Pro­tect your­self from a neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence by fol­low­ing these tips.

Have you ever had a neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence using a search engine opti­miza­tion agency? If so, you are by no means alone. It seems like just about every busi­ness own­er has heard SEO hor­ror sto­ries or has one them­selves.

This arti­cle is not an exposé of bad agen­cies, nor is it to “name and shame” any par­tic­u­lar SEO com­pa­ny. The goal of this arti­cle is to edu­cate busi­ness own­ers to choose an SEO agency that will like­ly pro­vide a pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence.

What is their real reputation?

This may sound pret­ty straight­for­ward – but it isn’t. Learn­ing what an agency’s real rep­u­ta­tion requires more than just see­ing how many pos­i­tive cus­tomer reviews they have. Reviews, or tes­ti­mo­ni­als, con­tained on an agency’s site are like­ly cher­ry-picked. Reviews con­tained on Google Maps and oth­er third-par­ty review sites can also be unre­li­able.

How so? There are rumors of SEO agen­cies threat­en­ing cus­tomers with legal action if neg­a­tive reviews are not removed. Oth­ers may use more sin­is­ter threats such as neg­a­tive SEO. Pos­i­tive reviews can eas­i­ly be incen­tivized, or they may have been acquired very ear­ly on in the cam­paign, so may not be a true indi­ca­tor of the SEO agency’s rep­u­ta­tion.

To find out their real rep­u­ta­tion, con­tact some of their clients direct­ly. You’ll find out soon enough if the tes­ti­mo­ni­als are true or not, and you may receive valu­able tips from those clients.

Are they a digital agency or an SEO agency?

An agency that offers many dig­i­tal ser­vices usu­al­ly doesn’t spe­cial­ize in SEO. Many dig­i­tal agen­cies start off as web design com­pa­nies, then start expand­ing their ser­vice base to include host­ing, AdWords man­age­ment, graph­ic design and SEO.

The prob­lem with this is that the staff they have work­ing on SEO is usu­al­ly some­one famil­iar with the indus­try, but not a spe­cial­ist. For a dig­i­tal agency to scale, they will like­ly be using junior staff, or off-shore teams, under the super­vi­sion of a depart­ment head.

With the scale at which a dig­i­tal agency oper­ates, it’s like­ly that they will have a laun­dry list of SEO tasks that get done reg­u­lar­ly, but there may be no real tech­ni­cal SEO spe­cial­ist work being done on the project. These dig­i­tal agen­cies sur­vive despite the fail­ures of their SEO depart­ments due to suc­cess in oth­er areas.

For these rea­sons, it’s bet­ter to work with an inde­pen­dent SEO con­sul­tant or SEO spe­cial­ist agency. In the case of an SEO spe­cial­ist agency, it is like­ly that it was found­ed by a suc­cess­ful SEO con­sul­tant and turned into an agency to take on larg­er cor­po­rate clients at scale. SEO agen­cies don’t have oth­er ser­vices to fall back on, so, if they are suc­cess­ful, it’s a good sign.

What results have they achieved?

The proof is in the punch, as they say. An effec­tive SEO agency stays effec­tive. It’s unre­al­is­tic to expect an SEO agency to get #1 rank­ings in every indus­try, but they should be get­ting con­sis­tent page one rank­ings for sol­id key­words.

Rather than ask­ing them what rank­ings they’ve achieved or read­ing some cher­ry-picked case study on their web­site, research their clients’ web­sites. Look at their tes­ti­mo­ni­als and try to find the web­site of the per­son who left a review. Vis­it their web­site and see what key­words are in the meta title of the site. Then do a search for those terms in Google and see where they are ranked cur­rent­ly.

With all the changes to Google’s algo­rithm, rank­ings can fluc­tu­ate a lot, and just because an agency was able to rank a web­site two years ago, doesn’t mean they are still effec­tive now.

Prob­a­bly one of the strongest indi­ca­tors of abil­i­ty to get rank­ings is the rank­ing of the agency’s own web­site. Grant­ed, not all agen­cies try to rank their web­sites for SEO-relat­ed search terms. Iron­i­cal­ly, rank­ing for SEO terms doesn’t always pro­duce a great ROI and it requires a lot of effort and expense. How­ev­er, if an agency is ranked on page one for SEO terms in your city, that is a very good sign.

