There’s a lot of snake oil in the business of Search Engine Optimization. In my position, I see a ton of it – usually in my spam folder – and hear stories from the field that make me cringe. There are, however, a handful of quality SEOs out there that consistently employ proven and ethical SEO tactics to produce sustainable results that stand the test of time and search engines’ constantly evolving ranking algorithms. Here are three questions to ask your potential SEO firm, and the [approximate] answers you should hear . . . and not hear.

1. Can you guarantee results?

Wrong Answer: “Yes, absolutely. We’ll get you to #1 on Google within a month. Guaranteed. Just sign here.”

Right Answer: “No, we really can’t. SEO is a complex and ever-changing endeavor that offers no guarantees. What we offer is our experience, best practices, and industry knowledge to maximize your likelihood of success.”

Simply put, if an SEO offers guaranteed results, run.

2. How involved do I need to be?

Wrong Answer: “Not at all. We’ll take it from here.”

Right Answer: “Substantially. This is a team effort that depends on you just as much as it depends on us.”

Good SEOs are going to need your expertise just as much as you need theirs. No one knows your agency’s business goals and strategy better than you do, and your SEO firm is going to need that knowledge to guide its own efforts. SEOs that leave you out of the process are apt to cause more damage than good.

3. Can I get some references?

Wrong Answer: “Sure. We’ll give you a few names we’ve worked with in the past.”

Right Answer: “We’d be happy to provide references but think you might find these case studies more useful.”

References are usually meaningless – no one is going to give you a bad one. Instead, expect a good SEO to provide some client case studies that outline their objectives, methods, and results. Bonus points if they provide a case that isn’t a resounding success and outline the lessons learned. Transparency is vital to the SEO relationship.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of questions, but these are crucial. Interested in the right and wrong answers for other SEO-related questions? Feel free to submit them in the comments section below.