Hiring an SEO company is one of the most important decisions a business owner will make with regards to their online marketing. As with any hiring choice, a good decision can make your business money and a bad decision can cost you money. But in the case of hiring someone who may be the sole determining factor of whether or not your website gets leads, hiring an SEO can truly be a make or break point for your business.

So, what do you need to know in order to make sure you are hiring the best SEO company for your business? To answer this, I’ve created a list of the top 10 factors to consider when choosing an SEO company.

1) What is the Company’s Record for Results?

Results of an effective search engine optimization campaign can be measured in several ways, but the one most business owners can agree on, is ‘how did it affect the bottom line?’ If you didn’t get beans back for the beans you spent, the bean counters won’t be happy. So measuring ROI is the most important metric.

However, measuring ROI can be less than an exact science when applied to SEO. The key to this is tracking. You need to track: how many new visitors came to the site; how many took an action (such as filling out a form or calling a phone number); and how many of those who took action actually turned into a sale for the business.

This is not something every Search Engine Optimization company tracks, as they often are only responsible for getting the website to rank well. They may not offer services such as “conversion optimization,” which is the art of getting a visitor to your site to take action. They also are not accountable for whether or not the person who answers the phone can schedule an appointment or close a sale. These are all factors that determine ROI from an SEO campaign.

However, most SEO companies can give you an estimate of what the ROI of a campaign would be, if all the other factors are working well. Many also do have keep records of the results their work helped to produce, such as helping a company increase their leads by 140%, or double the volume of sales.

2) Look at Their Rankings

Search engine rankings are a metric that SEO Companies typically use as their primary means of showing results. The data is usually presented in a line graph, showing the movement of a particular keyword in the search results over time. A company that is successful at achieving rankings for their clients should be able to show you ranking graphs (with private data removed) for clients they have ranked in a market with a similar level of competitiveness to yours.

3) Check Their Reviews

One of the most common methods used today for qualifying a company before engaging their services is to look at their customer reviews. Studies have shown that as many 88% of people trust an online review as much as they would a personal recommendation. Studies also show that 9 of 10 people have read reviews to discover the quality of a local business.

Look at what other people are saying about the company you consider hiring. But not just by reading testimonials they have on their own website, as you cannot be certain if these are real. Even if they are, the business’ website will most likely not give you an idea of the percentage of negative reviews, as most businesses only list their positive reviews.

It is much better to read a review from an online 3rd party review site. Online review sites, like Yelp, Google, and others, have fairly strict policies that are designed to catch and prevent fake reviews from being left. That doesn’t mean that their systems are flawless, but they at least provide a layer of protection.

4) What Color is Their Hat?

In the SEO field there is a common reference to “black hat,” “white hat,” and even “gray hat” SEO. These are somewhat arbitrary designations, most often used to refer to the degree to which the SEO may perform questionable practices which may violate terms of service of Google or other search engines. Like in the old western movies, the black hat is considered the bad guy.

What are the consequences of using off-color techniques? It can get your website penalized by the search engines. A penalized website will not rank well, if at all. Therefore, it is best to keep SEO practices as white hat as possible.

But how do you know which type of SEO the company you hire will be doing? You can certainly ask. But that leaves a lot up to the honesty of the company or individual you are asking. If they are engaged in unethical SEO practices, the chances they will give you an honest answer—to any question—are equally low.

Since most black hat techniques will sooner or later be discovered and penalized by Google, they don’t work long-term. So finding out if the SEO company has long-term clients who are still ranking well and should at least give you some idea.

5) How Long Have They Been in Business?

Number of years in business is one of the most common questions asked in any hiring interview. But in the SEO industry this is especially important information to find out. There are courses out there that promise to teach you how to be a successful SEO overnight, complete with training on how to get clients. Although they can give students the tools, like any profession, it takes experience to develop skills. Especially the skills to outrank the SEO who is working to rank your competitor’s websites. A newbie isn’t going to outrank a seasoned pro.

6) How Much Do They Study New Industry Info?

Many professions have continuing education requirements. In SEO this is truer than most. Google changes their algorithm (which determines search ranking factors) 500-600 times per year. If an SEO isn’t studying daily, they are falling behind. It’s not enough even to keep up with what Google changed this week. You really need to be about 2 years ahead of Google if you want your rankings to last long-term. If an SEO is optimizing your site based on what works today, don’t expect to keep your rankings very long. You need someone who can predict what will be changes are coming well into the future. Asking about how much continuing education your potential hire does can give you an indication about their ability to keep up with the ever-changing search engines.

7) The Agency vs the Expert

Many search engine optimization companies refer to themselves as “agencies,” when in fact they are often comprised of a single SEO expert and a few staff. This is not a bad thing. A true agency is typically a larger organization with many staff. The true agency is geared to provide services to a much larger client base than the solo SEO expert, with or without a staff.

If you think about it for a moment, you’ll quickly realize that the SEO personnel in these larger agencies are not, in fact, senior execs receiving the top pay. That usually goes to the agency director(s) and maybe even the sales team. In order to make a profit margin, larger agencies need to find SEOs who are happy to work for an hourly wage or salary.

Ultimately, the actual SEO is only going to get paid what would be a small percentage of the income from a client. Compare this to the solo expert who is selling and delivering his own service and keeping all the income as profit. Who would you rather be? And question number two: If you are truly expert at SEO, why would you work for an agency, when you could very easily start your own business and make 5-10 time as much as you are getting paid at the agency?

What I’m driving at is that the real experts go out on their own. Which leaves the agencies the rest of the SEOs to pick from to employ on their staff. In almost every case a solo expert will be able to run circles around the agency’s less skilled SEO staff. Not only that, but the solo expert has a much higher incentive to perform well and keep his client happy.

8) Familiarity with Your Website Platform

SEO will require work to be done on your website, as well as off-site. In order for the work to get done on your site, the SEO you hire will need at least some familiarity with the type of platform you are using. There are many types, such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, HTML, and others.

Make sure the SEO you hire is able to work with your platform. He doesn’t need to be a coder or developer, but he should be able to make any changes needed to your site. This is less of a concern if you have your own internal web development person or team who can work with the SEO to get changes made. But if you don’t have your own web developer and the SEO is not familiar with your platform, you will likely incur additional expenses to make changes to your site.

9) What Niches Are They Experienced With?

A niche could be defined by the type of market, such as health care vs landscaping. Or it could be defined as local businesses vs businesses with a national or even global market. Each niche has its differences and it is important to know what type of niches the SEO company you hire is familiar with. Although the basic principles of SEO are not different from one niche to the next, the way that you use them can be very different. You don’t want to employ an SEO who has only worked with local dentists if you have a national eCommerce store, for example.

This doesn’t mean you need to find an SEO who only specializes in your industry. Most SEO companies work with a wide array of niches. But if they are unfamiliar with your niche and it is significantly different than the type they service, it may not be a good fit.

10) Ability to Work Together

Although all of the technical factors play a large part in achieving success, don’t forget to look at the fact that you will also need to make sure the relationship is a good fit. If your company wants to have the SEO you hire attend your weekly marketing strategy meetings, it would be a good idea to find out if he is willing to work in that manner. As most SEO firms are outsourcers, you will also want to find out about reporting and how communication will be accomplished. And simplest of all, you want to make sure personalities are compatible.

If you use these factors as a guideline to choosing an SEO, you will avoid most of the common pitfalls I see companies frequently make. Hopefully it can not only save you in costly mistakes, but will help you find the SEO company that will help your business to achieve its goals of increasing its online presence, traffic and ultimately, revenue.