Hiring a Good Search Engine Optimizer – What to Know First and How to Proceed

by Dave Curtis on 08/31/2014

in Branding, Grayhat SEO, Greyhat SEO, Keywords, Local Search, Productivity Tools, Search Engine Optimization, SEO, Site Auditing, Small Business SEO, Social Media


This is a daunting question to most non overly technical business owners, and in spite of the fact that there’s lots of free advice on a lot of SEO sites, much of it winds up being overwhelming, confusing, and fairly useless. When I first began learning SEO (long before I called myself an SEO) multiple SEOs sites contradicted one another’s advice and much of the instruction was flat out wrong. That goes less for today I think because good SEOs do tend to be ranking better (now that it’s harder to do so), but I find that even some of their theory based positions are wrong based on my actual hands on experience, particularly in smaller markets.

This brings me to a very important point which is that big SEO firms, SEO firms with big sites, hire content writers to write the information provided on their own SEO sites. I’ve caught more than one of the big SEO SMX Conference circuit personalities in inconsistencies in “their” articles published with their names on them where in Twitter they’ll say something a hundred times over several years such as “I’ve never submitted a sitemap for any of my sites to the search engines” – and then I’ll read an article supposedly written by the same top SEO describing how they build a site wherein the article contains the line “…then I submit the sitemap to the search engines…”. So quite obviously the SEO paid someone with else to author the article. Therefore be wary, even when reading articles on the most respected authority sites. Google likes sites that create lots of unique content, and these top SEO sites have dozens of writers working daily to provide their own sites with just such content. Much of it is quite good, but just not all, and the signatued author is in some cases not the author, a ghost writer is.

This brings up a very important key point which relates to the above, as well as to questions you’ll ask an SEO candidate further below. I’m going to jump to this quickly, and then get back on track. Content is King. Top SEO firms in large market areas like NY and LA are way out-paying the content creation of smaller boutique SEO firms in limited market areas, and content creation man hours and capital are budgeted to the client. Now to getting back on track again.

So the advice you’re getting on the top SEO websites is coming from someone who’s possibly a ghost writer English Major writing research papers for the website – given a quick glance by someone else in the firm, and that’s all. That’s not the same thing as having the English Major edit a piece of work for grammatical and spelling errors written by the SEOs themselves. Working SEOs don’t have time to churn out dozens of SEO articles for themselves per week.

Related to that issue is grammar and punctuation. What you do need is someone who can write clearly and make a point, but not someone who has memorized Strunk & White. Some will claim lack of good spelling or grammar are a reason to disqualify a candidate, but that’s like saying you’d disqualify your mechanic or George Patton for their jobs because neither one of them could spell.

According to Forbes contributing author Joshua Steimle (CEO of MWI, a digital marketing agency with offices in the U.S. and Hong Kong) in his article 4 Tips For Hiring The Right SEO Firm says, among other things, that “A good SEO firm executes tactically. A great SEO firm does that, but is highly creative as well, and creative people tell good stories.”

He also says  “I know of some firms that I wouldn’t hire myself nor recommend to anyone else, and yet they have great looking case studies. In both cases listening to stories is a way to better see the reality behind the company.”

Google says that some simple useful questions to ask an SEO include:

  • Can you show me examples of your previous work and share some success stories?
  • Do you follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines?
  • Do you offer any online marketing services or advice to complement your organic search business?
  • What kind of results do you expect to see, and in what timeframe? How do you measure your success?
  • What’s your experience in my industry?
  • What’s your experience in my country/city?
  • What’s your experience developing international sites?
  • What are your most important SEO techniques?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • How can I expect to communicate with you? Will you share with me all the changes you make to my site, and provide detailed information about your recommendations and the reasoning behind them?

…Many SEOs and other agencies and consultants provide useful services for website owners, including:

  • Review of your site content or structure (the Competitive Site Audit)
  • Technical advice on website development: for example, hosting, redirects, error pages, use of JavaScript
  • Content development
  • Management of online business development campaigns
  • Keyword research
  • SEO training
  • Expertise in specific markets and geographies.

Those are just lists and bullet points though which won’t help you much making an informed decision – however Matt Cutts, Google’s Chief Web Spam Engineer says these things which are helpful to know:



I recently came across an solid article on on SearchEngineLand’s blog “Want To Hire An Insanely Great SEO? Do These 7 Things” by Stephan Spencer, a senior SEO authority on many speaking panels and author of Google Power Search, creator of the Science of SEO and co-author of The Art of SEO now in its second edition, both published by O’Reilly. Additionally Spencer is also the founder of Netconcepts and inventor of the SEO technology platform GravityStream. He also blogs on his own site, Stephan Spencer’s Scatterings. In his article Spencer covers the following points I’m going over, but with with a slightly different perspective and emphasis than I’m placing on my coverage below, because I deal with not with Fortune 500 companies, but with small businesses with micro budgets (Under $6,000), often mom and pop type businesses, and many times without anyone in charge of marketing / branding. So here goes.

