You’ve decided that 2024 is the year to invest in SEO (search engine optimization) to bring in more donors or customers through Google. You’ve issued an RFP and now have dozens of proposals to review.
But, as a non-expert, how do you determine which SEO partner is the best one to choose? With countless options out there, hiring an SEO specialist is no simple task. You want to find someone who will save you time and money while improving your site, but risk damaging your business’s site and reputation if the so-called expert gives bad advice or recommendations.
SEO for CEOs doesn’t need to be complicated, but you’ll be well-served in having a good understanding of the basic principles. This guide will give you the answers to some of the questions you might not know you need to ask.
- What SEO is—and What it Isn’t
- What Does an SEO Actually Do?
- Tips for Hiring an SEO
- What About a Top 10 Ranking?
- Transparency and Updates
- What Else to Look For
What SEO is—and What it Isn’t
71% of searches resulted in a page 1 organic click; this means that PPC (Pay Per Click) ads, or trying other searches, accounts for a measly 15% of all traffic. It’s a simple reality that SEO is a necessity these days. While you may be able to attain new customers the old-fashioned way (such as referrals and both online and offline advertising), your business won’t be able to scale and grow without effective SEO to bring in new customers from search engines.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a series of strategies and goals to improve your site’s visibility to organic (as opposed to paid) search traffic. It’s what allows people to find you through search engines when they’re looking for the product or service you’re selling.
There’s no quick fix for establishing or improving your SEO. Google decides a website’s value (and thus ranking) through evaluation of the consistency and longevity of the factors it considers important. The results of your SEO strategy might not be seen for several weeks or even months after implementation.
SEO shouldn’t be evaluated in terms of ranking or sales—its effectiveness is measured in terms of traffic generation. Its purpose is to steer lots of qualified leads towards your website via search engines. Once they land there, it’s up to your digital marketing tactics and sales techniques to convert those leads into customers.
There are a few things outside of your control when it comes to your business’s Google ranking, such as the size, number, and SEO efforts of your competitors. However, there are plenty of things that are in your control to help influence your search results, such as:
- Quality of content – are people finding what they’re looking for on your website? Is there enough variety in topics? Relevance to their search? Is new content being posted regularly? Is your content decaying in traffic?
- Site architecture – can Google clearly understand your website and what it’s trying to communicate?
- Inbound links & social media mentions — one of the best indicators of a site’s content value is if other high-authority sites are linking back to it.
- Age of domain – the longer a site has been around (and active), the high Google will value it
What Does an SEO Actually Do?
SEOs (Search Engine Optimizers) work to get people to visit your site from Search Engine Algorithms (like Google) and then take action once they’ve arrived.
The SEO expert will give your site an audit, running diagnostics, ongoing SEO maintenance services, analyses, and assessments, in order to come up with an SEO strategy. They should prioritize ideas that will help your business using the least amount of resources.
Companies may call it different things, but generally search engine optimizers complete the following activities either as a team or individually after an SEO audit is completed:
- Technical SEO Tasks – these are generally programming related tasks. It will require the expert to ensure the website doesn’t have errors that would cause Google’s robot/spider to have trouble finding information on your website. Google also rewards sites that are mobile friendly and are easy-to-use. Google has set-up a blog to better inform webmasters what a Google Friendly site means. They’ve also set-up tools like Google Search Console and Google Analytics to notify website owners when Google finds an error.
- Link Building and Outreach – Backlinks (links from someone else’s site that brings someone to your site) are a big part of Google’s algorithm – but not just any link will work: Google prefers links from trusted, reputable web sites. For instance, a link from CBC would be worth a lot more than one from a blog your nephew made for their wedding. In some cases, a spammy web directory might actually be hurting you and the SEO would need to try to have that link removed. Google also likes to see you linking inside your website to your own content.
- Content Writing – Google loves fresh content – especially content that is related to your industry. Creating useful, clear site pages helps make your website more accessible. An SEO’s job is to ensure this content gets written and is unique and related to the types of search topics you’d like your site to be visible for. Effective SEO enables visitors to quickly and systematically find your site, again and again. Without it, and without a pre-existing pool of visitors to market to, your site will be relying on your reputation, word of mouth, and the luck of organic search to bring new users in.
- Reporting & Testing – a big part of the job is making changes and then seeing what happens and repeating the process. It is very similar to what a scientist might do in a lab. Starting with making a change, the SEO measures the effect in visitor traffic, local map listing, page views, form leads or online donations. Sometimes it can take months or a matter of weeks depending on what we are measuring.
