When you’ve spoken with over 1,000 CMOs, marketing professionals, and business owners about search engine optimization (SEO), one feeling stands out more than any other: frustration.
And I don’t just mean about how Google’s algorithm works or how to understand which metrics really matter.
(BTW, if you’re in this boat check out our free CMO’s Cheat Sheet to Understanding SEO Metrics.)
No, what I’m referring to is the agency selection process. Universally, everyone hates it. Why? Let me count the ways:
Here are just a few reasons why choosing an SEO agency can feel like an awful chore:
- Our industry is filled with charlatans.
- You know maybe some basic points of how SEO works, but not well enough to feel like you can judge plans or experience accurately.
- Most agencies don’t explain to you how SEO works in any kind of substantive way or what they’ll actually do for you in detail. “Just trust us.”
- Several agencies say they specialize in one area, such as technical SEO and that that aspect is most important.
- Even when you do get details of what agencies will do for you, they’re all over the map.
- Pricing and terms of contract vary.
- SEO is critical to your company’s success, which just heightens the pressure.
- When taken altogether, it doesn’t just feel like comparing apples to oranges; it’s like apples to shady underworld mobsters.
I could go on, but Yogi doesn’t have a big enough flower.
Doing Your Homework: How to Ensure the Right SEO Agency Fit
Let me let you in on a secret—there’s no perfect agency for every company.
We’re not a match for every business, and I’m kinda biased.
So how do you go about evaluating the right fit for you? Start by finding answers to the following questions.
Know Your Goals
What do you want to accomplish with SEO?
Are you looking for exponential traffic growth?
Top rankings on important keywords?
Recovery from a poor site migration?
Lay out your goals with as much definition as you can muster. Bonus points if you can name specific metrics you want to hit (e.g., 15% increase in organic conversions; 20% organic traffic increase YoY).
If you don’t feel you’re able to define specific metrics, it’s OK. The right agency ought to be able to work with you to determine realistic goals for your specific situation.
Understand What You’re Up Against
Speaking of your situation—what is realistic for you?
A 10% YoY increase for a long-established, well-optimized site in a competitive industry might be fantastic, while a 30% MoM increase for a new site with virtually no traffic to speak of might be awful.
You should know—or find out—the following:
- How old is your site?
- Geographically, where do you want to show?
- What keywords are most important to you? How much are they searched for? How competitive are they? How do you rank on them and who ranks ahead of you?
- Are there technical site issues holding your SEO back?
- What kind of trust signals have you built up (e.g., backlinks), especially compared to your competitors?
- Do you have engaging content? Not as in “my mom reads all my blog posts.” More along the lines of Google Search Console and analytics data showing low bounce rates, multiple pages per visit, etc.
- Have you ever had any Google penalties or past SEO efforts that could be hurting you today?
You can also request an SEO audit to cover some or all of the above and more from an SEO agency. Some are free, and some cost money, but many agencies will offer these audits without requiring you to sign a full-service contract.
With this knowledge, you’re ready to start researching agencies.
Bare Minimum SEO Agency Requirements
All agencies will have their unique positioning and how they approach SEO. But any legitimate agency needs to have the following. Think of this as your “Stop! Do Not Pass Go” moment.
“Hey Kids! It’s Digital Marketing Board Game Night. Kids. Kids?”
- Longevity: Digital marketing agencies come and go all the time, so it matters when an online marketing agency stays in business for more than five years. Even better is if you’re able to find an agency that’s been executing on SEO campaigns since the early days of Google (think 10+ years).
- Size: How big is your agency? Is it a two-person shop where a vacation or unexpected illness stops everything? Or a behemoth where your account gets the ‘C’ team working on it? Try to get a feel for how equipped an agency is to carry out what they’ve promised.
- Process: Many agencies approach SEO differently. The best ones have carefully created their own process to account for every single step of the way, including potential bumps in the road.
