In this article we (Irony and Connie together) are combining resources here in response to this thread. Although we use the term SEO, keep in mind that this could relate to anyone in the SEO Industry, such as someone who offers link building services.
In fact, many of our suggestions will not only relate to the SEO industry, but to anyone considering doing business with another Company. Especially if you do not know anything about the Company.
If you own a business and website and are considering hiring an SEO consultant who will help you increase the amount of free traffic to your website and improve your sales, you have to do a thorough research before actually hiring an SEO. A good choice of an SEO vendor will ensure improvements in your web presence; a bad choice can ruin it. Above all, you should avoid the co-called “blackhat” SEOs who might apply their dishonest SEO methods without your knowledge and get your website permanently banned from the search engines.
Where to start?
There are a lot of ways to create an initial list of SEO companies to choose from. You can do a search in your favorite search engine for various keywords related to SEO, like, for example, “search engine placement”, “SEO services for small businesses”, “SEO experts” and many others. You can pick your prospects from the organic listings or the sponsored listings, whichever you trust more. You can visit a few major SEO forums and contact moderators and/or active members, or post a request for professional help. You can use Elance (in this case, you need to be especially careful), or ask your friend if he knows a good SEO company. Some SEOs will actually find you and offer their services before you even consider looking for them. But once you compiled your lists and got the information about their approximate prices, it’s time to do your research.
First of all, eliminate those who are too cheap: no decent SEO campaign can be run on $300. Eliminate those who are too expensive, as well, unless your site is really huge. Then look at those whose costs are realistic, more closely.
Quick overview of the various sources of information
If you are researching a Company, the first thing to do is go to a Search Engine such as Google, and search for the Company name. This will tell you several things about the Company.
1) It will tell you how strong they are for their Company name.
2) Next it may tell you if there are any good or bad comments about the Company on the Internet. This is not fool proof which we will deal with in more detail.
3) You could check with the BBB (Better Business Bureau). http://www.bbbonline.org/ The BBB is a US based organization, but they also operate in some other countries.
4) In the US you could contact the Attorney General’s office for the state involved to see if there were any complaints filed against the Company. In the US you can find links to every Attorney General’s website here. We know that Australia has Government agencies where you can check. Like in the US, it that would best be done on the state level. Here are a couple of links. This is Consumer Affairs in Victoria
This is the Office of Fair Trading in New South Wales
We are not sure about other countries at this point. When we looked into the situation in the UK, Canada and Russia (with the help of our friends), the indication is these countries don’t have anything similar. From the information posted on one of the Russian Customer Protection Agency websites it looks like they will be glad to help you and even represent you in court if you bought bad quality food that made you feel sick, or shoes that fell apart three days later, but they don’t look into anything IT-related yet. If you know of a Government agency in any other country, please feel free to post a web address.
5) You could do a WhoIs lookup. This would tell you how long the Company has been in business on the Web. I would not base a decision about a Company based solely on how long they have been in business, but it is something you should consider. It could also tell you if a Company is hiding part of their information. Some registrars allow that. If they are hiding some of their information, I would wonder why?
Now, let’s look into more details of your future research.
The name says it all
Do a search in the engines for the company’s name, and click through links. If you find out that articles written by the company’s staff, get reprinted by authoritative websites like searchengineguide.com, webpronews.com or isedb.com, it’s a good sign. If you find negative feedback on the company in the industry-specific blogs/forums, you need to pay close attention to it.
Read it carefully. Does it sound like a well thought out, constructive criticism or a poorly prepared revenge? Does the author of the negative feedback sound confident and get the facts straight? Do you trust this person? What does your gut feeling tell you?
Do a search for “search engine spam classification”, “SEO spam classification”. Look through the resources that appear high in the search. Read them carefully. If your prospective SEO vendor is accused of spam by other SEOs, compare the facts that support the accusation, with the SEO spam classification and the search engine quality guidelines.
Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
Yahoo! Search Content Quality Guidelines
Site Owner Help Guidelines for successful indexing (MSN)
What can a website tell you?
If you look at the website of your potential SEO consultant, you’ll find a lot of areas of interest, very useful for your research.
Read the content on the home page. Is it well written, clear, concise and understandable? Has it been proofread? Use copyscape.com to make sure your future SEO uses original content, not just a few lines stolen here and a few paragraphs scraped there.
All these factors can give you an idea on your future SEO’s professional abilities, though even the worst W3C errors are not as bad as blackhat SEO tricks. If you have to choose between a whitehat who still uses deprecated tags, and a blackhat who is a CSS guru, choose the first option. This way you are still safer.
Do the site:www.domainname.com search in Google for the domain name of your SEO. If it shows no results, chances are the site is already banned. Ask your prospect to explain this fact, or simply walk away quietly.
Click Ctrl+A to highlight the whole page. If you suddenly see more text than you could see before, the site is using hidden text – the oldest and silliest blackhat SEO trick. Avoid this company.
Lastly, look at their testimonials, if any. Remember, testimonials can be genuine or faked. Sometimes it’s possible to guess which are which by simply reading them, but if you are still in doubt, contact the people who gave the testimonials (provided there is enough data for this).
