1) Read Google's and Yahoo's Quality Guidelines. Although there is no official rule book, it is important to take a few minutes with the Quality Guidelines from Google and Yahoo. By understanding the positive and negative things the engines look for, you can better understand what your prospective SEO partner is trying to sell you. (Any SEOs who have not read these pages, now is your chance.)
2) Don't respond to unsolicited emails from SEOs. A recommendation straight from Google - "Reserve the same skepticism for unsolicited email about search engines as you do for 'burn fat at night' diet pills or requests to help transfer funds from deposed dictators." Inevitably you will be on the wrong path before you start. For those who have fallen for the 419 scam, I have a bridge I would like to sell you...
3) Prepare an RFP. Having a document to give to prospective vendors is an excellent idea. This doesn't mean to copy some RFP boilerplate, and it doesn't have to be more than a few pointed questions. Give yourself a shot at comparing apples to apples:
- Explain your keyword target determination process and list tools used.
- Detail the competitive analysis process.
- How do you build link popularity?
- Describe changes you typically make to a client site.
- Do you have Web programming experience?
- Do you use automated tools?
- How do you deal with XML sitemaps? Robots.txt?
- Do you pay for placement or clicks?
- Describe how you deal with site content.
4) Reach out to your network. Now that you have your RFP document in hand, it is time to identify potential partners to solicit responses. Treat this like any other service and ask for recommendations from your network. Contact your connections at LinkedIn. Check the Chamber of Commerce for a local professional. Ask friends or colleagues for positive experiences. You will quickly find worthy recipients of your RFP and likely will learn of others to avoid.
5) Rely on established third-party resources and submit a request for services through them. Particularly for smaller firms with a limited budget, it is challenging to identify a SEO that will positively impact the bottom line. Seek supporting information from third party sites. Check out the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization for major players as well as worthy consultants. Use the site to send a request for services.
6) Ask prospective SEOs for references and live examples of work. You asked for references from the guy who cleaned your gutters last fall, so why not from your potential SEO partners? If they can't give you a few clients that continue to be happy with their services, it is likely you will not end up happy either. If they can't demonstrate meaningful results, then they likely will not be able to help you with your challenging search terms.
7) Don't ignore your instincts. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Google specifically says that "no one can guarantee top rankings on Google." SEOs that promise instant results and incredible placements just aren't being truthful, even if their processes are above-board. If they start talking about something that runs counter to the Guidelines above, move to the next option.
8) Set collaborative benchmarks. Winning top placement for some specific phrase is not the real goal. Quality traffic is the goal. Visitors to the site need to convert into customers. To make your SEO partner both effective and accountable, share your site analytics and set meaningful benchmarks.
9) Be prepared to pay for quality services. As with any quality professionals, word gets around about consultants and firms that provide quality work. Their services and time are valuable. Think about how much you would pay to create and distribute a radio advertisement. Think about how a positive result will end up paying you back. Tie this investment into bottom line, and spend wisely.
10) Be patient. They don't call it "organic SEO" for nothing. Don't rush into a relationship. The things that your SEO will recommend to do with your site will have an impact on your "permanent record," and if there are problems with the optimizer's techniques, you as the domain owner are the one left holding the bag. If you need traffic tomorrow, buy some AdWords. SEO is all about the long-term strategy of building value and extending the usefulness of your site.
Whether you are looking to find some help with a corporate branding site or you are looking to optimize a 100,000 item catalog, the process of finding the right partner has many of the same elements.