We live in the era of the fake guru. They are all over social media, with promises that they have hacked the code for success if you adopt their simple system for a low price. The good news is that with the right questions, it’s not hard to sniff out if an SEO company is credible or out for a quick buck. Here are nine questions I’d recommend asking before investing in an SEO partner:

1. How long have you been doing this?

It makes sense to hire someone with at least a couple of years of experience. Things can change from one Google update to the next, so look for somebody who takes a long-term approach rather than using techniques that might not work in a few months.

2. How will you improve my rankings?

Modern SEO requires a holistic strategy and experienced execution, and if an agency is doing this right, it will be transparent about its strategy. But if an SEO company dances around explaining their processes, it probably isn’t qualified or just wants to cash your check and doesn’t care about results.

3. How do you approach backlinks?

Backlinks (when another website links back to yours) have been important to SEO since Google came onto the scene with its PageRank algorithm, and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

What is PageRank, and why are backlinks valuable? PageRank is a core part of Google’s algorithm that counts backlinks as a “vote” in the search engine popularity contest. And because one good backlink is more valuable than multiple cheap alternatives, quality is more important than quantity.

No self-respecting SEO provider would pursue low-quality backlinks, and the shady ones won’t admit to it, so it is up to you to get a feel for how an SEO provider might approach backlinks. While there are countless ways to pursue backlinks, two methods to stay away from would include any mention of the words “forum signatures” (stuffing a link in a never-to-be-used-again forum bio) or “link directories” (websites that exist as a worthless list of links, unused by real humans, just to get a link).

A good SEO company can and will communicate transparently about its link-building strategies. So if any company says it can’t discuss its methods because “they’re proprietary,” run!

4. What do you track?

SEO can get technical, so you don’t need to know everything, but most SEO companies will likely tell you that they track:

  • Rankings: You should be able to keep tabs on what target keywords are moving up (or down) with ranking reports.
  • Traffic: A traffic report should show your search traffic for a specific time frame (i.e., a month or year) compared against a previous range.
  • Conversions: Experienced SEO companies know that the money is in conversions. Without a conversion, there is no return on investment, and any traffic increase is just a vanity metric.

While all three metrics are important, you can’t track conversions without traffic, or traffic without rankings. If your website is new, track rankings until you get some visibility on page one of Google. Page one will bring traffic, which means you can then track that and conversions.

5. Do you follow Google’s best practices?

You have to play nice with Google if you want Google to play nice with you. Otherwise, your website may perform a disappearing act from Google in the form of a search engine penalty. Your SEO provider should be able to give you an idea of how well it follows Google’s recommended best practices, or at least be candid of where it may push the boundaries.

6. What do you know about Google’s algorithms?

Most Google algorithm updates have a minor impact on any one site. However, some algorithms have been significant enough to be named, such as Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird. Any qualified SEO provider should be familiar with the majority of these. If you’d like to familiarize yourself, here is a good resource.

7. Can you tell me about an unsuccessful campaign?

Most SEO companies have had missteps in the past. That’s how you learn. Whether its fault or lack of participation from its client, it’s great to hear why it didn’t perform and, more importantly, how it corrected for the future.

8. Who is your longest client?

If you found a good tax accountant, you probably wouldn’t mind paying their fees because they’d save you enough in taxes to cover those costs. The same goes for a good SEO provider. If an SEO company has been around for a few years but can’t speak of any long-term clients, watch out. It makes no sense why any company would drop a consistently profitable source of revenue.

9. Can you guarantee No. 1 rankings?

I hate to call someone a liar, but anyone promising No. 1 rankings every time is not telling the truth. Although the myth persists, here is why a guarantee sounds too good to be true:

  • Google’s algorithm is technically a mystery. Google is in business to make money — billions of dollars, to be specific. If anyone cracked its algorithm, that revenue would be vulnerable. SEO companies can read insights from Google’s publications and patent filings or conduct their own research, but Google isn’t sharing otherwise.
  • Algorithm changes are constant. Algorithms change daily, so even if someone figured an algorithm out, it wouldn’t be the same the next day.
  • It’s risky business. Driving 20 mph over the speed limit might not get you into trouble if you don’t get caught. However, the consequences can be substantial if you do. Likewise, Google regularly rolls out manual and algorithmic speed traps, making SEO shortcuts a game that you don’t want to play.

Good SEO Is A Two-Way Street

A successful relationship with an SEO company is a partnership built on mutual understanding. You’re both pursuing the same goal: to increase your revenue. Work together from the start, and decide how you can assist each other in reaching those goals.