The questions to ask your prospective SEO consultant
1. Could you please show us the sites you have optimized? (If they can also show you some impressive rankings in the engines, that’s fine, but don’t get obsessed with rankings. Look at the sites themselves and ask yourself if you like the business image of the site and if you would buy from it).
2. Will you work with my site or create a new site for SEO purposes? (Stay away from those who will tell you they will create a new site on a separate domain. A good SEO will work with your own site. In some cases it will probably be necessary to completely redesign your site, but there is no need to bring a separate domain in.).
3. Do you use doorway pages or cloaking? (If they say yes in any way, shape or form, stay away. Notice that they can use other terms instead the “doorway” word, e.g. “attraction pages”. It doesn’t matter how they call them, such pages are still spam.)
4. Do you guarantee rankings? (Don’t hire those who do! Professional SEOs know that guaranteeing certain rankings is impossible, because rankings vary from day to day and from datacenter to datacenter. Only the search engine engineers have the power to assign particular rankings to web pages. The only way to guarantee positions is to use PPC (pay per click), which some unscrupulous consultants would at times dress as SEO.)
How did you find about this Company? Was it the result of a Spam e-mail? We would never use the product or service of any Company that sends unsolicited e-mails. We believe you have to be leery of any Company who uses Spam e-mail.
Did they cold call you? To us a cold call is just another form of Spam. In some cases that is worse than Spam e-mail. Now you have a trained telemarketer on the phone that is trained to break down your resistance to their offer.
An ethical SEO would wait for being asked for a quote/proposal. Of course, if you posted a request in a forum, a freelance website or a business network and asked interested SEO providers to contact you, that’s a different story altogether.
Does their offer sound to good to be true? It probably is.
Do they tell you they have a special relationship with the SEs? They are lying.
Was it the result of a search on a SE, or did a friend recommend them? The best recommendation you can get is from a friend, or at least someone you trust.
Should I hire an SEO who is new to this profession?
That’s for you to decide. “New” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, and everyone has to start somewhere. Ask them to show you the websites they played with when learning SEO. Ask them if they will offer their services at lower prices than those of established SEOs (an ethical newbie should definitely do so). Be twice as careful with your research if your potential consultant is new to this business.
Exposing SEO companies in professional forums: good or bad?
Do we believe exposing a SEO or Company is a good thing to do? Yes. Why? If the Company is weak on their Company name a popular forum or blog may show up in the SERPS when an individual searches for the Company name.
We recommend that beyond your search on a SE for the Company name, your next stop should be a related forum.
Unfortunately, some popular SE related forums do not allow the posting of a Company by name. We have never understood that kind of policy, because we believe that is where a lot (if not most) people will look. We also think this is the kind of place most people will post their complaints about a Company.
We do not think that people typically complain to the BBB, or to Government agencies. Even when they do, we have to wonder how many people contact these agencies to see if there is a complaint.
One problem is that the Internet is still fairly new. For a lot of people going into business on the Internet this is a new business experience. It may well be their first business experience. It may be well and good to post about principles. It may be well and good to say research. It may be well and good to say buyer beware.
It may be well and good to say, if you don’t have the knowledge to protect yourself, you should not get into business on the Internet.
Where did most of us learn? On the Internet. How many of us who started an online business had the knowledge at that time that we have today?
Of course, people ought to research a Company they are going to hire. It just seems to us that the policy of some forums hinders that research.
One problem with forums or Blogs who will not speak out is they actually allow the hiding of information from someone who may actually be researching.
Forums and blogs often hide behind the fear of a lawsuit. In reality it often looks more like they have the policy of not naming Companies to protect their friends in the industry, who may not be totally ethical.
We also find these policies to be inconsistent. Forums and Blogs that will not allow the “outing” (so to speak) of a Company, who ripped someone off, will allow links to a Company that promotes Spammy Tools, etc.
If you wanted to find out the good, bad or ugly about a web host, or registrar, there are a lot of forums where you could find that kind of information such as http://www.webhostingtalk.com/, or http://www.dnlodge.com/.
Why is it that some SEO forums will not allow a SEO, or Company to be named? Forums about webhost or registrars do not seem to have a problem with the naming of a bad Company.
We believe it is only common sense to expect to find something about a Company by searching on that Companies name. Of course that means, blogs and forums are going to have to allow a Company to be named.
Here are a couple of examples.
Search Term Rapid Rank: Search
Search Term UFindUs: Search
Of course, it involves additional responsibility on the part of the forum administration or the blog owner, to avoid libel and abuse. But this doesn’t mean the “ostrich policy” of not naming anyone is the best solution.
When the infamous Traffic Power ruined hundreds of their clients overnight by getting their websites banned from Google, they were still hiding behind their clean BBB record (which remained so for some time after that). In search of truth, people rushed to forums, where the situation was already widely discussed. Even those who usually don’t allow naming bad SEO companies, made an exception for Traffic Power. Unfortunately, there are other SEO companies that might be doing equally dangerous things to their clients, and nobody is going to make exceptions for them also. But what’s the difference?
One of the places (about the only one) where shady SEO practices are freely exposed is IHelpYou SEO forums. You are welcome to visit IHY and find out if the company you are considering was ever caught doing unethical stuff.
We would like to wish you good luck. None of the above mentioned methods of researching SEO companies is 100% fool-proof, but God helps those who help themselves, so, if you have done your homework really well, you should be fine.