The Most Effective Way to Interview an SEO Agency? With Another SEO Expert.

Hi, name is Grant. I'm an “SEO Expert”. You should believe me, because I said so. Right?

The ugly truth of the SEO industry is that there are no barriers to entry. It's the Yelp of the food critic industry- everyone with an opinion is suddenly an expert. Much like Yelp, it's an industry ripe for abuse by people who have no skills and even worse, want to advance their own interests by selling you hot air. The reality however, is that SEO is here to stay and that if you don't know SEO or don't have qualified people working for you, then your marketing is going to suffer greatly.

So, I'm going to teach you a trick that I believe is the ultimate method in determining if the SEO or SEM agency that you're talking to knows their stuff. The trick?  Interview them with your own SEO expert.

I realize this is the part where you look at me in the eye, right before wondering how much sleep I got last night. And if you're smart, you should be asking me what qualifications I have to make these claims. To answer your questions, 6 hours for sleep and I've have a decade of experience in applied SEO on my own properties that have been very successful. I don't run a SEO firm, I don't work for other people and most importantly, I have zero interest in consulting for others or putting together a power point.

Now, what you need to know is that any SEO practitioner that can confidently claim to know what they are doing either 1) actually knows SEO or 2) doesn't know and is selling a scam or fraud. The problem is that if you interview this person without any SEO knowledge yourself, then you will be hard pressed to tell if they are blowing smoke your way or not. By nature, SEO is a new frontier, abstract and purposely kept secret by search engines, so it's actually normal for a true expert to not have all the answers. This makes the industry ripe for tricksters, because they know that it's hard to invalidate what they say or prove what they are doing is incorrect unless it's egregiously wrong.

Here are just a few ways that an blatantly fraudulent SEO can deceive you:

  • We have clients with great rankings!  Buuuuuut, I can't show them to you because of confidentiality.
  • We can't tell you about our techniques, because they're super secret and we don't want it to get out.
  • We “know” people in the right places, ala Google or Bing
  • Show you a “client” with great rankings that isn't theirs
  • Provide a Guarantee. There is no such thing in the world of SEO.
  • Actually show you clients that ranked well, right before their spammy SEO tactics backfired and the client site blew up
  • Regurgitate everything they've read off or Matt Cutts, while having zero idea of how to execute (in my opinion, the most common problem)
  • Throw all sorts of certifications at you that sound impressive. Certifications in this industry are completely meaningless. You might as well have a used car salesman certificate while you're at it.

The problem is that many agencies are good at the con and have been perfecting the pitch. They'll know to tell you that they're white hat, use organic methods, don't buy links and will use a holistic approach that involves solid content and social media. If you ask a genuine agency how they operate, they will give you the same pitch too. So what is a small business owner to do?

Bring in Your Own SEO!

This is what I call the ultimate tactic in fighting fire with fire. Bring in someone that can either validate the search agency or call them out on their bullshit.

Now, I know your natural reaction is, “Um, how do I find a SEO to bring in to begin with?”  The beauty of that statement is that you don't have to find an expert SEO, you just need someone good enough to smell a liar. In fact, if you brought in a con, chances are they'll smell the other con from a mile away. Sometimes it takes a thief to catch a thief, as the saying goes.

On a more realistic note though, one of the best ways to find a reputable SEO that you can hire for a short term gig is to find someone already working in-house for another company (read: NOT an agency). An in-house SEO marketer will have been vetted by their employer, isn't going to be interested in pitching you a contract and would likely love to have a few hours of consulting work and the extra cash. In fact, white hat SEOs despise SEO scammers for bringing such a black mark to the industry and would love to be able to identify and ruin their day. So, open up your LinkedIn profile, find a local guy in the area and pitch him a few hours of work to help you interview some agencies. Who knows, maybe they might even want to work for you!

How I Would Interview a  Search Agency

As mentioned, I have over a decade of working in the field. I know the hardest part of SEO is actually applying the work and making it happen. Reaching out to people to build links, getting quality content, brain storming creative viral ideas and most importantly, trying to stay ahead of the industry. After all, if everyone knows it, it's no longer optimizing, it's just being part of the pack.

So, the questions I would ask would follow along these lines:

  • Ask them to provide an example, on the spot, of a viral marketing campaign for an unconventional niche, like porn or gambling. This is difficult because normal people will not link to porn or gambling sites, so they can't load you with a pre-canned answer like, “We'll get you on a blog network” or “Issue press releases” or “Make solid content”. This industry is notoriously difficult to rank because it's hyper competitive and has a high level of competency. It's also good to ask for an industry not your own, because it'll show you're not just trying to pick their brain for free content.
  • If it's a small or single person, ask them why they don't work for themselves or if they have their own side project. If not, why not?  This is huge to me. This is like asking a cook if they have ever thought about a restaurant.
  • Ask if they will share their linking strategy with you and have you participate. A legitimate firm should be totally transparent about how they plan on building you links. The only secret sauce is that it's hard work and outreach. If they say that it's proprietary or they have a secret technique, that is a sure sign of the hustle. They can of course, lie, then not have you participate, which is why I would then request a contract clause that puts that in writing with penalties if denied.
  • Tell them to explain SEO on a highly technical level. Not in abstractions such as, “You need links / content / signals / social”. You want real deep, dig your hands in the dirt SEO like “Explain your thoughts of ALT vs title tags”, “Tell me how to create CSS sprites”, “Give me 10 HTML modifications to improve page load times” or “Build me an A/B split test to validate an SEO idea”. A knowledgeable guy or gal should light up about this, while a scammer will look at you like a deer in headlights.
  • Pop quiz time!  Pull up a website that is not yours. Tell them to dissect and analyze everything that is wrong or that they would fix on the website. This is where you need an SEO expert to see if they catch all the various errors and see how technical their people can get. Make sure you tell the agency to bring their people to the meeting or interview, because otherwise they'll just say “I'm just the sales guy or I have a guy for that”.
  • Show me the money. In the world of SEO, rankings are the absolute measuring stick of success. I would want to see SERP results for existing clients and their keywords both historically and at the current time. This is mandatory and I wouldn't trust any agency that isn't willing to show me the money.

The important thing with the questions above is that it is very difficult to lie or BS when asked direct questions. You never want the other party to be able to provide fluff answers. Plus, as with any interview, is to never lead the interviewee with the answer. This is always a sign that you're looking for an answer or trying to validate an answer and is easy for someone to read your mind or follow your intention. As such, don't ask questions like, “Do you agree that ______ is true?” or “You would never do _____, right?”

Hopefully this little bit of advice gives you enough information to feel comfortable if/when you get to the state of needing to hire help. I'm always a proponent of understanding SEO yourself first before hiring others, but there is only so much in the day for one person to do.

Have you had any luck (or bad luck) hiring your own SEO agency or employee?  Let us know how you did it in the comments!


Grant Chen

Grant currently owns and operates two ecommerce businesses selling kitchen products and clothing. He is also a partner in a restaurant franchise with two locations and has over a decade of experience as an entrepreneur and web developer. He lives in the beautiful city of Seattle, Washington, and when he's not at his laptop with a coffee, will be found skiing or hiking in the mountains .

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