How to Evaluate an SEO Company Using Google’s Own Guidelines
It goes without saying that customer trust must be earned. This is especially true for online businesses, where faceless websites ask for confidential information or dole out “professional” advice to anyone who searches for their keywords.
Search engines like Google and Bing work hard to evaluate the trustworthiness of the websites that appear in their search results because they want to keep their users happy. It turns out that people shopping for professional services online can follow similar guidelines in order to evaluate businesses before choosing to engage with them.
In this post, we’ll look at Google’s approach to assessing the expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (E-A-T) of websites, and learn how to apply a similar technique to choosing a search engine optimization agency.
Using Google’s own methods, you will learn:
- How to assess an SEO company’s reputation.
- How to evaluate an SEO vendor’s expertise and authority.
Plus, I provide you with 12 questions you can use right away to evaluate an SEO service provider. Read on …
Setting Standards for SEO Vendor Evaluation
Many people who inquire about Bruce Clay SEO services have been burned in the past several times, by other providers. They claim lies were told, promises were broken, and their business was almost destroyed by the all-you-need-are-links type of SEO companies or the cheaper-is-better offshore workers.
We know from experience that buyers today are more skeptical than ever. We have many stories of doing disaster cleanup projects … so just know that it’s not always easy to trust SEO service providers. In fact, SEO is one business area where mistrust is widespread due to so many unethical businesses that jumped into the arena the last ten years, offering “snake oil” solutions that ultimately, and sometimes permanently, harmed their clients.
As Chris Brogan and Julien Smith observe in their book, “Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust”:
“We are currently living in a communications environment where there is a trust deficit.”
So, how does someone looking for an SEO vendor find an evaluation method to be sure they are choosing the right agency? One way is by using Google’s own method of screening for trustworthiness.
It turns out that Google’s search quality rating guidelines [PDF] can help us evaluate the expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness of websites — and ultimately, of the people and businesses that run them.
Google’s search quality rating guidelines were written to help a team of human evaluators assess web pages in Google’s search results. The information they gather is likely built into their search algorithms in order to surface the highest quality content.
Google specifically points out the importance of what it calls “Your Money or Your Life” webpages. These pages are held to a higher standard of quality evaluation because they can impact the well-being of consumers across important aspects of their lives. From their rating manual:
Some types of pages could potentially impact the future happiness, health, or wealth of users. We call such pages “Your Money or Your Life” pages, or YMYL … We have very high Page Quality rating standards for YMYL pages because low quality YMYL pages could potentially negatively impact users’ happiness, health, or wealth.
So what does all of this have to do with choosing an SEO agency, you might be wondering?
Any business decision, including choosing an SEO agency, can positively or negatively impact the health and wealth of a business, and as such, should be held to a higher standard of evaluation before signing a contract.
When researching and evaluating SEO vendors, much of the process starts online, and I’ll discuss next how to do that using some of the guidelines that Google provides, in addition to my own advice.
In its quality rating manual, Google points out that when you’re evaluating a website, you’re also evaluating, in many cases, a professional or business:
Keep in mind that websites often represent real companies, organizations, and other entities. Therefore, reputation research applies to both the website and the actual company, organization, or entity that the website is representing.
This can be useful for marketers and business owners to keep in mind when evaluating potential SEO companies to partner with.
As I mentioned earlier, many businesses that come to Bruce Clay today for SEO services weren’t sure whom to trust.
Evaluating reputation is a key part of choosing an SEO agency, because — let’s face it — there are a lot of companies out there that are great at “marketing.” In other words, they can have a beautiful website and put up an excellent professional front, but behind the scenes, they lack the talent needed to drive SEO results.
In their quality rating manual, Google agrees:
Many websites are eager to tell users how great they are. Some webmasters have read these rating guidelines and write “reviews” on various review websites. But for Page Quality rating, you must also look for outside, independent reputation information about the website. When the website says one thing about itself, but reputable external sources disagree with what the website says, trust the external sources.
The manual goes on to highlight some of the ways you can research reputation, and this can apply to SEO companies as well:
Use reputation research to find out what real users, as well as experts, think about a website. Look for reviews, references, recommendations by experts, news articles, and other credible information created/written by individuals about the website. When a high level of authoritativeness or expertise is needed, the reputation of a website should be judged on what expert opinions have to say. Recommendations from expert sources, such as professional societies, are strong evidence of very positive reputation.
Evaluating Expertise and Authority
Author Malcolm Gladwell says in his book “Outliers” that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something.
So if someone has been in an industry long enough, they should be an authority, right?
