Do you need a new SEO agency? Look out for these 5 warning signs

11 March, 2015

Donald Trump Points The FingerAre you getting the most out of your SEO agency?

You’re sitting down reviewing your budget in preparation for the next financial year.

Things are going well.

Then you hit the ‘SEO’ line item.

You realise you have next to no idea how much value your SEO investment is worth. You’ve been working with you current agency for over 12 months. Sure, rankings have improved, referrals from Google are up and the conversion rates from these search engine users have seen a nice boost. Your agency is getting results. You can see them. It’s clear.

But is it enough?

Could you be doing even better? Are you missing out on more potential customers? Is there someone who could do more, for less?

Be honest. You’re thinking about it. And you really just can’t tell.

We’re in a pickle. A conundrum that marketing managers everywhere are facing.

It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from your SEO agency.

Of course, your agency is always busy feeding you the good news stories. But what you need is not politician positivity. You need the investigative journalist’s behind-the-scenes exposé. Preferably from someone like this guy. You know he’s got the goods on the scoop…

You Need This Guy To Investigate Your Seo Agency I’m here to give you the answers to your SEO ‘what if’s’.

I don’t have a hipster typewriter, a gold tie bar, or the forehead creases earned through decades of investigative squinting. But after running an SEO agency for a number of years, I can spot an SEO scandal when I see it.

I’ve seen the tricks, I’ve spotted the rats and I’ve raised the red flags. I’ve seen my team perform and underperform, as I have our competitors. By now, I have a fair idea of the warning signs and the positive signs.

In this article, I’ll show you the questions you need to pose and the answers you want to hear to make sure your SEO agency is giving you the best value for your investment.

Why your SEO agency is the most important supplier to analyse

With SEO, you can’t help feeling a nagging sense of uncertainty.

Are you getting the right bang for your buck?

I’m willing to guess that you don’t understand the nature of the specific technical work being carried out by your agency. But if you understood the finer details of your website’s SEO performance, you wouldn’t need an agency, right?

It’s different with other suppliers:

  • We have a better understanding of the work our social media agency delivers
  • The results from our design agency are tangible
  • We know what we pay an advertising agency for

It’s so much easier to judge and compare these services, as opposed to the technical maze that is search engine optimisation.

In addition, hiring a great SEO company is more important now than ever.

You see, Google and friends have become the forensic criminologists of the internet. For so long, gaming the system was just like shoplifting a chocolate bar from the corner store.

If you were smart about it, you wouldn’t get caught. If you were clumsy in your execution, it was still a synch to outrun the bloated grandmother manning the counter.

Now, playing with SEO naughtiness is like pulling off a bank robbery. You can still do it. The ‘black hat’ SEO community keep finding new and sneaky ways to break in.

If you get away with it, the short term rewards might be juicy. But the penalties are teeth chattering. And nowadays the police are sophisticated, highly trained and ruthless. Google’s algorithm is finely tuned. As it continues to evolve, more scammers are caught and the rankings backlash is painful to overcome.

All this means that hiring the right SEO supplier has reached a new level of importance. Keeping up with the changes needs a dedicated specialist. If you get the wrong one, you could end up worse off that where you started.

We’re talking punishments. In terms of rankings and in dollars. You’ll end up like this guy, figuratively (I’m pretty sure Google still can’t inflict physical pain).

Flickr Image Courtesy Jonathan Wagner

Red flags to look for from your SEO agency

If you’re looking for a new SEO agency, or you’re trying to make sure you are getting the most out of your current partner, these are the things that ought to set you into action.

Because you know what happens when you ignore the red flags…

Things get ugly.

Don’t fall off your bike.

Look out for these five SEO warning signs.

#1. Rankings Guarantees

Flickr Image Courtesy That Hartford Guy If your agency has guaranteed you the front page of Google for any given keyword, be very afraid.

Predicting rankings is like picking the winner of the Melbourne Cup one week out. Your SEO agency might think you have the best horse in the race, but you can’t control Google or your competitors, and these folks have a say in who’s first past the rankings post.

