SEO & Content Marketing, Top Tips, Hints & Advice

How To Choose An SEO Agency

Written by Neil Hannam on 15th November 2018

Choosing an SEO agency can be a difficult and daunting prospect. With so many agencies out there, how do you know the good from the bad when you’re trying to work out how to choose an SEO agency?

SEO is a deeply complex marketing discipline that spans a wide range of skill sets. Finding an agency that has the requisite knowledge, skills, approach and a style of account management that gels with you and your team is critical in ensuring your precious marketing budget is being put to the most effective use.

Find the right partner and you can expect effective SEO campaigns to help drive your business forward and look forward to a long and successful relationship with your agency. Pick the wrong one, and months of frustration and failure may await.

So how do you choose the right SEO company for your business? Use the quicklinks below to jump to the relevant sections

 – Trust Signals
– Experience and Expertise
– Consultation Phase
– Cost and Budget
– Transparency
– Location
– Warning Signs

 

Trust Signals

It’s hard to imagine engaging any SEO company without first checking out their website, so it’s probably a good place to start. A key aspect to be on the lookout for is trust signals. Trust signals are those key indicators that not only validate the fact that this is a genuine business but also a genuine business that delivers great results and experiences for their clients. However, be aware that some of these signals can be easy to fake so be cautious in your assessment of them and no one signal should be taken in isolation.

 

Case Studies or Portfolio of Work

A great SEO agency will be not only proud to show off their work but desperate that you see how proud they are of their work. Sure, no SEO company is ever going to be keen to show off anything but their greatest successes but a portfolio of work or recent case studies (you can find ours here) are a great indicator of a company that knows how to deliver.

Case studies should include the client’s objectives, the results achieved against these and some indication as to the timeframe it took. Ideally, those case studies should also include or be linked to reviews or testimonials from that client to support them.

Be wary of case studies that do not include the name of the company. Anyone can fabricate a case study so if it’s not attributed to a specific company ask yourself why that is.

 

Reviews and Testimonials

When choosing an SEO company, there’s no better confidence builder than direct reviews and testimonials from their previous or existing clients. Again, a client that is proud of their work and have great relationships with clients will be keen for you to see this type of information, so they should be displayed prominently on site. (check out our case studies here)

Testimonials should be ideally be attributed to a specific person, at a specific organisation to prove their authenticity. Reviews should be coming in on a regular basis and ideally through a third-party review platform like Trust Pilot or Reviews.co.uk. (take a look at our reviews here)

Check to see whether the reviews and testimonials look authentic and are for a specific channel or the agency as a whole, as some reviews may not be applicable to SEO.

 

Awards

The digital marketing world has an almost endless number of award ceremonies and categories. For some companies, this is their holy grail and you’ll see them entering, nominated and sometimes winning industry awards that will no doubt be proudly displayed in the footer of their website. What you may not understand about the awards industry is that it is a pay to play game.

These awards aren’t just handed out to the best of the best, you must pay to enter, so whilst they are a great indicator of industry recognition, a company that chooses not to engage in these could still be a great agency for you.

If any agency positions themselves as an award winner, ask them about what it is for, so you can understand whether it has any bearing on the work they might be doing for you.

 

Their Own Content Marketing

Content is a core component of any SEO project, in fact, it’s part of the reason why this piece has been written. So, take the time to explore the content your prospective agencies are creating for themselves. Is the content of high quality? Is it updated regularly? Does it appear for searches related to the topic it’s about? What formats do they use? Would similar types of content be an improvement on the content you are currently producing? These are all considerations to take on board when you’re trying to gauge the quality of their output.

There is an old saying that goes “the cobblers son has no shoes.” And that can be symptomatic of SEO agencies. They are so busy producing great content for clients that their own content marketing drops to the bottom of the priority list.

An agency producing huge volumes of content isn’t automatically better than one who produces one piece a month so try to judge on quality rather than quantity. (You can check out our blog here)

 

Organic Visibility of Their Own Site

If you’re specifically looking for an SEO agency then you’d hope that they could deliver a reasonable level of organic visibility for their own site, Afterall, the proof is in the pudding. However, a site that ranks well doesn’t automatically mean they are a great agency. Correlation very much does not equal causation in this instance. I know of several agencies that compete with our own site that are using somewhat shady tactics to increase their visibility, some of which directly fly in the face of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

So, whilst you would hope that the best agencies would be delivering a level of organic visibility for themselves, there are great agencies out there that simply cannot compete in this vertical. They may be newer agencies, smaller agencies, specialist agencies that only deal with certain aspects of SEO and they could be the perfect partner for your needs.