- Account Manager: Another important minimum requirement is whether or not your agency will provide a dedicated account manager. This person ordinarily serve as your primary point-of-contact (POC), and they should have a comprehensive understanding of every aspect of your campaign, coordinating with their team members accordingly. Account managers are there to serve you and should make themselves available to answer questions or provide insights with reasonable turnaround times.
- Team: In addition to having an account manager, ask about backup contacts at the agency. Bonus points if you will have a dedicated backup who is knowledgeable of your account. You may want to know other team members who will be working on your account as well.
- Experience: Selecting the right SEO agency should always involve evaluating their experience, but there are different approaches in this regard. You could choose an agency that has demonstrated proven results in your industry or similar vertical. On the flip side, you could go the opposite way and seek out an agency that has produced results in other industries, bringing a fresh perspective to shake things up with newer tactics.
- Updates & Reporting: No matter where you turn, reporting on performance is always a bare minimum. However, run-of-the-mill or mediocre agencies fail at consistent communication and thorough analysis. What you don’t want is an agency that creates a strategy and lets your SEO campaign run on auto-pilot indefinitely without recurring discussion.
- Clarity: Your agency of choice may be the expert on SEO, but you may not be. Companies turn to agencies either because they don’t have the bandwidth to do it on their own, or they want to trust a team of experienced individuals who are the experts. You’re relying on their expertise but never settle for an agency that doesn’t do what it takes to make everything easy to understand. You need total transparency and clarity.
If you’re not 100% sure about any of the above requirements, move onto the next agency.
Getting the Right Fit
The must-haves listed above will help you weed out unqualified agencies. Now you want to find the best fit for you from the many shops that do check off all those boxes.
How do you make sure if you’re Officer Trainee Hightower you don’t get a Citroën? Think about the following.
(Consider this reference our test of which side of the age-40 line you fall)
- The Right Size: Depending on what your needs are, this consideration needs a “Goldilocks” approach—not too big, and not too small. Small agencies are better equipped to provide more hands-on client experience, but the quality of work may be lower and you may be stuck if a key person becomes unavailable. On the other hand, a very large agency can get results but overlook offering a human touch in their communication and are less flexible in trying new things (not to mention a considerably heftier price tag).
- Matching Your Needs: A crucial consideration; your needs are almost always dictated by your overall goals. Do you already have content or do you need a partner to set strategy and deliver content on a regular basis? Is there some other effort you need more comprehensive help with, such as link building or lead generation?
- Desired Communication Intervals: The right SEO agency should be flexible enough to accommodate how you want to communicate and how often. Whether you want weekly email touchpoints, bi-weekly phone calls, or monthly in-person meetings, try to get a feel for what’s important to you. Bonus tip: The more engaged you are with your SEO agency, the more you’ll get out of your relationship with them.
- Good Rapport with Your POC: Human beings are highly social creatures, and it’s OK to be selective about who you work with. It always helps when you have a good rapport with your designated POC. (And if you ever find that you don’t have a good relationship with your POC after signing, don’t be shy about asking for a new one.)
The Contract Offer
The actual contract is key. Knowing and understanding what’s involved allows you the best chance of comparing apples to apples, or at least pears.
- Services: You should know specifically what you’re getting, what won’t be done within the scope of the campaign. Also, understand what you’ll be expected to do or approve.
- Length: Many agencies will try to lock you in for extended periods, so before moving forward, take a hard look at the commitment. <cough>Some agencies even offer month-to-month contracts.<cough>
- Terms: The fine print can be a killer if you aren’t careful. Always ask about anything where you’re unsure.
- Pricing: Of course, pricing is another really big concern as there’s a huge range and even different pricing models. Be sure to ask about additional fees which may not be covered in your contract. I leave this point last as it really should be the final consideration, assuming the agency is within the range of what you can afford. Go for your best fit – not the cheapest or the most expensive.
As a final note, I want to bring up clarity again. If you don’t 100% understand what everything in the contract means, ASK! It’s okay to get answers verbally so you can have a conversation around it, but for any key features, make sure to get things in writing. It’s up to you if you feel more comfortable with a revised contract or an email representing the agency’s position.
Hope you find this guide useful. Happy SEO agency hunting!