Cosmo Quiz: Should You Get In Bed With An SEO Agency?

girl-bed-computer-smallI’ve spent the past 5 years in-house and over that period, I’ve never hired an SEO agency; however, I’ve been pitched more times than I can count.

Additionally, I’ve been exposed to hundreds of SEO agencies through my work with doctors and lawyers.  During that experience, I’ve seen the spectrum of some really great work to some abhorrently shoddy SEO practices.

Over this period, I’ve become increasingly convinced that SEO should be an in house function for two primary reasons.

First, SEO touches many departments. It is extremely difficult to outsource anything that requires interdepartmental cooperation and coordination.

Second, given the potential for long term disaster through the implementation of black hat tactics, I’d never outsource an SEO function unless I knew exactly what the agency was doing. And if I knew exactly what it was doing, I could probably either do it myself or hire someone to do it.

However, I’ll acknowledge there are certainly valid reasons to outsource SEO beyond needing an agency to throw under the Google bus when you get caught buying links.

It may be lack of resources, lack of  expertise, or a short term project. Additionally, hiring a true expert may be helpful to validate your SEO strategies, or give  the warm and fuzzy feeling knowing your are in good hands; but I personally believed you’re wasting a lot of potential budget that could be better used in house.


Here are some of the questions I’d want answered before engaging with an agency, all packaged in a nice Cosmo style quiz:


Have you ever worked in porn, pills, or poker?

  • No (+0)
  • Yes (+2)

Are you still working in porn, pills, or poker?

  • No (+0)
  • Yes (-4)

Did you recently work for JC Penney?

  • No (+0)
  • Yes (-10)  OK – now I know that’s just mean, but knowing tactics they’ve used for previous clients can be very telling.

What is Mayday?

(This is a good question to asses being connected to industry changes and some industry longevity as Mayday happened almost a year ago.  There are lots of variants of this.)

  • A celebration of spring that includes dancing around a pole OR an international distress signal (-4)
  • A May 2010 Google algorithm update that impacted long tail traffic.  (+2)

Do you use any of the following words in your Twitter ID:

  • Visionary, Evangelist, Maven, Guru, Expert, Ninja (-1)

Have you ever spoken at SES, SMX or PubCon?

  • No (-0)
  • Yes (+1)
  • Regularly (+2)

Define the word Grok.

(This is a question to assess old school geekiness. There are many variants of this, such as “Tell me about the best episode of Battlestar Galactica.”)

  • Huh? (+0)
  • Something along the lines of:  “To understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us as color means to a blind man.” (+1)
  • Can identify the etymology of the word as originating from Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.  (+1)


Like it or not, some of success in search is what you’ve worked on and who you’ve worked with in the past and who you know today. The best of the best all tend to know each other and still share their learnings among a small group.

Are you BFFs with Bruce Clay, Greg Boser, Vanessa Fox, Michael Gray, Oilman, Rae Hoffman, Lisa Barone, Jill Whalen, Jessica Bowman, Rand Fishkin, Danny Sullivan, Todd Malicoat, David Mihm, Marshall Simmonds, or Stephan Spencer?  (Yes, I’m sure there are others who should be on this list . . .)

  • Yes (+1  per)

Are you BFFs with Matt Cutts?

  • No (+0)
  • Yes (-4) – anyone bragging they can leverage their relationship with Matt to help your SEO is full of it.
  • Yes and here’s a photo of him smiling in front of my company’s booth at an SMX conference (-10)

Did you ever work for a search engine?

  • No (+0)
  • Yes (+2)

Their Pitch

The way the agency relationship is structured, how they pitch you, the questions they ask and the data they want access to can tell volumes about the agency’s quality.

What exactly are you going to do?

  • Specific (+2)
  • Vague (-2)

Anything in the pitch related to “automating content creation” “widespread syndication” or “link networks”?

  • No (+2)
  • Yes (-4)

Can you guarantee to get <insert search term> to top 3 on google?

  • No (+1)
  • No and focusing on individual ranking is probably a bad mindset. Here’s why . . . . (+3)
  • Yes (-4)

Do you get paid based on your ability to move <insert search term> to the top 3 position?

  • No (+0)
  • Yes (-3)

How long is this engagement?

  • Month to month (-4)
  • <6 months (-2)
  • 12+ months (+2)

How do you measure success?

  • Ranking reports (-4)
  • Traffic (+1)
  • Quality Traffic (+3)
  • Financial/business metrics (+6)

Did they require access to your analytics account?

  • No (-4)
  • Yes (+2)

Did they require access to your Google Webmaster Tools account?

  • No (-2)
  • Yes (+2)

And the final question was suggested to me by @valejo via Twitter:  “What is your competitive advantage versus me?” This is a primary question for any type of consultant.

If someone can’t answer that question convincingly, you’re most likely better off doing it yourself.

