Look on any marketing or web design company’s website and the chances are they’ll claim they do SEO. While some may do great work, some are just chancers.

Even amongst the specialist agencies, some businesses are much more effective at what they do than others. But how can you tell the difference between the well-qualified and snake oil merchants?

A few well placed questions should do the trick:

Can you guarantee rankings?

No one can guarantee rankings, unless Matt Cutts has started taking back-handers. Someone who says they can is trying either to deceive you or doesn’t know what they are talking about. 

That’s not to say a search marketing firm won’t be prepared to enter into some kind of performance-based deal where you both share the risk, but anyone who promises to obtain a certain keyword ranking is barking up the wrong tree.

Will you provide me with ranking reports?

Let’s be honest, with personalised search, real time and all the other shenanigans the engines have been up to recently, the long term prospects of ranking reports has a lot in common with the history of the dodo.

Again many agencies will still include a ranking report as part of a more involved analytics based search report, but they’ll let you know that you need to take any ranking report with a shovel of salt.

Do you have a link building system?

Any link building you do should be holistic and based on building relationships or making content. Anyone who claims to have a link building ‘system’ I would steer well clear of.

The best case scenario is they have a “process” they call a “system”.

More likely they have a cookie cutter link network they drop your site into.

Even if it does work in the short term as soon as you stop paying your retainer all your link equity will disappear.

Do you want a link from our footer?

Maybe it’s because I see link building as an art form rather than a chore, but I tend to look down on SEO firms that ask for links from their clients on their home page footer.

My logic goes a bit like this: If they have to rely on links from people they have commercial relationships with, perhaps they don’t have the skills required to carry out a decent link building campaign.

Do you recommend buying links?

Google have explicitly stated they object to paid links. Google never explicitly state anything so I would guess they’re pretty certain on the party line here. Having said that I don’t see paid links as an ethical issue I see them as a risk issue.

If you’re in business for as short a time as possible with no plan for the future, maybe it makes sense to burn the boats and see if a paid link campaign will work. But I’ve never dealt with a client who was prepared to risk all their current Google traffic on a small chance of getting some more.

Will we see results after month one?

If they say yes, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about. There are some circumstances where a site’s been so poorly optimised that a few small tweaks will rocket you up the rankings. But as web developers get more SEO-savvy we’re seeing fewer and fewer of these kinds of project.

Far more common is a site that’s doing reasonably well that needs that extra effort to really do well. For these kinds of projects you’re going to require long term tactics which are less likely to see immediate improvements and more likely cause smaller but more consistent on-going increases rather than hockey stick growth.

Fortunately it’s now fairly easy to create a short list of reputable agencies that offer SEO services but a few clever questions can quickly help you identify those who really know what they’re doing and those who have seen the success of their rivals and jumped on the bandwagon.