Good SEO agencies are hard to find.
Many agencies will promise to deliver fast, page 1 rankings and more leads, but never deliver on these promises. Hire the wrong agency and you might find your rankings actually go in the wrong direction.
So how do you separate the good from the bad and find an SEO agency that will genuinely help your business?
In this post, you’ll learn a process you can use to find an agency that can actually deliver results.
We’ll also cover…
- Whether it’s better to hire an agency or keep your SEO in-house
- The advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing to an agency
- 3 things to check on an agencies website to see if they really know what they’re doing
- 4 questions you should always ask an agency before hiring them
Should You Outsource To An Agency?
Before even considering which SEO agency to choose, you should first consider whether outsourcing is your best option.
Alternatively, you could hire a full-time, internal SEO employee. Depending on the requirements of your business, an internal SEO employee may even be more cost-effective than hiring an agency.
Advantages of hiring internally
- More transparency – it’s usually easier to find out what strategies they’re using
- Better communication – you will have more opportunities to speak to an employee than an agency
- Complete focus on your business – they’re not distracted by projects for other clients
Disadvantages of hiring internally
- Higher risk – letting go of an underperforming employee tends to be more difficult than ending your contract with an external agency
- High cost for talent – a senior SEO specialist with years of experience can command a high salary
Finding a competent internal employee for your SEO can be a real challenge.
While experience is important, you will often find that SEO specialists with years of experience are still stuck on outdated strategies that worked for them 5-10 years ago.
Search engine algorithms have changed a lot in the past 5-10 years but many in the industry haven’t kept up with the changes. Hiring an SEO employee who is still using tactics from 2012 could really hurt your SEO. But keep in mind, many agencies will also use these outdated strategies.
Another alternative to consider for your business is hiring an SEO freelancer…
Advantages of hiring a freelancer
- Can be cheaper – freelancers usually don’t have the same overheads as an agency and can offer lower rates
- Easy to cancel – ending an agreement with a freelancer is generally very simple
- Lots of choices – there are probably tens of thousands of SEO freelancers around the world you can choose from
- Can specialize in one area – rather than hiring a general SEO freelancer, you could hire one that specializes in one area like backlink building or SEO optimized content
Disadvantages of hiring a freelancer
- Can be low quality – many SEO freelancers lack experience and knowledge
- Low transparency – you may find that many freelancers are not upfront about the strategies and tactics they’re using for your SEO
- Poor communication – some freelancers will be difficult to communicate with, especially if they are based in a different part of the world
One option when hiring a freelancer is to hire someone who specializes in one particular area of SEO. For example, if your website has a weak backlink profile, you could find a freelancer who specializes in backlink building.
This is a good way to ensure that you’re only paying for activities that will really move the needle. When you hire a general SEO agency or freelancer, they will often waste a lot of time on low-impact activity that makes little difference.
Freelancers can also be hired through freelancing websites likes Upwork or Fiverr. The advantage of these websites is that you can see reviews from previous clients.
Advantages & Disadvantages Of Hiring An SEO Agency
Outsourcing your SEO to an agency may make sense for your business. But before making the decision, you should consider the advantages and cons of using an agency…
Advantages of an agency
- Can be cost-effective – compared to the cost of hiring an internal employee, many agencies can be more affordable for your business
- Experience and knowledge – a good agency lives and breathes SEO. They’ve been in the trenches for years and stay up to date with all the changes in the industry
- Easier to manage – managing your relationship with an agency will generally require less effort than managing a full-time employee
Disadvantages of an agency
- Less control – engaging an agency for your SEO tends to result in less control compared to keeping it in-house
- Can be expensive – many of the best SEO agencies will charge a large fee for their service. It might be 6-12 months or more before this expense becomes ROI positive and there is no guarantee of that happening
- Possibility of bad practices – some agencies will use tactics to manipulate your rankings that are frowned upon by Google. This could have devastating effects on your web traffic if Google penalizes your website
How To Find An SEO Agency
Ideally, you want an agency that practices what they preach. They should rank well in search engines themselves.
If a local SEO agency ranks on page 10 when you search Google for SEO agencies in your city, it’s not a good sign.
Start by running the following searches in Google…
- SEO agencies
- SEO agencies (name of your city)
- SEO agencies (name of your country)
- Best SEO agencies
The agency that appears in the first position isn’t necessarily going to be the best choice for your business. But it is a good sign.
If you’re looking to make a quick decision, you could just make a list of 2-4 agencies that are appearing on page 1 in these searches. Then book a consultation with each of them.
But if you’d like to research them in more detail, follow these tips…
1. Check what other keywords they are ranking for
A really good agency should have numerous top 5 keyword rankings. You can use a free tool like Ubersuggest to check the keywords they are ranking for.
For example, Thrive Internet Marketing Agency are currently ranking #1 for the keyword “SEO agency Miami.”
I can see on their website, that they offer services in 25+ US cities and have pages for each of those cities. So I would hope that they rank well for other location-based keywords too.
