9 tips for selecting an SEO agency
Looking to work with an agency to manage your SEO? Consider these tips when vetting potential agency partners.
SEO agencies can vary in terms of their quality of service. That means a large number of brands and organizations have been burned at least once.
Additionally, many agencies look and sound the same – just swap out the logo and branding. Yet, they offer varying levels of depth of experience and expertise.
SEO agencies aren’t one-size-fits-all, and getting into a bad-fit relationship can be costly in terms of both dollars and time lost.
I’ve been involved in this process for a long time as an agency leader. It probably sounds self-serving that I’m writing this article. But, let me be the first to say that I don’t want to work with every brand, and my agency isn’t the right fit for everyone.
Leveraging experiences on the agency side of the table, I have outlined nine tips to help you work through the process of choosing the right fit and right agency for your organization.
1. Develop and define goals
If you haven’t translated organizational, sales and marketing goals down to SEO specifically, now is the time to start thinking about it.
Good agencies will ask you pretty early on what your goals are whether those are tied to ROI, conversions, or whatever your measure of success is. (Beware if someone wants to do SEO for you without getting into the topic.)
It is fair not to know what is possible to expect from SEO without the agency helping with the research. However, do what you can to at least know what ROI looks like for you. That can be in the form of the number of conversions you need or specific actions.
You can also look at any industry benchmarks and your own performance baselines as reference points.
Regardless of what you know or don’t, be clear on what success looks like in making money or achieving your goals. Have as much of it as possible before you start your SEO agency search.
2. Evaluate internal resources
You’re likely looking for an SEO agency because you don’t have the internal SEO expertise or time resources required to succeed. Whatever the case, there will be some level of collaboration or effort by you or your team to have a successful agency partnership.
Even if you have the agency do everything, you’ll need certain time commitments and availability for approvals, oversight, feedback and performance reviews.
In many cases, brands and organizations hold onto additional aspects or have other partners to cover the full spectrum of things that SEO needs, including content, IT, UX and any collaborative elements.
Plan out what your internal team could or should own. Be available to collaborate or utilize the agency or outside partners. This will help you evaluate whether the agency is suitable for all or some aspects you’ll eventually need in the SEO work.
3. Consider your budget
You can hopefully find some budget parameters to work from by taking the combination of goals and knowing what ROI looks like, plus the internal resources or existing partners you can lean on.
Even if you want to hear the first number from the agency, knowing your budget parameters will help you qualify faster and filter the ideal agencies in terms of size, scope, and fit.
For example, if you can get some ballpark pricing quickly and know what arena you’re in, you can move on if it is way above (or concerningly below) your estimated budget.
It’s totally fine not to know. It is even better in many cases to have it tied to an ROI ratio rather than a fixed number – viewing SEO as an investment rather than an expense line item.
Be upfront with that information and inquire about how the agency will help you in any initial strategy or audit steps to understand avenues to hit your goals and the risk for different budget levels and investments.
4. Do your research
As you look at websites, talk to those referring you to potential agencies, or get into any initial outreach, be mindful that specific dimensions matter.
That includes the size of the agency compared to your organization. Or, more importantly, how capable they are of serving your company. The stage of your company’s growth and lifecycle might be another factor to consider.
Agencies can be pure generalists who take on any and all clients who have a dollar to pay them. A few consider different factors that help narrow things a bit, like pricing minimums, focus on particular niches or industries, audiences, conversion types, or even the makeup or structure of your team.
Save time and energy on looking for the right areas that match up with who you are and what you want. Resist pitches from agencies that seem to be out of your league or not in alignment with your focuses.
Great ways to do so include:
- Seeking out case studies, credentials, references and thought leadership content pieces.
- Looking at the mix of clients they work with currently.
Do your homework and be prepared to ask about or challenge any contradictions or mixed messages you see.
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5. Have an interview plan
Often, I get a lot of really good questions from prospects I talk with. Other times, I don't get asked enough, so I end up answering questions I wish were asked or assume that my potential clients want to know.
The more organized you are in the questions you ask, the more objective your comparison can be at the end of the agencies you are considering.
Plan questions related to anything and everything important to you, whether that is tied to:
- Their focus (or aspects of #4 above).
- Their approach.
- Ways you'd work together.
Be prepared, especially if you have some internal resources that will own copy or content, dev, or other things that require a tight partnership and collaboration.
Additionally, know who you're working with and how cultures align (or don't).
Have a solid list of questions, plan for who is asking what, and whatever level of notes or scorecard you can. In the end, you can be objective and also go back to your finalist(s) with more profound levels of details you're seeking to firm up.
6. Evaluate fit
Do your personalities match?
I'm not talking about just you and me, the president who is leading the conversation at this point (or whatever sales or account representative).
I'm talking about between those on your team and the agency's team who'll be working together in the trenches.
Assess the fit between teams. Learn about retention rates of employees and stability. Understand what level of transparency to expect. How hands-on will they be?
These aspects, plus agreement on the agency's approach, are critical. You don't want to hit a wall or drop off right after the contract is signed or just a few months into an ongoing agreement.
7. Do a gut check
Does something sound too good to be true? Is something off? Is there a red or yellow flag somewhere?
Trust your gut and dig deeper. If you have concerns about how you match up with the agency, validate them. Ask your hard questions.
Don't move forward if things are off or don't feel right. That's a warning sign, and you should trust your instinct to pause and dig deeper.
I'm not saying to run away. Maybe you're the first client they have had in your niche or industry. That could be OK with the right level of transparency, research approach, and risk tolerance. In some cases, it can be great to go with someone fresh versus the cookie-cutter strategy everyone else in the industry uses.
8. Understand the process
Beyond resource constraints and lack of enough understanding of SEO strategy – communication and mismanaged expectations are among the biggest roadblocks to success.
Every client has a different level of SEO knowledge, awareness of SEO processes, and a grasp of the agency's unique takes on those things.
We (agency people) can take for granted that not everyone nerds out at the level we do.
Ask, and ask again if you're unclear on what the process is.
What will it look like in terms of steps from contract to discovery, onboarding, research, strategy, optimization, reporting, communication, timing, and results accountability?
Be clear on it all. Keep asking if you don't know, and make your notes to get up to speed and have the right level of accountability and expectations for the partnership.
9. Be clear on the agreement terms
Don't sign something that you haven't read! If you don't understand the agreement's contents, have a lawyer or advisor familiar with SEO look over it.
Beware of long-term agreements, sticky cancellation clauses and work ownership claims. None of those things are wrong, but you want to know what you're getting into.
Long-term might get you cost savings and commitment from both sides in the relationship. SEO does take time. However, you want to avoid the following scenarios:
- Having your work product, content, or properties to be held hostage.
- Working together a couple of months in only to get hit with change orders.
- Assuming that other areas (such as content, dev updates, CRO, etc.) are covered and part of the agency's responsibility, only to find out they weren't.
- Getting into a gray area where they weren't spelled out.
The ideal scenario is that the relationship is built on trust and accountability, where billings and value stay balanced over time. You don't have to think about the contract again after signing it.
Selecting the right fit SEO agency is difficult. It can be challenging to get through the clutter of so many sounding alike, find ways to assess the experience and expertise or map out your fit with them.
More than that, it can lead to wasted time, energy and dollars. I don't want that for you.
Hopefully, the tips I have shared help you prepare for and think about the process in a detailed way to ensure that you find the right fit for you and succeed.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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