Optimizing your website, boosting online traffic andsubmitting your site to search engines is an important part ofmodern marketing techniques for independent agencies, but mostdon't have the time or personnel to do it themselves. You probablyget calls every day from online marketing agencies looking tooptimize your website, boost your traffic or submit your siteto hundreds of search engines.Unfortunately, many firms are less than ethical. With onlinemarketing becoming a necessary part of any business's marketingefforts and budget, most business owners want to know how tosomeone to help with my online marketing who they can trust.Here are nine questions to ask when hiring an online marketingagency. 1. Do they let you talk to any of their currentclients? Every online marketing company will claim theyreceived a top ranking or the No. 1 spot for a given term, but somefirms distort the truth. If a sales representative calls and saysthey got a website to the top position, ask to talk to thewebsite's owner and ask about their experience with that agency.Was the agency responsive to phone calls and email queries? Anddon't accept just one client as a reference. 2. Ask your colleagues and friends who they areusing. There's a good chance the guy cold-calling you isworking for a firm that isn't the most established or ethical.While your local colleagues might be hesitant to share who “theirguy” is lest you appear above them in the search rankings, “theirguy” might be able to provide a referral to another firm who canprovide high quality results. 3. Will they sign a non-compete for your service areaand industry? One of the high-pressure sales tactics someagencies use is that this is a limited opportunity and they areonly taking on a handful of clients in your area. Similarly, andfunctionally, think about how this works. At some point, one clientwill be favored and get that top ranking and/or extra work. Whomakes that decision? The reality is that an online marketer cannotavoid favoring one client over another if they are in the sameindustry and area. Ethical marketing agencies will not hesitate togive you a non-compete for your service area and industry.4. How transparent are they and what sort of reportingdo they provide? Some firms will never show you whatthey've done, what they are doing or what they are planning ondoing. A competent agency should document every link they build toyour site, every change made, and be willing to share this withyou. They should also be willing to share access to anypay-per-click accounts with your advertising in it. Obtainingaccess to these documents and accounts is a way for you to keepthem accountable to their work. If they tell you they are spendinga certain amount of money on their efforts, this should reconcilewith your contract. 5. What happens when the contract ends? Allgood (or bad) things come to an end. What happens when the contractends? What do you own and what does the marketing agency own? Somelarger marketing companies create a mirror of your site that theyremove when your contract ends — and you lose any benefitthat you've paid for to this point. In the ideal situation, themarketer turns over all microsites, user names and passwords to allaccounts, and provides documentation when the contract ends.6. Do they explain what they are doing in a mannerthat makes sense to you? Online marketers are unique– partgeek who revels in their knowledge and can have a tendency topontificate and speak in terms that you may not understand. A greatmarketing agency has people who can translate the language ofonline marketing into something you understand. And don't be afraidto say you don't understand what they are talking about if they areexplaining some process. Being able to explain your craft indifferent terms to different people is a demonstration ofexpertise.7. Google the names of the principals of theagency. Great agencies and their team members are activeon the web. They are speaking and writing about online marketingand participating in online forums. Google will pick theseactivities up in a blink. If the results are negligible, it's agood sign you should pass on that agency.8. Ask about the other services the firm providesalong with the contract duration. Some online marketingagencies specialize in only search engine optimization or pay perclick or local maps optimization while others do it all. Also,inquire about contract length. Having a contract with some durationhelps both sides as most online marketing efforts aren't instant;however, you should have a way to get out of the contract after areasonable period of time. Sometimes it's best to run a small-scaletest to see how well they perform before you commit to a long-term,high-dollar contract.9. Ask about their strategy and obtain a writtenstrategy document. While the concepts of “black hat” and“white hat” search engine optimization have gone away as the searchengines have gotten smarter, there are such things as high-risk andlow-risk tactics. High-risk tactics can get you banned and removedfrom the search results. Ask for a written strategy document thatoutlines specific tasks and types of links to be built (if you arelooking for a search engine optimization consultant) and thenchallenge each point asking about the risk levels for eachtactic. Hiring an online marketing agency is like hiring any employee.You must have clearly defined goals from the outset and work tokeep that marketing agency accountable, just like you would anyother employee. Failing to have regular updates, check-ins andreporting will only leave you wide open for miscommunication, afailed campaign and lots of wasted time and money.

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