One of the things we're especially sensitive to in our business is the general lack of understanding businesses have about what their SEO provider does for them. Part of the problem is a lack of standards - after all there is no central industry certification for SEO as there are in other industries (maybe there should be).
More specifically, we realize that most of our customers don't fully understand the actual work we perform, and as such, rely on reporting as well as a bit of trust to stay the course, especially when things aren't going exactly as expected.
The problem comes in when companies that provide SEO services can't tell you what they actually do. This question most often comes up when the client is not happy with their campaign performance, and often the SEO provider doesn't provide a sufficient explanation. But in reality, there should be no reason why someone can't "figure out" why you aren't ranking better than you think you should be.
This is the equivalent of the customer in the commercial saying "show me the Carfax" and the sales guy offering him something else instead. If your SEO provider can't explain what they are doing and answer your questions, you've got a problem.
I just recently reviewed a site for a potential client that has been paying an SEO group for more than a year trying to get rankings for a particular keyword in a particular town. They are unhappy with their current provider who doesn't seem to have good answers about why they aren't doing better.
However, upon review of the site, that town only shows up once in the site, and the local keywords range with different towns and even different states! The local optimization was all over the board, so it's no surprise that they weren't ranking for the targeted phrase as it really wasn't "targeted" by the optimization.
3 Things to Make Sure Your SEO Company Does
There are many things on a good checklist for a qualified SEO company, but there are a few that I've found are often missed. These can be the difference between success and failure:
1. Make sure your site is correctly "localized"
This is what I described in the example above. If want to rank for "keyword - your city" your optimization should reflect this. However, too often I see sites that are optimized for the state level, even though their business is strictly local. Many times the targeted area isn't even mentioned on the site or page.
Or worse, we often see sites where only the home page is optimized and the rest of the site has been ignored. This leaves valuable interior pages not doing their job for local optimization. Don't underestimate the power of your internal pages as those are the ones that show up most often in long tail keyword searches.
2. Audit your link profile
If you've had a company performing SEO for the last year, you should definitely request an analysis of your link profile. If they can't provide you with it, or are sketchy with details, you should begin to get nervous.
As of April 2012 (Penguin Update), link building techniques have definitely changed, and your SEO company should be evolving with the times. Also, any responsible provider should be studying the link profile of each client to make sure that any potential problem areas are addressed.
3. Check the site for errors and duplicate content
I can't tell you how many sites we've seen over the last few months that had hundreds of broken links, page errors (404 not found) and duplicate content pages. This isn't always the fault of your SEO company. It could be the web designer, or it could be the hosting setup. It could even have been caused by you trying to update pages incorrectly!
But whatever the reason, make sure your SEO provider has run a scan of your site to catch and correct these errors as they will have an impact on your search rankings. Lots of errors equals "low quality" in the eyes of search engines, and that is a list you don't want to get on.
I hope this list of specific things to look for in your SEO plan has been helfpul. If you have any questions or comments drop me an email and let me know.