How to Find the Right SEO Agency

SEO, or search engine optimization, is big business. And because is it an essential part of the online strategy for most brands it would stand to reason that it is well-defined and understood, right?


SEO is one of the most misunderstood online marketing channels your business has to embrace and adopt well in order to succeed. In fact, very few small businesses have a firm grasp on what a good SEO process is, and how it truly helps them build online traction.

Yet, the need for quality SEO services for brands continues to rise in terms of importance. A 2014 study by HubSpot shows that 70% of searchers click on organic results instead of paid results, and a whopping 60% of them select one of the top 3 results. Indeed, the need for high quality, brand-driven SEO is as important as it has ever been.

Because of the high investment costs of SEO and length of time it takes to generate results (SEO is a long term marketing process; not a quick fix) there are plenty of under-trained, under-experienced and plain out shoddy companies and providers in the SEO space claiming to be leaders.

Making sure that you spot these companies is integral to your online business health. The wrong provider can give you misleading advice; damaging your brand and potentially causing harmful long-term damage to your online rankings in Google and Bing. Time and time again I am called to audit and diagnose long term ranking problems for business owners, and in almost every instance the problems are due to an underqualified SEO working with the brand.

Here are 24 ways to know if your provider is solid, reputable and will get you results, or if you should be running for the door.


Pre-SEO Engagement

1. The campaign or strategy was not articulated or defined at the onset. The job of your potential provider is defining the SEO strategy for the campaign, focused on maximizing SEO efforts over a period of time (typically 6 or 12 month increments) If they cannot do this accurately, you run a massive risk of a failed and ineffective campaign. Ask for a basic 6 month strategy at a minimum.

2. Your business goals were not discussed.
In order to run a successful campaign all marketing partners need to fully understand what the goals are for your company including your ideal buyer, target demographic and scope. If they do not ask for this information, or cannot define your market, they have a much higher chance of targeting the wrong buyer, which will be ineffective in closing customers.

3. The company offers a ‘pay as you go’ service.
Pay as you go marketing services don’t work. There, I said it.

There are a lot of marketing companies trying to offer pay as you go services in order to increase customers, but the fact is they are doing you a disservice by offering a one month commitment. Proper SEO takes months, and you are worth the time to educate so that you understand what it takes to perform in that channel. All of them will require a partnership – a commitment. They need to support their staff and build stability in order to service your brand well.

With the right amount of due diligence you should be able to identify quality marketing partners with a good track record. If you haven’t, you probably would prefer a month-to-month commitment.

4. The company offers you a “package”. As difficult as it is to believe there are plenty of SEO providers offering “packages” as an SEO solution for brands. It’s absolutely counterproductive to your brand and leads to poor results. Why?

Your brand, the history of your online marketing efforts, vertical, budget, assets, resources and content all play a considerable role in the cost of an SEO campaign. Every business is different, their needs are different, and each comes in at a different place in the journey. In my opinion, any company who offers you an SEO package isn’t considering your brand enough to put the effort forward to digging really deep and building an effective customized solution to meet your needs.

5. The company didn’t collect background information or research on your brand.
SEO is a function of online marketing, and a lot of companies forget this crucial point. It’s not a standalone service you hire a company to apply to your website. It doesn’t exist in a bubble.

SEO efforts always align with your larger marketing and branding strategy. If they don’t, they aren’t supporting your brand. Think about it: would you hire a Marketing Specialist in-house who didn’t take the time to research your company and brand?

6. The company cannot demonstrate real results in competitive verticals. 
It’s all about results, and in this case, a demonstrated track record in competitive verticals. Ranking in Google for an obscure 5 phrase keyword like “professional crochet supplies in Fargo” won’t cut it and will leave you short on results. Ask the company for a list of clients in high or even exceptionally high verticals that they can reference, preferably in case studies.

7. You are guaranteed position one in Google. No one can guarantee position one in Google or Bing. They can guarantee page one rankings, with the right amount of effort and campaign strategy.

As well, SEO has changed, and the most effective strategies are no longer about shooting for one primary “trophy” keyword. The most effective SEO strategies are focused on ranking for a wide range of relevant phrases including your primary phrases while answering questions and solving problems within your industry and consumer base. This builds trust, loyalty and brand allegiance.

8. Content strategy and development such as blogging is not discussed. Every great SEO strategy for a brand requires content – real, helpful, quality content that educates your ideal buyer and peers. Google and the search engines thrive on fresh unique content, and rewards brands that adopt content generation as a core pillar of their brand so be sure that you are always adopting new ways to build great content that represents your brand.

9. Previous SEO work and history is not discussed. It’s crazy to me the number of businesses we consult that tell us companies that they interviewed for SEO did not discuss previous efforts, inbound links and penalties. The fact is that one month of bad work can really mess up a 6 month campaign. As a potential provider of SEO services I want to know the history of work done so that I can be sure the work will stay on time, on budget – and any potential marketing company who wants to work with you should be asking the same.

10. The company is a “National Seller”. Stay away from National or International SEO companies. Most times these types of companies are simply corporations relying on big budgets and experienced sales people to drive results. Typically they encourage you to move to a website hosted on their platform, then most times setup monthly recurring billing and then walk away. You will likely never receive the attention and customized solution you need to get results.

