(Before we get started, John Cabot is a digital marketing agency that specialises in search engine optimisation, but we’re not asking you to hire us. Instead, we aim to give you genuinely helpful guidance on how to find the best agency for your organisation. In fact, we’re completely aware that we are not right for everyone and always encourage potential customers to search around first anyway. If you’re interested, check out the SEO services we offer. Now, enough about us, let’s get into it.)
Hiring an SEO agency shouldn’t just be Googling the best SEO agencies in your area and accepting whoever comes up first. You can, and definitely should, be discerning about who you hire and why you do it. Why? Because it’s your money, your business, and your website’s traffic that’s at stake. Deciding to use external SEO services is a decision that has the potential to dramatically improve your site and save time, but, choose the wrong one and you risk damaging your site and reputation.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of SEO agencies in London alone, and there is nothing worse than spending months (and thousands of pounds) with an agency, only to take a look at your most important KPIs and realise that you haven’t made any progress. Follow this guide, and we’ll help you spot the difference between a lousy SEO agency and an amazing one as well as debunk any myths around hiring an agency.
Do I need an SEO agency?
The first step is deciding if an SEO agency is necessary and working out what’s the best approach to growing your business online. If you are looking for quick results, why not just use Google Ads to drive relevant traffic or if you just need a few more sales, start connecting directly with your ideal customers on Linkedin and find out more about them? SEO isn’t for everybody and should be a long-term strategy rather than a quick fix, which is a benefit in itself. Google rewards websites that deserve to rank well based on their quality, so if you’re ranking highly, it only makes sense that your content, user experience and performance are optimal. Once you’ve achieved this, you’ll be getting traffic from organic search results for free compared to paid ads, returning on your investment.
Studies after studies show that being at the top of the rankings is also a great way to increase brand visibility and reputation – you’d expect the person in the top spot (or first page) to be an established, reputable brand with authority on the keyword they searched.
There are a few situations in particular where it may be a good idea to invest time and money into hiring an SEO agency, especially if:
1. You’re not seeing results
If you’ve been attempting your own SEO or lead generation strategies but aren’t getting the results you expected, an agency may be able to step in and evaluate what you’re already doing. From there, an SEO can look for ways to change, tweak or optimise your strategy to make them more efficient and effective. An SEO agency can also examine your goals and determine whether or not they’re realistic. One of the most valuable things about working collaboratively with an agency is what they can teach you. That can be anywhere from just learning on the job as they do their thing to actual training sessions for you and your team – whatever you agree upon.
2. You’re not sure where to start
If you’re new to SEO or have barely even heard of it, you may not realise just how complex it can be. Deciding you need an SEO strategy is one thing, but actually creating it and kicking it off can be overwhelming – that’s where a professional comes in.
3. You have a specific issue that needs solving
If your website is experiencing issues ranking, or Google is issuing penalties, you may need to bring someone in to solve any problems you might have. An experienced SEO agency will know exactly how to deal with it, especially if they’re specialised in that particular area.
What should I get from an SEO agency?
With SEO being such a wide field of processes, SEO agencies often offer a lot of different services depending on their speciality. Break that down, however, and there are 6 core activities you should look for when hiring:
Most SEOs will kick off the conversation with a website audit to capture the starting health of your website at that point in time. This will usually involve an SEO and ranking analysis to identify opportunities, competition analysis to see what your competitors are doing that you aren’t and also identification of any issues or vulnerabilities.
Keyword research is practically unavoidable in the SEO industry, as it’s the foundation of ranking – you can’t create a strategy without having keywords to target. You should be getting comprehensive keyword research and analysis, as well as keyword identification based on your audience and their intent.
Google values high-quality content above almost everything else. You want content that’s relevant to your target audiences and keywords, which usually involves the creation of content and also optimisation of existing content.
Optimising your pages is more than just keywords, there are the on-page elements too. These include title tags, metadata, URLs, file names and Schema markup. This also involves improving site speed, assessing canonical tags and checking for keyword cannibalisation, duplicate content and internal links.
