6 Agencies, 3 Freelancers, 5 Sites in 3 Years – What I’ve learned about picking an agency.
I have been in E-commerce for the last six years and in SEO for about three years. In that time, I have worked with six different SEO agencies and three different freelancers on a total of five different E-commerce businesses.
So I thought maybe it was time to write an article on SEO. It was either that or an article on socks, but I don’t think SEOmoz would publish that. Before I started writing the article, I just asked Google “how do I select an SEO agency?” and this page came up – How Do I Find A Good SEO. My logic was there is no point writing an article on any topic if I cannot add any value to it, so here we go (the serious bit)!
Think Before You Run
In life it is very easy to act before you think, so sometimes in pays to take a step back and do some preliminary work. Before you pick up that phone or write that email to an agency (if you are doing that now, put the phone/keyboard down and step away), stop and answer a few simple questions. These answers will help you determine the most suitable agency for you, especially when you may be comparing multiple agencies or even just two agencies. They can also help when looking at just one agency.
No agency can read your mind, nor will they have the same passion you have for your product, your blog or your services. No matter how good they are, they more likely to fail if they don’t know how to win. Success must be first defined by you (even if you work for an organisation that has over 10,000 employees).
Keeping it simple, look for answers to these three questions:
- Why do you want to invest in Search Engine Optimization? Do you want more traffic that converts? Do you want it for a branding exercise? Are you looking for a pay rise/acknowledgement?
- How will you measure if you have achieved that?
- How much risk are you prepared to take?
What are you expectations of the agency?
Selecting an agency can be like falling in love. If you do not define what your “must haves” (e.g. must love animals, white hat activities only) are, you may end up with the wrong partner or agency. Also make a list of your “good to have” (doesn’t leave the lid off the toothpaste or must be based in the same city you are in). This way, if all the “must have” requirements are met, the “good to have” will become the deciding factor.
Some of the examples of the “must haves” I adhere to include:
- Good reputation within the industry
- They should motivated by success and not just making money
- They provide evidence of foresight i.e. always work to be ahead of the curve
What are you prepared to do?
Success may be attributed on one of three causes. Those who believe in luck, those who believe in fate and those who believe in hard work (I have excluded inheritance and marriage in this conversation to make life easier).
If you believe in luck and fate, there is no need to stress because you don’t have to do much. If you believe in hard work, then unfortunately you are going to need to understand SEO better than a cunning fox who has just been awarded a degree in SEO. Buy a book…or two, attend a conference (yes, you may need to go on a plane or a train and you may need to get someone to sign one of those dreaded acquisition forms – mention the word ‘mobile’ and ‘social’ and its bound to get signed off). Sign up to an online training course, just do something so you understand what all these agencies are going to try to sell you. What if you don’t have any budget and/or very little time? Find a good SEO blog, a mug of tea and a candle for light.
Hire the Best
Now you have your wish list and you know something about SEO. It is still very easy to go wrong when choosing an agency. It can be very tempting to work with to the first agency you speak to. There is one simple mantra, “I only work with the best!” The more complicated version is: “I only work with the best assuming that they match my criteria, they are within budget and they are not too busy.” I prefer the simplified version.
First things first, create a list of agencies that you think are worth working with. Rather than checking who appears first on Google search, I prefer to create a list from speakers I have heard speak at conferences and have blog posts that I believe are well written. How would you know that they are the best? Go through their LinkedIn profiles, find out who does SEO within the agency (sometime it’s the owner) then start Googling.
Look for articles that they have written, conferences which they have spoken at, things they have tweeted about, look at the people who talk to them on Twitter, does the agency staff regularly post on well-known blogs and maybe even pull out their financial figures. Do they give away free information on SEO? Are they ahead of the curve?
Sometimes in life being sneaky can help to give you a better picture of an agency.
Tip 1 – Talk to ex-employees of the agency you are considering to work with. There is an option in Linkedin that people research to find ex-employees of that company. If you consider this approach, speak/email more than one person.
