Over the years, search engine optimization has proven to be a worthwhile business investment. Any business that wants to improve online visibility, boost brand awareness, and generate more sales need to leverage SEO or risk lagging behind the competition.
As search engines such as Google and Bing constantly tweak their search algorithms to better serve their users, SEO providers have also emerged to help businesses keep up with the latest updates. The sheer number of SEO firms out there can make the selection process overwhelming and confusing. This applies in particular if you don’t have any clue about SEO yourself.
Not being an SEO expert yourself shouldn’t be a license to skimping out on the research needed to find a reputable agency. It’s easy to ignore certain facets that could prove to be critical in forming a productive long-term relationship with a company that knows how to take your website to the top of the first page.
This guide is designed to help you navigate this time-consuming process—from identifying your business objectives to evaluating the quality of service different SEO firms provides.
First Things First, Define How to Measure Success
Before you even scour the internet to find an SEO agency, you should first take the time to define what success means for your business. It isn’t enough to simply invest in SEO and then assume that it will push you in the right direction as if by magic.
It pays to sit down and think about what you’re trying to achieve. What’s your desired outcome? For some businesses, they want to see their web pages sitting on the first page of Google. Others, meanwhile, wouldn’t be happy until they see a 50% increase in traffic.
The outcome will be judged based on how you define SEO success. This step is critical to creating the foundation upon which your overall SEO strategy will be built. Don’t forget to consider how your desired outcomes will be measured. Weighing the associated risks also helps you prepare for the inevitable roadblocks along the way.
You can’t afford to miss this step. You can’t enter the realm of SEO blindly. Have a keen understanding of the things you want to achieve and how they can be measured.
Iron Out Your Expectations
Now that you have your own definition of success, the next step is to list down your expectations for the SEO company. Essentially, you’re trying to find the characteristics that will give you the best chance of getting the results you want without breaking the bank. This also helps you weed out disreputable SEO firms that only disguise themselves as experts. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Have a local office – Many people find out too late that the SEO company they hired isn’t actually a company, but a freelancer working from his home office. Of course, there are some excellent freelancers out there, but you’d have a better shot at accomplishing your goals by working with a company with a local office. This gives you peace of mind knowing that they’re not just one of the countless pseudo-SEO-gurus.
- Minimum of 5 years in the industry – Going for an experienced company is always a plus. The industry is known for fly-by-night companies. Without question, you wouldn’t want to find yourself hiring an agency and then finding out that they ran away with your money. A company that has been around for several years likely means they know what they’re doing.
- Free initial consultation – One of the telltale signs of a good company is when they offer a free initial consultation. This is used to discuss the unique requirements of your company in order to figure out a custom SEO solution. An obligation-free consultation helps you decide whether the company really has your best interests in mind.
What Qualities to Look for in an SEO Agency?
1) Transparency and Communication
Nothing proves more frustrating than asking questions or looking for updates and not getting any response. The SEO vendor you hire should be professional enough to communicate with you effectively. In fact, establishing a solid communication system should be one of the first things you should do.
This starts with your very first call. How did the representative respond over the phone? Was the person patient in answering your questions? Are you satisfied with the answers or did you only get vague responses?
Observing these tiny details paints a bigger picture. It lets you know how much the agency values their customers. On top of that, they should also be transparent. You wouldn’t want the agency to hide analytics reports from you. As their client, it’s your right to ask for reports and updates so you can see where your money goes. Here are some things to consider:
- Is the company monitoring the right performance indicators? Which ones are available to you on-demand?
- How does the company deal with long-term strategies? Changes may be necessary, so how will they keep you updated?
- How do you make sure that the company isn’t only presenting you with fake data to look good?
2) Secondary Competencies
It’s common for SEO firms to list their secondary and tertiary competencies, but you should still take the time to ask. Despite what many people would have you believe, SEO isn’t just about generating traffic. It isn’t also about getting more conversions. You should treat SEO as just a single component of your overall marketing machine.
These days, it’s vital to integrate SEO into other forms of online marketing such as pay-per-click ads. The SEO agency you choose should be knowledgeable enough to coordinate your SEO plan to the other critical components of your online marketing machine. Failing to do so could mean flushing your money down the drain. All the techniques you use should work in cohesion to produce optimal results.
