Have you ever had a negative experience using a search engine optimization agency? If so, you are by no means alone. It seems like just about every business owner has heard SEO horror stories or has one themselves.
This article is not an exposé of bad agencies, nor is it to “name and shame” any particular SEO company. The goal of this article is to educate business owners to choose an SEO agency that will likely provide a positive experience.
What is their real reputation?
This may sound pretty straightforward – but it isn’t. Learning what an agency’s real reputation is requires more than just seeing how many positive customer reviews they have. Reviews, or testimonials, contained on an agency’s site are likely cherry-picked. Reviews contained on Google Maps and other third-party review sites can also be unreliable.
How so? There are rumors of SEO agencies threatening customers with legal action if negative reviews are not removed. Others may use more sinister threats such as negative SEO. Positive reviews can easily be incentivized, or they may have been acquired very early on in the campaign, so may not be a true indicator of the SEO agency’s reputation.
To find out their real reputation, contact some of their clients directly. You’ll find out soon enough if the testimonials are true or not, and you may receive valuable tips from those clients.
Are they a digital agency or an SEO agency?
An agency that offers many digital services usually doesn’t specialize in SEO. Many digital agencies start off as web design companies, then start expanding their service base to include hosting, AdWords management, graphic design and SEO.
The problem with this is that the staff they have working on SEO is usually someone familiar with the industry, but not a specialist. For a digital agency to scale, they will likely be using junior staff, or off-shore teams, under the supervision of a department head.
With the scale at which a digital agency operates, it’s likely that they will have a laundry list of SEO tasks that get done regularly, but there may be no real technical SEO specialist work being done on the project. These digital agencies survive despite the failures of their SEO departments due to success in other areas.
For these reasons, it’s better to work with an independent SEO consultant or SEO specialist agency. In the case of an SEO specialist agency, it is likely that it was founded by a successful SEO consultant and turned into an agency to take on larger corporate clients at scale. SEO agencies don’t have other services to fall back on, so, if they are successful, it’s a good sign.
What results have they achieved?
The proof is in the punch, as they say. An effective SEO agency stays effective. It’s unrealistic to expect an SEO agency to get #1 rankings in every industry, but they should be getting consistent page one rankings for solid keywords.
Rather than asking them what rankings they’ve achieved or reading some cherry-picked case study on their website, research their clients’ websites. Look at their testimonials and try to find the website of the person who left a review. Visit their website and see what keywords are in the meta title of the site. Then do a search for those terms in Google and see where they are ranked currently.
With all the changes to Google’s algorithm, rankings can fluctuate a lot, and just because an agency was able to rank a website two years ago, doesn’t mean they are still effective now.
Probably one of the strongest indicators of ability to get rankings is the ranking of the agency’s own website. Granted, not all agencies try to rank their websites for SEO-related search terms. Ironically, ranking for SEO terms doesn’t always produce a great ROI and it requires a lot of effort and expense. However, if an agency is ranked on page one for SEO terms in your city, that is a very good sign.
What is their quoting process like?
Watch out for pricing tiers. It’s very hard to make them work, and, in most cases, a fixed pricing structure means the agency is using a “conveyor-belt” approach to SEO — not technical SEO.
Also make sure that you know who is doing the SEO work they’re pitching to you. Many times, larger SEO agencies will use slick sales staff on commission bonuses to sell as much as they can. This is the more ruthless side of the industry. You need to make sure that you aren’t paying for things you don’t need. It is also common for a salesperson to pitch results which require much more work than the SEO staff is going to do.
A best-case scenario is when you call the SEO agency and you get to speak directly to the person who will be doing the SEO work and that person gives you a quote. This is usually only possible working with smaller agencies where the owner of the agency is the head of SEO.
What KPIs are they selling?
One of the biggest scams in “guaranteed SEO” pitches is convincing customers that they will rank for their own brand name or some search phrases that nobody searches for.
Make sure that the keywords they quote you for have enough monthly searches to make an ROI possible. Ranking for your own brand name is a joke, as Google normally does this anyway. Keep in mind that after your website is ranked on page one for a search term, it’s only going to get a percentage of the monthly search volume – not all of it. So make sure that you are not sold on potential conversions from the full search volume of the search terms.
Are they trying to get control of everything?
Some agencies will try to get control of all your digital properties. Typically they will try to sell you a new website design, ask you to move your website over to their hosting, try to move your domain over to their account, set up your Google properties in their own account, convince you to turn your Google Ads management over to them and make any other number of requests.
They may try to convince you by saying that it will make life much easier for you if everything is managed by just one company. Technically, they may be correct. But it is also true that it’s easier for them to make it a nightmare for you to leave.
It’s much better to use a web design company to develop your website, a reputable hosting company to host your website, a domain registrar for your domain name registration, and a specialist SEO agency for your SEO. Read this SEO guide to learn more about how to protect yourself from practices like these.
Are they transparent?
Many SEO agencies like to protect their methods. This is understandable because it’s hard to keep an edge in a saturated market. However, there should be at least some transparency in regards to what they are doing.
In some cases, they may be using methods they wouldn’t like to admit they are using, such as automated linking software or reselling services from another company. It would pay to find out more about what methods they are using and how those methods will support the campaign. Watch out for arrogant SEO specialists who offer zero transparency and who quickly shut down any inquiries into their methods.
Hiring an SEO specialist is much better than trying to do SEO yourself. There is a lot of contradicting information out there, and a true technical SEO specialist will have a pretty good idea of what’s working currently. As noted in this article though, caution is still required and it pays to dig a little deeper before agreeing to sign up with anyone.
Even after following this advice you may still have a negative experience due to lackluster rankings. So make sure that you can leave unscathed with just a month’s notice. You can find additional helpful information in this SEO podcast.