Not always the case. And science has actually debunked that.
While experience can certainly be a factor, it’s often more important to assess the actual expertise of a vendor to verify that they have put in the time to understand the craft inside and out, in such a way that creates successful SEO strategies, not just quick fixes or churn-and-burn tactics.
You can also better understand a SEO vendor’s level of authority by assessing the thought leadership reflected in its website content, publications, articles, live presentations, and more.
It goes without saying that expert SEO advice will come from expert sources.
Google provides some guidelines on how to assess the content of expert authorities online, and SEO vendors are no different:
- High quality medical advice should come from people or organizations with appropriate medical expertise or accreditation. High quality medical advice or information should be written or produced in a professional style and should be edited, reviewed, and updated on a regular basis.
- High quality financial advice, legal advice, tax advice, etc., should come from expert sources and be maintained and updated regularly.
- High quality advice pages on topics such as home remodeling (which can cost thousands of dollars and impact your living situation) or advice on parenting issues (which can impact the future happiness of a family) should also come from “expert” or experienced sources which users can trust.
… Think about the topic of the page. What kind of expertise is required for the page to achieve its purpose well? The standard for expertise depends on the topic of the page.
In other words, what sort of standards would you hold an SEO authority to when evaluating their content?
12 Questions to Evaluate SEO Company Reputation, Authority, and Trustworthiness
There are two types of SEO vendors: those you can trust, and those you can’t.
Brogan and Smith define “trust agents” in their book as the following:
Trust agents have established themselves as being non-sales-oriented, non-high-pressure marketers. Instead, they are digital natives using the Web to be genuine and to humanize their business. They’re interested in people (prospective customers, employees, colleagues, and more), and they have realized that these tools that enable more unique, robust communication also allow more business opportunities for everyone.
This is important for selecting SEO vendors. These type of vendors value education and helping businesses succeed over just “sales.”
I also think it’s important to have a set of evaluation methods you can apply to better understand if you are engaging with trustworthy SEO vendors.
Here’s a short list I compiled that can help marketing managers or business owners on their way:
- How long has the SEO vendor been in business?
- Does the internal team have sufficient skills and experience?
- Does the company demonstrate thought leadership through speaking engagements, expert content or training?
- Does the company have a good reputation among its peers in the industry?
- Has the company received any awards or accolades?
- How involved is the company in the industry’s professional organizations and/or professional community?
- Does the company have SEO methods that are keeping within Google’s quality guidelines (aka “white hat” practices)?
- Does the company demonstrate SEO success by ranking well for their targeted key terms, such as “search engine optimization”?
- What sort of clientele does the SEO company serve?
- What sort of results has the SEO vendor achieved for its clients through its methodology?
- How do they relate to their prospects? Do you feel like you’re getting good guidance or being “sold?”
- How do they work with new clients? Do they have formal onboarding processes to ensure everything goes smoothly? Do they have dedicated account managers so communication stays open? Do they offer training on their services?
Past customer input can also be useful. When researching this online, however, Google warns of the pitfalls:
Customer reviews can be helpful for assessing the reputation of a store or business. However, you should interpret these reviews with care, particularly if there are only a few. Be skeptical of both positive and negative user reviews. Anyone can write them, including the creator of the website or someone the store or business hires for this purpose.
One way to sift through the noise is to ask for a few references from past clients to better understand how the SEO vendor performed for them.
Today, Trust is Earned
We know that Google Search is the starting point for many businesses looking for a reputable SEO vendor. Referrals are important, too.
With either method, buyers need to be able to properly evaluate their options — especially since so many buyers are skeptical, but perhaps not sure where to start.
This is especially important when money is on the line and SEO practices can help or hurt an entire enterprise, not just its website.
Using Google’s standards of evaluating reputation and E-A-T, as well as some of the methods I’ve outlined here, should position marketers and business owners to make a more informed decision when buying SEO services.
What do you think? Have you ever been burned by an SEO company? What did you learn and how did you recover? I’d like to know in the comments below.
Looking for an SEO team you can trust? Bruce Clay’s ethical SEO services increase your competitive advantage. Listen to Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes mention Bruce Clay in an interview. (Skip to the 53:11 mark.)
“There are things that as a site owner or content owner you can do without an SEO. I don’t say dump all SEOs because SEOs can do awesome magic. I know some of the sites that you are working with, for example, and I know that they are doing amazing. There is also Bruce Clay, for example, who has a great team. There are SEO companies who are really really good. But you have to be careful how you choose your SEO team.” – Gary Illyes
If you’d like to talk about how we can help you, request a quote today.