There’s a couple of reasons why guarantees are foolhardy:

  • For starters, rankings aren’t the best indicators of success. It’s really easy to rank 1st for a keyword no one cares about. Is the content that’s ranked going to help the user once they click through? Will your rankings lead to results? An agency that focuses on rankings above customers is a dangerous proposition. You want a supplier with a more strategic perspective on SEO.
  • Secondly, rankings guarantees are part of the tool kit for the Ponzi schemers and used car salesmen of the SEO world. Google could change how it ranks websites tomorrow and nudge your rankings into the rubbish bin. How can an SEO agency possibly guarantee against that? Or what if your more wealthy competition ramps up their SEO efforts and bashes you off the top? Your SEO agency’s guarantee starts to look a little flimsy.

Page one results are critical. This study by Advanced Web Ranking proves it. This article from Marketing Land illustrates it.

The average web searcher never clicks past the second page of a search result, so the lure to resort to suspicious techniques is significant. If your agency is prepared to offer you a rankings guarantee, they are normally prepared to sell their soul to deliver.

I know the attraction of a ranking guarantee is juicy, but you don’t want to be greedy. The sweets are so often poisonous.

Just look at this guy. Would you trust him and his Machiavellian grin?

Flickr Image Courtesy World Bank I’ll bet he guarantees that his cakes are the best in the world.

Your mouth is watering. Your judgement is clouded. You can’t resist.

Next thing you know, you’re ten dollars down with a stomach ache to boot.

Sneaky evil-cake-man.

Be wary of the guarantee. The proof is always in the pudding.

Instead of a guarantee, you want to look for an agency who sets and measures a group a key objectives based on your specific needs.

#2. Thin Reports

Flickr Image Courtesy Quinn Dombrowski You want to be receiving regular reports from your SEO supplier. If that’s not happening, it should be. At least monthly.

You deserve to know what’s happening with your money and how your investment is performing in relation to your agreed objectives. (You have agreed on some objectives, right? Right. Good.)

All but the sloppiest of agencies should be updating you regularly. I’m racking my brain to think of a reason why not and I just can’t find one.

Alas, just box-ticking with reporting is not enough. A couple of Google Analytics screenshots and a list of numbers spells L-A-Z-Y-S-E-O. It’s got this guy written all over it.

Thin Reporting Equals Lazy Seo You’re paying your SEO supplier for their specialist knowledge. You’re owed their analysis. A good agency will explain your results and metrics in simple terms, relating the statistics back to the context of your strategy and objectives.

If you don’t understand what your SEO report means to your business, it’s time to slap your agency out of their complacency.

Here’s a few examples of what you can expect to crop up in your regular reports:

  • New links built to your site
  • New optimised content, blog posts or content marketing assets that have been developed
  • Updates on your program’s key objectives (rankings, time on page statistics, conversion rates, sales referrals, email subscribers)

Give your account manager a buzz and ask them to give you a quick 15 minute overview.

Show an interest, be clear that you care, and your agency will make sure they’re performing at 100%. The more you talk big picture with your suppliers, the better your long term results. If you’re getting push-back, belligerence or a general absence of carefactor, it might be time to find a more dedicated SEO partner.

#3. A Huge Quantity of Backlinks

Flickr Image Courtesy Kristina D.c. Hoeppner For most marketers, this will seem counter intuitive. Basic SEO theory suggests that more links to your site’s page will increase your rankings. This should inform Google and friends of the importance of your content, otherwise why would so many folks be referring to it.

This is a big trap for young players.

The days of SEO quantity-over-quality have been mauled by the pandas, penguins and hummingbirds of times past. The Google algorithm update animals will be picking the meat from your rankings carcass unless you build the right links back to your site. Beware The Google Penguin And Panda Algorithms Remember, Google wants to give searchers the best possible result. Their algorithm is highly shaped around relevance and importance. If you have thousands of completely irrelevant links, with no relationship to your content, Google starts to think you’re trying to game the system.

If you get found out, you’ll cop a severe penalty.

Conversely, one link from a super high authority source that has quality content directly related to your target keyphrase can skyrocket you up the rankings.

