How to Hire An SEO Agency or Company
When looking to hire an SEO agency, you should use the same criteria you would for any long-term relationship. To me, that boils down to a single concept— partnership, as opposed to a simple transactional relationship.
People use the word “partnership” as a buzzword sometimes but I’d say it describes exactly what you’d want in an seo agency:
- A shared interest in a positive outcome
- A commitment not just to deliverables, but to intangibles, which is to say, the spirit of the relationship
- A true alliance, where each partner’s actions lifts the other one up
When your team’s rallying cry is “What is best for the client?”, then the client notices, results are better, and the good karma comes around in the form of campaign expansions, new business referrals, and willingness to act as a reference. I’ll confess that it took me a while to get to a place where I viewed the client-vendor relationship as a true partnership; but today, it’s the only way I can imagine it.
So back to the original question: How do you hire an SEO agency? I say “Look for exactly that attitude.” Of course, you also need to understand the practical side. In this article, I break down exactly what to look for in an SEO agency both in terms of (a) deliverables, campaign structure, and KPIs; and (b) the lesser-known factors that signal a successful partnership.
The Best Outcome Of Hiring An SEO Agency
Before diving into specifics, I’ll start with outcomes: in the best case scenario, your SEO agency turns your website into an automated lead-generation machine, where users find your site on the first page of search results, land on a page that expertly answers their query, and convert into a customer. Within ~6 months of your campaign start date, you see positive ROI, with the program continuing to produce leads far into the future with little additional investment.
By contrast, the worst case scenario involves hiring an SEO agency that generates no ROI at all, either due to a lack of strategic planning, low quality deliverables, the wrong deliverables, or disharmony among their team.
Below, I focus on the 4 factors you need to understand to hire an SEO agency that will get you to that best case scenario.
How To Hire The Right SEO Agency: The 4 Factors
The 4 factors to consider when hiring an SEO agency are (1) Deliverables, (2) Team, (3) Results, and (4) Intangibles.
The success of an SEO agency hinges in large part on the types of deliverables they include in a campaign. An agency that primarily provides basic technical SEO can’t be as successful as one that publishes content. Unfortunately, many agencies do this, and the reason is that they began as a web design or advertising agency and decided to throw in SEO in order to appear “full service.” I don’t want to minimize the importance of technical SEO fixes; they are a prerequisite for ranking. But ultimately, they won’t generate organic leads for you. Content is necessary for lead generation.
A good SEO agency will take care of technical fixes during onboarding, and dedicate the majority of their resources to developing insightful, engaging content that is optimized to the search intent of your potential customers. At our firm, we call this type of content thought leadership, and it is the art of expertly answering a searcher’s query with original, insightful content.
Of course, SEO agencies can get content wrong, especially at the start of campaigns. The most common ways to do that are:
- Targeting the wrong keywords (either not correctly targeted to your audience or not transactional enough)
- Targeting the right keywords with the wrong type of page (e.g. publishing a blog entry rather than a landing page in response to a highly transactional search query)
- Targeting the right keywords with low or medium quality content (Google seeks to promote the best possible response to the searcher’s intent)
You’ll know you’re getting the right deliverables if organic traffic begins to rise, user engagement increases, and qualified leads come through after 4-6 months.
For all the reasons above, it’s critical to ask a potential SEO agency partner what type of deliverables they provide.
|What Deliverables Do You Provide?|
|The Right Agency: Starts the campaign by asking for your goals and KPIs, and creates a strategic SEO plan based on them. Produces thought leadership content that targets keywords your clients would search that indicate an interest in what you sell. Sends regular reports that indicate they are learning based on the campaign’s data.||The Wrong Agency: Only provides technical fixes. Claims to be able to dramatically improve your rankings without creating original content. Doesn’t have a keyword strategy focused on keywords with a valuable search intent. Seems more focused on advertising, social media, or e-mail than they are on SEO.|
SEO requires technical know-how, expert thought leadership content production, and detailed analysis. The best SEO agencies split campaign responsibilities across specialized roles. At our firm, we assign seven team members who each own one domain area:
- Organization: Campaign Managers are responsible for managing the deliverable pipeline, the team’s workflows and client relationships to ensure a pleasant campaign experience.
- Strategy: Content Strategists specialize in knowing the keyword market for your industry and customers. As agile planners, they study your goals, rankings, and conversion rates to determine which deliverables are most important.
- Writing: A Subject-Matter Expert Writer in your industry is assigned to develop the content for all of your deliverables.
- Editing: All content goes through an Editor, who copy-edits and adjusts for your style and tone preferences.
- Monitoring ROI & Attribution: SEO Analysts are reporting specialists who monitor Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and in-house SEO tools to understand your organic traffic and user engagement data trends. They work closely with you to develop a system of tracking leads and ROI for your campaign, and they create reports on a quarterly basis to monitor the success of the campaign.
- Designing: A Designer visually formats the content from the writing team, and makes UI/UX recommendations to improve the user experience on your website.
