How to Compare SEO Companies


Every industry has its shady characters. Luckily, they can usually be avoided because we know what to look for. We stay away from car salesmen with too much pomade, teachers with criminal records and anyone who leaves a bluetooth headset in their ear all the time.

But what about new professions without clear warning signs? This article examines how to compare SEO companies by examining their rhetoric, industry practices and ethics. To prepare for the agency interview process, I have armed you with a comparison cheat sheet. Bust it out for the question session after their pitch and the bad guys will never know what hit ‘em.

Comparing SEO agencies

Big Promises

Shady SEOs love to make big promises. “We guarantee a 5x increase in organic traffic” or “a #1 ranking on Google.” That last one’s always my favorite. Unless they have a godfather in Google’s C-suite who owes a favor, no one can promise anything from search engines. The best an agency can do is outline their goals and how they plan to reach them.

To compare agencies, ask, “What guarantees can you make about returns on my investment?” Listen for the agency that only promises to work their asses off to achieve sustainable month-after-month growth in organic search traffic. Quick fixes and shortcuts are simply not worth the gamble because it is just a matter of time until search engines get wise and seek vengeance like a scene from Casino. You are looking for a slow, steady climb with no chance of bust. This is your online reputation, after all, so don’t try your luck with a gambler. The House always wins.

Familiar Client Portfolio

A SEO company’s portfolio says a lot about their experience and level of service. Would you prefer an agency that worked with Harvard University or Downtown Upstairs Technical Institute? The answer is obvious. If they were good enough for the best in another industry, they are more likely to be the best for you, too.

To compare: “Have you worked with anyone that I’ve heard of?” Count the seconds of delay or stuttering. If they can’t offer any strong, sustainable organizations, then you probably don’t want your logo on their customer list, anyway.

Adoption of Social Media

Many SEOs hate to talk about the influence of social media on search because it is threatening. Whether they like it or not, social and SEO are becoming codependent, and that bond will continue to grow as search engines add weight to social signals. Duane Forrester, from Bing, has preached the value of social media all year on the Webmaster Center blog. Some really smart guy named Andrew Garberson has been talking a lot about search + social too.

To compare: “Do you incorporate social media with your SEO?” A good SEO’s eyes should light up at the mention of social because retweets, shares and +1s are exciting tools to improve link building and increase traffic. A positive reaction also shows that the agency is forward thinking, which translates to longevity and sustainability for you and your organization.

Impact of Google Algorithm Updates

Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm updates (continue to) hurt websites of every size. For some perspective, about ⅓ of the SEO calls that we receive at LunaMetrics are from business owners or webmasters who witness a mysterious drop in online traffic. It doesn’t take long to learn that they, or more likely one of their hired consultants, participated in risky tactics called black hat SEO. The search engines figured out their game and penalized them accordingly.

To compare: “How have the algorithm updates influenced your SEO practices?” Big changes should be a warning sign because it means that they gamble with shortcuts, eventually lose and have to scramble to recover. A good SEO agency responds by shrugging and saying, “They haven’t really affected us. We keep a close eye on them, but it’s just business as usual.”

Trade Secrets

Lots of SEOs act like their strategy is the agency’s secret sauce. Good SEO is 70 percent science and 30 percent art. That means they should provide detailed reports on the majority of their labors. I mean, I would invite clients to pull up a chair at my desk if I wasn’t afraid of boring them with source code or suffocating them with coffee breath. There should really be nothing to hide.

To compare: “How often do you report on progress?” Once at the end of the contract? Not good enough. Find an agency that issues updates once per week. If they can’t provide that frequency, there is a good chance that they have nothing to report or worse nothing within the boundaries of Google’s best practices.

Don’t be intimidated by SEO agencies or their processes. They are working for you, aren’t they? If you have trouble during the interviews, just consult the SEO comparison cheat sheet. And always avoid people with bluetooths!


Andrew Garberson is the Director of the Digital Marketing Strategy department. He has led digital marketing efforts in a variety of settings, including agency, entrepreneurial and nonprofit environments, and has master's degrees in business administration and mass communications. An Iowan at heart and Pittsburgher in spirit, Andrew commutes on his 10-speed most days between March and December -- after all, he's only human.