Let me try and summarise:

One quality backlink from a reputable source will always be better than hundreds from low quality sources that don’t offer valuable content for the searcher.

I’ll let Google themselves explain;

“When returning results for a search, Google uses sophisticated text-matching techniques to display pages that are both important and relevant to each search. Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.”

Keep in mind that our algorithms can distinguish natural links from unnatural links. Natural links to your site develop as part of the dynamic nature of the web when other sites find your content valuable and think it would be helpful for their visitors. Unnatural links to your site are placed there specifically to make your site look more popular to search engines.” Google Webmaster Tools Support

After your little link building history lesson, you’re starting to understand why a whole stack of new backlinks could spell trouble.

Most SEO agencies will include link building as part of their service offering. You need to keep an eye on the backlinks developed for you. This is one of the best ways to make sure you’re working with a quality operator.

At the end of each month ask for a list of any new links back to your site . If there’s thousands of links on that list, it’s probably about time you pushed the panic button.

How can you check if your backlinks are of decent quality?

Pick out a bunch of these sites and click through to the webpage that is linking to your content

  • Does the website seem reputable?
  • Is the content related to yours?
  • Would your content add value to their reader (and vice versa)?

If you’re feeling a little nervous about these backlinks, jump straight on the phone and dial in your account manager.

There might be a simple explanation.

If you don’t get a simple explanation, it might be a good idea to get another agency or contractor to have a quick look at your link profile.

If signs are negative, don’t lose your cool and break up straight away. Give it some time to breathe. Talk it out with your partner and allow them the chance to make it right. Hopefully, things aren’t too far gone, it might have been a simple misunderstanding.

Alas, if there’s no effusive apology with some swift repair work to follow, now is the time to consider your options. You don’t want to leave it too late. Being hit with a penalty for unnatural links is a brutal punishment. It’s a long, long way back to page one.

Keep an eye on those backlinks!

#4. No Questions Asked

Flickr Image Courtesy Patrik Theander You don’t want an SEO ‘yes man’.

You want an agency that questions you.

A supplier that challenges your objectives is demonstrating their strategic capacity. You need to find a partner that’s not just content to take your money and execute.

  • A good SEO agency wants to make sure they are getting the best possible results for you.
  • A great SEO agency will challenge your brief and show you how you can improve on your ideas.
  • The best SEO agency will continually offer you proactive suggestions to keep you ahead of the rest.

Remember, your SEO agency is the expert. They should have a fair idea of what will work and what will not. If they are suggesting, questioning or challenging you, it’s a good sign you’ve found yourself an engaged, strategic and proactive partner.

If your agency is not asking you questions, if they are not working closely with your team, you’re getting a standardised service. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you want your agency’s process tailored to your business needs if you are to get the best possible return on your investment. It’s worth the vigorous discussions and slight time delays.

When your agency proposes more work, they probably aren’t trying to squeeze you for cash (particularly if you’re on a base retainer already). Sure, the extra services or projects might cost you, and the agency will obviously enjoy the extra funds, but a good partner has your team’s interests at heart.

They know as well as you do that delivering poor results is the fastest way to lose your business. If you trust your SEO agency, trust their advice, and stay willing to take risks and invest further in their knowledge.

#5. They Won’t/Can’t Explain Their Process

Flickr Image Courtesy David Goehring If you’re anything like me, you know next to nothing about cars. Change a tyre, check the oil, wash it – that’s about all you need right?

Not when something goes wrong.

When I’m worried that something’s amiss, the first thing I do is pop the hood and have a look under the bonnet. I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking for, but if something is seriously wrong, it’s kinda easy to tell.

Treat your SEO agency like this. If you’re worried something is a little off, don’t be scared to pop the hood. You won’t know exactly what to expect, but you know the basics, so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to spot some suspect practices.

Go ahead and ask you agency for a breakdown of their actions. They should be able to give you an itemised explanation of how their time is spent. It should be in simple, easy to understand language. If not, ask your account manager to jump on the phone and give you a clear version of things.