Sometimes you will find an individual who was rubbish at their job and was fired, and they are usually not the best person to speak to. Also a person working in a PPC department may not understand what really goes on the SEO department. Finally agencies do change over time; someone who left a long time ago may not have an up-to-date understanding of the agency.
Tip 2 – When you are speaking to Agency X, ask them about Agency Y. When they speak about a competitor you always get to learn something you didn’t know about Agency Y (which I would then usually ask them about) and get to see what Agency X see as important and unique about themselves. Usually whatever fault Agency Y has X believes it is good at it. You should be prepared at times when one agency could trash another agency. This can also help to determine if you really want to work with the agency that does the trashing. Sometime that could be a perfect fit to your company culture or be conflicting.
Tip 3 – Most agencies will give highlights on their website/presentation about a particular company they work with. Go through the back link profile of that specific company and look for guest posts. Sometimes the SEO person working on that client will use the same profile for another company that they work with. Talk to those companies. Remember talking to one company may not give you a fair understanding of the agency.
Contacting the Agency
By now you should have a short list of agencies you would want to work with thus it is time to contact them. I prefer email at first as it allows me to collect their correspondences in one place. Make sure each request is tailored to that company: mention something about company/owner i.e, “I heard you speak at X” or ” I recently read your article on Y” – this way you are more likely to get a response. Also look at emailing outside working hours, over the weekend or on a public holiday. It will give you a glimpse of the company culture. Google as you know, neither gets a day off nor does it sleep at night, therefore sometimes you may need to speak someone at an odd time.
My son thinks I am a very important person at the company I work for because it pays for his ice cream. Unfortunately, the rest of the world may not necessarily believe that. Some of you will get a response straight away. For others it may take a little longer and others may never get a response. The best piece of advice is be persistent – keep chasing them until you have finally made contact. There was a reason why you short listed them in the first place!
What to ask and who to ask?
There are three objectives to achieve in all the conversations that you will have with the agency:
- Get an understanding of the methods that they will employ to achieve success.
- Do they meet all your “must haves?”
- How many of the “good to have” do they meet?
Document everything that you think is relevant as this will help when you are comparing the SEO agencies.
If you are fortunate or unfortunate to speak to a sales person, it is not (and I stress the word not) the most useful use of your time. In my experience always make an effort to speak to the owner of the organisation. It is usually their vision that determines the vision of the organisation. I always ask the question “what drives them”? What are they prepared to do to make you win? See if they volunteer any free advice.
I always love to ask “What do you think of link buying?” Or “Why is buying links so effective?” If you really want to put a spanner in the works, ask the question “I had a look at the back link profile of your website and I saw ……” (This means you need to do your homework, or pay someone to do it for you). Ask about success stories? Look for case studies about success in highly competitive industries and case studies where a small company with a really small budget was able to succeed against much larger companies.
Once you have spoken to the owner, request to speak to a technical person on the team or one of their link builders. Ask them: “Why do you think competitor X is out-performing you?”, “What is the favourite link you built?”, “What is the biggest uplift you achieved with the minimum amount of effort required?”
The other tip I have is check whether any of the employees have active blogs, Twitter accounts or regularly guest post on SEO. Sometimes even if the owner of the company is a super wiz they may have employees” just doing their job” and it isn’t going to be easy to win. Find out the latest SEO change and ask them about it.
How do you know that are not telling porky pies?
Ask someone or pay someone to tell you. It is very easy to find an expert on SEO and pay them for one hour of their time (it’s not cheap but could save a lot going forward). Verify everything you can.
If you are still reading, we have finally made it to the conclusion! Now this is the hard bit. If only I had a picture of a kitten now.
With SEO, it can take six months to see any real results and there are a lot of different things in flux with SEO, so what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. With any agency you pick, there is always an inherent chance of failure.
What do you do? Like any relationship, it is about finding the most compatible agency that matches your inspiration with a track record of success. The agency that is most likely to win for you and your company is the one that matches most with your “must haves” and ”good to have”.
Assuming this articles goes down well, I have an idea for part two. It won’t involve socks or cats but I believe it will still be valuable.