Score Your Results

<0 –  Skip

These “consultants” are so new to the game they think Farmer is someone in overalls.

0-14  - Avoid

This group knows enough to be dangerous – dangerous to the long term existence of your site. A guaranteed quick trip to Google’s garbage pile. Make sure you don’t correspond with them from your gmail account.

15-19  - Maybe

A potential fit, but you’ll most likely have to ride them hard to ensure your business objectives are being met.

20-24 – Good Fit

Members of this group are few and far between. They can talk to you across the entire spectrum of SEO – from technology to marketing to business.

> 24 –  The Experts

Unless you are a Fortune 100 brand or the US Government, you can’t afford them, but you probably don’t need them. If you are Fortune 100, you are foolish to hire anyone else.

Stock image from Shutterstock, used under license.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is the founder of Atticus Marketing - a search agency dedicated exclusively to the legal profession. Prior to Atticus, Conrad ran marketing for Urbanspoon and the legal directory Avvo, which rose from concept to market leader under his watch.

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  • Gyi Tsakalakis

    Conrad, great quiz. Although, you’re too kind on automated (should be a -10) and two harsh on analytics and webmaster tools (although obviously neither are necessary, they only allow your SEO to do a better job, imho).

  • Sharon Oakley

    Great article! I’ve been “in house” at two companies, but both are small local brick and mortar businesses (I double as the marketing department). The scam artist SEOs love to go after the little guy, the last pitch I heard was hilarious. The sales team didn’t know who Matt Cutts was, and it only got worse from there. I’ll be sharing this with every small business owner I know.

  • Kathy Long

    Very nice, Conrad, and , good to know I’m doing something right. Actually, I knew that because financial/business metrics tells me so. ;)

    Coincidentally, met with a new client today who screened quite a few before he chose me. He wanted to do much of the work in house and then hire a consultant to direct them each month. My proposal said that after an initial bulk of work I do myself (on-site optimization, competitive research, strategy development), then we move into a consulting program where I would help them implement the game plan as it develops over time. No one else he interviewed would do that. Either they didn’t want to give away their secrets, or they didn’t want to be exposed, or they don’t know how to work with a team, or ? Who knows. To be honest, I like empowering my clients to do at least some of it themselves. No one knows their industry better than they do, so I feel it’s essential they become active participants in the process, one way or another.

  • Tom Petryshen

    While I ‘m sure you’ve seen some very interesting pitches and experiences that have shaped your views on in-house versus agency it’s clearly one sided. There are pros and cons to both approaches and what works for one business is not necessarily applicable to others.

    For example, an experienced SEO with the right people management skills can help cut through the internal political BS to get the job across the line (where a young inhouse SEO without negotiation or people management skills might fail). They can also help develop a business case and create buy in across an organisation. Not every organisation can afford to have an experienced SEO of your level and knowledge in house to do this.

    Also, an experienced SEO can help challenge the status quo and get you thinking outside your comfort zone. I’ve been guilty of not looking beyond my own blinders on a few occasions.

    On the flip side, I’ve seen more than a few companies outside the F100 who with a little bit of knowledge are as just as capable of doing some really bad SEO. In fact, some of the worst examples I’ve seen and consequently had to fix have been done in house.

  • K.C.

    Much of my company’s SEO case load consists of fixing terrible SEO mistakes. About half of that is work that was outsourced to certain foreign countries for the lowest possible cost and usually has caused more harm than good. The other half was done in house by someone with enough knowledge to be dangerous, often resulting in doing more harm than good.
    If the success of your business on the internet is important, why take chances? Consult a reputable professional.

    The quiz is a good start with a couple of exceptions:
    Vague Pitch – when seeking an SEO provider, many people look for too many unrealistic specifics. “How many links will I get? When will I be #1?” and it leads them to whoever will promise the most. However, SEOs can, and should be able to give a pretty clear general idea of how they get things done.

    Length of engagement – Yes, a year or more is ideal but not always necessary. In the case of smaller businesses it is just not practical. Long contracts allow SEOs to get lazy in later months when they may simply give analytics reports and not actually do anything on page or off as the site’s rankings and traffic improve from earlier actions. For many of my lower budget clients, we will do 1-3 months of SEO – on page work and keyword research first, then appropriate link acquisition and re-tweaking of content and on page stuff. Then, if cost is a serious concern, they can take a month or longer off and wait for results to stabilize a little. Sort of a “pay as you go” method that allows the client to see progress before committing to an extended plan. This is not for everyone and is not always as effective as a steady long term campaign – clients with more challenging keywords and competition will need steady, dedicated attention. But for shoestring budgets, it is a good compromise and builds trust when the client sees progress without having to commit to a year or more. They may end up hiring me for the same amount of time in the long run, but it is on their terms.
    I agree that “pay for results” SEO providers are often full of crap, but this is a good compromise.

