Business Thoughts

SEO companies are like sextuplets: 10+ tips to help with RFPs. Picking the right search partner.

Hmm, what sparked this one? I have received numerous RFP’s lately, and as I read them, I can tell that the people writing them spend some major time assembling them. I almost feel bad for them, because you can tell that someone really spent time trying to ask just the right questions, only to get back responses that sound very similar (to their disappointment).

I would think that hiring an SEO company these days is just like being a judge in a beauty pageant where the final participants were sextuplets. Everything on the surface looks exactly the same. The same applies with SEOs – you don’t know if one company can get you a top 10 for a competitive term or if they are not able to do so until you work with them for a while.

Think about it. These are the typical questions we see in RFPs:

  • How many people are in your firm?
  • Give examples of terms you have optimized for.
  • Provide references.
  • What is your process?
  • How do you bill for services?
  • Do you offer guarantees?

Many of these questions don’t really matter much. Let’s break down a few:

How many people? – The SEO firms that I think are the best are smaller. If I couldn’t do SEO anymore and I had to ask someone to do it for me, I’d hit up people like Rand, Andy and Aaron, each with companies under 10 people (I think), or I would at least ask them for a reference. I wouldn’t go to iProspect, iCrossing, 360i, or any of the other I’s. Nothing against them, but I think I would get better service and more passion from the others.

Ranking Samples – The big farce. Any SEO can get a good ranking for some term. The questions revolve more around the right terms that are going to lead to ROI. If a term is too competitive for an entry level / mid level SEO, are they going to target it for you knowing that they may only get in the 40’s or 50’s? How much patience do you have while they keep trying to get you up there? Are you willing to wait 6, 9, 12, 18, 24 months? Or will they not include overly competitive terms just so they can point to successes only (getting you ranked for some really easy terms)?

References – We’ve all got ’em. They all say good things about us. It is worth calling references to do your due diligence, but we all have a few good ones.

Guarantees – Oh, the Catch 22! We sometimes offer certain guarantees only because we don’t want people’s money if we can’t produce tangible ROI. But sometimes the ROI is out of our hands. What if your product stinks, your prices are too high, or your site doesn’t connect with customers? Many guarantees are about rankings (e.g., guaranteed to have a top 10 in 2 months). Well, is it a term that is going to drive traffic / sales and leads? This is the big farce. Make sure a guarantee connects with how you will be judged by your managers, and it may not just be rankings.

At the end of the day, when hiring an SEO company you have a group of people all saying basically the same thing, and it probably sounds a lot like Charlie Brown’s teacher… Wah, Wah, Wah!!!

So, what are you to do? You need SEO but now are having a hard time picking.

This puts most companies back to square one when it comes to differentiating between SEO companies. SEOs all look the same and say the same thing. What SEO Company is going to answer an RFP without positive references or some rankings to show, right? So, you need to be much savvier as to help you pick the right company / employee so you don’t fall for the glitz and glamour. Here are 5 quick tips:

1) If they have rankings for web sites where the keyword is in the domain, then don’t be so impressed with rankings.

2) Use keyword discovery, wordtracker, Google adwords sandbox, and the overture keyword suggestion tool (if it is still alive) to see if the rankings they tout actually get good search volume and are somewhat competitive using the keyword difficulty tool at SEOmoz.

3) Look at the web site they optimized. Is it butchered to achieve those high rankings or does it still read well and connect with users? Remember, getting a #1 ranking for a term but butchering a site to do it does not achieve the desired result.

4) Get an idea if they know how much traffic / leads / sales results from their rankings.


Where does this leave you as the person needing to select a SEO company?

Lets be honest. Most people don’t have the know how to properly judge a search firm. Ultimately, it comes down to gut. While we don’t mean the sappy “You complete me” gut feeling, I do mean do that you “Vibe” with the SEO. Do they get you, your business model, your revenue model, etc?

  • Do they seem to be fair people who won’t hold you to contracts if things don’t work out well?
  • Do they have a passion for the job?
  • Do they analyze impact down to page views, leads, sales, etc?
  • Are they so big that getting anything done is going to be painful and require a contract review every time by four layers of management? How do those delays affect your business?
  • Are they so small that you can’t get things done if certain people aren’t in the office to take a call?
  • Notice that none of these questions are standard RFP questions and most of them you’ll only find out after working with a company for a while.

6 ways to protect yourself from a bad SEO.

The tough part is that you won’t know who’s good and who’s not until after six months or so. Six months is a long time to wait just to find out that you’ve made the wrong decision. Here are some tips to protect yourself:

  • Google them. See what others are saying about them.
  • Do they make some buzz in the industry — a lot of buzz or just nothing?
  • Put some kind of six month milestone in place (mutually agreed upon) so that you have recourse if things aren’t working as planned to re-evaluate the relationship. A good SEO won’t hold you hostage if things aren’t working as planned.
  • See if they are willing to put a little flesh in the game, putting their money where their mouth is.
  • Give an SEO a less competitive term that gets little search volume (use one of the tools above) and see if they are honest enough to come back and say, “There just isn’t enough search volume to warrant a full scale SEO campaign.” If someone comes back with a quote be leery.
  • SEO is definitely a diminishing returns kind of business. Many jobs won’t need an ongoing retainer or maintenance after the initial contract term has expired. If it does, make sure you have critical key metrics in place to ensure that your ROI is still there.