How do you know in advance whether an agency will do the job and deliver results?
When I was searching for my own answers, I came across several posts from people desperate to find out if their SEO agency was legit, but they didn’t know enough about SEO to be able to tell themselves.
SEO agencies can be a great way to take your business to the next level without you having to spend weeks and months learning the intricacies of SEO. And for content marketers, they’re gold — helping you create SEO content, rank in search engines, and get more organic traffic.
However, it can be difficult to tell good SEO agencies from bad ones. After all, if you’re needing to hire an agency, chances are you don’t know it well enough to determine the good from the bad. On top of this, SEO agencies aren’t magic. The benefits you see from them are largely dependent on the quality of product you’re selling. As they say on late-night commercials, “Results may vary.”
So, to help us SEO newbies separate the wheat from the chaff, I reached out to some skilled SEOs: Andy Crestodina, Russ Henneberry, Nadya Khoja, Anton Shulke, Heather Lloyd-Martin, and Venu Sripada.
I asked them, “How can someone, with little knowledge of SEO determine a good agency from a bad one?” Here’s what they said.
Here are three solid ways to qualify (or disqualify) an SEO firm:
1. Start with a referral.
This is a big shortcut. Get a referral from someone who has experience working with SEO firms. Have a quick call and ask the referrer these questions: “How did they set expectations? How did they report results? Were they transparent about their approach? Did you learn anything unexpected during your engagement with them?”
2. Check their rankings.
If they are good at search, they should rank for something. If they’re a small shop, they may rank for more specific, niche phrases. Just drop their URL into SEMrush (the free version will do) and make sure they rank for a few non-branded keyphrases, as in phrases other than the name of their company.
3. Ask tough, direct questions.
- Have you worked with companies like mine before?
- Can you show me the results in Analytics before and after?
- How long did it take to get results? What KIPs did you track?
- What, specifically, did you do to improve their rankings?
- How well do those rankings generate qualified visitors?
- Can I talk to those clients?
- Have you ever tried any black hat (or even gray hat) techniques in your career?
- Have you ever worked with a client that got penalized?
- How would the hours you spend on my marketing break down?
A good SEO firm will be excited to provide answers. A bad SEO will be offended, indirect or secretive.
Andy Crestodina is one of the most well-respected names in SEO and content marketing. Co-founder and strategic director of Orbit Media Studios and author of Content Chemistry, he is also a top-rated speaker. You can learn more here. Connect @crestodina.
If you’re trying to determine if an SEO agency is reliable, reputable and doing good work, ask them these three questions:
1. What is the process you’ll use to improve our search marketing?
Steer clear of agencies that won’t share their process as they are likely doing things that could be harmful to your brand in the long run. Their process should include “white hat” SEO fundamentals like content creation, on-page optimization, structural and technical changes, and earning links and social shares.
Perhaps more importantly, the process should also include an onboarding experience where the developers or project managers that will be handling your account learn more about your brand, products, people, customers, etc. After all, how are they going to positively affect your business if they don’t first understand it.
2. How do you define the success or failure of your work?
This one is critical. You want to run (not walk) away from agencies that are only looking to improve your rankings in search engines. What many companies don’t realize is that better rankings don’t translate into more sales. In fact, they often don’t translate into more traffic, either.
Anyone can get a web page to rank #1 in Google for an inconsequential keyword, an extreme example would be something like “chocolate duck sock” or some other nonsense, but that doesn’t mean there will be anyone searching that term.
If someone is searching for that term, do they have an intent to buy, become a lead, read your blog, or any other commercial intent? If they do have a commercial intent — is it the right intent for YOUR business?
Search marketing, like any other marketing activity, should further the goals of the business. Do you want more leads? More sales? More brand awareness? Your SEO agency should understand your business goals and build those goals into their campaigns and their reporting.
And that brings me to my 3rd question…
3. How do you report on the success or failure of your work?
You’re looking for a response that shows that the agency has a process here and that this process includes regular reporting and updates. SEO works slowly and organically and you shouldn’t expect to see real results for 3 to 6 months. You’ll want to ask to see one of these reports from one of their prior customers. Look for evidence that the business is measuring much more than simply search rankings and traffic.
Russ Henneberry is a powerhouse name in content marketing, analytics, and social media. He’s worked with industry-leading brands such as Crazy Egg, Salesforce, and Digital Marketer. Get more of his expertise at russhenneberry.com. Connect @RussHenneberry.
Here’s what I recommend…
1. Learn the basics.
Many people who decide to take on SEO as an acquisition channel should have some knowledge of some SEO basics. If you decide to hire an agency, make sure it’s because you simply don’t have the resources or time to work on it in-house.
2. Make sure the SEO agency ranks well themselves.
One important thing to look for is the agency’s content strategy and organic rankings. If you have a goal in mind of where you want your traffic to be, and the agency can’t at least match that amount of traffic on their own site, then in my mind this is a red flag.
Here’s a look at a local SEO Agency’s traffic via Ahrefs.com:
Notice how in the span of 2 years there has been little to no growth in their own traffic (aside from an absurd spike years ago)? How much of an impact do you think they will have on your site if they aren’t even practicing what they preach? Do some research on the agency’s clients, and take a look at any areas of organic growth for those sites.
3. Try a consultant first.
Personally, I would recommend hiring a proven consultant over an agency to give you some guidance on which direction to go. Most consultants offer a free, first-time, 1-hour consultation and will often help you build out a long-term strategy.