Links are your vote of confidence for search engines, telling them that people are talking about you and aware of your brand. SEOs will help you to acquire links from relevant high-authority websites and publications to create a healthy backlink profile. It’s important that the agency you work with focuses on acquiring links the right way, not by using spammy black hat methods.
Tracking and monitoring
SEO is a continuous process when done well. Especially in times of change, performance monitoring is vitally important to access your current and anticipated state of SEO. Many agencies will set up a dashboard with your website’s progress and track users through contact forms and site widgets to paint a full picture of your traffic.
Is a highly ranked seo agency the better choice?
No. The irony is that the best SEO agencies don’t always rank particularly high. That’s because they’re too busy optimising their clients’ websites to spend that same time on their own. Successful SEO agencies are usually overwhelmed with a lot of long-term clients to focus on who will refer others in their professional circle which makes ranking on Google unnecessary. It’s usually those looking for new clients, or just starting out, that focus their efforts on reaching page one.
Don’t judge an SEO agency by its ranking. Just because it’s ranking for “best SEO” in your location doesn’t mean it actually is.
That’s not to say that if they rank on the first page they’re automatically bad, as they could simply have amazing, effortless content – but don’t base your decision on where they appear.
Instead, heading to social media to ask for recommendations from SEO pros is a good idea. Or, even better would be to attend SEO or digital marketing conferences and talk to speakers and other attendees to find out their recommendations. Word of mouth is much more powerful in this space.
Should I judge an SEO agency by its clients?
Yes. Always ask for examples, case studies and references, just as you would hiring anyone. Not every SEO agency has the same capabilities, experience and expertise – you need to be able to gauge if what they have matches up with what you’re looking for. For example, small websites usually need help with their content and authority, whereas larger websites typically face more difficult technical SEO issues, duplication problems and structural inefficiencies. An agency that is used to working with one type of agency, might not be the best for you if you’re the opposite.
Is a bigger agency better?
Both large and small SEO agencies have their own advantages and disadvantages. Naturally, larger agencies have more resources, tools and potentially even their own software and well-defined processes in place. Testing is an important part of SEO, and with more projects, a larger agency has more of an opportunity to test its hypotheses and processes. With larger agencies, however, there is the risk that your site receives less attention than you’d like and a more minimalistic approach, so this is an important consideration.
Smaller agencies usually mean close contact with SEO experts, allowing you to build a strong working relationship and work more collaboratively. The benefit of not having a huge client list is that each client is valued more highly with enhanced customer service. Flexibility and creativity are often more embraced at these small agencies, as it’s less about rigid processes and more tailored to each client.
What makes a good SEO agency?
The best SEO agencies are a complete toolkit of skills, experience and manpower, all organised by dedicated project managers. It’s not all about having SEO experts, but also content writers, developers, PR experts and graphic designers for full website optimisation. Naturally, the more experience and positive reputation with past clients, the better, and this should be obvious if you take a look at their case studies, which they should be open to sharing with you.
Above all, an SEO agency should be realistic with their offerings – that’s how you know they know exactly what they’re doing, no need to use flashy sales techniques to earn your business.
How do I know if the SEO agency are experts?
At the end of the day, each developer is different and prefers different personalities and approaches. None of these may work, or they could work so well you gain a lifelong friend, who knows? There’s no one-size-fits-all method, so just build trust and do what feels like the right thing to do.
Choosing between hiring an SEO agency and bringing someone in in-house usually comes down to one main thing: expertise. This is why you need to make sure the agency you’re hiring are genuine experts with specialisation and industry insights to back up these claims.
Believing you can cut corners and hire a cheaper SEO agency. With a bit of bad luck, you could be putting your entire website at risk to save a few pounds.
An agency of experts won’t be cheap or offer too-good-to-be-true incentives to get you to sign with them – real experts know their worth and don’t need gimmicks to gain your business. Real SEO experts know there are no guarantees in what they do and won’t promise you the world. Simply put, the more realistic a proposal sounds, the more likely it is that they know what they’re doing.