Instead of just looking for broad phrases to see whether they appear organically, also look how they manage their presence for their own brand searches and whether they take full advantage of all the search page results features available.

 

Examples of Companies They Work With

This trust signal is probably the weakest one in the list and therefore the one to be taken with the biggest pinch of salt. On digital marketing agency websites, you’ll often see other company logos dotted about. These agencies may well have worked with these companies, although it’s very easy to add a logo and hope no one checks, they give no indication as to the work they did for these companies.

Was it for SEO or was it another channel? Perhaps it was a one-off consultancy piece and you’re really looking for an agency that works with big clients on longer retainer projects. Perhaps the relationship ended terribly, you just can’t tell from a single logo.

When you speak to your shortlist of agencies, specifically ask them about these clients they are associating themselves with to find out what they did and whether they are still working with them.

 

Experience and Expertise

So, you found a couple of agencies you think might work and you’ve been through their site to get a feel for what they do and whether you feel they are trustworthy. The next step is to contact them to begin the process of narrowing down your potential options. This early stage is a great opportunity to start digging a little deeper.

 

Staff Experience

Whilst it’s easy for an agency to claim to have been around for years or even decades, what really matters is the level of experience of the team that you’re entrusting your SEO too. Don’t be shy to ask about the experience of the team and your potential account manager or team working on your account.

You want to know your account isn’t going to be assigned to a junior member of the team who will be left to learn on the job. Everyone must start somewhere but you want to make sure you have the right people from the agency working on your behalf.

Most agencies will have a ‘Meet the Team’ page or similar. Spend some time browsing these, reading the bios and getting to understand which people you might prefer on your account.

 

Do They Use Outsourcing?

Whilst you’re talking about their staff and the people potentially working on your account, ask about their policy on outsourcing? At some point or another, I image a lot of agencies have had a need to outsource work due to the volume of work, understaffing or simply tight deadlines bunched together. Outsourcing shouldn’t be considered a dirty word. But what is important is where is that work being outsourced to?

An agency with a small network of highly skilled and highly trust freelancers can still deliver great work and you’ll probably never tell the difference between the outsourced work and the work done in-house. But an agency that uses cheap foreign labour, from people that possibly don’t have English as a first language would be somewhat concerning.

Be confident to ask about whether the agency will potentially use outsourcers and if so, how do they manage this process and ensure standards are maintained.

 

Sector Experience and Client Size

Take into consideration not only the clients they work with and the size of these businesses but also the sectors prospective agencies have particular experience in. Whilst you may not wish o work with an agency that also works with a direct competitor, there may be some significant benefit to working with an agency that already has expertise and knowledge of your sector.

This may not always be in terms of direct work with a client. There may be members of staff that have a particular interest or passion for what you do and that could offer added value that you may not get with other agencies.

You may also want to consider the size of clients they work with. Do you want to be the biggest fish in their client pond or do you want to be aspirational in your choice and work with an agency that has the experience of much larger clients?

 

Other Channel Service Offerings

At this juncture, you may just be looking for an SEO company to work with. But potentially down the road, you may want to engage an agency on other aspects of your online marketing. Picking a specialist SEO only agency now, means you’re potentially going to have to repeat this agency review process if you want to bring someone onboard to handle PPC, Social Media or Conversion Rate Optimisation in the future.

An agency that offers multi-channels not only has a broader skillset but is also able to integrate these channels into a cohesive and strategic digital marketing strategy for you in a way that engaging multiple agencies just can’t do. It may also give you a stronger negotiating position on price too.

Don’t just think about the immediate need just for SEO. Think longer term and whether the multi-channel experience of a full-service agency may outweigh the benefits of a single channel SEO specialist agency.

 

Consultation Phase

seo consultation

Now you’ve had the chance to speak with some prospective agencies, it’s time to meet them face to face. This face to face interaction is critical for you and we’d strongly suggest meeting at their offices rather than your own, as this can give you the opportunity to start to see how they work, how big the teams are and how they work. So, what should you be looking for?

 

Initial Meetings

Prior to the meeting, find out who it is you’ll be meeting with? Will it be a business development person or with an SEO specialist? An initial meeting may just involve a business development person that has a basic understanding of SEO but if you want to ask more complex questions or dig deeper into the specifics of potentially working together, request a member of their SEO team is available too.

These first meetings can be thought of as ‘chemistry meetings’. It’s about both the agency and you as a client getting a feel for each other and determining what your objectives are, how the can deliver against these objectives and understanding how the two parties would work together. Subsequent meetings though should include someone with a high level of SEO knowledge.