- Developing: A Developer is assigned to implement new web pages and resolve technical SEO fixes.
While not typically involved in the day-to-day, senior management is another crucial part of the team. Ideally, a manager should sign off on the campaign strategy the team puts together during onboarding. After that, they should continue to have quarterly check-ins with you to ensure you are happy with the performance of the team and the results of your campaign.
When vetting SEO agencies, it’s important to ask about the makeup of your campaign team.
|What Will My Campaign’s Team Look Like?|
|The Right Agency: The team consists of 5 or more specialists who own different domain areas of the campaign. Senior level management checks in with you quarterly.||The Wrong Agency: The team consists only of a project manager and writer. No senior level manager is involved.|
Before you commit to an SEO firm, do your due diligence by seeking out their past results. First, check to see if they have case studies, particularly ones that feature ROI, published on their website.
Next, check their blog to see if they practice what they preach, displaying thought leadership on subjects that matter to you such as lead generation, ROI achieved by industry, and conversion rates. You won’t be able to completely trust what you find because the website will only showcase the highlights, but you’ll be able to get a sense for how the agency thinks about results.
I also like to look up the company’s Glassdoor page to see what employees think about working at the agency. You should, of course, take with a grain of salt the outliers, good or bad; but if the overall picture is one of employee satisfaction, that’s a signal that the company functions healthily and therefore is able to be a good partner.
Once you’ve reviewed those three aspects of the SEO agency’s online presence, assuming the agency passed muster, it’s time to talk to their sales team. On the call, make sure to ask about past results. Many people assume that results in their company’s specific industry is key to success, and it certainly doesn’t hurt, but SEO is something that can be done very effectively across industries as well. One thing you definitely want to ask is whether they have experience working with clients whose target audiences are similarly difficult to attract. For example, if you are a B2B SaaS business targeting executives at enterprises, you want to make sure your SEO partner has successfully done that in the past.
When we speak with prospective clients, we’re the first to admit we’re not as experienced with low-priced consumer products. But we’re ready with loads of case studies if you’re seeking out an SEO firm experienced with real estate, financial services, manufacturing, IoT, or addiction treatment.
After your call, the salesperson should send examples of campaign results. In addition to case studies / references, their follow-up documents can also include:
- Client reports that show an attention to the metrics you care about
- ROI Dashboards showing qualified and closed lead data for past clients
- Onboarding process outlines to show how they prepare for a successful campaign
The final thing to note from the sales call is the quality of their response when you ask about past results.
|What Results Have You Gotten For Other Clients With Similar Goals?|
|The Right Agency: Will listen intently in order to provide relevant examples for past clients who had similar KPIs. They will be transparent about their successes and failures, and will share with you lessons learned. They will speak directly to your concerns and will ensure you are feeling secure before asking you to sign a contract.||The Wrong Agency: Will deflect towards more generalized success they’ve had rather than paying attention to your specific goals and the types of clients you’re looking to attract. They will hesitate to speak openly about their failures. They’ll attempt to rush you into the next steps in the sales process.|
The final piece of the SEO agency vetting process is the intangibles. Here is what my experience has taught me to look for in an SEO agency:
- Genuine listening and question asking. No agency knows as much about your business as you do. A good agency will devote several hours to interviewing you and your experts so they can understand your industry and fully tailor their approach, rather than trying to apply a one-size-fits-all solution.
- A willingness to challenge their clients. While they aren’t the expert on your business, an SEO agency should be the expert on theirs. Look for an agency that is confident in their approach and isn’t afraid to offer pushback when it comes to decisions that will negatively impact a campaign. When there’s a conflict, the best agencies will work with you to align the needs of their campaign with your priorities.
- The ability to learn from feedback. The first few deliverables you receive will always need some adjustments to ensure they fully capture your voice and brand. Ideally, these adjustments will be minor, but one of the best indicators of future success is how well the agency can hear and implement your feedback.
- Internal organization. One of the things I hear the most from clients about working with the FPS team is that we’re impeccably organized — that we inspire them to structure their companies as thoughtfully as we do. Since I myself am not as organized as my team members are, these comments have caused me to realize how much good springs from thoughtful organization. Knowing what you’re planning to do, when you’re planning to do it, and your desired outcomes allows you to get better results in a shorter period of time.
At the end of the day, it’s these harder-to-measure qualities that set agencies apart and make for a successful, long-term partnership.
Your Next Step In The Hiring Process
Your research may begin with a handful of recommendations, but it will eventually whittle down to a single qualified partner. As you go through the vetting and hiring processes, I hope you’ll bear my advice in mind.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also throw our hat in the ring. First Page Sage has the highest client (and employee) satisfaction ratings you are likely to find. Located in San Francisco but with a presence in Oakland, Sacramento, and Silicon Valley, we cater mostly to technical, B2B companies. If you’d like to learn more about us, you can contact us here.
Evan Bailyn is a bestselling author and award-winning speaker on the subjects of SEO and thought leadership. Contact Evan here.