The digital marketing industry is wildly unregulated.
There are high quality people out there that will do you right – and there are also some sleazeballs.
In no way am I trying to tarnish the SEO (or online marketing) industry, but I do want to provide transparent, useful advice to you as a small business owner.
So, with it being so unregulated…
The answer is: Education.
Know a little bit about what to expect, rather than go in blind hoping for the best.
Here are five ways for you to keep your prospective SEO company accountable while also getting the most out of your investment.
Before you start, there should be some form of written agreement, regardless if it is a signed contract or not.
A good service agreement will outline exactly what outcomes are expected, and who needs to do what.
Not all SEO companies will disclose exactly what they do each month, however there needs to be something in writing that will determine if the campaign was a success of failure.
This generally includes some collection of deliverables (tasks), goals, timelines and anticipated results.
If there is a guarantee the company will stand behind in the agreement, even better. That said, be wary of people promising #1 ranking positions.
A good example of an effective guarantee is ours (I know, so modest) – we offer our clients free campaign management if we don’t get X results in Y time frame. (We’ve never had to work for free!)
Ensure you have a service agreement in place with your agency prior to starting any campaigns that outline important aspects of the campaign such as goals, payments, deliverables, reporting frequency and duration.
Having clear expectations on reporting timelines and metrics is another crucial aspect of having a good relationship with your SEO company. With SEO, results don’t happen overnight, however all progress is measurable.
As mentioned, the reporting method should be outlined in the service agreement. You should understand what these reports are saying.
The three most common forms of reporting are task-based reporting, ranking based reporting, and traffic based reporting.
Some companies will include more than one of these into their reports. All three of these are legitimate reporting methods, however scamming can exist in them.
Here are some less than admirable methods to keep an eye out for.
With keyword based reporting, some agencies will remove key words that aren’t showing good progress from monthly keyword ranking reports. This is to hide the bad and only show the good. This is a big red flag, and unethical, in my opinion.
Make sure the same keywords are on your reports month over month, unless there is a specific reason for the keywords to change.
Another keyword based concern that pops up is when agencies use “long-tail keywords” to show results, rather than the seed keyword(s). A seed keyword is a major service keyword that generally drives the most traffic – eg. “Chicago Home Inspector.” A long-tail keyword example would be “Home Inspector in Chicago Illinois that does basements.” While you want to be ranked in Google for both, the seed keyword will drive a while lot more business than a big long-tail keyword like that.
Ensure if there are any agreements in place, the results are based on the seed keywords and not the long-tail keywords.
With traffic based reporting, some agencies will display incorrect information. What I mean is, they’ll include traffic sources (people visiting your website) from all sources, such as social media and direct website visits, not just search engines. Furthermore, you only want to have the local traffic reported. It generally doesn’t matter if someone from Florida visited your website if you only service Chicago.
Ask for traffic reports to include traffic from search engines and also from website visitors that are local to your service area. This can all be done from within Google’s free platform Google Analytics.
Another way to protect yourself is to ensure that you are getting access to the important accounts that they make for you, so that you still have access after you part ways.
This one is very common; however, it is less of a scam and more of a “I don’t give a shit and am not going to prioritize you” attitude by the company after you stop paying them.
Some very common accounts that will be made for you are Google analytics, Google search console, Google my business, Bing, and Google tag manager. Regardless if you continue to work with them, do your own SEO, or work with another company – you’ll need to have access to these accounts.
It can be a major headache to get these login credentials from a company you are no longer paying.
Ask to be made the “primary owner” or Administrator right when these are created – not at the end of the working relationship.
Talk to your SEO provider about what the end of the working relationship will look like, before the end of the relationship.
Do this at the beginning, when you’re not vulnerable. Ideally, before any money has changed hands.
They should have a system in place that delivers you the client all of the necessary login information that they created for you.
For example, let’s say an agency creates 100 local business directory citations for you.
Then, a few years later you end up moving. Naturally, you – much like many other inspectors – will change their “Google My Business” address to their new address.
If you don’t have login information to all of the local citations that they created on your behalf, you need to go in and request access and prove you’re the owner before you can make any changes.
This is very time intensive, versus the other option of simply logging in and changing the address and postal code.
For the uninitiated – having inconsistent business information like this floating around will harm your SEO – here’s an article we have on how to check your business information consistency. (Arguably one of the most important factors in SEO for “local” businesses.)
Simply ask them what their end of contract process is. If they don’t have one in place, that may be a red flag unless you’re working with a very new, or a very small company. This isn’t a deal breaker, but tread with caution and use your judgement.
One very important aspect of SEO are backlinks.
This is simply getting other websites on the internet to point back to your website.
It is one of the most complex areas of SEO and you don’t need to understand it, but you want to be aware of the methods used, and where you’ll be left when you stop paying the provider.
When links are placed strategically, rankings increase. When those same links are removed, rankings will fall.
Some companies will remove the links after you stop paying their monthly retainer. Others will leave them in place. You want them left in place.
At My Market Inspector we use 100% “white hat” links that remain intact after the client leaves.
Some companies will make their front-end offer of SEO very cheap, knowing they won’t need to uphold any links used during the campaign after you stop paying – they can simply “point” your old links to their new clients.
Non-paying old client drops, new client rises in rank and the SEO agency’s paying clients are happy.
Ask your SEO company if the links will remain in place after the end of the working relationship. Also make sure they’re not referring to social media or citation links either – ensure they’re high quality backlinks.
An SEO company’s favorite client is one that shuts up, doesn’t question anything and keeps paying their monthly retainer.
A lot of companies actually fall into this category.
Again, there is a lot of shroud around SEO and what we do, so it is easy to keep people thinking we’re working a lot harder than we really are. I’m not saying that you need to be pestering your agency every day or week – but if upward momentum stops on the monthly reports, question it.
If you do hit a ceiling and progress stops, there are two logical outcomes:
1) You stop paying and move on
2) You begin targeting new keywords
The sad fact is, most companies will continue paying thinking they’re “getting more SEO” while in reality, the SEO company isn’t doing much to benefit them anymore due to already being optimally placed.
This is always subject to the amount of competition in your area – if you’re in an urban area and 5 of your competitors are all actively optimizing for “home inspector Chicago” – you may want to continue targeting that keyword to maintain your footing.
After all, SEO is kind of like a game of “king of the hill” – so use your own knowledge of the competition before taking this last one into consideration.
Specifically ask your SEO provider when you will reassess the objectives of the campaign, and how that will impact any on-going investments. Timelines are great here as it keeps us digital marketers under pressure to get results.
Alright, those are six key areas that you should be aware of when hiring an SEO company.
Did I miss anything that you’re curious about? Let me know in the comments below.
Oh, and if you are hiring an SEO company, contact us to get a quote.
Andrew is an SEO expert and digital marketing enthusiast. His knowledge of SEO coupled with his social work background makes him an excellent candidate to help YOU get to the top of your industry's search engine results pages.