Find out who will be included in these initial meetings and if possible, try and take a meeting at the agencies office so you can get a better feel for how they work

 

Do They Offer An Audit?

Audits are often the backbone of the business development process of SEO agencies. Most of the time these are free of charge providing you meet the lead qualification requirements (hint, we know when someone just wants some free information and has no intention of giving us work). Audits vary hugely in terms of depth and comprehensiveness so it’s a good opportunity to gauge how hard an agency is willing to work to earn your business.

Audits are often completed between the initial phone conversations or the first meeting and the follow-up meetings so that results can be presented to you in person. These audits help inform the focus of the SEO proposal and project so ask if they produce these.

An audit is the first piece of work the agency is delivering to you, even if it’s free. It’s a chance to gauge the quality of work, knowledge and depth of understanding of your prospective agencies.

 

Goals and Objectives

Knowing your goals and objectives and understanding how your chosen SEO company will achieve these is key to making the right decision. An agency should be asking you about these in order to help design a proposal and project that achieves them or working with you to revise them if your budget and expectations don’t match.

If you aren’t certain, ask how they measure the success of their projects for other clients. What KPIs do they use to measure success and do these align with your overall business goals? If possible, ask to see an example or two of monthly reports so you understand how they’ll be reporting progress to you on a regular basis.

You must align your SEO objectives with your overall business objectives. Remember, organic traffic doesn’t pay your bills, so whilst traffic increases are a good indicator of progress, it’s leads and sales that drive your business success.

 

Ask Questions

You’ve probably already committed a reasonable amount of time on researching and building a shortlist of agencies, initial calls and meetings. Now you’re sat in front of them, use the time wisely and ask as many questions as you can about not only your potential project but wider questions about the way they work and how they deliver on what they promise.

Some good ideas you could include are;

– How do they structure SEO projects? – do they front load time, spread it evenly over the contract and how do they decide what to spend your time on?

– What will time be allocated to which aspects? – an audit should give the agency an idea of where they need to focus their time. Find out what time will be allocated to what elements of the project and why.

– How flexible are they? – how flexible are they with the proposed project and the use of time? You don’t want to be locked into a project where the agency isn’t willing to be flexible to your needs.

– What are their techniques? – ask them how they go about certain tasks they’ve included in the proposal. Satisfy yourself that these are not blackhat techniques that could cause you issues in later years.

– Do they have developers to support technical work? – almost every SEO project I’ve worked on has required some involvement from developers to address site issues. If you don’t have an in-house developer, you want to know if you’re going to need an additional budget or whether web development work is included within your proposal.

– Can you see examples of creative work? – ask for examples of their creative work. These could be written pieces, videos they’ve produced or design work. You want to understand how the content work they produce looks and feels.

– How do they get links?– Links are still incredibly important for SEO so should be a core component of any SEO project. Ask about how they do this and watch out for outdated techniques like directory submissions, social bookmarking, story submission sites or directly buying them.

– What  KPIs do they measure and how do they report on them? – most agencies will reply at least a monthly report as standard. Ask to see an example and look for the KPIs and performance metrics used in these reports and how they relate to the overall objectives.

– What length contracts do they offer? – SEO takes time, so most agencies will want you to commit to a contract of at least six months in order to prove their effectiveness. However, check whether they offer discounts for longer contracts and whether they include performance-based exit clauses so you aren’t tied into a contract if they can’t deliver.

– What will be required from you as a client? – SEO is a collaborative process. The best projects come from the client and agency working in harmony. Ask what the agency will be requiring and expecting from you as a client to ensure you aren’t surprised once you’ve signed an agreement.

 

Cost and Budget

Cost is perhaps the single largest driver of a lot of decisions when it comes to appointing an SEO agency. You can find out more about how SEO pricing is determined here. But, paying a lot for SEO is no guarantee that the work will be better. Those London agencies have to pay for their fancy offices somehow and that’s usually why their day rates are higher, not because they always deliver better results.

 

Budget

Just like your objectives, you want to know your budget too. A good agency will want to know what both your budget and objectives are so that they can ascertain whether the two align and they can deliver what you need with the money you have available. Don’t think that because they ask for a budget, they are just trying to find out how much you’re willing to spend so that they can charge you that exact same amount.

Work with the agency to discover how they would utilise this budget. Most will charge on a day rate basis for retainer contracts but there’s nothing to say someone charging £600 a day is better than someone charging £500 per day. It all comes down to how they use this budget to achieve your objectives.