When your agency can’t deliver this, there’s a big chance some nefarious SEO activities are taking place. If your explanation is riddled with a stew of nerdy jargon, your agency might be camouflaging some dodgy practices amongst their SEO techspeak.

Just the act of asking about your SEO agency’s processes is enough to keep your agency on their toes. It shows that you’re interested in your agency’s work and you’re not prepared to settle for an average outcome.

The 5 positive signs to look for from your SEO agency

Remember, there’s five big warning signs to look for when you evaluate your SEO agency’s performance. Let’s put the negatives to one side. To recap, here’s what you do want to see from your SEO agency.

#1. No rankings guarantees!

You want honesty, transparency and a long term commitment. Rankings guarantees allude to a short term, narrow focus. An agency with a strategic approach and a thorough understanding of your business goals will talk to you about achieving objectives that really matter to your bottom line. Conversions, sales and repeat customers are worth more to you than a win at all costs rankings guarantee.

#2. Detailed reports with clear analysis

Simple. You want detailed and regular reporting that actually makes a difference. At the very least, you should expect specific updates on your SEO agency’s performance against your agreed objectives. Some further analysis is a bonus – look for you agency to explain what your results mean to your business. Numbers alone can be confusing and misleading. For double points, your agency should include practical recommendations to help you improve your site.

#3. Natural backlinks

We’ve been through this one in some detail. You want your agency to build backlinks from reputable sources that your potential customers will respect. The references to your content should be relevant in the context of the information your customers are searching for. If the link to your content will not add value to the type of people you want visiting your site, it could do more harm than good. Look for a small collection of links built from high quality websites. Links from news publications, industry blogs and educational sites are a positive sign.

#4. Lots of questions asked

Make sure your agency is engaged with you. Their team should be dedicated to understanding your needs. Regular calls from your account manager are a real positive. Interaction between the other members of both of your teams can be helpful as well. This encourages a closer relationship and a willingness to share knowledge. Education and idea generation are two invaluable bonuses you can encourage from your SEO agency. Keep those communication lines as open and honest as possible. When you develop trust in your SEO partner, you get the best possible results.

#5. A transparent SEO process

Flowing on from the importance of strong communication, transparency is critical. Your agency knows that you aren’t an expert, so they should be working hard to prove their value. The best way to make sure you appreciate their work is to make sure you understand exactly what is being delivered. Show an interest in your SEO agency’s work. You’ll get to understand what you’re spending your money on and why it’s so important. If you get straight, honest, simple answers you can be confident that your agency has no sneaky tricks to hide. Trust, and success will be your reward.

If you do need a new SEO supplier, what next?

If you do find yourself assessing your options, you’ll be hell bent on finding the right one. It can be really difficult to know how to compare suppliers before you have seen their work in action.

We put together a post outlining the best questions to ask a potential SEO agency partner to help you separate the chimps from the chumps. It should help you out.

You might even consider another way to manage your SEO. Contractors and freelancers offer you more flexibility and inhouse resources can prevent you having to deal with external SEO suppliers altogether. Find out the pro’s and con’s of the best ways to manage your SEO in this article.

Hopefully, you won’t find yourself in this situation. Most SEO agencies are genuinely trying to help you improve your business. If you do have a quality partner, you need to afford them your trust.

It takes time to generate sustainable results – six months at least will give you a good yardstick. Have faith, but stay alert for those red flags.

You need to maximise your SEO investment. And you don’t want your site to end up in Google jail. If the alarm bells ring, take action…

If you need some more detailed information to help you analyse, compare and select the right SEO solution for your online store – you need to download our Guide to Managing Ecommerce SEO. We’ve prepared over 30 pages of insights and advice from our search engine optimisation specialists to help you find the best way to handle your site’s needs.

Just click on that big old purple button below, throw in your email address, and your little package of online retail wisdom is headed straight to your inbox door.

Download it, read it, use it and watch your rankings jump.

By Scott Evans
As co-founder and Director of Gorilla 360, Scott has spent the last 12 years helping businesses grow through smart digital marketing.
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