Tips for Hiring an SEO Specialist
You’ll first want to conduct an interview with the specialists you’ve got an eye on. A good specialist will be focused on not just improving your ranking (where you appear) but also on your business’s overall impression (how you appear). In order to improve your ranking, a specialist needs to understand your business from a holistic perspective. Your company’s goals, customers, and existing marketing efforts are all factors that will play into a new SEO strategy.
A good SEO expert will try to get to the heart of your business’s value, with the goal of deeply understanding who your customers are. The should be asking you questions such as:
- What makes your business unique?
- How does your business make money?
- What are you hoping to achieve with an improved search ranking?
- What value do you bring to your customers?
- Who are your current customers? What traits do they share?
- How have your current customers found your website in the past? Offline advertising? Social media? Word of mouth?
- Who are your competitors, and what do they do well?
- What is your marketing budget?
Before deciding on a specialist, check their references, just as you would when hiring a new employee. Reach out to past or current clients and see what they have to say about their results. Ask them questions like:
- Did the specialist improve your ranking?
- Have the improved results been sustained over time, or was it a temporary fix?
- Is your website better optimized than before?
- Were they focused on long-term plans and helping your brand?
- Did they work effectively with your team?
Request a Technical and Search Audit
Once you’ve hired an SEO partner, they need to know where and in what order to make improvements. Just like when you bring your car to the mechanic or you visit your doctor, without a proper diagnosis it’s hard to know what area needs work.
You’ll want to give the SEO restricted access (view only, with no ability to alter or make changes) to your Google Search Console and Analytics data. Before allowing them to modify anything, have them give you a prioritized list of changes they’d recommend, based on issues and suggested improvements.
These suggestions should:
- Be based on your site data
- Apply well to your online presence
- Avoid bad practices that go against Google’s guidelines
- Target a human audience, not a search engine
- Estimate the overall investment and positive business impacts
The goal should be to improve your website using the least amount of resources. Keep in mind that the SEO may also suggest ideas that have a larger initial upfront cost of time or money, but will promote growth in the long term.
At a bare minimum, you’ll want to know.
- How does my current website stack up?
- What is the market opportunity?
- What can we do to align SEO with other marketing you are doing? (social, PPC, real world etc.)
Watch out for an SEO who offers free audits or analysis. A genuine technical audit is not something that can be spun up in a few minutes. Proper analyses require hours of work and years of acquired experience and knowledge. Even if a free audit is done correctly (and that’s a big if), there’s likely strings attached. Good specialists likely aren’t going to spend hours or days working for free in order to entice you to work with them.
What About A Top 10 Ranking on Google?
In the past, a big part of SEO was selling clients on the elusive “Top 10 Ranking”. Be wary of any expert who makes bold claims or guarantees of getting your site ranked this high. Nobody can guarantee this, and often the methods used to achieve a falsely high ranking will result in your site getting permanently banned from search results.
Ranking in the Top 10 is not a metric you should be worrying about in 2024. Here’s why:
- My Google is Not Your Google – a few years ago, Google changed its algorithm to be more personalized. What that means is if I search for “charity cancer events” or “furnace repair companies” in Ottawa, my friends in Toronto will see totally different results.
- Google understands topics – meaning your content may say “air conditioning service” but you’ll also show up for “AC repair” or “Air Conditioner Repair” (you get the idea).
- 55%+ of all queries are 4 or more words – that means there are thousands of relevant phrases you could be reporting on.
- Rankings fluctuate daily – different studies have shown top 20 rankings to fluctuate 3 – 10 places in any given day or time!
Your ranking should be the result of good SEO, not the goal. When you’re bringing in plenty of leads through search engines, organic traffic, and repeat customers, your ranking will come to reflect that.
Transparency and Updates
While you don’t need to know the fine details of what an SEO does, there needs to be a certain level of transparency. It shouldn’t be a mysterious world, only accessible to the hired expert. SEO is not rocket science. It’s about making small incremental changes over time. Being transparent also makes the SEO more accountable. They should be able to explain (just like your mechanic or doctor) what approach they are taking and why they feel this is important.
In addition, Google is always changing. There are new features added to the Search Engine Results Page and hundreds of changes to their algorithm every year.
What Else Should I Be Looking For?
Be careful about quick-fix, too-good-to-be-true schemes. There are still companies out there that will promise results in a few weeks. Some can achieve this—temporarily—with linking schemes that occasionally still work (until Google penalizes the site, which can mean over a year spent in recovery).
We’ve found that a lasting shift in your traffic and donations takes time, and it can depend on what the weak points are on your site. Reputable SEOs will be putting in consistent effort for 6 months to a year in order to see results.
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