As a relatively new discipline that’s constantly evolving, search marketing has no hard and fast rules for success. With hundreds of agencies offering different opinions, deciding where to invest your budget is a difficult task — especially with SEO’s reputation for ‘smoke and mirrors’.
My advice for choosing the right agency isn’t necessarily about convincing you to pick Glass Digital. The team here may not be the right fit for your business, and there are plenty of other agencies doing great work across the region. But we’re here to help you make the smartest decision for your specific needs.
Create a brief
The most important thing is deciding exactly what you want from your agency, not only in terms of service offering but also results. Just like you would create a job description for a candidate, create a brief and see how shortlisted agencies plan to meet the criteria. This will also give you valuable insight into their approach to search marketing.
Avoid black-hat strategies
Engaging in black-hat SEO means using manipulative and unethical tactics to improve your search engine standings; for example, by building ‘spammy’ links to your site. Doing so can lead to Google penalties, which can harm or even wipe out your rankings.
If you haven’t got someone with the relevant know-how in house, familiarising yourself with best practice from Google and reputable industry sources like Moz are the best way to protect yourself. You can also watch out for red flags like a focus on quantity rather than quality when it comes to links and content.
Most importantly, verify that the agency’s success stories have stood the test of time, as black-hat SEO can generate quick results but eventually have repercussions.
Get to know the delivery team
The delivery team will be the ones actively working on your campaign, so it’s important you get to know them — not just the salesperson. What are their roles and how are they qualified? How many people will you be working with, and how will they complement your in-house team?
Another important thing to consider is communication. While there are benefits to having a single point of contact, speaking straight to the relevant delivery staff can mean more transparency and accountability, and less miscommunication.
Clarify your working relationship
Some businesses like to work closely alongside their agency, while others prefer a hands-off approach. For a harmonious and effective partnership, consider what level of involvement you’d like to have in the project and ensure your agency can support this.
If you’d like an element of control over the campaign, query how your input will be collected and utilised. If you’d rather your agency works autonomously, it’s all the more important that they understand your business needs and goals, so ask how they’ll achieve this.
Avoid cookie-cutter strategies
Online competition has never been higher, so a one-size-fits-all strategy won’t cut it. That means shortlisted agencies must demonstrate a good understanding of your business, competitors and industry, and explain how they will tailor your campaign accordingly.
Ask how each project will have a meaningful impact and contribute towards your specific business goals. There should be real justification behind every recommendation, and your budget should be allocated strategically to deliver maximum value for money.
Adaptability is one of the most important traits in an SEO firm, as the Google algorithm is constantly evolving. Ensure your agency has their finger on the pulse by asking them about the latest industry changes and how these impacted their client strategies.
Though there should be a guiding framework in place, your search marketing strategy should be flexible and constantly re-evaluated in line with industry updates. An agency with a strict plan for the next 12 months is unlikely to use your budget in the most effective way possible.
Get testimonials and case studies
Most agencies will offer up references and success stories, but make sure you do a little digging to check they’re reliable and up to date. Look out for long-term trends rather than short-term successes, and see if you can get in direct contact with the client for further information.
You should also ask for samples of their work. Where have they generated online exposure for their clients? What types of content have they produced? How has this work had a direct benefit on the business, and contributed to their goals? Remember that success with similar industries and budgets is much more valuable.
Beware of big promises
While confidence is a good thing, you should beware of agencies guaranteeing certain rankings or results. Google is unpredictable, so promises can’t be made. Asking if they can guarantee you a number-one position for a target keyword is actually a good way to test their honesty.
You should also take forecasts with a pinch of salt. Focus on the reasoning and methodology rather than the numbers themselves, and your decision will be much more informed.
Meet them in person
Video chats and conference calls are a convenient way to learn about an agency, but I’d always recommend meeting in person — and ideally looking around their workspace. This way, you’ll be able to verify claims made about the team and get a better sense of what working with them will be like. If you don’t leave the meeting feeling enthusiastic and confident, they’re not the right agency for you.