First, Find Out Who, Amongst Your Candidates, is Actually Paying Attention to Instructions:

Many of us have heard about children being given tests which first said to carefully read all instructions and test problems first prior to beginning. The test included very large math problems with no room to work out the answers, and a very short time to complete it. The first instruction said to read ALL questions before answering, while the last question said to put your name on the paper and turn in without answering any of the previous questions.

If you give a set of instructions to a prospective applicant make sure you put something in the instructions that will let you know how closely they’re paying attention to detail. Search Engine Optimization is all about detail. If you don’t, or if the candidate doesn’t comply and you hire them anyway, you may be stuck with a dud causing problems for your site rather than curing them, and your company’s Google traffic could fall off.

Large Professional SEO Agencies Aren’t Small Freelance Contractor SEO Individuals (Small SEO Businesses are Also Known as Boutique SEO Firms)

Some say that checking all of a candidate’s social media profile information is important. Personally and professionally I disagree.  I work with not for profits and individuals concerned with social injustices and other areas where I don’t have a lot of money to donate, and my part is more direct verbal involvement. It is my civic duty as a citizen to take part in the community whether it be to help prevent the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, the death of the reefs in the Florida Keys, blasting and mining near my home town, or generally seeking to revers some other negative trend. As someone formerly involved in scouting my role one one of my Facebook accounts is often to promote positive change through community interaction with others. My LinkedIn account is purely business, and I have more than one Facebook account, so if need be I can easily close down one to make it “disappear”. Anyone can do the same and suspend one account for a week while it’s being researched by a prospective employer, and then re-activate it once the job is assured. The same goes for a Twitter account. Mine is SEO related, but I have nine Twitter accounts). In my main account I’m dialoging primarily with other SEOs and SEMs etc and following their posts. So don’t be too overly confident when using social media profiles to judge a candidate.

Society for Creative Anachronism Event.

Society for Creative Anachronism Event. Face it – Geeks are Geeks and Some of us Even Still go to Start Trek Conventions.

Another word about an SEO candidate potentially representing your company on a  Facebook page is that when the individual is added to the page as an Admin the posts are not shown as belonging to or coming from an individual but only from the page itself. So as marketing creates a public “persona” and reputation for a company, it builds the brand image. As long as guidelines are in place and communicated to the candidate hired (the obvious being “no swearing, no overstating product or service capabilities, be polite to everyone who comments,” etc.) then the fact that the candidate belongs to the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and likes to drink mead out of a steer horn with his or her buddies on weekends should not play a big role in the hiring process.

Perhaps a more important aspect of Social Media would be to question the prospect on their understanding and knowledge of how social media can be used to enhance marketing, branding, conversions and sales. and the ongoing controversy over this – “When done right it works” vs “It has almost no impact at all.”

Use Modern SEO Specific Questions In The Interview

Good SEO absolutely requires remaining up to date, so hiring a good SEO requires that you know a few of the right things to ask and look for. (Hopefully nobody reading this article looking to hire an SEO still thinks it’s having your site submitted to hundreds of search engines, or getting your site listed in thousands of directories). One area Google has specifically gone on record for back in 2009 (five years since this article was written) was that Meta Keywords have no value in Google, and Yahoo and Bing have said the same things. Zero value. So ask how they would go about optimizing Meta Keywords.

How Important Are Keyword Metatags in SEO?

An honest candidate will come right out and tell you that they’re worthless and that they don’t use them. Probe them on it to see if it’s actually because they don’t know or if it’s just unimportant to them to tell you because they might think it’s a stumbling block in place for them to get hired if you still think they’re relevant. A concerned SEO may want to avoid confronting what they may think are your erroneous beliefs on Meta Keywords in the same way a good doctor has to deal with a sick but ignorant patient – them treating the patient’s illness with modern means is more important than convincing the patient that chopping off a chickens head and dancing around a fire later on isn’t what’s going to cure them.