  • Sayf Sharif

    The #1 Ranking in Google is my favorite too. YOU DONT HAVE TO PAY UNTIL YOU ARE ON THE FIRST PAGE!*

    *including branded search or weird long tale keywords for a specific blog post that we’ll write which of course you’ll come up first for…

  • I love that one, Sayf. I can’t even count anymore the number of clients that have told me that that is what their previous company was doing for them. OR what a new company is telling them that they’ll do, lol. So ridiculous.

  • I would suggest using even more criteria, e.g. whether team members assigned to the project are active bloggers / researchers / speakers or not. Risky agencies also tend to avoid contracts based on results and prefer fixed monthy fees instead.

  • Andrew Garberson

    @Sayf and Mike: The things they promise are crazy. They’re also outdated. Last time I checked, no one receives a check in the mail for ranking well on Google. It’s all about what you do with your spots in the SERPs. That’s why you get paid the big bucks, Sayf.

    @ Lukas: That’s a great point. SEOs talk so much about online authority, but are they authorities in their industry? Are they invited to speak at events or contribute to familiar publications? I’ll add that to “How to Compare SEO Companies 2.0”

  • Andrew Garberson

    Just received some criticism that couldn’t be published due to a string of slurs it contained. Essentially, it questioned why instant results and secretive practices should be avoided. As the author points out, those tactics achieve results, sometimes in a matter of hours.

    Every SEO, myself included, has personal sites with which we test the boundaries of search algorithms. They serve as a vital home laboratory to research and test theories. Without that heightened intimacy and understanding, we would only be content writers and web developers (not that there is anything inferior about those occupations; They’re just not SEOs).

    Instant results from black hat tactics are fine for my personal blog because there are no consequences when algorithm updates knock it down in the SERPs or penalize it for noncompliance with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Maybe a few less visits, but no loss in revenue or reputation.

    However, this post does not speak to personal bloggers. It offers advice to Fortune 500 companies and international NPOs that cannot gamble with SEO because a sudden drop in traffic after an algorithm update (that penalizes shady links, let’s say) results in angry investors or fewer donations. To these organizations, SEO is not a 40-yard dash. Their operation is a marathon that will outlast our careers and our children’s careers and so on.

    So, you’re right. Ten quick .edu links to a Mom & Pop client will certainly pay off for you and them. But that strategy is not enough for us or anyone with whom we work. That’s why I stand by my post (and white hat SEO).

    Thanks for your constructive criticism.

  • berry

    Acceording to me i asked u that e.g whether team members assigned to the project are active bloggers / researchers / speakers or not. Risky agencies also tend to avoid contracts based on results and prefer fixed monthy fees instead.

  • A brilliantly written blog about how to compare the various SEO companies. With these points in mind now, choosing one of the best SEO companies will be a piece of cake for me. A must read for any company wishing to hire such a company in the future.

    Avoiding a SEO company providing big promises is something which everyone should know about. I know that companies usually fall for such companies and ultimately have to regret their decision of hiring such a company. This point has really caught my eye.

    This blog has made me see light in numerous factors. Has cleared a lot of doubts in my mind as well. I would like to thank the writer once again for coming up with this blog.

  • Thank you for this information. As a newbie to SEO it will really help me out. I appreciate your sharing!

  • Andrew Garberson

    Sure, Keri. Glad we could help.

  • Mahara Tucker

    I enjoyed your blog post, Andrew. In every area of life, there are people who want to take short cuts. As human beings, we like instant gratification! The truth is, taking risky shortcuts almost always ends up creating problems that cause a lot of stress. In addition, the desired results usually end up taking longer.I’m all for doing it right the first time…

  • Andrew Garberson

    Mahara, you’re definitely right about the shortcuts. As far as risk, I feel like it’s all about the happy medium. We need to be consistent yet dynamic, conservative yet open minded. No one said it was an easy job, right?

  • I like the statement “Good SEO is 70 percent science and 30 percent art” read out loud in the office and my boss added that great SEO is these things plus 20 percent magic:)

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