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Over the last three years I have been involved in many pitches to win new SEO clients and we are often asked how we can really tell if what an agency says it can do is actually true. 

With this major question in mind I thought I’d share with you some of our thoughts and experiences that we think might help you if you do find yourself looking for a new SEO agency. 

This check list is a good list of questions to ask prospecting agencies when in the process of selecting your new SEO agency partner.

SEO has had a bad image in the past and some clients have had bad experiences with their SEO agencies. Many have experienced agencies that seemingly "over promise and under deliver".

Sometimes, it should be noted however that this is not always the fault of the agency. On occasions the search algorithm may have changed and the previously successful tactics and approach applied is no longer be valid.

1. Can I speak to an existing customer (in a similarly competitive sector) who has been with you for over two years?

Any agency that is any good should be excited about this question and pull out their black book straight away to give you a list of contacts.  

It’s one thing having case studies on a credentials presentation and quotes from happy clients who they have had long-term SEO success with. But it’s another thing speaking with them directly.  

I’d ensure you ask for a direct dialogue with the agency's client rather than just a second hand reference. You also need to make sure you are speaking with a client of a similar size and that they are in a market that is relevant for you. Ideally they should be targeting keywords of a similarly competitive nature too. 

If they aren’t willing to provide this I would be very cautious of employing their services.

2. Can we meet the team who will be working on the account, the whole team please?

A lot of agencies still outsource the link building, content writing and social elements of SEO services. 

In our experience and in the experience of clients who have come to us from other agencies that do this, this is a really bad idea. How can you control the quality of the work if it is outsourced, sometimes overseas? 

Even more importantly, who is in control of your brand and its reputation online?  I’d recommend before you appoint an agency you arrange a face to face meeting at their offices with all the people likely to be working on the account – including any off-page SEO (link building and creative content) team members. 

This is even more critical when choosing a multilingual SEO agency, most of whom outsource the multilingual elements of the work.

3. Why do we have to sign up for 12 or 24-months, with no break out clause in the contract?

Many agencies get clients to sign long contracts so they have a long time to ensure they get it right and deliver on what they promised. 

Realistically if inside the first three to six months you haven’t seen a positive impact and movement from the SEO work then that type of work is not working for you.

I’d always ask for a mutual break point in your contract, a good agency should be confident in their ability to deliver good results for you and have no issues in providing this.  If they do offer this - it may also be worth asking how many people have exercised the break?

 4. Who is the biggest SEO client you have lost in the past 12 months and why?

All agencies lose clients from time to time (yes even us), but as a potential new client you want to understand the circumstances around any clients they have lost. 

It is a very good gauge of the transparency and honesty of an agency that is willing to share such information. It might also be worth asking if they have ever sacked a client, and if so why? As that will also get you a very interesting answer!

5. Can you guarantee our SEO performance?

Any agency willing to guarantee performance should not be trusted. To carry out good SEO there are many variables outside of the agency and client's control, it is fundamentally impossible to guarantee anything. 

I would refer back to questions one and two, which are a lot more credible than a guarantee. If an agency is offering a guarantee then I would question their tactics and how they do their SEO work – is it ethical and above board?

Could it damage your brand and credibility and could you be in line for a future Google penalty?

6. What do we actually get for our monthly fee?

This sounds straightforward but what physical work is actually happening and who is doing it? Where are they based and do they work for the agency?  

I would be very careful if agencies are charging on a cost per link basis, as this is a recipe for a further negative penalty. If you have met the people doing the work then you will be comfortable with what everyone is doing and what your monthly fees are going towards, both in terms of the work done by the agency but most importantly the expected outcomes for that work.

Choosing an agency can be tricky but using these points, I hope you might find the process a little easier and more transparent in future.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this - what questions have you asked prospective agencies in the past and how successful were they at separating the wheat from the chaff?

Jimmy McCann

Published 8 January, 2013 by Jimmy McCann

Jimmy McCann is Head of SEO at Search Laboratory and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him on Google+

6 more posts from this author

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Adam Palczewski

Adam Palczewski, Global Digital Operations Director at Mindshare / WPP

I would also add a question about technology the agency is using, any proprietary etc.

Also, always worth to ask whether any of the services are outsources i.e: link building.

Wouldn't hurt to ask what part of the revenue comes from SEO as opposed to PPC, social etc.

over 3 years ago

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Amanda

Excellent comments, I changed my SEO company last month and luckily did ask all of these questions.

