We encounter many people out there who are searching for a professional SEO company. Many of them are extremely guarded by the time they find us. We see this in our contact and chat requests from our website. Many people are even hesitant to give out their real contact information. I assume this is because they have been burned or hounded by sales people. For Chad and I, this is hard to get our heads around. Coming from a Fortune 100 background, things like this just don't happen. Professionalism and business etiquette are important. Violate the rules of behavior in those circles and you are quickly labeled as someone to avoid doing business with. A kiss of death most will work very hard to avoid. But nevertheless, SEO is our space, so we try to understand the market as it is today - not as we think it should be.

So how is it that you can end up talking to an extremely unprofessional group when shopping for SEO services? Here's my thought process. The Internet has been called the 'great equalizer' in many business spaces. One of the main reasons for this is that it decreases the barriers to entry. Where once you needed an MBA or 20 year of experience to gain access to folks, with the Internet you often don't need that. While this is overall a very good thing for many people - it also introduces some trickiness. And if you have ever tried to find a real professional SEO company online, then you know what I'm referring to.

Simply put, without reference points you will have a hard time knowing if what you read on a website is legitimate. And while those of us who went to business school generally embrace high standards of business ethics, not everyone does. So how do you know you are working with a professional organization when you shop for an SEO company? Here are a few pointers you should use as you approach these SEO firms that will help you.

Ask for references. The oldest advice in the book, but completely valid. A solid SEO company will have great professional references. They will have long-time customers who are willing to say good things about them. Ask the SEO company for references. Any real business has references. If you come by one that does not, or is hard to reach - then you know you are not working with professionals.

You should recognize some of the references. Inspect the quality of the references you are given. If you have never heard of any of the companies they are giving you - this may not necessarily be bad. However, it is much more impressive if they can give you a few anchor references for large organizations you have heard of. Why is this? Well, the bigger the company the more selective they can be with their vendors. Thus, if a large company is working with the firm you are evaluating, it is likely they have been thoroughly scrutinized.

Test drive the company. If at all possible, as you evaluate a professional SEO company, try to get a feel for how they do business. I have found that this takes time. You really can't tell from one or two phone calls if your relationship with a firm will be good. You need a number of data points. If feasible, try to create several follow-ups meetings. This will give you a feel for how organized the SEO company is, how professional their communications are, and a general sense of how it will be to work with them. If they follow-up your phone calls with summary emails, show up on time, and generally do what they say they are going to do - you are probably going to have a good working relationship.

Ask direct questions. Lastly, I like to have open and honest communications right up front. Don't be afraid to ask the professional SEO company you are considering working with direct questions. Tell them you like to have honest communication - see how they react. Tell them your war stories and see what they say in response. You should be able to get a sense of their history with clients through this process. You should also be able to tell if they are focused on business results - something you need from your vendor relationship.

In summary, you can find some fairly shady characters out there posing as SEO companies. However, if you dig a little deeper and do your homework, you can also find some outstanding professionals who are ready to go the extra mile for you. Use the ideas in this blog entry to help you discriminate which is which from the very beginning.