Ultimately, what you are looking for if you do decide to go with an agency is that they understand how to produce great content, optimize that content, and of course, build valuable links to that content.”
Nadya Khoja is the Head of Marketing for Venngage, specializing in SEO, digital communication, and media. Check out Venngage’s Presentation Maker to help you create great content that boosts your organic traffic. Connect @NadyaKhoja.
Choosing a reputable SEO agency can be challenging. Make sure you know what you want and need before starting your search.
1. Start learning some SEO yourself.
First of all, the best thing you can start with when picking an SEO agency for your business is to learn a bit of SEO yourself. There’s no need to get into the technical and the smallest details, but knowing some basics will really help you out. So, maybe don’t start with reading Google’s webmaster forum, but go through some blogs and read some case studies, read stories about businesses and how SEO helped them out.
2. Know what you want so you can find the right agency for you.
Only after covering some basics, should you start your quest to find the SEO agency for your business. After you learn a thing or two, you’ll realize that there’s no one-fits-all approach when it comes to SEO, even though most websites seem to operate in a pretty similar digital landscape.
Yet, that’s not entirely true. If you’re a local business, you don’t need a top-notch SEO agency that manages huge international websites. You need an agency that knows how to do local SEO. And so on.
So, really the biggest part of the job is on you. Create a brief about your business and specify what goals you need to achieve when doing SEO.
3. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
And then pay attention to what the SEO agency tries to offer you. If they promise you too much, they’re probably not very sincere. And if they try to convince you that paid search is everything, that you shouldn’t invest in anything else, that’s also not true.
Sustainability is the key. Yes, PPC (Pay-Per-Click) is important, even essential at the beginning, but what happens once you reduce your ad budget? You need to know that as well.
Anton Shulke is the head of video content at SEMrush and is currently organizing the Digital Transformation Day Conference. He has hosted digital marketing webinars and roundtables since 2015, with an impressive guest list that includes Rand Fishkin, Bill Slawski, Eric Enge, Barry Schwartz, Joe Pulizzi, and more. Connect @anton_shulke.
Technical SEO is only one half of the equation.
1. Make sure the writing is high quality.
Many low-quality SEO companies outsource their writing to the lowest bidder — and if they produce content in-house, their writers aren’t experienced copywriters. Often, this means the copy is low-quality, it reads funny and it’s (sometimes) stuffed with keyphrases. That’s no good for you, no good for Google — and your customers won’t like it, either.
2. Avoid keyphrase-filled junk.
If the company tells you, “Your copy is supposed to be like this for Google” — and the content sounds horrible — run. Google is looking for smart, conversational content. Not keyphrase-stuffed drivel.
3. Ask Questions.
If you’re paying an SEO company to write your content, ask your contact:
- Who is doing the writing? What is his/her writing experience?
- Can I see some of his/her writing samples?
- Are your writers employees? Or, do you work with freelancers? (Outsourcing isn’t a bad thing, but you can often pay less if you work directly with a freelancer.)
- What if I don’t like the content? How are rewrites handled?
The writing is incredibly important, so it’s smart to be picky. If you don’t like a writer’s work, tell the company you want to work with someone else.
Named “the pioneer of SEO copywriting” by Forbes Magazine, Heather Lloyd-Martin is a veteran SEO who offers training and certification in SEO copywriting. You can learn more about what she has to say on her website. Connect @heatherlloyd.
Not all SEO agencies are reputable. Here’s how you can be sure they are.
1. Is their strategy something “sneaky” that exploits a loophole of the search engines?
Search engines, like Google and Yahoo, have become very sophisticated in identifying anything that is not compliant with their terms and conditions. If you rely on anything sneaky, then you risk getting your website removed from the search engine pages entirely, or worse, they may tag a website as not trust-worthy. This can cause severe damage to your brand and business in the long run. Avoid companies that promote such strategies.
2. Focus on good content, not clickbait.
If any SEO agency suggests content marketing, such as articles or video, ensure they are helping you create or suggest ideas for developing appealing content. User experience of your audience is very important for the search engines. If the content is in any way click bait, with little value, stay away. The content must add value and get engagement from your target audience.
3. Make sure the SEO agency stays up to date with the trends of your audience.
Does the SEO company have innovative ideas? As you may have noticed, your audience might be using voice for search, and more importantly, the keywords are in the form of questions, rather than just words. Something like, “Where can I find ….” “What is …?” etc. Ensure that your SEO company is thinking, or at least doing more research, about your target audience.
4. Does the agency know your business?
Does the SEO company research your niche and make search engines know how relevant you are for the target audience? Search engines are using Artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to identify if a webpage or website is relevant to the topic of search. A solid SEO expert will be able to do the diagnosis of your website and suggest improvement of your website.
5. Location – Location – Location.
This used to be the mantra for real estate agents. It is now the mantra for all businesses. If you are looking for web traffic from a particular location, you need local SEO. Ensure your content marketing strategies include location-specific content as well. And make sure the SEO company can diagnose your content and provide suggestions.
Venu Sripada is an SEO services expert at Sripada Consulting. He has 20+ years of experience with enterprise data and data analytics. Turn to him when you need a complete blend of business, marketing, and technology know-how. Connect @venusripada.
What would you add to our experts’ recommendations? Is there something in particular that you look for when evaluating an SEO agency?