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Optimizing your website, boosting online traffic and submitting your site to search engines is an important part of modern marketing techniques for independent agencies, but most don’t have the time or personnel to do it themselves. You probably get calls every day from online marketing agencies looking to optimize your website, boost your traffic or  submit your site to hundreds of search engines. Unfortunately, many firms are less than ethical. With online marketing becoming a necessary part of any business’s marketing efforts and budget, most business owners want to know how to someone to help with my online marketing who they can trust. Here are nine questions to ask when hiring an online marketing agency.   1. Do they let you talk to any of their current clients? Every online marketing company will claim they received a top ranking or the No. 1 spot for a given term, but some firms distort the truth. If a sales representative calls and says they got a website to the top position, ask to talk to the website’s owner and ask about their experience with that agency. Was the agency responsive to phone calls and email queries? And don’t accept just one client as a reference.  2. Ask your colleagues and friends who they are using. There’s a good chance the guy cold-calling you is working for a firm that isn’t the most established or ethical. While your local colleagues might be hesitant to share who “their guy” is lest you appear above them in the search rankings, “their guy” might be able to provide a referral to another firm who can provide high quality results.  3. Will they sign a non-compete for your service area and industry? One of the high-pressure sales tactics some agencies use is that this is a limited opportunity and they are only taking on a handful of clients in your area. Similarly, and functionally, think about how this works. At some point, one client will be favored and get that top ranking and/or extra work. Who makes that decision? The reality is that an online marketer cannot avoid favoring one client over another if they are in the same industry and area. Ethical marketing agencies will not hesitate to give you a non-compete for your service area and industry. 4. How transparent are they and what sort of reporting do they provide? Some firms will never show you what they’ve done, what they are doing or what they are planning on doing. A competent agency should document every link they build to your site, every change made, and be willing to share this with you. They should also be willing to share access to any pay-per-click accounts with your advertising in it. Obtaining access to these documents and accounts is a way for you to keep them accountable to their work. If they tell you they are spending a certain amount of money on their efforts, this should reconcile with your contract. 5. What happens when the contract ends? All good (or bad) things come to an end. What happens when the contract ends? What do you own and what does the marketing agency own? Some larger marketing companies create a mirror of your site that they remove when your contract ends  — and you lose any benefit that you’ve paid for to this point. In the ideal situation, the marketer turns over all microsites, user names and passwords to all accounts, and provides documentation when the contract ends. 6. Do they explain what they are doing in a manner that makes sense to you? Online marketers are unique– part geek who revels in their knowledge and can have a tendency to pontificate and speak in terms that you may not understand. A great marketing agency has people who can translate the language of online marketing into something you understand. And don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand what they are talking about if they are explaining some process. Being able to explain your craft in different terms to different people is a demonstration of expertise. 7. Google the names of the principals of the agency. Great agencies and their team members are active on the web. They are speaking and writing about online marketing and participating in online forums. Google will pick these activities up in a blink. If the results are negligible, it’s a good sign you should pass on that agency. 8. Ask about the other services the firm provides along with the contract duration. Some online marketing agencies specialize in only search engine optimization or pay per click or local maps optimization while others do it all. Also, inquire about contract length. Having a contract with some duration helps both sides as most online marketing efforts aren’t instant; however, you should have a way to get out of the contract after a reasonable period of time. Sometimes it’s best to run a small-scale test to see how well they perform before you commit to a long-term, high-dollar contract. 9. Ask about their strategy and obtain a written strategy document. While the concepts of “black hat” and “white hat” search engine optimization have gone away as the search engines have gotten smarter, there are such things as high-risk and low-risk tactics. High-risk tactics can get you banned and removed from the search results. Ask for a written strategy document that outlines specific tasks and types of links to be built (if you are looking for a search engine optimization consultant) and then challenge each point asking about the risk levels for each tactic.   Hiring an online marketing agency is like hiring any employee. You must have clearly defined goals from the outset and work to keep that marketing agency accountable, just like you would any other employee. Failing to have regular updates, check-ins and reporting will only leave you wide open for miscommunication, a failed campaign and lots of wasted time and money.    

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