I also asked an additional question after reading a horror story online from someone complaining about my previous SEO company - do you own the rights to the content you have written? Will you attempt to reclaim all your articles?

over 3 years ago

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Jonny Rosemont, Managing Director at Rosemont Communications Limited

Good points and you could also apply these questions to other specialisms not just SEO. Find and replace!

over 3 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

" It might also be worth asking if they have ever sacked a client, and if so why? "

I don't think I've ever had a prospect ask me that but I would actually be happy to answer if they did! I have had to let clients go in the past because our relationship just wasn't working out. As an SEO provider I want to be your partner in this process. I'll treat you with respect, do my best to not waste any of your time and meet all my deadlines. I expect my clients to do the same.

over 3 years ago

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Martin Dinham

Nice article Jimmy, I think the point about meeting the delivery team and therefore ensuring they're all in house is a good one. I'd also suggest a couple more. Firstly, what happens when you leave (ie do they plan on placing content / links on an in house network of sites that get switched off when the contract is up, taking your rankings with them)? Secondly, how big a proportion of their business is SEO ?

over 3 years ago

Paul Mead

Paul Mead, Founder & Managing Director at VCCP Media & VCCP Kin

A good set of questions Jimmy. Asking about clients lost is very important and I'd argue that its just as important to talk to the ones who left about their experience as it is to talk to current clients. Self praise is no recommendation as the saying goes and if you are evaluating agencies based on their credentials presentation then you'll quickly find that almost everyone is not only 'unique' but also the biggest / fastest growing / kindest / loveliest (delete as appropriate) agency in the UK.

A couple of conversations with previous and existing clients of a similar size / requirements is worth any number of lengthy RFP documents.

There have been some major changes and challenges in the SEO industry over the last couple of years so look out for clients in a competitive sector who can tell a good story of success during this period.

over 3 years ago

Martin Girdlestone

Martin Girdlestone, Head of Consultancy Services at Salmon Ltd

Good article. Good questions. I would also be tempted to ask:
"Why do you not rank number 1 or on page 1 of the SERPs yourselves when I search for the term SEO agency?"
(If that is indeed the case)

over 3 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Some good Q's that can also be applied to ecommerce agencies too.

I'd also add that it's sometimes valuable to understand which clients have moved on, and for what reasons - high turnover can be a warning sign.

over 3 years ago

Ed Lamb

Ed Lamb, Client Services Director at Propellernet

I'd agree with most of your points Jimmy and also Nick's comment about occasionally choosing to part company with clients where there is good reason.

I'd also add speaking to several key journalists/influencers in the same way as you've suggested speaking to clients. Agencies often talk about the great relationships they have with a blogger for example, but when it comes down to it they've paid for that blogger's involvement in previous campaigns and there is no real "relationship".

The point I don't agree with is point 3 about contract length for a number of reasons, most of which I outlined in 2011:

http://tinyurl.com/bh2hstb

My experience is that there's a gradual move to longer contracts to align with the other agencies around the table when we're discussing campaigns - just as the ATL, Direct Marketing or PR agency expects a contract of 2 or 3 years, so should SEO agencies. That's not for fear of not getting results in 6 months - it's to allow for a long-term strategy to be put in place which often means business/change consultancy alongside the SEO work we're doing.

over 3 years ago

Sasha Hanau

Sasha Hanau, Marketing Manager at Search LaboratorySmall Business Multi-user

Fascinating comments. Obviously a poignant topic.

What terms do you optimise for (an/or why do you not rank top for them) is a good question and one most agencies will have come up against many times. I also believe the comment from Martin D about who owns the link profile at the end of an off-page campaign is really critical. Links should remain live at the end of a contract and no agency should be able to keep their clients by having access to (or threatening to) remove the links they have built.

Ed - I found your comment very relevant and can understand the points of view in your post. I think the contract length should very much depend on the needs (and concerns) of the individual client and also how competitive their market is. Ultimately though there should be some flexibility, I believe, from the agency pitching. They should be setting realistic goals in the first instance and be honest about what they think is reasonable for that specific site. This teamed with good customer service should retain a client. Having the flexibility is simply reassuring for a client who may have had their fingers burnt in the past.

over 3 years ago

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Jean

No-doubt these are very powerful, basic and comprehensive questions that every one should ask to SEO company who is going to hire a SEO firm. After getting the answers of these question it will be very easy to take a decision to hire a SEO firm.

over 3 years ago

Ed Lamb

Ed Lamb, Client Services Director at Propellernet

Sasha - I can understand the need for flexibility and we do, very occasionally, include 6 month break clauses in contracts. Where we do so, we explain the the client that we're going to ignore the break clause in terms of strategy - i.e. we won't favour short-term tactics only.

