At some point, most businesses come to the realization that they need a concerted effort to boost their SEO. After all, you're getting 60% of your website's traffic for free! What if it was 70%? Or... what if it dropped to 40% because all your competitors had this realization before you. So, speed, efficiency, and budget are your first thoughts.
So, you have some potential vendors come in or you talk to them on the phone. Depending on your situation, you might be dealing with a slick salesperson or an individual who runs an independent agency. Both truly have their drawbacks.
Most Important thing: Know enough to know if they're complete bullshit.
Things are going to happen. If you're courting big agencies, they're going to have dialed-in, slick salespeople who are going to hound you until the contract is signed. This means before you've even reached out, you need to know the basics. The difference between white hat, black hat, and gray hat practices. What is illegal? What is the lingo people use? It'll be much more stressful if you wait until afterward to figure all this stuff out. A LOT of this will happen in the research process - you'll see services people offer, look them up and figure it out... My assumption is you care about SEO at least a little bit - like, you want to manage it after the initial engagement or just be "the SEO person" at your company. Here's how to get started so you'll know when someone is blowing some major bullshit.
Read a book: Just read a single book on SEO. This might seem like a big ask. We're all busy or have a fat backlog of books to read, but it's really the best way to get the most information in the shortest amount of time.
Follow blogs: Luckily, SEO is an extremely web friendly topic. There are a stupid number of blogs and websites dedicated to the topic. So, follow as many as you can. [I plan to write a mega-post about all the resources I follow.]
YouTube It: I feel like YouTube is a great place to get quick, entertaining, useful content about SEO. Moz is probably the best example - they have "Whiteboard Friday" and "Daily SEO Fix" series that are pretty great - and pretty low-risk, time-wise.
Bring in Colleagues: SEO is something that a lot of people have cursory experience with. I tell my colleagues at work all the time about random little SEO things. So, if you know anyone that can help you navigate this whole process, that would be super helpful - whether it's the nerd down the street you went to high school with, or the "systems analyst" guy at your company.
Trust: This will be the most important thing that'll come out of your research and networking. You obviously aren't going to hire someone you don't trust, so without this research (or previous experience yourself), you aren't going to get very far.
What do you really need?
You're going to want to put together your wants, needs, and goals before interacting with a potential vendor. SEO can technically encompass many parts of your online presence - website content, website performance, website content, social media, etc... So, you can't really go into this thinking "I want all the SEO, please" - unless you've got the budget to back that up.
What do you need? Make a list of the outcomes you are expecting. Be as specific or vague as you want. Some things will be totally possible, others will be impossible or unknown, but that's okay. They'll be great talking points when you're vetting someone.
What can you do yourself: There are a lot of little things that just take time to do. These things can be done by your company's IT team or your web developers, or whoever. If you or your teams don't have any time at all, then you may want to reconsider this whole thing because you need at least some bandwidth to support a project, but you can also reduce the cost of an SEO project significantly by reducing the scope of things the agency is going to do.
Think about yourself: What kind of person are you? What about your boss? Some people want to know every single little thing that is happening at all times. This might be because you're a control freak or you just want to document everything to make future efforts easier. Other people just want to have the work done and make sure it's getting done well - and don't care about hearing about anything except that you're on budget, on time, and doing it correctly. Make sure to talk about this with your agency. Any salesperson is going to say "oh yeah, we give you weekly updates!" However, these reports for bigger agencies are often pre-generated and pretty high-level to be generic. So, if that's not what you're looking for - be sure it's clear to everyone what your expectations are.
Who are they?
You should obviously do some research to find out some potential vendors to choose from. You'll want to know a lot of stuff about them in order to make a decision about who to reach out to. If you have a "big budget", one of the worst things you can do is throw the net too wide. This will cause a constant onslaught of annoying sales calls to you and your team members. If you're looking at mostly small operations that handle smaller companies, then the process will probably be a little less stressful.
Who are they? A company's mission statement or "about us" page can tell you a ton about the company's strategy, business model, and culture. You obviously want these things to match you if you can. Is your brand language a little quirky? If so, you probably don't want a strait-lace, buttoned-up kind of company to represent you. You might look for someone with at least a little personality. Also, find out how long they've been in business. I assume that a lot of spammers can create fly-by-night SEO agency scams that offer "incredible" kind of rates.
Who's talking about them? You'll want to find out who's talking about them, who trusts them, read reviews, and find out who their clients are. If all their clients are in a specific industry, they might be a specialist. If they're all really spammy, they might just be a spam peddler (ie: black/gray hat stuff). I'd assume you'd also want someone who works with similarly sized companies. Is the content written about them generally positive? It's hard to rely on reviews in this field TOO much - this is mostly because agency work is almost always expensive and people usually have really high expectations. This gap of communication is apparent in most reviews I've seen out there. Also, keep in mind that companies can be targeted with systematic negative reviews by shady competitors and stuff... So, take it with a grain of salt and keep your skeptical hat on.