    I usually aim to move much of the SEO work for a client into their hands and consult as needed eventually – teaching clients how to use keywords effectively in content and titles, meta descriptions and how to get backlinks, etc.

  • Andrew Shotland

    I agree with some of the comments above. Keeping SEO in-house is great if you know what you are doing and have the time/resources, but there are plenty of companies who don’t fall into either category. For these companies the ROI/risk of doing it themselves is not very attractive.

  • April Riddle

    As both an experienced in-house and agency SEO (for a year doing them both at the same time), there are points to both. An in-house SEO is dedicated, will have more opportunity to dive deeper into your business and forge relationships across departments. However; in-house SEO is not a long term stake. I found that once I attained and kept the rankings in my in-house position for two years, did two company web site redesigns, had PPC humming and google merchant there simply was not enough work to keep me busy, engaged and learning. That was even in an e-com environment. Rather than soak the clock and dream up non value add tasks to pursue, I cut back my hours and took a job as an agency SEO.
    The benefit of an agency SEO is that you obviously can contract them as long as their services are needed and when the engagement ends you can be assured if they have SEO’d well for you that their efforts will continue long after they are off your clock.
    The further benefit of an agency SEO is they will have EXPERIENCE and quite a breadth of learning due to all the different clients, industries, challenges and web sites they have touched, from platform exposure (html, asp, jsp, php) variety to industry variety. Chances are they know what works, and you get the benefit of all the learning and experiments taking place with other clients.
    Now you also have to share your SEO with other clients, but I can not tell you how many times ideas and tactics one business uses are ideal for another business; talk about not having to re-invent the wheel, or explain why that’s an insanely bad and expensive idea – and I know it is because another client just attempted that strategy…
    All my clients benefit across the board from the work done for each other. That’s a great benefit.
    The other thing to consider is performance and results. If an agency is not getting the results expected with the current channels and resources there is usually wiggle room to expand – reach across the agency and try a different channel, whereas in house resources simply might not have the experience and connections on hand to venture into new segments.
    So many of our major client issues are resolved when several of us work together at the development, hosting and SEO level to form a comprehensive solution, which you may not get in-house if the IT department, marketing department, and customer relations departments are not well integrated.
    Personally, I am sold on working as an agency SEO. I could not ask for more variety, excitement, and opportunity to learn – but that is what drives me. Some SEO’s might prefer the comfort and predictability and stability of in-house SEO work.
    I think the bottom line really is who the SEO is that works for you, and what their experience and track record is. That is probably going to be evident within the first two minutes of conversation ;)

  • Suresh Babu

    Great Quiz. Today, we were having this chat about how even if someone Outsources SEO, the Agency should be part of their system, First of all it is very difficult to find the right SEO person secondly they have to understand their business and then their business goals. And it is really really hard to find someone who is good at SEO and good in understanding their business. I totally agree on the quiz.

    Thank you, its an educational post.

    Suresh Babu

  • Margaret

    Margaret Gomez
    Ok, I have to admit that while sifting through a bunch of SEO articles to find one I could comment on for SEO class, I stopped short at this one with “Cosmo Quiz” in the title because hey, it brought back some funny teenage memories I have of devouring the Cosmo Bedsider Astrologer! Way to stop the ladies Conrad! I found more that made good sense to me though. Mr. Saam says, “And if I knew exactly what it (outsourced SEO Co.) was doing, I could probably either do it myself or hire someone to do it.
    I’ve been negotiating a website design and build with a client and have had such difficulties convincing their lead sales-person that yes indeed, little ole’ me can actually deliver good SEO and they don’t have to lock themselves into a contract with a gigantor(not a real word?) company like Intuit or whatever in order to have good search rankings. I’m going to apply everything I learn from class and hopefully I’ll be able to say “I told you so!” to that guy. Now I’m gonna go take the quiz. . .

  • Ash Nallawalla

    I have managed an SEO agency, consulted to a few, run my own agency and worked as an in-house SEO, so I have seen all angles.

    While agreeing with most of your points, I have found that agencies deliver customised services or to a formula, e.g. 10 keyphrases, 20 keyphrases etc. The former approach tends to be expensive and SMEs don’t like spending much. Corporates readily accept the ROI/quality traffic value proposition.

    An agency might have one expert, but the rest of the team are likely to be process workers – links, meta tags (!), alt tags, content writers, etc — who might never get the big picture or be able to describe best practices. They see it as their daily routine. This lone expert in the company might not have time to diagnose every client’s needs and prescribe a custom approach. Every client gets the same process and only the exceptions get the expert eye.

    Some big-name agencies do outsource to certain countries and some engage in dubious practices such as using article rewriting tools. ;-) The best SEOs probably are sole operators or have been grabbed by a large corporation.

  • Abhishek Mishra

    Hi, Conrad
    excellent post with wonderful quiz’s.


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