What is their quoting process like?

Watch out for pric­ing tiers. It’s very hard to make them work, and, in most cas­es, a fixed pric­ing struc­ture means the agency is using a “con­vey­or-belt” approach to SEO — not tech­ni­cal SEO.

Also make sure that you know who is doing the SEO work they’re pitch­ing to you. Many times, larg­er SEO agen­cies will use slick sales staff on com­mis­sion bonus­es to sell as much as they can. This is the more ruth­less side of the indus­try. You need to make sure that you aren’t pay­ing for things you don’t need. It is also com­mon for a sales­per­son to pitch results which require much more work than the SEO staff is going to do.

A best-case sce­nario is when you call the SEO agency and you get to speak direct­ly to the per­son who will be doing the SEO work and that per­son gives you a quote. This is usu­al­ly only pos­si­ble work­ing with small­er agen­cies where the own­er of the agency is the head of SEO.

What KPIs are they selling?

One of the biggest scams in “guar­an­teed SEO” pitch­es is con­vinc­ing cus­tomers that they will rank for their own brand name or some search phras­es that nobody search­es for.

Make sure that the key­words they quote you for have enough month­ly search­es to make an ROI pos­si­ble. Rank­ing for your own brand name is a joke, as Google nor­mal­ly does this any­way. Keep in mind that after your web­site is ranked on page one for a search term, it’s only going to get a per­cent­age of the month­ly search vol­ume – not all of it. So make sure that you are not sold on poten­tial con­ver­sions from the full search vol­ume of the search terms.

Are they trying to get control of everything?

Some agen­cies will try to get con­trol of all your dig­i­tal prop­er­ties. Typ­i­cal­ly they will try to sell you a new web­site design, ask you to move your web­site over to their host­ing, try to move your domain over to their account, set up your Google prop­er­ties in their own account, con­vince you to turn your Google Ads man­age­ment over to them and make any oth­er num­ber of requests.

They may try to con­vince you by say­ing that it will make life much eas­i­er for you if every­thing is man­aged by just one com­pa­ny. Tech­ni­cal­ly, they may be cor­rect. But it is also true that it’s eas­i­er for them to make it a night­mare for you to leave.

It’s much bet­ter to use a web design com­pa­ny to devel­op your web­site, a rep­utable host­ing com­pa­ny to host your web­site, a domain reg­is­trar for your domain name reg­is­tra­tion, and a spe­cial­ist SEO agency for your SEO. Read this SEO guide to learn more about how to pro­tect your­self from prac­tices like these.

Are they transparent?

Many SEO agen­cies like to pro­tect their meth­ods. This is under­stand­able because it’s hard to keep an edge in a sat­u­rat­ed mar­ket. How­ev­er, there should be at least some trans­paren­cy in regards to what they are doing.

In some cas­es, they may be using meth­ods they wouldn’t like to admit they are using, such as auto­mat­ed link­ing soft­ware or reselling ser­vices from anoth­er com­pa­ny. It would pay to find out more about what meth­ods they are using and how those meth­ods will sup­port the cam­paign. Watch out for arro­gant SEO spe­cial­ists who offer zero trans­paren­cy and who quick­ly shut down any inquiries into their meth­ods.

Hir­ing an SEO spe­cial­ist is much bet­ter than try­ing to do SEO your­self. There is a lot of con­tra­dict­ing infor­ma­tion out there, and a true tech­ni­cal SEO spe­cial­ist will have a pret­ty good idea of what’s work­ing cur­rent­ly. As not­ed in this arti­cle though, cau­tion is still required and it pays to dig a lit­tle deep­er before agree­ing to sign up with any­one.

Even after fol­low­ing this advice you may still have a neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence due to lack­lus­ter rank­ings. So make sure that you can leave unscathed with just a month’s notice. You can find addi­tion­al help­ful infor­ma­tion in this SEO pod­cast.