Do you know someone? Often, we have someone in our network or a colleague who has worked with a prospective agency. Reach out to them - it can be some of the best feedback you can possibly get. If you don't have a connection already, make one! People usually don't mind talking about stuff like this on Twitter, so it's a great place to find someone with some experience.
The hoops are real: You'd be surprised to find out that software/internet services sales, especially in the "b2b" world, is EXTREMELY competitive and cutthroat and high stress. Even though this is the case, most companies make the process absolutely terrible. Want the free trial they've been talking about since your first pageview? Well, you have to give your full name, business email, phone number, emergency contact, first born child... You get the point. It's insane and terrible. That said, the buyer (you) has so much leverage that you can mitigate the annoyances by being firm. You should also just get an overview of the whole process so that you understand everything they're going to make you do. Obviously, working with smaller companies is probably going to be less ridiculous (but I'm also biased as a small business owner, hah!)
Now that your intense research has given you an overview of the field and your options, you'll want to reconsider any option that came across as "iffy". Without your research knowledge, this can be really hard to catch. I know someone who paid money for a full-service SEO package that sounded great and fit their budget. They personally knew the person doing the work and were given a special rate and everything. However, the work that was actually being done was ALL back/gray hat work. Nothing was legitimate and could cause issues that might take months or years to clean up. That's the worst case here.
100% Guarantees: No legitimate people in this industry speak with absolute certainty. So, keep that in mind - they might not be being shifty - just exact and scientific. There are some things that seem like a pretty sure deal. If no one in your space is "doing SEO" and you optimize all your stuff, your rank will probably go over the lower people. However, there are SO MANY variables here. A few competitors could be working as hard as you - and you might not change at all. Your website might have a great mobile experience, but if a competitor improves theirs and they have better content, they might leapfrog you. So, if someone says they'll definitely get you on page 1 or position 1, look at them askance or leave a long silence. If they don't back out of it... it's probably better to leave right then, haha.
Placement: While your ranking might be a key performance indicator (KPI), it shouldn't be the main one. You can't control the SERP, and you shouldn't be aiming to. You should be aiming for meeting all the current, respected best practices. This is a long-term strategy. Hacking the SERP can be profitable in the short term and can certainly make people money, but it's not a long-term strategy because you can get punished.
Use your intuition: If you get a spammy, slimy vibe, heed your thoughts. Your goal should be giving users an exceptional experience - fast, useful content on all browsers, operating systems, and devices. That's all Google wants.
Test their SEO
Curious how well a prospective agency does SEO? Well, if you found them in Google, they're probably doing okay... haha. But you can always do a few basic things to see how serious they are.
Crawl 'em: Run their website through Screaming Frog or SEM Rush. This will allow you to see errors on their site. Some things are out of peoples' control or just aren't important enough to work on. However, if it looks like they don't do anything, that'd be a red flag.
Other stuff: Check out their robots.txt file or sitemap.xml (available from the root of their site). Do they have one? Check out a blog post. Does it seem spammy or keyword-stuffed? There are also a lot of small, easy things you can do to check how well they do SEO or if it aligns with your standards. I'll assume you've found these in your research. You're basically just checking that they work on their own SEO and that it's not poorly done.
Advertising: If this is an agency you might work with for stuff other than SEO, you might want to look into how they manage their ad campaigns and stuff. SEM Rush is a good tool for looking at peoples' SEM (Search Engine Marketing) footprint.
The trend in the industry has been moving towards more transparent, flat pricing... However, everything always seems more expensive right before you're about to buy it - especially if it is really expensive or has a long commitment. So, just know that's normal and at this point, it is probably worth the investment. Now you just need to get the most out of is as is possible.
Negociate: Like a flea market or job offer, pricing is usually extremely negotiable. This is particularly the case when you had to deal with a salesperson. This is when you get to pay them back for their poor process. Honestly, if you're dealing with an individual/sole proprietor, they might work with you on price, but probably are trying to be competitive already and avoid the overhead associated with negotiation. In any case, you have the power and sometimes companies will give you an insane estimate at first, hoping you're a rube and they'll make double a normal contract on you. It's like a car dealership or something... Ugh. In the software world, this is particularly crazy. a $100,000 contract can often be negotiated to $20,000. However, since SEO is super labor intensive, you can probably get 10-20% off the initial offer just by asking.