Staying on top of search engine optimization requires time and effort that many small businesses can’t afford in-house. One obvious solution is to turn to an agency. But which ones can be trusted and which will under deliver and overcharge? Before just picking the number one result in a Google search for “SEO,” make sure to investigate the agency.
I’ve worked on both sides of the SEO equation: at an agency and, now, as the in-house SEO manager of a publicly-traded company. From my experience, these 10 tips will help guide the SEO selection process.
Does the agency’s personnel sound professional on the phone and act professionally in person? How many years has the business been offering SEO services, and how many years of SEO experience do the people who will work on this account have? Is the agency focused on SEO specifically or do they offer a wider range of marketing services? Do they have experience in specific industries or countries?
Weigh the pros and cons of a local agency versus one located elsewhere. Local agencies can offer on-site consulting more easily and with less cost, but the SEO talent pool may be shallow. Agencies in other cities can make up the distance fairly easily with regular phone calls and webinar presentations of the deliverables. But on-site presentations and training will likely be more costly due to travel expenses and time out of the office.
3. Ethics of the Agency
Does the agency follow Google webmaster guidelines? Do the agency engage in link buying, competitor sabotage, keyword stuffing or other sketchy behavior?
4. Past Successes
With whom has the agency worked? Any agency that won’t reveal at least a handful of clients has something to hide. Get the list and check out those sites. Are they stuffed with keywords, over laden with links, or even selling links themselves? Will other clients recommend the agency? Ask for references. Call the references and ask about the aspects of the agency that are of most concern such as extra charges, communication, knowledge, the ability to act on the recommendations given.
5. Case Studies
It’s not professional to share specific data with prospective clients. But if the agency can’t speak at a high level about several success stories, be wary. On the other hand, also be sure to probe into results that look too good to be true, such as a 500 percent increase in traffic for a trophy keyword phrase. Remember, increasing from 1 to 6 visits is a 500 percent increase, but not one to get excited about.
Which SEO strategies have performed best for sites like this one? What approach would the agency take with this site? Ask for some specific examples of SEO pitfalls on your site, but understand that the agency will be reluctant to go into much detail until a contract is signed.
The cost can be anywhere between $50 and $500,000 depending on the agency’s experience and the scope of work required. SEOmoz, the software and services firm, recently released a study and infographic on SEO pricing models across 600 surveyed professionals. The vast majority fall between $76 and $200 per hour, though some large SEO firms will only offer pricing by month, as opposed to hourly.
8. Expectations and Measurement
How will the agency measure success? It needs to measure success according to the client’s critical metrics for the engagement, whether that’s incremental revenue, links created, or leads generated.
9. Implementation Help
Will the agency work hands-on with the site or give recommendations, training and guidance to the in-house people that need to implement them? There’s no right answer here, it comes down to a site’s resources to execute, and how strict the need for control is.
When can the agency start? When can it finish? What will it deliver and on what timeline? Get an initial timeline as part of the agency’s proposal. It may shift as business needs do, or as roadblocks come up, but an initial timeline gives both sides something more concrete to work with.
Keep these tips in mind while scrolling through the pages and pages of agencies and consultants promising stellar results. Remember, choosing an agency should never come down to price or reputation alone. Make sure to investigate the agencies to be as certain as possible that they can deliver what the site, the company and the culture needs to make its SEO program successful.