Key considerations when appointing an SEO agency

Posted by Chris Woods on 14 Nov, 2016
View comments SEO
I can’t help but giggle when I hear brands and businesses ask me if SEO is still worth investing in. I even hear fleeting claims the channel is dying out.

This simply couldn’t be further from the truth but there is a reason for the back alley panic and confusion around organic search. That confusion is undoubtedly due to the massive change the channel has seen in recent years and not down to any truth in the channel dying out. If anything, the fact of the matter is quite contradictory.

The sad fact is that many brands are under the illusion that due to the enormous levels of competition in the organic search space, they themselves won’t be able to consider SEO as a viable media channel. In some industries it’s certainly true that you will face an uphill battle for SEO success if you don’t play smart, but to consider the channel unattainable is rather short sighted and often the result of widespread misinformation and negative communications from agencies who push back hard on the need to provide their clients with tangible organic search results.

The other reality is that there has been a dramatic change in organic search processes and achievement in recent years as leading engines like Google continue to develop ever more complex ranking algorithms. Gone are the days when the likelihood of SEO success comes down to relatively perceptible metrics on a spreadsheet. Having more links and more pages than the next guy for example or buying domains containing crucial keywords could almost guarantee success. New age SEO is still about having a technically efficient and search engine friendly set of web assets, but it’s increasingly about relevancy and the natural attainment of linking credibility from contextually relevant and evolving sources. Social media signals and video content are also important along with a host of other metrics.

So, in this world of highly evolved and competitive SEO, how do you make the vital decision of choosing an agency partner to support you with what is a challenging yet potentially highly rewarding and cost effective channel? Here are some tips to help you appoint with confidence and avoid the common pitfalls.

Promises, promises

Now, if you’ve already made your first foray into the world of SEO agency discovery, it’s safe to say that ironically your first instinct was to go to Google and run a search, maybe for SEO agencies in your general geographical location.  Am I right? Don’t worry, you’re not predictable, it’s just the natural first step, hence why search is so critical as a marketing channel.

You’ll have likely noticed something - regardless of where in the SEO rankings you look for an SEO service, you’ll have seen that there are a lot of promises and guarantees floated around. Most common is the promise to get your business to page one of Google. Give me any industry vertical and I will find you 50+ companies who promise page one organic search results with ease. The unavoidable truth here is that with 6-8 organic search results on page one, only a handful of the agencies claiming to guarantee top listings have actually delivered on their promise. Inevitably the vast majority of agencies seducing you with guarantees of high Google rankings just can’t achieve it.

Don’t base your decision on promises that sound too good to be true, because they are often just that - too good to be true.

The guarantee

The guarantee is one of my favorites. SEO is still far from an exact science (apologies for the 2004 style cliché) so the very nature of providing guarantees makes most a little uneasy right from the start. But let’s stick with it, what exactly is being guaranteed here? And what are the implications of the guarantee?

Personally my findings have always been that SEO guarantees come at a substantial price, with many months of minimum spend and activity required before an evaluation of the level of success thus far can be conducted. This means that the guarantee acts more as a break clause for your agreement than an actual guarantee of results backed up by any kind of money back benefit. You could be strapped in for 6 months or so at a decent level of spend before being hit with the unfortunate reality that the results your SEO agency guaranteed don’t match your expectations.

By all means, if you’re offered a firm money back guarantee for a set result, go ahead and take it. Though I’m going to warn you now, that’s an offer you’re not likely to find anywhere. To be honest, it would be irresponsible for a business to offer you a guarantee like this.

Another drawback to guarantees and promises alike, is that after agreeing to deliver set results, the agency has put extreme pressure on themselves to deliver and retain your business. There is then a strong temptation to turn to black hat or underhand techniques to achieve their promise. They could resort to tactics that have a negative impact on your site in the long term.

If you’re going to consider working with guarantees in place from your chosen SEO agency, the guarantees should be based on physical work completed by the agency. This could be the creation of a set number of keyword rich web pages, a certain amount of blog writing or so many hours of external 3rd party outreach for link generation etc. So long as you can be sure they are earned naturally, tracking the number of new links the agency’s activity has generated is a good way to judge their level of effort for your spend. This is of course not the be all and end all of a comprehensive SEO strategy, but they are the only tangible ways to measure genuine work output.

Tips for choosing wisely

Shop around – Even as an agency owner myself, I would always suggest shopping around when it comes to finding and appointing an SEO agency. When I say shop around I don’t mean selecting 20 companies and getting them all to send a proposal. I mean whittling a long list of prospects down to a handful and then taking the time to meet them or at the very least set up a web chat or call with them. The same way you wouldn’t hire an employee based purely on a CV and a LinkedIn profile, don’t settle for a proposal and a flash website. Talk to the people you’re going to be working with and assess your comfort levels and trust following the meeting.

Do your research - When you have your shortlist, research those agencies. Look them up on social media - what kind of posts do they publish? Do they showcase expertise? What sort of comments do they receive and what are people saying about them? You’ll also want to look them up on Google, trying a few search terms relevant to their services (SEO agency + state, search engine optimisation agency + state for example) and see where they rank. Are they practising what they preach for their own search presence?

Interview them – Get to the heart of the business, ask them how they started up, how long they’ve been doing SEO and what they’ve changed in recent years to keep up to date with the market. Ask big questions and you should expect to hear stories in return. A confident and genuine agency will be able to easily recall past experiences and talk about how they’ve adjusted their approach to keep pace with an ever evolving industry. You’ll get some valuable insight about the people you’re going to be working with and it’s a great way to judge their authenticity.

Ask specific questions about their methodology - Be inquisitive and ask them how they build links. Which keyword research tools do they use? How do they approach local SEO? What on-page work will they do?

Agree delivery details – What exactly is going to be done, what volume will be delivered and by when? A seasoned SEO agency will have a process and at the very least a rough timeline for how they will get started as well as a list of requirements on the support and details they’ll need from you to do the job right. Don’t leave your spend to chance, ensure a minimum set of deliverables is offered and meets your expectations vs the budget they’re requesting in return.

Case studies & references – It should go without saying, but make sure you get case studies and references from past clients before signing on the dotted line. Ensure these are fairly recent or ongoing engagements. Getting firm X a solid ranking position 3-4 years ago is not a suitable testament to the agency’s ability in the modern marketplace. Your chosen agency should be able to demonstrate recent success or put you in touch with a happy current client.

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