Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a highly effective marketing technique – when used well. If you don’t feel you have the expertise to do this yourself, and if you have the budget, you might want to consider working with an SEO agency to help drive traffic to your website from search engines, such as Google. However, it can be very hard to know whether you’re picking the right agency, or whether their approach is correct.
Before you start, here are a few questions to ask to not only ensure you’re choosing an agency that knows what they're doing, but to help you understand exactly what you're paying for – and make sure you’re getting good value for money.
1) What kind of SEO tactics do you use?
Some agencies may use techniques that take greater risks than you need to be associating yourself with, which could be detrimental to your site in the long run. Search engines can actually penalise websites that use ‘unethical’ ways of manipulating their algorithms. So make sure your agency plays by the rules and avoids dubious – or ‘black-hat’ – techniques.
Black hat techniques include tactics such as creating content networks (sometimes referred to as ‘content farms’) deliberately for the purpose of placing links to other websites. Another tactic is directly purchasing links to your website, which contravenes most search engine guidelines; this is certainly the case for Google and Bing.
2) What is your approach to link building?
This is a good question to test the ability of your agency. Link building (getting other, quality sites to link to your own site) is an important part of SEO. A link is seen as a vote of confidence by Google, suggesting that yours is a trusted site offering useful content.
However, if your agency tells you you’ll need to buy some great links or talks about 'reciprocal linking' (where two sites exchange links purely for the sake of trying to boost their search engine rankings), this agency is probably best avoided. Building quality inbound links is one of the trickiest aspects of all SEO activities, so ensuring they know how to approach this is paramount. (Here's some more information on effective link building.)
A good search engine optimisation agency will help you develop your content strategy so that your links are earned, not bought or manipulated.
3) Who are your existing clients?
Ask to see a client list, together with testimonials or case studies. A good, established SEO agency should have existing satisfied customers and be able to show you the results it has generated for them. Anyone looking to hire an SEO consultant or company should check at least three fairly current references to discuss how the SEO company helped them succeed.
4) Will I need to change my website’s content?
It’s important to ask what changes will need to be made to your existing website copy, as a decent SEO firm will want to ensure all your text is optimised with your keywords. Find out in advance whether you will need to pay an additional fee for this, or whether they will give you some advice as to how you should change it yourself.
5) What is the overall SEO strategy?
Do they sound more focused on conversions (converting a visitor to your site into a customer), or are they more concerned with search engine rankings? Ideally, your SEO strategy should be to accomplish a goal, like increasing conversions rather than achieving a certain rank.
6) How often will you deliver reports and can I see an example?
An SEO agency's reports should not only tell you how your site ranked, it should also offer recommendations. For example, a report might note that you are getting a lot of traffic from a specific keyword and recommend an action to take advantage of this, such as changing a title tag.
Ask for an example so you can find out whether the agency can actually communicate with you as a client.
7) How frequently will the campaign be reviewed?
The SEO industry is one of the fastest moving industries of the tech world. A minor tweak by Google can affect countless campaigns so ensuring your agency will review your campaign every few weeks or months is paramount.
Seasonal changes, market conditions, consumer buying patterns and special factors concerning your industry could all impact on the direction of the campaign: your chosen agency should review progress and report back to you regularly. They should also have a mechanism in place for feeding market information, news and updates to those managing the account.
8) When can I expect results?
Unfortunately, there is no black and white answer to this question. Personally I’ve seen core keywords rank in as short as a month (ie the website in question appeared on the front page of Google's search results for a key term) to a longer period of 18 months. A good SEO agency will not be afraid to explain this and give you some idea of what to expect.
9) Do you have experience in our market?
An SEO agency with multiple clients in sectors with similar audiences (for example: hair salons and cosmetics retailers) means account managers can test and optimise at a multiplied rate. This is exactly the kind of knowledge that will be beneficial for your website. The agency is more likely to quickly develop an understanding of your market and identify the challenges you face. They’re also more likely to spot proactive opportunities that arise and gaps your competitors have missed, so you can take advantage.
10) Are you actively involved in the SEO industry?
Being a good SEO consultant requires a heap of technical knowledge. Make sure your agency is pragmatic and proactive about keeping up to date with the industry. If they’re passionate about SEO, they’ll speak confidently about the latest algorithm updates and how they affect your site – and how you can work them to your advantage.
On-the-ball SEO agencies will be transparent about it too. Steer clear of agencies that talk of ‘secrets’ or just don’t talk tactics – they probably don’t know what they’re doing.
Nichola Stott has worked in online communications for more than 15 years, most recently specialising in search and social media. Formerly Yahoo! head of UK search partners, Stott left Yahoo! in 2009 to found theMediaFlow, a boutique search and social media agency offering high-quality strategies across a range of business sectors.