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How do you hire an SEO provider if you don’t know anything about SEO?

I recently came across an interesting online conversation in which someone asked what I believe to be a very valid question:

What are the right questions to ask during an interview of a potential SEO specialist candidate?

Unfortunately, this question was immediately met with a bit of a rude response. Essentially, the first responder said that if you don’t know what interview questions to ask, then you shouldn’t be handling the interview in the first place because you won’t know what the right answers will be.

Granted, in a perfect world, you would always have an accomplished and experienced SEO pro handling all SEO-related interviews, whether they be for an individual candidate or for an SEO provider such as an agency. Unfortunately, this not always feasible. In fact, I would say that in well over 50% of scenarios that I find myself in when pitching my agency’s SEO services, the organization making the decision doesn’t have a single employee with any real experience or expertise in the SEO field.

So what’s a company supposed to do? Hire a consultant just to help with the SEO hiring/sourcing process? How can they be sure that the consultant they hire knows what they’re doing? It really is a vicious circle of sorts.

With that in mind, here are some of the key questions that an organization should ask, as well as some answers that they should be looking for. I would love it if folks could chime in with additional questions and answers:

Question: On a scale of 1-10, how strong are your writing skills?

Answer: 10 out of 10 (or close to it)

In my experience, the ability to communicate extremely well via the written word is crucial. In fact, over the years, the few unsuccessful hires that I have made in the SEO space had one common thread; they had poor grammar and composition skills, and that killed their credibility with clients and colleagues. An SEO that doesn’t have a strong command of the written language will struggle with the subtle nuances of keyword research and recommendations as well as struggle to communicate internally with key stakeholders (more on that in a moment…)

Question: What kind of experience do you have working with other departments in order to successfully implement SEO initiatives, and with what departments have you worked with?

Answer: If need be, I can work with the janitorial staff if that’s what it takes to successfully implement SEO.

In all seriousness, you’re looking for a successful track record of working with IT/dev stakeholers, fellow marketing stakeholders, public relations stakeholders, legal department stakeholders, and even C-level executives. Often times, successful SEO is more about communication and internal selling than it is about technical ability.

Question: What is your approach to link building?

Answer: I love natural, one-way links with really good, keyword-rich anchor text, and I know how to reach out to webmasters (via email, phone, and social networks) to build relationships and rapport that lead to those kinds of links. Lastly, I know that one of the keys to getting these kinds of links is having the right kind of “link friendly” content that makes people want to link to our site.

In a nutshell, you want someone that understands how social media and link building overlap, in that the key to building good links is building relationships with webmasters and providing content that lends itself to sharing and linking. A bonus would be someone that understands the paid links arena, but doesn’t plan on making that a core facet of his/her strategy. And if anchor text isn’t brought up, red lights should start flashing, because if the individual doesn’t understand just how instrumental this facet is in the grand scheme of SEO (not just in terms of external link building but also in terms of internal site architecture and linking) you’re in for a disappointing engagement.
Question: Do you, or have you in the past, written or blogged about SEO in industry portals? If so, can you share links to those writings?

Answer: Yes I have. Here are some links to articles that I’ve written and here are some examples of best practices documentation that I’ve written for past clients and/or employers.

9 times out of 10, if they have a strong body of public-facing, written work relating to the technical details of SEO implementation, then it’s likely that they are passionate and serious about their craft.

Question: What’s your approach to analytics for SEO?

Answer:I’m all about ROI. And what I mean by that is that I want to first understand what the value of a site conversion is (e-commerce sale, lead generated, advertising CPM revenue, etc) and I want to then track incremental conversions that come from SEO so that we can understand just how much revenue SEO is bringing to the table on an ongoing basis.

I go beyond ranking reports and look at traffic and conversions. I go beyond just aggregate data, and focus in on things like non-branded search referrals (because branded search referrals are not a function of SEO, but rather a function of brand awareness, since most companies already rank No. 1 for virtually all keywords that have their name in it). I also focus on year-over-year comparison to account for seasonality as well as focusing on specific keywords to identify opportunities to make an impact on money, on-the-cusp keywords.

SEO without solid, in-depth analytics and a focus on the dollar value of a conversion is doomed from the start, so make sure the folks you’re speaking with are serious about their approach to analytics.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, make sure to get some solid references from your potential SEO provider or SEO agency, and call those references. This is usually the best way to ensure that the folks you’re talking to have a real track record of succes.

I hope you folks out there that are stuck in this type of catch-22 situation find this post helpful. My goal was to arm you with some relatively non-technical SEO questions and answers that could help guide you on your way.

If you have suggestions on other key questions or simply want to leave feedback, please do so in the comments section below.

Note: If you’re in the market for an SEO agency, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via the contact form on this site.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mikeraia Michael Raia

    Very helpful, especially from a new hire perspective. Nice to see the “best answers” and not just questions. Thanks for the post!

    • Anonymous

      Glad you found it useful, Michael. Thanks for chiming in!

  • http://malonefencecompany.com/ Richard

    What should a small company interested in local search expect to pay for monthly services?

    • Anonymous

      Hey Richard. Good question. But before you try to answer it, you have to answer a few other questions:
      1) are you setup to track conversions (e.g. inbound phone calls, visits to your store, online orders, etc.) via analytics
      2) Do you need immediate returns or long-term spend efficiency?

      If the answer to the first question is no, then that’s the first thing you need to invest in. As for the second answer, if you’re looking for immediate returns, I suggest that you start with paid search advertising (and perhaps even Facebook ads) as opposed to starting with SEO. That is of course, unless you can afford to do both from the get go!