, you can take advantage of those proven techniques. This also ensures you are always practicing sound SEO tactics that won’t harm your site in the long run.

You can use the experts as a sounding board

Agencies serve as a sounding board for businesses to help ensure their strategy is solid. 

Sometimes, hiring an SEO consultant is more cost-effective and much faster than looking for answers online or in books. 

SEO agencies can transfer a lot of knowledge to you and can serve as long-term continuing education for companies – even if they have a very experienced team in-house.

In-house SEO advantages

On the other hand, an in-house SEO has some advantages. An in-house SEO:

  • Is devoted to your business and focused on your brand 100% of the time. 
  • Will have a robust knowledge of your industry, as well as your business’s unique needs. 
  • Will have the advantage of working closely with other team members within the company.
  • Might have a stronger influence on IT or marketing since they have a day-to-day relationship with them. (On the other hand, an agency can escalate things to the C-suite when teams are unresponsive. If an in-house’s words are falling on deaf ears, the agency can be the outside voice that the company will listen to.)
  • That lives and breathes your brand can make them better equipped to represent the company’s message in marketing. 

The tradeoff is that an in-house expert with 10 to 15 years of experience is in high demand and, thus, is commonly very expensive. 

They are expensive to find and harder to hire, and often, the demand leads to their leaving. 

Which is right for you?

Whether you choose to work with an SEO agency or an in-house SEO, make sure you do your homework. You want an experienced, ethical and effective professional or agency.  

What services do SEO agencies offer?

Different agencies have different service models. This can include everything from an SEO audit to full-service offerings and more.

Depending on your website and business situation, the SEO strategy may vary.

You might, for example, start with an SEO audit. This is often the best way to assess where the site is today so that your vendor can recommend a strategic path for the next steps.

Some of the services you might engage an SEO agency for include:

SEO website assessments and audits

SEO audits can offer an in-depth critique of your website, identifying areas to improve. Sometimes, the client business handles the proposed changes; other times, the vendor can do it for you.

Search engine ranking assessments

Identify where to make website repairs to overcome a rankings drop. You’ll find out what may have caused the issue and how to fix it.  

SEO consulting

Often, the vendor will provide SEO consulting services hourly or on retainer. 

Full-service SEO programs

A full-service program can mean different things with different vendors but may include a unique combination of SEO consulting, SEO training, managed services, including implementing recommendations, and more.

Local SEO

Local SEO is made for the unique needs of local brick-and-mortar businesses that want to show up in the search results for people in the regional area. 

Website content audits

A content audit can identify areas of content strengths and weaknesses on a website, and recommend ways to make the website better suited to its audience and SEO goals.

Content development

To become a relevant choice for any given query and to show up on a search engine results page, a website needs to have targeted, quality content to support its SEO strategy. Content development services can help you get there.

PPC management

SEO and PPC complement one another perfectly. Together, they allow for more visibility on the search results page than just one discipline alone.

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How to evaluate an SEO agency

Now that you’ve explored whether you want to hire in-house, outsource or a mix of both, it’s important to know how to evaluate an SEO agency or consultant. 

SEO is one business area where mistrust is widespread due to so many unethical businesses that have jumped into the arena over the years.  

So, how does someone looking for an SEO vendor ensure they choose the right agency? 

Next, I’ll go over five areas to evaluate:

  • Reputation
  • Expertise 
  • Marketing know-how
  • The engagement
  • Reviews, case studies and testimonials

Evaluate reputation

Evaluating reputation is a key part of choosing an SEO agency because there are a lot of companies that are great at “marketing.” 

In other words, they can have a beautiful website and put up a professional front, but behind the scenes, they lack the talent needed to drive SEO results.

Evaluate expertise 

Author Malcolm Gladwell says in his book, “Outliers,” that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. 

While he has later agreed that number varies by industry, I believe that for SEO, it is closer to 20,000 hours. 

SEO agencies historically have had a problem: They’re often founded by one or more experts and to grow, they have to build teams and take themselves out of the hands-on work.

But they also have to make the business profitable, and labor costs are the largest cost. As a result, many agencies have scaled using entry-level professionals.

However, this strategy is not sustainable when the clients know more about SEO than the agency’s SEO analysts on their client accounts.

This is the thing you need to look for when hiring an agency: experience. Experience is what sets agencies apart. 

It allows us to solve the toughest SEO problems out there for our clients when no other solutions exist in-house. And that’s what’s needed now more than ever.

The bottom line is that you do not want to know more than the agency you’re hiring. 

This is especially true in today’s climate when so much is changing in the world around us. Businesses need the best SEO strategies to survive online.

Dig deeper: 9 tips for selecting an SEO agency

Evaluate marketing know-how

Great SEOs aren’t only super technical practitioners who understand SEO. 

