Ideally, these are the types of questions you should ask before you hire a digital agency. After all, due diligence requires that you properly vet any third-party vendor before establishing a partnership with them. If you don’t, it could end up being a business “marriage” built in hell. So, this is your hiring interview.
Any general list of questions could miss important details that pertain to your business or even your industry. Before contacting a digital agency to ask these questions, brainstorm with your own, in-house team, to come up with questions that should be asked that aren’t on this more general list. Even if you don’t come up with additional questions specific to your industry or business, this could help you be better prepared for your first meeting with the digital agency.
SEO takes time, so be willing to spend at least six months with your new partner once you’ve reached an agreement. Also, make sure you have an escape clause in case things are not working out the way you expected. But never pull the plug in the first two or three months because of a lack of satisfactory results. Again, it takes time to lay the groundwork, to build the campaign and to establish the right backlink juice.
Here are the questions:
1. How long before we see results with our Google rankings?
This is a trick question. How the agency answers this will tell you a lot about whether or not you want to be working with them. Anyone who guarantees a first-page ranking within a month or two is not a reputable agency. If someone makes such an outlandish promise, they are likely a black hat agency who will end up ruining your standings with search engines and possibly your reputation was well.
Ideally, the agency will tell you that they need to do more, in-depth research to determine the scope of what needs to be done.
2. What guarantee do you have that we will see results?
Imagine a thousand companies being promised first-page rankings for the same set of keywords. Only 10 will make it, unless there are already some more established firms on page one of the search results.
A guarantee sounds nice, but it’s not realistic for most businesses. Good SEO will greatly improve your standing in search results, but guarantees are a sure sign the agency doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Look at it this way: If you were hungry for chocolate, would you want a large chunk of chocolate-flavored cardboard, or a tiny stick of real dark chocolate? It’s quality you should be after, not just quantity. Once you have your pipeline streamlined for quality, then you push for more of the same quality.
3. What approach do you take on SEO to maximize results?
Today’s Search Engine Optimization needs us to build value in the community. This requires four elements to work together in harmony:
- On-page SEO — This is the easy stuff, including, keyword usage, alternate versions of keywords, keyword placement in captions, alt-text and subheadings, plus the overall readability of the pages. This is a measure of how valuable the pages are as a community resource.
- User experience (UX) — This is all about the design and user-friendliness of your pages.
- Technical SEO — This is all about the pages’ code, the speed of page loading and any other things that will affect traffic. It also includes whether or not search engines can easily crawl the page.
- Off-page SEO — This is all about improving your site’s popularity with backlinks and how well other sites consider yours to be an authority.
If the agency doesn’t show an understanding of these things, you should likely go elsewhere.
4. What strategy do you use for building backlinks and marketing to influencers?
Google, the king of search engines, likes to deliver valuable search results. That should be a no-brainer. Backlinks are a key element to what Google considers valuable. If an authoritative site links back to yours, then you have more link “juice.” If a spammy site links to yours, then Google may view your site as one that is trying to game the system. You could end up on page 10,000 with the penalties you’d receive — or not listed at all.
This is one of the reasons why it takes months to build SEO. You’re after quality backlinks; not quantity for its own sake.
If the agency describes link-building in terms of building relationships, they have a strong point in their favor. Influencers are opinion leaders in your niche. When your potential customers have questions, they look to those influencers for answers. If you can get one or more of these people to talk about your company’s work or link to your website, then you’re heading in the right direction.
5. What kind of on-site optimization do you do?
When people click through a search link to your site, are they staying awhile, or are they bouncing back to the search results within a few seconds. This is a measure of how well the search engines think your page is representative of the topic in the search results. The longer people stay, the more valuable your website appears to the search engines.
The agency needs to understand this so that the search results for which your page is ranked produces high click-through rates, and low bounce rates.
6. What metrics do you use to determine the success of your SEO actions?
Trick questions like this one help you weed out the bad guys from the good guys. The best digital agencies will understand that your definition of success is what truly matters and they will build their campaign around your specific needs.
Like question #1, above, a wrong answer to this question will show you where their attention is fixed. They could be making promises they can’t keep and trying to sound good without understanding your specific needs, or, better, consulting you on your focus.
7. What kinds of reports can we expect?
Sample reports from the agency will help you see how clear their communication is. If you can understand what the report says, how it is valuable, and how it tells you what is actually going on, then the agency will have won another point in their favor.
If however, the reports are confusing or you cannot see how the campaign benefits the client, then you may need to shop elsewhere.
