Four people sit smiling around a black table in front of a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. The two people facing the viewer on the far side of the table are slightly out of focus; on the left is a woman with short silver hair and on the right is a younger man with a mustache and goatee. Sitting closer to the viewer are a man sitting in profile and a woman sitting with her back to the viewer. The man sits on the far right and has a reddish beard and brown hair. The woman sits on the left and has cornrows and wears gold hoop earrings.
Before you hire an SEO firm, make sure they're reputable. Look into online reviews and past case studies, and be wary of firms that withhold crucial information. — Getty Images/Moyo Studio

Search engine optimization (SEO) firms offer various digital services, from basic research to strategy execution. With their help, your website can rank for local and standard search queries, resulting in more web traffic. However, capabilities differ among SEO agencies, and less reputable firms may make unrealistic promises or use outdated tactics.

By asking the right questions and researching SEO companies, you can weed out unsavory firms and better understand your needs. Use the following questions to spark conversations with your team and evaluate potential partners.

What tasks do you need help with?

Although many agencies will handle your optimization efforts from start to finish, SEO is a two-way street. Your company should be prepared to continue with SEO after the firm finishes. Ensure your team knows basic SEO terms and the difference between the types of SEO (on-page, off-page, technical, and local).

It would help if you had a clear idea of what you need help with and what you want to accomplish. In addition, Semrush recommended that business owners discuss "their goals, what they would like to achieve and how" with prospective firms.

Consider tasks you can do in-house and those you want to outsource, such as:

  • SEO strategy.
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.
  • Voice search optimization.
  • SEO audit.
  • User experience optimization.
  • SEO research.
  • Technical SEO.
  • Local SEO.
  • Citation management.
  • Link building.
  • SEO content.
  • Digital marketing services.

[Read more: A Beginner's Guide to SEO]

Does the SEO service provider have a good reputation?

Be wary of any firm that lacks an online presence or receives tons of negative reviews. Do your due diligence by checking out social media channels and review sites. Consider asking for recommendations from industry or local networking groups. Also, look at the firm's website and request recent case studies (within the last three years).

Although many agencies will handle your optimization efforts from start to finish, SEO is a two-way street.

Is the SEO firm transparent?

Reputable firms will disclose their processes and techniques, including providing a list of deliverables you can expect. If they say this information is proprietary, consider it a red flag. Secretive strategies could mean that the agency uses less savory methods that Google frowns upon. The company should also tell you what a successful campaign looks like and estimate the time it will take to reach various goals.

Does the agency use ethical practices?

Failure to follow best practices for SEO can result in your website being penalized. The firm should understand Google Search Essentials (formerly Webmaster Guidelines) and be forthcoming about various techniques. For example, SEO companies shouldn't pay for backlinks or use private blog networks (PBNs). Hidden content for the purpose of manipulating search engines is also a big no-no.

What's their reporting process like?

Discuss reporting cadence and metrics with SEO firms. Typically, agencies provide information on organic traffic improvements, backlink count, and search engine rankings for high-priority keywords monthly. Marketo suggested asking for a sample report and inquiring "how they would customize the progress report to cater to your unique goals and key performance indicators (KPIs)."

What technologies does the SEO firm use?

Many firms use paid and free SEO software, including keyword trackers and backlink checkers, to measure and monitor your progress. Indeed, Semrush said an SEO firm will help you select tools, and "then these tools would be inserted or arranged into a dashboard for easier access." Ask SEO firms if they provide an online portal, offer assistance choosing technologies, or disclose the tools they use.

[Read more: 10 Resources to Help You Improve Your SEO]

What happens after your contract ends?

Many contracts last six months to one year. But search engine optimization is an ongoing process that continues long after your agreement with an SEO specialist ends. Along with reading the fine print on your contract (including any guarantees to ensure your website is optimized), ask the firm how they handle agreement terminations and if they help your team during the transition process.

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