A good SEO agency should understand how search engine optimization fits into the bigger picture of marketing your business to your target audience.

That means understanding more than bits and bytes and also understanding the people you are trying to sell to. 

This impacts everything in SEO, from keyword selection and site navigation to content creation and beyond.

The other thing to consider is that SEO impacts other areas of your digital marketing and vice versa.

To be most effective, businesses do not want to put all their eggs in one basket by relying on one type of digital marketing, whether SEO, PPC or other. And SEO vendors should agree with this.

All of these work together to make your marketing, branding, and online visibility soar.

Evaluate the engagement

Any good SEO vendor will want to work with you for as long as is necessary to help you achieve results. 

That doesn’t mean you should be strung along while the SEO performs meaningless tasks.

SEO comprises many phases, depending on where your website is when you first engage with the vendor. 

For example, you might first have a penalty from Google that needs to be addressed before anything else.

Or, you might be in the midst of a site redesign, and you need to engage an SEO to ensure the website is set up for success moving forward.

Results can sometimes take time, and they should be demonstrable. 

I have seen a lot of sites that have a long list of deliverables without any quantifiable set of measurements. “I will edit eight pages per month” is not ROI, and is easy to perform.

Also, keep in mind that many websites will go into maintenance mode with an SEO vendor after some time. But good SEO partners will always be looking for new ways to improve the site regularly.

In other words, it shouldn’t feel like the SEO vendor is in it just to make a quick buck.

Many agencies and consultancies require a minimum of four to six months.

While not being locked into a contract can be a nice thing for clients, it’s important to understand there is a time frame in which to achieve results. 

The search engines may not even acknowledge changes to your website for a month, so patience is appropriate for SEO.

Evaluate reviews and testimonials

Customer reviews can also be useful. One way to sift through the noise is to ask for a few references from past clients to better understand how the SEO vendor performed for them. 

You can also review SEO case studies. It’s important to verify that they have created successful SEO strategies, not quick fixes.  

Vetting SEO agencies: Red flags

As you’re going through the selection process, remember that a majority of the vetting process falls on you. 

You want to ensure you have the knowledge and questions to help weed out vendors to find the best fit. 

And then be aware of the red flags you may see as you go through the process.

Google points out some things to be wary of, such as:

  • SEO firms and consultants or agencies that send you emails out of the blue.
  • Guaranteeing a No. 1 ranking on Google.
  • Secrecy, or not clearly explaining what they intend to do.
Source: “Do you need an SEO?,” Google Search CentralSource: “Do you need an SEO?,” Google Search Central
Source: “Do you need an SEO?,” Google Search Central

Here’s a list of things to watch out for when hiring an SEO:

  • Any company stressing links as the main selling point of their SEO strategy. This is an outdated strategy. Some companies work to gain organic links through quality tactics. These are usually fine. 
  • Any company with a bunch of off-shore workers. You don’t want an army of SEOs whose native language and culture are not the company’s target or first language/experience.
  • Any company charging dirt cheap for SEO. They might be under-committed to education and service, or worse. Cheap SEO can hurt your business.
  • Any company promising “top rankings.” This is extremely difficult for any company to guarantee, and the promise itself is essentially cheapening the discipline of SEO.
  • Any company that has a lot of complaints filed against them. Do your diligence to find this out. 

Dig deeper: 9 warning signs your SEO consultant is NOT competent

10 questions to size up an SEO agency 

Now that you have a better understanding of what areas you need to assess, here’s a quick list of questions you can run through to evaluate an SEO agency:

  • How long has the SEO vendor been in business?
  • Does the client-facing team have sufficient skills and experience?
  • Does the company demonstrate thought leadership through speaking engagements, expert content or training?
  • Does the company have a good reputation among its peers in the industry?
  • Has the company received any awards or accolades?
  • How involved is the company in the industry’s professional community?
  • Does the company’s SEO methods stay within Google’s quality guidelines?
  • What sort of clientele does the SEO company serve?
  • What sort of results has the SEO vendor achieved for its clients through its methodology?
  • How do they work with new clients? For example, do they have formal onboarding processes to ensure everything goes smoothly? Do they have dedicated account managers so communication stays open? Do they offer training on their services?

Take your time when choosing an SEO agency

Finding an SEO vendor can be a time-consuming process. 

When looking for the perfect fit, key considerations include: 

  • The ethics of the company and whether they follow search engine guidelines.
  • Their level of expertise, including years in practice, reputation, skill sets and knowledge.
  • The services offered and what you need.
  • Watching out for red flags that signal a poor-quality agency.

Using some of the methods I’ve outlined here, you should be able to make a more informed decision when buying SEO services. 

This is especially important when money is on the line and SEO practices can help or hurt an entire business, not just its website.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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