Looking in Ubersuggest, I can see they do rank well for a lot of valuable and competitive keywords…
If they’re ranking well for high volume, high intent keywords, it’s a good sign that they know what they’re doing.
2. Check their backlink profile
You can use a tool like Ubersuggest or SEM Rush to check what type of backlinks the agency has been building to their own site.
Ideally, you should see a lot of high quality, relevant backlinks. A lot of low quality, spammy links is a cause for concern.
Using Thrive Agency as an example again, I can see in SEM Rush that they have backlinks from over 5000 referring domains (unique domains that link to them).
But I’m looking more for quality of links, not so much quantity. You can see below they have generated backlinks from some trusted, high authority websites like Forbes, Entrepreneur and Fast Company.
However, most of these links are “no-follow” links. Meaning that Google’s algorithms basically ignore those links.
I can also see that they have a lot of spammy looking backlinks…
While it’s normal for an established website to passively generate some spammy backlinks, a large number of them might be a red flag.
3. Check for volatility in their traffic
Most SEO tools like Ubersuggest and SEM Rush, will give you a historical graph showing the organic traffic for any domain.
Ideally, what you’d like to see in this graph is a steady increase in traffic over time. Something like this…
If the SEO agency you’re considering has had a steady growth in traffic like that over multiple years, it’s a very good sign. It shows that they have been continually improving their SEO and haven’t been negatively impacted by Google algorithm updates.
But if their website traffic looks highly volatile, like in the graph below, alarm bells should sound.
If there have been several significant drops in their traffic, their website may have been penalized by Google or they may have suffered after major algorithm updates.
It’s a sign that they could be using grey hat or black hat SEO strategies on their website. These are strategies that can sometimes produce a short term boost in rankings but put the website at risk in the long term.
If an agency is using these questionable strategies for their own website, they will probably use the same ones for clients.
4. Find out what other services they offer
Some agencies will specialize in SEO only. While others will provide a range of services including PPC advertising, email marketing and influencer marketing.
Personally, I have found that agencies that specialize in SEO only generally provide a better service.
It shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if the agency offers other services besides SEO. But all other things being equal, I would choose the specialist agency.
Questions You Should Ask Agencies
Before hiring any agency you should have a set of questions prepared to ask them when you speak to them. These are some of the questions I recommend asking…
What is your approach to backlink building?
Backlinks are one of the most important parts of SEO and can strongly influence your rankings. There are many ways to build backlinks. Some are very effective. Some make no impact on your rankings. And some can make your website highly vulnerable to Google’s algorithm updates.
Understanding how the prospective agency approaches backlinks will tell you a lot about the quality of their service.
If they use an outdated, spammy approach to backlink building, it’s a big red flag.
A credible agency should tell you they only build high quality, relevant backlinks. This could potentially be done through direct outreach to relevant websites, creating backlink-worthy content or a guest posting strategy.
What are your thoughts on blog post commenting and web 2.0 backlinks?
Commenting on blog posts and web 2.0 blogs have been used by SEO’s for years to generate backlinks. These strategies may have worked well in the past but now are generally viewed as being ineffective at best and dangerous at worst.
Yet many agencies will still use blog comments and web 2.0 blogs to build backlinks for clients.
When you ask an agency this question, you should be looking for a definitive “no, we don’t use them.”
If there is any suggestion that blog post commenting and web 2.0 might be part of their backlink strategy, I would recommend looking for a different agency.
How many clients does your agency have?
Even if you can’t get an exact number, an approximate range is useful to know.
An agency with a very high number of clients will probably place less value on your account. Losing you as a client won’t impact them as much as a smaller agency, so they are less incentivized to work to keep your business.
And if the agency doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with all of their clients, your business is unlikely to get the attention it deserves.
Can you provide us with a plan for the first 3 months?
Having a written plan of action from the agency can be very handy later on, should you hire the agency. This will give you something to hold them accountable to.
Many agencies will waste much of the first 3 months running “technical SEO audits” and “competitor analysis.” This should take one week maximum unless you have a terrible website that requires a lot of technical attention.
Seeing a plan upfront gives you the opportunity to request changes before they get started.
Try to get them to provide a plan/proposal before you even hire them. If there’s no mention of content creation or backlink building in the first month (or two months maximum), move on to a different agency.
Choosing an SEO agency isn’t something that you should rush. The industry is filled with agencies that continually fail to produce results.
But it is possible to filter through the low-quality agencies and find one you can trust.
To recap, these are the steps I recommend taking to find the right option..
- Determine whether you really should outsource to an agency. Consider alternatives like hiring an internal SEO employee or hiring a freelancer
- Search Google for SEO agencies to see which agencies are able to rank themselves
- Create a shortlist of 2-4 agencies
- Carry out checks on their websites using SEO tools like Ubersuggest and SEM Rush
- Schedule a consultation and ask the right questions