3) Tech Stack
You might assume that all SEO companies have the tech stack to address all your concerns. But not all are as well-equipped as you’d imagine. It’s important that the tech stack of the agency you choose is compatible with the channels you’re using for digital marketing. These questions should guide you in selecting the company with the appropriate tech stack:
- Are they knowledgeable in your current tech? More than 70 million websites run on WordPress, so most SEO agencies know how to deal with this content management system. But there’s a difference between being an expert and being good. Find out whether they specialize in the tech you use before hiring them.
- Can they help with site migration if necessary? Technology evolves rapidly. A particular tech might be reigning supreme right now, but tomorrow a new tech might topple it from its throne. The firm should be able to help you migrate to a new tech if need be. This process proves complicated even for an experienced webmaster, so you’d definitely want to enlist the services of a real professional.
- Do they have the right APIs? Without the right arsenal of APIs, your SEO agency would never be able to meet your expectations. At the very least, they should have the capacity to support APIs from third parties.
4) Scale Potential
When finding an SEO agency, it helps to choose one that can fuel the growth of your business. You should understand that each SEO firm has its own clientele targets. If you have plans of growing your business by several orders of magnitude, hiring an agency that works with small to mid-sized businesses might not be the way to go. You should go for one that has the manpower and the tech stack to help with your business expansion.
Remember, though, that you should start with a partner that can support you at your current stage of development. This could mean working with a smaller agency first and then moving on to a bigger provider in the future.
SEO never stops evolving. Any agency that proves too stubborn to modify their strategies according to new algorithm updates should be taken off your list. The right provider can tell you what to expect from SEO in the next three years and how these changes will influence your working relationship with them.
Start the Search Process
1) Don’t Focus on Rankings
It’s time to begin the actual search process, but you have to realize that it isn’t all about rankings. You might think that the firm that ranks number one is the best of the lot, but there are plenty of factors to consider. You’ll also see sponsored lists, lists of the top local firms, and recognitions received by new agencies.
You should never blindly trust these rankings. They’d only point you in the wrong direction. Instead, dig deeper and learn about the companies to better vet their credentials.
2) Ask Pertinent Questions
After gathering a short list, you should start calling them up and scheduling an initial consultation. Take advantage of these conversations by asking them the right questions. Prepare the same set of questions so you can compare their responses. Here are some to help you out:
- Can you specify the exact steps you can take to help me achieve my business goals?
- What aspect of SEO does your company specialize in?
- How often will you communicate with me for reports and updates?
- How do you define SEO success?
- What happens if you do not deliver with your promises?
3) Check their SEO
Now here’s where the real fun begins. As noted above, SEO isn’t always about rankings. You should look closely at the own SEO of the company. If you’re not satisfied, then how can you expect them to do a good job of optimizing your business website?
Take some time to check out their meta descriptions, internal links, ad placements, page load speed, and backlinks. If they tick all the boxes, then be sure to put them on your final shortlist.
4) Ask for referrals and look at case studies
The most reputable SEO firms would be more than happy to provide you with the contact information of local referrals. Talking to their past clients gives you the opportunity to learn about their experience with them. Be sure to ask relevant questions, particularly on the outcomes they received. This proves much better than relying on online reviews which could be manufactured easily to manipulation their reputation.
While you’re at it, ask the company for case studies. This is an excellent way to determine how knowledgeable they are about the field. Also, it allows you to determine exactly how they define success. Do not hesitate to ask questions about the case studies and observe whether they provide objective answers.
5) Look at the pay structure
Of course, you should also look at their pay structure. Money always plays a big role in choosing an SEO agency. Many people go too cheap, refusing to invest heavily in SEO. But you should focus on the long-term gains instead of the upfront costs.
Different companies charge differently for their services. Some ask for a one-time fee for certain services. Others offer monthly retainer services if you plan to form a long-term relationship. The rule of thumb is to try their services first without signing a long-term contract. This allows you to gauge the quality of their SEO services so you can decide whether or not to commit to them.
As you can see, picking an SEO agency isn’t as easy as you might imagine. There are many things to consider if you want to choose correctly the first time. The process proves time-consuming, but you’ll thank yourself for putting in the time and effort. Not doing your due diligence could mean losing money and hurting your website’s ranking potential.
This decision should be taken seriously. Once you find an SEO firm that meets your expectations and has all the qualities you’re looking for, be sure to stick with them for the long term. Consider yourself lucky for finding them in a world full of so-called SEO experts.