What do I need to do?
1. Learn SEO fundamentals
Searching for an agency without any knowledge of SEO is a disaster waiting to happen, like blindly walking through a maze of information. Learn the basics and you won’t be tricked or taken advantage of by less ethical or experienced agencies, you’ll also be better placed to discern just how experienced the agency actually is. Getting to grips with these fundamentals will help you a lot when you do begin working together as it makes the collaborative aspect much easier. When in doubt, just keep asking “why?” until the agency helps you fully understand their recommendations.
The first thing to know is that there are several different types of SEO including technical SEO, on-page SEO, content SEO, off-page SEO, local SEO and international SEO. For guidance, check out documentation from Google, Moz and Lighthouse for more information on what SEO actually is. We have a breakdown of each SEO service here.
2. Set personalised goals
You can’t search for what you need until you know exactly what it is you want to achieve. Enter, goal setting. Take a step back and remind yourself of why you want to focus on SEO – are there certain metrics you’re focusing on? Is there an area you care most about i.e: link-building? Why? Identify where your online presence needs the most attention and aim to hire an SEO agency that specialises in that.
Examples of this may be to rank higher for specific keywords or overall, get more traffic and generate leads or drive more sales from organic search.
3. Gauge compatibility
It’s worth thinking about your own company’s culture and the kind of people you prefer to work with. It’s no use hiring people you know you’ll regularly clash with. Your teams should be working alongside each other, often collaboratively, so you want to find people who naturally fit into that team dynamic. You can tell a lot about a company by their website and about us pages, but nothing is quite like an actual conversation to gauge whether you’d get along.
What questions should I ask an SEO agency before hiring them?
Think of hiring an SEO agency like hiring a brand new employee – interviews are essential. Overall, the main thing you’re looking for in all of these answers is transparency and clarity. Avoiding answering any of these or making unrealistic promises are big red flags, so it’s ideal for rooting out the worse options. Here we’ve listed a long list of different questions relevant to most SEO projects that you should ask and customise based on what your priorities are.
17 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an SEO
- What sets you apart from other SEO agencies and experts?
- Can you give a summary of your SEO process?
- What tools do you typically use for SEO?
- Will you tell us about technical site changes?
- How long will it take to see ranking results?
- How do you measure progress?
- How frequently will you send out reports?
- Can I see your case studies and references?
- What problems have you already noticed on our site?
- How do you stay up-to-date with SEO trends?
- Do you publish any SEO thought leadership?
- How much does it cost to hire you?
- Explain your company culture
- How will my site change after we stop working together?
- Can you get me to number 1 in Google’s search rankings? (Trick question: committing to this is impossible!)
- Will you work for my competitors in the future?
- Do you use automation?
What are the signs of a bad SEO agency?
Unfortunately, SEO specialists often get a bad stigma as a result of less ethical agencies using questionable methods that damage a website’s reputation. Beware the cheap and black hat tactics. Black hat is what SEOs call typically overly aggressive marketing efforts that either goes against or manipulate a search engine’s own guidelines. These can cause you penalties from Google, or, worse, the removal of your site from indexing. Shortcuts, vague descriptions, flashy presentations and grand promises are all things to look out for – good SEO takes time, and these things can’t be rushed.
Ethics and values are areas you definitely should explore before making a decision as integrity is crucial in assembling an SEO/digital marketing team. It’s a good idea to research the leadership team and individual members of the SEO team to get an understanding of what they’re all about. If you have any mutual connections, it might be worth asking them for their opinions on the company. Figure out what they care about, whether that’s a healthy work-life balance or giving back to the community and compare to your own priorities.
Believing there’s a secret formula. SEO is an open, transparent field and anyone who says they can’t tell you their “secret optimisation tactics” is a red flag.
Try not to let the process of hiring an SEO overwhelm you, it really is just like any other hiring process, but with more specific qualities to look out for. Learn the fundamentals and you should know how to spot the diamonds in the rough among hundreds of SEO agencies.