8. What experience do you have with our industry?
If an agency has zero experience working in your industry, they had better know an awful lot about your industry from their own research before your first meeting. They need to be as close to an expert as possible. If they get all the highlights correct, but misunderstand some of the nuances, you may still be able to work with them, depending on how readily they accept your correction of their misunderstanding. Such humility will show an eagerness to learn, which will count in their favor. If they gloss over their mistake and try to cover it up, they lose points.
9. What will you do to understand our business and to adapt your strategy to our brand and industry?
The agency needs to understand how you generate the bulk of your revenue. They also need to understand the scope of your target market — 20 zip codes in Southern California or the entire nation or even the world.
Your new agency needs not to latch onto one aspect of your business and lose sight of the most important parts. The agency team needs to take time to walk you through their thinking on how their generalized skills will be tailored to fit your specific business and its needs.
10. What’s your approach to keyword research?
Specific details can tell you a lot about an agency and how they work. If they make keyword research sound complicated, then they’re just blowing smoke. But if they show you how easy keyword research is, then you likely have a golden partner in the making. There are two keyword tools that are free and easy to use. A good agency should never be shy about telling you this. For example, a Google search page has recommended keywords at the bottom. Also, SEMrush.com has a free tool that makes exploring keyword possibilities very easy.
11. How would you include our blog in your strategy?
A good agency knows that a blog with fluff will not help the business, and could actually harm it. A good blog will have relevant and useful information not found elsewhere on your website.
Again, Google is looking for value. Don’t blog simply to be able to say you have a blog. Put interesting, readable and valuable information your customers will want to read.
12. How would you dovetail your SEO work with our overall marketing efforts?
If your agency plans to work in isolation on SEO without any regard for social media marketing, public relations and content marketing, then they’re not the agency for you. All of your marketing efforts need to be working together in concert. Your agency needs to be ready to talk to the sales force, the marketing crew and anyone else working on this side of your business.
13. What do you do to ensure your tactics work on mobile devices?
With more people than ever before accessing the internet on mobile devices, any website that is not mobile-ready is going to lose out on tons of traffic. Their bounce rate is going to be astronomical. Your website coding needs to be perfectly responsive to the various devices that may attempt to display your pages.
14. What tools do you use for each aspect of SEO, and why do you use them?
The specific tools they use are not important. For each tool and purpose, you need to follow-up with “why?” It’s more critical that you understand the amount of thoughtfulness behind each tool selection.
Ask about tools for monitoring rankings, crawling websites, keeping tabs on backlinks, conducting keyword research, and analyzing your competitors.
15. Why does our site need SEO help?
This might be classified as another “trick” question. You want to find out if the agency actually looked at and studied your website. Their answers will let you know how proactive they are about building a plan for your specific needs.
If they don’t care enough to look at your website before the meeting, then their being in the meeting might be classifiable as “spam” — overly self-promotional without considering your needs.
16. Can I meet the people who will be doing the work?
When you hire an agency, it’s a bit like hiring new employees. You want to ensure they will work out. You want to make certain they are not merely interns doing your vital SEO campaign.
17. How do you approach local SEO needs?
If the bulk of your business comes from local customers, this is a vital topic to nail down. Of course, if almost none of your customers are local, then you can skip this one.
Optimizing your pages for the scope of your clients remains a top SEO concern. Submitting your website to a local directory is also important for building your local SEO credibility.
18. How many clients do you work with, and can I talk to some of them?
Word-of-mouth is an important method in growing your own business, but it’s also a good approach to learning about the businesses with whom you plan to partner. Find out if there were any bumps and how they overcame them.
On the topic of client credibility, you might also do a Google search to see if the agency ranks well in their own local market. If they don’t rank well for their locality, ask them why not. Their answer could be very revealing.
19. What case studies can you show me?
A good case study shows how a campaign was approached and what problems were solved. It also shows how the work done resulted in success over time.
Any agency worth their name is going to be proud to show off their best work.
20. What do you do to stay up-to-date on Google updates and industry changes?
Any professional is going to have multiple methods of staying on top of their game. For SEO, the rock-bottom minimum would be periodically checking Google’s blog for webmasters. Ideally, the agency checks with numerous industry leaders and even adds their own research to the mix so they understand more about the ever-changing world of search engine optimization.
21. What information do you need from us to maximize your effectiveness?
The best agencies will want far more than your KPIs. They should give you a long laundry list of questions and other needs so they can know as much as possible about your unique business. Your Google analytics should be on that list. It can tell them a great deal about your site traffic patterns.