It could be that a world-beating piece of useful content is being produced by the client at our suggestion in month 2 of our contract, but it takes 3 months to develop and another month to get into the dev queue, etc, so the benefits of all the 3rd party/social recommendation for our world-beating content aren't felt within 6 months. However, that content is integral to step-changing the volume of business driven by SEO within year 1 of the contract and beyond.

over 3 years ago

Ben Potter

Ben Potter, Commercial Director at LeapfroggSmall Business

@Martin I have to say I do not agree with questioning why an agency are not ranking number one on Google for 'SEO'. I've always found our prospects much more interested in the rankings we have achieved for brands similar to them in similar sectors.

Added to that, only so many companies offering SEO services can rank on the first page of Google and just because they are it doesn't mean they are the most reputable or approach SEO 'in the right way'.

Finally, it is not commercially viable for most SEO agencies to even try to rank for the term SEO. Many years ago, my agency put a lot of time and effort to rank for SEO and found that the quality of leads was very poor (lots of companies looking for low cost, quick-win solutions).

My only additional comment related to the questions above, is that there is quite a lot of focus on what the agency has done for other people. Whilst this is important, I would want to focus the conversation on what we can do for the specific client. It is the role of a good consultative sales person to seek to understand the objectives and key business issues of the company they are speaking to. In turn, the conversation can be shaped according to solving those problems.

I don't think I have ever been asked about clients we have lost because I want the conversation to be focused on the specific needs and objectives of the prospect I am speaking to, supported by relevant 'war stories' and case studies where relevant.

over 3 years ago

Nathan Levi

Nathan Levi, Head of Performance Marketing at TotallyMoney.comSmall Business Multi-user

I think an additional question might be 'what will success look like in a year from now?' Measurement is a key challenge in the SEO industry. Partly because a third of keywords are encrypted in analytics tools, and it is nigh on impossible to measure the impact of offsite content. An agency needs to think about what success actually looks like and be on the same page as the client from the start.

over 3 years ago

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Martin Harrison

I agree with the vast majority of this, with the exception of your point about content writing. In my experience, not only as a supplier, but also as a former in-house SEO who has engaged with several large agencies, very few outfits have the capacity to create content internally at scale. Outsourcing is nothing to fear, as long as you have assurances over the screening of writers and solid style and TOV guides in place.

over 3 years ago

Nathan Levi

Nathan Levi, Head of Performance Marketing at TotallyMoney.comSmall Business Multi-user

Martin I'm afraid I disagree. I have experience of outsourcing content creation for SEO and what you generally lack by doing this is quality and being 'on brand'. No matter how tightly this is managed you can never achieve the level of quality that many brands require. I think the real question here is should you be working with an SEO agency, or a content agency that has SEO baked in. I would say the latter.

over 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Morning all,

Thanks for the article James. That's a good set of questions.

I'm with @Ben on not adversely judging an SEO agency for not ranking no.1 for "SEO". The whole point is you fine tune over time to be as visible as possible for queries that deliver value, not for every possible query, unless you're in the fortunate position of being so niche and have so few competitors that it's possible.

Plus the advent of personalised results means that you might not always be no.1 even if some people see you there.

And i'll add to the mix the fact that some agencies, especially the smaller ones, often lose track of their own website to focus on their CLients. An agency that delivers excellent results for Clients and puts them first could be a better bet than an agency that has a supremely polished website. As this article is hinting at, get to the detail, not just the surface gloss.

One thing I would challenge is the comment "In our experience and in the experience of clients who have come to us from other agencies that do this, this is a really bad idea. How can you control the quality of the work if it is outsourced, sometimes overseas? "

Actually, you can. I provide SEO services through my business but I'm not a specialist in areas like link building & technical audits. I have a network of freelancers and other agencies who I collaborate with to deliver a project. My Client will get an intro to the people involved to build trust and we work as a team. I am the single point of contact and co-ordinate all work based on an agreed project plan. It can work well. Having the right skills and resource is, in my opinion, most important - it's the same as people in different offices for the same company working together on a project.

Thanks
james

over 3 years ago

Martin Girdlestone

Martin Girdlestone, Head of Consultancy Services at Salmon Ltd

@James and @ Ben.
The purpose of my question is not to adversely judge someone for not ranking well. It is to see if they have a good/suitable response to a seemingly tricky question. If they squirm, then that's probably not a good a sign. You would both pass the test :-)

over 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Martin,

Actually that's a good technique - to find out if people are confident in what they are doing and have a genuine reason for a particular element of service provision etc.

Ah the cunning ways of weeding out the snake oilers....

If I ever get a call from someone asking me that question, I'll know who it is:)

Thanks
james

over 3 years ago

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