How to Choose the Best SEO Agency in 2020-2021
Choosing the best SEO agency for your firm is similar to evaluating any investment: you’ll want to conduct a diligent investigation of historical performance, speak to references, and try to get an inside look at how the agency is run. It certainly isn’t the sort of choice that can be made quickly based on the first search result that pops up or high placement on a list. (Those, however, can be good starting places.) Ultimately your choice will come down to whether an agency you’re considering meets a few reasonably high standards. Below, I list out the standards to which you should hold every potential SEO agency you interview in 2020-2021.
Look for an agency that . . .
Has the experience and expertise necessary to produce excellent results.
SEO is complicated because it combines good writing, psychology, and technical knowledge. Even our agency, which is now the largest in the SEO space, took ~5 years to get the SEO product exactly right. We’ve seen that there is only one correct way to do SEO, and that’s through the thought leadership approach, splitting campaign responsibilities among 7 staff members:
- Account Executive (your dedicated point of contact);
- Onboarding Editor (researches your industry and its most valuable keywords);
- Long-Term Editor(s) (developmental and copy editing);
- Writers(s) (subject matter experts who can write well);
- Graphic Designer (custom graphics when needed);
- SEO Analyst (continuous reporting for continuous improvement); and
- Web Development Specialist (to make your site look and perform its best).
To me, an agency that’s been around for 5+ years would be a good starting point. 10 or more would make me extra comfortable, as they’re likely to have fashioned their product from successes and mistakes alike.
An additional point about experience is that you should make sure that the agency you choose is truly an SEO agency. Firms that only offer SEO as part of a larger agency model will not have the depth or breadth of experience needed for the best results. The “purer” the agency’s focus on SEO, the more likely they are to have the resources to do SEO in a way that produces a long-term increase in revenue and visibility.
Understanding the DNA of an agency—its essence—is important. For instance, our agency was founded specifically to provide SEO-driven thought leadership marketing.
Ask: How long have you been doing this? What is your specialty as an agency—what’s your “DNA”? What else do you do besides SEO?
Is transparent about successes and failures.
It’s not enough for an SEO agency to have a long history in the field. Their history should include more victories than defeats, and there should be evidence that they learned from their mistakes. Ask them to tell you about a failed campaign, and what they do differently now in response to that campaign and others like it.
And there’s obviously the question of overall results. They can probably come up with a few good case studies, but are those case studies emblematic of their work with an agency like yours? In a field of 10 clients similar to you, how many end up like that shining case study, how many don’t meet their goals, and how many fall into the category of “middling”. While it would be rare for a salesperson at the SEO agency to respond with complete honesty to this question, listen to their tone of voice and level of comfort and see how it makes you feel as a potential client.
You might also ask point blank what their first year retention rate is. That is a pretty good indicator of whether clients have seen the return on investment they were looking for.
Ask: What percentage of your clients renew every year? How long have your oldest customers been with you?
Has the resources needed for campaign success.
Look for an agency that can provide you with a full team. That means writers, editors, graphic designers, technical SEOs, and reporting / analytics specialists. The opposite of this kind of team would be an individual writer + an Account Executive. It is near-impossible for 1-2 people to carry out an SEO campaign that involves a deep understanding of your agency and industry, effective keyword research, excellent content, and thoughtful reporting and analytics. And all are necessary.
Your team also needs to create content on a regular, reliable publishing schedule. Consistent publishing to the tune of two new content pages per week is necessary to receive the “Google News Website Bonus” that we’ve been observing with our clients for years. In effect, the way to outshine the massive amount of noise published in your industry is to act like a news website, publishing readable, interesting content with a frequency that makes your blog bookmarkable.
Ask: Who creates your content? How many people would be involved in my campaign? Is a generalist writer going to be assigned my account and asked to do research, or do you recruit a member of my industry?
Measures campaign success with specific, trackable goals.
The best SEO agencies recognize the vitalness of accurately defining, measuring, and reporting on results. Discussing specific KPIs at the start of the campaign must be a part of onboarding, or else you’ll be left without a way to evaluate the campaign later. Look for an agency that volunteers that this is a part of their onboarding process, and can show you an actual report from a client that is thorough and customized to that client’s goals.
Ask: How do you report results? Which KPIs do you measure? Will I be able to measure ROI?
Provides customized SEO solutions, not cookie-cutter campaigns.
The best SEO agencies think of careful keyword selection and writing quality content as imperatives. They create and publish keyword-driven SEO posts that speak to your audience’s pain points and needs, and the specific application of your product. As mentioned in Point 3 above, they will make sure that someone who fully understands your industry and product is doing the content creation — not a generalist. And they should be flexible enough to shift strategy based on which keywords the campaign delivers ROI from and which it doesn’t.
Ask: How do you decide on keywords and topics? If we launch new products or services, can we shift the editorial focus?
Is communicative and collaborative.
Look for an agency that will work with you, not for you. The ideal SEO firm will involve you in the creative process and discuss your campaign vision, along with the best tactics to realize it. While they’ll take direction from you because you’re the ultimate expert on your agency and industry, they will proactively lead you in matters related to SEO, thought leadership, and marketing.
Ask: How much do you collaborate with clients? Will we have final edit? Who from our team do you like to have in the room to discuss the campaign during each of its phases, and why?
Is well-versed in thought leadership, not just standard content marketing.
The success of your SEO campaign will depend on the quality of your content above all things (with the exception of keyword research — that’s a prerequisite). Thought leadership is the best option for showcasing your business’s strengths, establishing credibility, and increasing website conversions. However, thought leadership is also a lot more labor-intensive and complex than standard content marketing. Make sure your SEO agency specializes in thought leadership marketing specifically.
Ask: Can you show me examples of your thought leadership work, preferably in my industry? How would you draw the line between standard “content marketing” and true thought leadership marketing?
How to Research the Best SEO Agency
Once you’ve had a conversation with a few SEO agencies, you’ll need to narrow down the field, and doing your own research is a good way to do that. Here’s how:
- Consider your impression of their own website. Browse their service pages, About Us, and other relevant pages. Are they consistent in describing what they offer? Do these descriptions align with the standards above? Is their blog thought-leaderly? Do they practice what they preach?
- Check reviews and testimonials. If you know someone who has worked with the agency you’re considering, talk to them about their experience. If not, read reviews and testimonials. While these should always be taken with a grain of salt, overwhelmingly positive or negative feedback can be a good indicator of whether an agency is worth checking out in greater depth. One non-obvious type of review to read is their Glassdoor reviews. Seeing what their own employees think of them is a good indicator of how healthy and functional the SEO firm is.
- Request Samples. Every semi-decent SEO agency should be willing to send you examples of content written for current clients. Determine whether their content matches their descriptions of what they offer. If they are unwilling to provide samples or examples of their work, or if the content they provide is uninspired or lacks depth, thank them for their time and keep looking.
Choosing the Best SEO Agency to Help You Grow Your Business
Your selection of an SEO partner may be one of your most important decisions in 2020-2021. Working with the wrong SEO agency can lose you tens of thousands of dollars, months of time, and may even damage your standing with Google. That’s why it’s so important to find the best option—not just one that’s good enough—to produce top-notch work.
Doing your due diligence will save you headaches and wasted money over the course of your campaign. You’ll also get some peace of mind knowing your reputation and prospects will be in good hands.
We have more than a decade of experience specializing in thought leadership marketing. To learn more about our services and approach to SEO, contact us today.