Ask About Meta Descriptions

Working on meta descriptions is not of primary importance for ranking, it’s of importance only after the title tags in order to gain click conversions and improve transactions. While the page’s Meta Description and Page Title will ideally appear in search results together, more often Google doesn’t use the Meta Description and chooses text directly from the page itself, so while the description isn’t going to directly affect ranking, if used by Google as a snippet in the search returns, it may induce searchers to click if they like what they see.

Ask About Keyword Density on Each Page

First, let me say that there used to be a measure we went by, between 5% and 7% was good, with neighboring keywords and with changed up key phrases (sporty black Honda, Honda, black and sporty, etc.) And there are SEO plugins for WordPress (One by Yoast comes to mind) which measure density and even have a little traffic light type “green, yellow, red” system “too little, within range, too many” – but Yoast’s SEO plugin has a better use. That use is for creating custom social media titles and descriptions with separate images for Facebook and LinkedIn. The first is obviously more consumer oriented, while the second is more B2B. Those are delivered only to those networks, while the normal SEO title and whatever image Google decides to pick up on the page are delivered everywhere else, as well as in search engine results. The actual  traffic light type “green, yellow, red” system is of far less value today than it was when Google was still prominently using keywords and keyword density in determining a page’s value, and today adhering to those lights can actually harm the page’s ranking if not done right. Doing it right relies on viewing the page as a human being and seeing when too much is just plain too much. The first time it becomes obvious that the keyword is being stuffed – it’s too much, even in Yoast, so pull it out.

Google Makes Hundreds of Changes to Their Algorithm a Year – So I’ll Stick With The Two Major Updates. Panda and Penguin in That Order.

Panda is looking for junk value pages with little content (the 2011 Panda update came directly after the Caffeine update in late 2009 and it affected 12 percent of searches worldwide), while Penguin is looking for junk spam-links to your site. The SEO interviewee should know the difference and be able to tell you flat out what each one does.

The Pigeon Update

Also watch the video below and ask about another one of the latest updates called Pigeon. Pigeon (named by SEOs) is called such because like a homing pigeon with limited range positively benefits local businesses with good internet presence (Google Plus account activity etc) and full content. It does so in good part by using location determined by IP, mobile data and GPS – and pretty much favors small businesses in searches over big brand names locally.

Hummingbird Update

“Hummingbird”. Hummingbird, like the small bird with the incredibly fast wings, seeks to deliver instant responses to search queries using “intent based” natural language queries and trying to match results to what the searcher is actually intending to find. This update was still a bit iffy at the time of this writing in my opinion because I’m an expert searcher and have been seeing very poor results in Google compared to what I had been used to seeing over the years. As the Hummingbird update is adjusted I’m hoping this situation will only improve – but for your prospect (if your SEO prospect has heard of Hummingbird) the answer you’re looking for when asking about how to deal with it is that they will continue to adjust the SEO based on analytics to bring it in line with what the terms searchers are actually using. Related to Hummingbird is the use of Schema for creating Rich Snippets in search results for all different kinds of things from events to products to organizations etc.

Mobilegeddon, Google’s First Quarter of 2015 Mobile Friendly Compatibility and related SSL (HTTPS) Site Compatibility

Here we get to making certain the site is “responsive”, meaning mobile friendly for smart phones and tablets. The site resizes text and images on the fly. At about the same time as Mobilegeddon (late April), a site’s use of an HTTPS SSL Certivicate to boost its rankings went into effect. This is so even if the site doesn’t have an on site hosted shopping cart or doesn’t sell anything.


Your prospective SEO should know how to implement Schema on pages, even if your only hiring the SEO to update and refresh the site.

As author John E. Lincoln reported in October of 2013 SearchEngineLand.com:

“As we move forward into a new era of semantic search, I expect to see this markup added to many more websites. I believe that the Google Hummingbird update and greater dependence on Knowledge Graph has made schema.org all the more important.

As Google works harder to connect the dots between entities online, in an attempt to adapt to entity and category based queries, schema.org markup will be key. Google wants to categorize the web and specify specific entity points, schema.org is one way to make this happen.” – Learn more

Ask How They Get Around Google’s Hiding Organic Returns with Results Not Provided

What you should ask for from the SEO candidate is if they have any experience in Pay Per Click Search Marketing. If so then the way to access both the Paid and Organic search data is to link the Google Webmasters account with the Google Webmasters account in order to recouping some of  the query data for use doing organic search optimization. (Read more details on the Google Paid & Organic report here).