Negotiate. Most agencies are willing to work with you on day rates especially if you’re willing to sign up to a longer commitment.

 

Additional Third-Party Spend

On occasion, there may be a need for additional third-party spend but you should be made aware of this from the outset, even if they can’t be concrete on an exact figure. For example, sometimes you can get greater digital PR coverage if you’re also willing to pay for some advertising in publications. That is a cost decision the account manager should make you aware of and discuss with you.

Some SEO agencies don’t have in-house developers, graphic designers or videographers. That means you need to know whether these services are included in your contract. If not, are you aware that you may be asked to provide additional revenue to cover these services if required?

Some agencies likely don’t have the need for a full-time in-house designer or developer so may outsource this work within your budget but be sure to ask before you sign your contract.

 

Transparency

Agency Transparency

The SEO world is one that has developed a somewhat shady reputation that good agencies are working hard to change. One way we’re working to achieve this is to be far more open and transparent with everything we’re doing, the techniques we employ the tools we use and the results we generate.

At Anicca, one of our core values is transparency, even sometimes to the point where a client feels like they might be able to take the work in-house as we’ve taught them so much. A good SEO agency will be open and transparent with you so find out whether they will be willing to share their knowledge and educate you as the project progresses. Are they happy for you to visit them regularly, supply timesheets against the projected work or references for you to contact before you commit to signing up with them?

An agency that is secretive about their method, techniques, tools or timesheets is likely not one to trust. If they won’t share this information with you, ask yourself what else they may not be making you aware of?

 

Location

Many people want an agency that is local to them and that is completely understandable if a little limiting when it comes to finding the right agency.

The advantage of working with a local agency is that they are easy to visit and therefore less hassle but given it’s unlikely that you’ll be meeting them every week and perhaps not even every month, is it really worth choosing based on location. Sure, you probably don’t want to pick an agency in Manchester if you’re based in Brighton but choosing an agency because they are closest to you isn’t a great way to get the right partner either.

One thing to consider is whether an agency is willing to travel to visit you and whether there’s an additional cost for this? Some agencies are willing to wave travel costs within a certain radius but may charge you if you are based further away. Some may add travel charges for every visit irrespective of how short the distance is.

Close is great, but don’t let it be your overriding decision maker as you won’t be meeting your agency on a weekly basis. Also, make sure you know the terms and costs associated with the agency visiting you and have this in writing.

 

Warning Signs

There are some clear red flags you can look out for when deciding on which SEO company to choose. If you come across any of these at any phase of your decision making then they should be reason enough for you to walk away and discount the agency in question.

Guarantees – there are no guarantees in SEO. We are at the mercy of Google’s algorithms and search results pages, which can and do change regularly. Any agency making guarantees is either lying or using techniques that do not align with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Do not fall for it.

Too Cheap – if it’s too cheap to be true, it’s probably not the agency for you. Great SEO agencies that consistently deliver results for clients will not be charging £100 a month. Equally, an agency offering SEO services for considerably less than other agencies will likely be using cheap outsourcing or other cost-cutting methods to compete purely on price.

Undisclosed Methods – if, during your discussions, you ask about their methods and techniques and are met with an answer like “well that’s our secret sauce” or “these are our proprietary methods that we won’t share” then walk away. An agency that won’t explain what they are doing with the time you’re paying for, has something to hide and that’s a big warning sign. There is no hidden method in delivering great organic results, only those agencies that do it better than others.

No KPIs or Soft KPIs – SEO is difficult and because there are no guarantees, there is a propensity for some agencies not to want to include KPIs within projects or to focus on soft fluffy KPIs that don’t really add value to your business. You shouldn’t be agreeing to a contract without being clear on what it is that is being measured and what the objective is, and these must align with your business goals. An agency avoiding including KPIs lacks confidence that their proposed strategy can deliver against your objectives.

 

Summary

Whether it’s the first time you’re trusting your SEO to an agency or replacing an incumbent agency, deciding which agency to work with is a decision that should not be rushed. As with any purchase, due diligence is key to ensuring you find the right partner that can deliver against your objectives. Hopefully, this guide will help you separate the mediocre from the amazing and the good from the great when you’re working out what to look for in an SEO agency.

Don’t let one single factor override your decision-making process. Remember, there’s a good chance you’ll be working with your chosen agency for a number of months or potentially years so treat it as you would any other high value, considered purchase. Take your time, do your research, ask questions and only commit when you are fully confident that your preferred agency really is the best option for you.

If you are currently looking for a new SEO agency, why not put this guide to the test and get in touch with Anicca Digital and see how we stack up or click here to find out more about our SEO services.