With the rise of ChatGPT, automated SEO reporting and free courses and training, it’s never been easier to throw out a shingle and advertise as an “SEO consultant.”
And why wouldn’t one want to do that?
The average salary for an SEO specialist per Glassdoor.com is projected at just over $56,000 as of June 2023. And, with the overall SEO market valued at $77.6 billion by the end of 2023, there seems to be plenty of money and opportunity to go around.
Unfortunately, that rise of opportunity, coupled with the minimal barrier to advertising oneself as an “SEO consultant”, comes with inherent risks. This is especially true for those looking to hire qualified SEO help for their blogs, websites and campaigns.
Unlike most professional fields, search engine optimization (SEO) does not have:
- A governing body.
- An accepted set of industry standards.
- A built-in mechanism to police the practices of good consultants from the bad.
So how do you know if the SEO consultant you are hiring is competent, ethical and has your interests at heart in their approach?
It helps to see the warning signs.
As a successful SEO consultant who has run his firm for 20+ years, trained SEO teams on five continents, and helped clients hire their SEOs, here are my top nine warning signs to help you make the most qualified decision for your business.
Warning sign 1: Lack of transparency in methods
SEO is not a black box. A competent SEO should be able to explain their strategies and approach to the client without hesitation or cajoling.
You plan to provide me with a content strategy? What does that involve?
You mention a need to make design changes? Why, and what is the end result of those changes?
You want to increase my authority and backlink profile? What strategies does that involve?
If the consultant is secretive about any or all of the above or shows a clear lack of transparency, those methods should be questioned.
- Tip: A competent SEO consultant should be able to lay out a clear and cognizant approach to your site and goals. I call it the “toddlers and drunk adults” method.
Warning sign 2: Unrealistic promises or expectations
My wife and I like to kid each other by saying that we have been married 23 years, and “at least” 13 of those have been happily. We disagree as to which ones, though.
The point is that we are realistic in that marriage is not always easy or expected. And it’s the same with SEO consulting.
Any consultant who promises “first-page rankings in x period of time or extremely fast results in a short or finite amount of time” raises a red flag.
SEO is a marathon, not a sprint. Unrealistic timelines fly in the face of the learned belief that SEO requires patience, trial and error, and consistent long-term optimization.
- Tip: it is common to have timelines and clear deliverables during any SEO engagement. Make sure whomever you are working with has a clear plan, and that plan is laid out to your satisfaction.
Warning sign 3: Can’t provide references or referrals or has outdated case studies
I’ve been extremely fortunate to accumulate hundreds of reviews on Linkedin, Facebook, and my own website.
This kind of “social proof” is mandatory for outward manifestations of competency and trustworthiness.
An SEO consultant who is soliciting your business should be able to provide multiple referrals to current and existing clients when asked and/or show case studies from past clients that confirm the legitimacy of their expertise.
- Tip: Search Google for the consultant’s name and company. Do other SEOs cite them? Do they show a long list of expertise-contributed interviews and news mentions? Do they even come up?
Warning sign 4: Doesn’t ask for site or analytics access or provide a detailed onboarding
Competent SEO consultants are always going to need the help of their clients!
The simplest way to ensure that cooperation is to ask for and receive access to all appropriate accounts that will provide the data needed to conduct a competent SEO campaign. At a minimum, that includes
- Google Search Console.
- Google Analytics.
- Admin access to your site or blog.
Detailed onboarding should also be done to determine a simple SWOT analysis, a competitor profile, and a quick overview of client products and services.
If none of the above is done, that’s a huge red flag that the SEO consultant may be out of their depth.
- Tip: It’s an accepted best practice for an SEO to ask for and receive any past audits or work product you’ve done with another professional. This is especially important to ensure the current SEO can see what was missed.
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Warning sign 5: Failure to stay up-to-date on SEO best practices, trends or news
One of the many great things I love about SEO is its ever-changing and dynamic nature. But that also requires a huge time commitment to continuing education.
I personally have subscriptions to over a dozen industry newsletters, have a curated reading list I go through every morning, and stay up-to-date on best practices that require dozens of hours of study each month.
Your SEO should clearly be up-to-date on recent announced (and unannounced) Google updates, be intimately familiar with Google Search Essentials, Google Quality Rater Guidelines, and understand fully how to comply with SEO best practices.
- Tip: Quiz your SEO on recent “big news events” like the adoption of GA4 and the state of SGE (Search Generative Experience). Ask them questions about the Google Quality Rater Guidelines.
Warning sign 6: Doesn’t take a holistic approach to SEO
SEO is never about one issue or one focus. SEO is honestly “all the things.”
It involves an intimate understanding of content, backlinks, technical SEO, UX, page speed, schema, and dozens of other issues.
An SEO consultant who focuses their energy on one area (i.e., backlinks) over the complete exclusion of other areas (like on-page optimization) is not taking a “holistic approach” to your site or needs.
Unless you hire an SEO for a specific finite task, that SEO should take a full and complete look at your site. That means content, site design, UX, technical issues, etc.
- Tip: Ask your SEO what page experience, content, UX, and ads all have to do with the helpful content update and what they plan to do to improve your site, in the eyes of Google, around this specific algorithm.
Warning sign 7: States that they have ‘inside’ information on Google algorithms
I’ve been doing SEO since 1998, and I probably have less insight into how Google works now than I did back then.
Google’s Paul Haahr, one of Google’s top engineers, stated as far back as 2016 that they know how RankBrain works but not what it’s doing. This is important because RankBrain, along with BERT, is still a running AI in Google search results as of today.
The point is that SEOs can experiment and make correlations based on specific data, but nobody has inside information on Google. Don’t believe them.
Warning sign 8: Poor communication or a failure to provide regular updates and detailed reporting
Nothing screams incompetence faster or louder than a consultant’s inability to maintain regular contact with clients.
If you find that you are chasing down your SEO consultant to get campaign updates or status reports or that more than one email is required to get a response, this is a problem.
A competent SEO should provide regular updates on the efficacy of all campaigns and continued suggestions for improvement. Regular updates to show milestones have been met or reporting to show what is and is not working should be the norm, not the exception.
- Tip: Ask your SEO consultant to explain three major differences in Google Analytics reporting from UA (GA3) to GA4, and how they are bridging the gap with new post-switch reporting.
Warning sign 9: Treating you as a vendor, not a partner
In all the audits I have with clients, I am clear about one thing: this is a partnership. Your success is my success, and I want you to be successful.
If your existing SEO consultant is not taking a similar approach, that’s a problem.
Your SEO consultant should be invested in your success. The relationship should never be just transactional. They celebrate your wins, and they also accept shared responsibility for losses.
My goal with all of my clients is to provide them with the best options for their needs. Sometimes, that’s not me. I have a vetted list of referrals and professionals to call upon.
- Tip: Regularly ask your SEO consultant about your business, goals and concerns. The result should always be a great conversation that moves your business further. If not, make a change.
Hiring the right SEO consultant can make or break your business
SEO consulting can be a lucrative career with few entry barriers, no required experience or education certifications and common gaps in competency between practitioners.
In other words, not every SEO consultant will be a winner.
Ensure you invest resources in the right partner by reviewing the detailed warning signs above and adjusting course where needed.
The business you save may be your own. Good luck out there!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.