Organic search accounts for 51% of the traffic brands receive on average, and investment in SEO services is projected to rise to $79 billion annually by 2020. To capitalize on so much opportunity, brands often partner with an SEO agency to add firepower to their existing marketing efforts.
However, with so many agencies all promising so much, how can brands ensure they select the right SEO company?
A significant number of brands choose to outsource elements of their SEO program to an agency partner. This can provide access to valuable skills and insights that the company does not possess internally, so it can prove to be a very sound long-term investment.
However, it can also be difficult to get a clear view on which agencies can deliver on the brand’s business objectives through organic search.
SEO is open to a certain amount of interpretation; Google is infamously opaque when it comes to the inner workings of its algorithms, so we often rely on correlative studies to draw our conclusions about what works and what doesn’t.
That room for interpretation can be exploited, making it hard to distinguish between sophisticated SEOs and false prophets.
In a rare and newsworthy move earlier this year, Google acknowledged this challenge and tried to address it in the video below.
The video, from Google’s Webmaster team, provides practical advice to distinguish between what they call “good SEOs and bad SEOs”.
Google suggests giving an SEO expert at least four months to make an impact, so it’s worth making sure you feel confident in your choice.
The tips below, drawn from experience working at agencies and helping brands to find the right agency partner, will help companies to arrive at an informed decision.
It is important to strike the right balance here; an effective client-agency partnership requires input from both sides. Before setting out a formal pitch process, it is important to establish what these requirements will be and that your company is in a position to meet them.
It can be quite daunting to set out on the search for a new SEO company. Often, a company hires an agency to avail of advanced SEO knowledge – exactly the quantity that would help with the agency search.
Brands are often faced with a choice of a lot of very similar-looking agencies, all promising that they have “reinvented” the agency model or that they have the “only approach that works”.
It is an unfortunate reality that some agencies talk a good game without being able to back it up. Hiring the wrong SEO agency can be very costly and it takes time to recognize the shortcomings in their strategies, so it’s worth putting the work in up front to define and assess the candidates.
Before you start looking for an agency, decide on what exactly it is that your company wants to achieve through SEO. This will help you draw up an initial list of companies (many are specialists in just a few fields), and it will also be beneficial when you communicate with the agency teams.
SEO could help you increase brand awareness, improve customer retention, or simply drive more revenue. Defining what these goals are will help you and the prospective partner agencies to work on the right strategy.
Once you have this clear in your mind, the search should begin.
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Ironically, perhaps the worst way you can start is by searching [seo agency] on Google.
The agencies that show up in top positions may well be demonstrating their ability to rank for an important keyword, but many of the best agencies apply these efforts to help their clients rank rather than their own business.
As such, anything you find from this search will be inconclusive. The same goes for the paid search results for [seo agency]; ranking via PPC shows that they can use AdWords, but it doesn’t demonstrate anything other than their desire to sell SEO services to you.
We want an opinion we can trust, which can be hard when it seems like everyone has a vested interest in selling something.
You should assess which kind of agency you want to work with based on factors including:
- Your budget: Agencies can charge from hundreds of dollars a month up to six-figure monthly retainers for complex, international engagements.
- The services you require: This will typically include technical SEO, SEO strategy, content production, link building, and many other services for larger brands.
- Agency culture: Does their culture align with your brand’s values?
- Expertise: This applies both to SEO as a discipline and to your specific business vertical.
- Agency size: Some brands prefer a smaller agency, while others want to work with large agency brands. Both come with their own lists of pros and cons.
- Reputation: Ask colleagues and any SEO industry contacts to recommend agencies based on the requirements you have selected above.
In essence, if you can cut through all the self-promotional noise and get an opinion from an industry insider that you respect, that can be a great way to start drawing up your list of agencies to contact.
Having a very targeted view of your SEO goals and an idea of the kind of agency you want to work with will help refine and expedite this process significantly.
The pitch process
It is normally helpful to have a discovery call with each agency on your initial list to learn a bit more about their company and culture. From here, you can decide which companies you would like to invite to pitch for your business.
Take all of your decision criteria and create a scoring sheet that each stakeholder at the business can fill in. This helps to remove some of the biases that cloud judgement and establishes a level playing field. Running a pitch process can feel like herding cats at times, so you should ensure there are concrete reference points and milestones along the way to keep all parties organized.
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That applies internally and externally; everyone at your business should be aware of the expectations from the process, but the agency should also know how long the entire process will last and what will be needed from them.
Pitching for new business requires a lot of input from an agency team, so it is best to be transparent about things so they can plan accordingly. This can apply to letting them know how many other agencies are in the running, providing detail on what is required at each stage of the pitch, and the dates on which you will announce your decision.
There are a few important points to keep in mind throughout the pitch as you try and decide which agency would make the best business partner.
Questions to ask:
- Can you talk me through the first 10 days of a typical engagement with a new client?
- How would you define a ‘good’ backlink for our business?
- Do you think Google’s ranking algorithms weight factors differently depending on the nature of the query?
- How do you ensure that your technical recommendations are implemented, and how do you measure their impact?
- Can we meet our account team?
- Do you outsource any of your client work to freelancers?
- How much time will be spent on the account each month?
- Have you ever had to push back on a client? How did you go about doing this?
- What role do you think SEO plays in wider business strategy?
- If we sign up with you, how long will it be until we see results?
- What if things don’t work out between our companies? How would you approach that situation?
- How much resource will be required from our side to make this partnership a success?
In the answers to these questions, it is important that the agency is honest – even if that means telling you something you perhaps didn’t want to hear. Client-agency relationships can involve constructive disagreements at times, which is fine if the agency is acting in your best interests.
Every agency will have had difficult conversations with clients; the good ones will have come out of these with their reputations enhanced in the long term. Bad agencies end things on less than civil terms and blame the client for any failures.
You should also note their ability to think on their feet and approach challenges with an open mind.
Potential red flags:
- Promises of dramatic short-term results. There are ‘quick wins‘ in SEO, but progress for competitive industries takes time. Take it from Google: a good SEO needs at least 4 months of activity to deliver a sustainable impact.
- Watch out for agencies that plan to outsource a lot of work to transient freelance networks. If they do plan to do this, be sure to get full transparency on who will be handling your company’s sensitive data.
- An inflexible approach to disagreements, either in your discussion or in anecdotes from past client engagements.
- References to ‘buying backlinks’ or any euphemistic representation thereof should be automatic grounds for disqualification.
- Agencies that claim they can start right away. If you are asking for a lot of services, an agency can only start immediately if they are really struggling for business or if they are planning to under-deliver. It will typically take a few weeks, at least, to get an agency team in place for a medium- or large-scale project.
By the end of a rigorous pitch process, there will hopefully be a unanimous decision on the right agency. There are quite a lot of good SEO agencies out there, which is why it is so essential to begin with a clear idea of what you are looking for. Combined with a standardized approach to agency evaluation, this will create a clear framework for the ultimate selection.
When certain agencies have been ruled out, let them know as soon as you can. Most agencies put a lot of time and effort into their proposals and the wait for feedback can be excruciating. Even if it’s bad news, they’d rather know than wait around longer for an answer.
As for the winning agency, set up an initial kick-off meeting with them to introduce all the key individuals who will make the project a success!