Next Ask What Tools They’re Using

I personally like Majestic SEO. Someone using Majestic SEO should be focusing in on Trust Flow and Citation Flow. Years ago Majestic SEO was using another metric called ACRank. Flow Metrics are intended for use as a part of a link analysis solution, so it is important to assess many aspects of a sites link profile. So the two areas of focus in use on Majestic SEO today are Citation Flow and Trust Flow. There is no more ACRank. Real working SEOs are always learning, always measuring, always testing – and using whatever tools are available within the client’s budgeted SEO campaign. I also like the browser tool set available through SEOBOOK that work within Firefox. SEO for Firefox is a free Firefox extension which adds many search engine optimization data points into Google’s SERPs and Yahoo!’s SERPs on the fly including:

  • PR: (Google PageRank) an estimated measure of global link authority
  • Age: age pulled from Archive.org, shows the first time a page was indexed by Archive.org’s spider. The theory is that if Archive.org found a page so did many of the major search engines.
  • Links: (Yahoo! linkdomain) shows a rough estimate of the total number of links pointing at a domain
  • .edu Link: (Yahoo! .edu linkdomain ) shows a rough estimate of the total number of .edu links pointing at a domain
  • .edu Page Link: (Yahoo! .edu link ) shows a rough estimate of the total number of .edu links pointing at a specific page
  • .gov Link: (Yahoo! .gov linkdomain ) shows a rough estimate of the total number of .gov links pointing at a domain
  • Page Links: (Yahoo! link) shows a rough estimate of the total number of links pointing at a page
  • del.icio.us: number of times a URL has been bookmarked on Del.icio.us. Heavily skewed toward techy / Web 2.0 stuff.
  • Technorati: an estimate of the total number of links to a site from blogs
  • Alexa: rank based on website traffic . Heavily skewed toward internet marketing and webmaster related resources.
  • Cached: (Google site:) shows how many pages from a site are indexed in Google
  • dmoz: searches the Google Directory to count the total number of pages from a site that are listed in DMOZ, and the total number of pages listed in DMOZ that reference that URL.
  • Bloglines: shows you how many people are subscribed to a particular blog via Bloglines.
  • dir.yahoo.com: is a site listed in the Yahoo! Directory or not.
  • WhoIs: makes it easy to look up the whois data for any site.

Make sure your prospective SEO is using some or all of these and also is at the very least a member of MOZ, if not using MOZ’s Search Engine Optimization tools.

Pro Tools at $99 Per Month:

  • Mentions Tool – Fresh Web Explorer
  • Search Engine Ranking – Rank Tracker
  • Keyword Optimization – On-Page Grader
  • Keyword Difficulty – Keyword Difficulty
  • Crawl Test – Crawl Test

Free Tools:

  • Link Analysis – Open Site Explorer
  • Social Analytics – Followerwonk
  • SEO Toolbar – MozBar
  • Local Marketing – Moz Local
  • Google Changes – MozCast

Once You’ve Narrowed Your Choice Down to a Few SEO Candidates:

Call in Your Marketing Manager if they have experience working directly with SEOs while in previous positions, or hire a known good SEO consultant to do the evaluation for you. Many excellent SEOs are too busy to take on another job at the moment but will gladly take on the job of interviewing to evaluate your SEO prospect and run them through the gauntlet with pointed questions about how they’ve dealt with past companies they’ve worked for and this includes finding out whether your prospect is using grey-hat or black-hat tactics which can and will definitely hurt your company’s bottom line sooner or later.

Small Business Search Engine Optimization

While Stephan Spencer’s own article is excellent, small local businesses with one to five staff members are lacking marketing budgets to help them brand themselves simply don’t have the resources to compete head on with companies in their own area employing 20 to 50 people and having their own marketing departments, content writers, SEO firm, and websites with thousands of pages of content.  However what Stephan Spencer is absolutely right about is that you as a smaller business absolutely must hire the right search engine optimization professional or firm.

Site Auditing, SEO Consultation and Hands On, and SEO Evaluation Services

My firm, Brooksville Computer, can provide you with a Site Audit to outline the areas of concern with your own site as well as determine the strengths of your business competitors. In that Site Audit I’ll let you know if the business showing up ahead of you in the search results has 5,000 pages and you only have 200 – and a lot more. I will also do SEO consulting to provide you with a “roadmap” based upon the audit giving you and your webmaster the knowledge needed for you to chart a course based on information and not guesswork. If you’re looking to hire an SEO and require someone to evaluate your candidate before signing on the dotted line, I can perform that duty myself or with a partner who runs an SEO training school. And last, if you’re looking for a good SEO candidate and are interested in hiring me for my services I’d be happy to stand up to your interview scrutiny and have another qualified seasoned SEO fire away.

On Thumbtack at: Search engine optimization

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