11. The company has no visible accreditation in online marketing.
There is no truly recognized SEO accreditation, but there are some online marketing and business accreditations that make sense such as the Better Business Bureau, Google Partners, Hubspot Inbound Certification and Digital Analytics Association. While these don’t guarantee results for you, they do help to separate qualified companies that took the time to complete an accreditation.

12. The provider is a friend or relative who has built “a few sites”. We all have that friend or relative that will help do some work for free or for an extra-large serving of turkey dinner.

There is nothing wrong with getting help, especially in the early stages of online marketing, if they have real experience in competitive verticals. But as the axiom goes, “you get what you pay for” and anyone working for free or for dinner will likely have limited time and bandwidth to help your business achieve goals.

13. You are promised a total number of links per month. Natural link development is difficult, and with the onset of the Google Penguin algorithm launched April 24, 2012 more and more brands are being swept into a volatile issue of backlink problems. Any company that promises you a set number of links per month is fabricating or scaling link building, which makes their tactic artificial and prone to red flags by Google.

A link penalty can result in a 6-12 month derailing of your online SEO efforts, so it’s very important to understand what type of links the provider intends to build, and precisely how. The best (and safest) links are built by promoting well-written content around your brand.

14. The company doesn’t ask for, or build buyer personas. Buyer personas are simply documented representations of your ideal buyer. Without understanding your ideal buyer it’s very difficult to target your marketing efforts – including SEO. If you haven’t built buyer personas yet now is the perfect time to get started.

15. Your current social media strategy is not discussed. 
Social media presence and sharing of your high quality branded content impacts SEO performance. Not only does active presence send signals to search engines about your brand, but sharing content opens up the potential of attracting inbound links to your content. (Assuming the content is high quality and relevant) So it is important to focus on having some level of presence and sharing in the larger social media networks where they apply to your business. Be sure to optimize your social media profiles.

16. You are told the company has a special relationship with Google. Believe it or not, we receive calls weekly from online marketing companies cold-calling us trying to pitch us marketing services. Almost without fail those companies highlight to me in their pitch that they have a “special relationship with Google”. Let’s be really clear, Google is a business and rarely has “special arrangements” with anyone. They do offer a Google Partners program which is designed to help accredit agencies that refer their clients to their AdWords program.

That set of programs does require some study and testing to complete, but apart from being a recognized partner and receiving some perks and benefits, that relationship won’t help you improve your results.

During the SEO Engagement

17. Your current SEO company charges by you on a monthly “package”. If you are with an SEO company that has you on a standard monthly “package” for SEO then walk away. Fast. Read point 4 above for some additional ammo which will move you to a moderate sprint.

18. Communication is spotty and not consistent. The heart of effective professional marketing services is timely, helpful communication. Your current provider should be giving you bi-weekly updates, at a minimum and clear, transparent monthly reporting. They should have defined communications preferences and schedule with you at the onset of your campaign and should consistently commit to it.

19. Reporting is spotty or inconsistent. Transparent and valuable reporting is very important in online marketing campaigns. It shows you where time was spent, for what purpose, and what the results were. It helps you measure what results you attained, and what areas were challenging and need improvement.

20. Work isn’t tracked by the hour or outlined as line items. I’m a big believer of time tracking hours. As a business person I get giddy when I learn about companies that are also big believers of time tracked reporting. As a business person I want to know where my marketing budget was spent, and why. That’s online marketing 101. Your provider should be building these reports for your monthly.

21. You aren’t given insight into link development efforts. We touched on this above, but it is VERY important that you get insight into link development activities that your current provider is engaging in. Ask for specifics, and a report showing specific links built within the last 3 months. If you have concerns over link quality and your gut instinct tells you something is wrong, reach out to a qualified online marketing company to get a second opinion.

22. Your SEO company talks about “keyword density” and SEO copy. Keyword density and SEO copy are things of the past. Google and your consumer are searching for natural and highly educational or entertaining content.

While it is important that your content is targeted around a set of keyword phrases, it is not necessary to achieve a particular percentage of keyword density in content in order to rank better. The quality of the content itself, how much the content is shared and linked to, and length of the content are all larger factors in overall ranking, so focus on making the best possible content for your visitors.

23. Your SEO company doesn’t specialize in online marketing. I will probably get lots who disagree here, but the fact is in this age of highly competitive verticals if your current provider doesn’t focus primarily on SEO or Inbound Marketing then it’s likely they will not be able to get you the results you need.

There are definitely exceptions to the rule. But if your provider speaks more in their messaging about web design and web development, and seems to offer SEO as an alternative service then you should question if they are experts in their vertical and have the experience and training to build a highly successful campaign for you.

24. You are penalized or significantly drop in rankings. It goes without saying that if you suffer a massive drop of penalty while with an SEO company then it is likely that they have raised some red flags with Google and it is time to make a switch. Usually the problem falls into one of three areas – low quality/duplicate content, nefarious on-page SEO practices or artificial backlinks.


In short, making sure that you spend a considerable amount of time and due diligence researching the right agency using the right qualifiers is very important to the success of your online marketing efforts. If you have any questions be sure to drop us a line.

Good luck in your search!

Have you had any experiences, or insight you would like to share? Feel free to share in our comments section below.

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Todd Mumford