How to Choose the Best SEO Agency | Apollo Digital

Published on: 15/02/2021
Last Modified on: 15/02/2021

Today, SEO is widely considered a staple of any marketing strategy with 61% of marketers indicating that improving their SEO and online presence is a top priority.

But what is it?

In a nutshell, SEO – which stands for search engine optimisation – is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website by helping you to rank more highly in search engine results.

SEO doesn’t involve ads and bidding on keywords, it is all down to organic traffic – i.e. any traffic that you don’t have to pay for.

Chances are you’ve seen or heard this acronym being thrown around. But don’t mistake SEO for just another buzzword or technical jargon.

Unlike traditional outbound advertising channels, SEO is an inbound marketing strategy, centred around making it easy for your audience to find you when they want information or a product. Therefore the traffic to your site is going to be of a relatively high quality.

Although PPC ads appear above organic rankings, over 70% of searches result in a click on an organic result on the first page.

On top of that, on the first page alone, the first five organic results account for 67.6% of all the clicks and the results from 6 to 10 account for only 3.73% [Source: zerolimitweb] .

If you’re on the second or third page? You can kiss goodbye to organic search traffic.

If you think you are getting the best value out of your marketing budget through your Google Adwords campaigns alone, it’s time to shift that thinking.

Users trust Google’s algorithms, and as such are more likely to click on organic results than ads at the top of their page.

It is therefore unsurprising that SEO spending is predicted to surpass $80 billion this year.

Unfortunately, SEO is a long game, with the benefits of your hard work often taking months to show up. As such, it’s something you probably want to start on sooner rather than later.

If you’re new to the whole concept, don’t get confused between SEO and SEM. Often wrongly used interchangeably, they are in fact two separate marketing channels that businesses can use to reach their target audiences on search engines like Google.

Whilst SEO uses organic methods to appear in search results, SEM uses paid methods and therefore utilises different tactics and techniques.

SEO is a valuable investment that could make or break your web presence depending on how it’s conducted. Ploughing into it with the first agency you come across might get the ball rolling faster, but six months down the line you could still find yourself on page three or four on Google.

Because SEO comes down to the agency’s knowledge, experience and strategies – rather than throwing money at it like PPC – there is even more pressure to make the right choice from the outset.

In order to get the most out of your marketing budget and boost those leads coming in, it’s crucial to do your due diligence before choosing an SEO agency.

Below we take a look at the key things to consider before and during your search, as well as how to maximise that working relationship once things are underway.

Before You Start Your Agency Search:

With all of this information, you’re probably rearing to go. After all, potential customers are constantly searching and you’re still waiting to be found.

But bear in mind that there is no SEO agency that can offer a one-size-fits-all in terms of strategies, business size, industry verticals and experience in your field.

So work through the basics below to create a solid foundation on which you can launch your quest for the ideal SEO agency.

Define your goals and required outcomes, and set measurable targets to work towards.

Before you can even think about searching for an SEO agency, you need to sit down with your marketing team and possibly wider stakeholders or management teams to figure out what it is that you want to achieve.

Don’t bother setting aside budget to simply hire an SEO firm with the vague goal of increasing traffic.0

It’s important to set SEO goals that drive action, whilst also being realistic.

Expecting to jump straight to podium position within a short time is not realistic and sets you up for failure.

Equally, achieving #1 rankings is great but you have to consider how it will benefit your business. Instead you could look at driving qualified traffic to important or high-converting pages on your site.

Manage expectations, particularly when just starting out, and set yourself lower targets such as long-tail keywords where the competition is less tough.

Don’t set arbitrary goals based on what you think sounds good, such as “we want 250% more traffic within six months”. Ideally you want targets to be built off the back of historical data – where you’re at now, how you’ve progressed and where you want to go.

The agency will be able to help with this if you don’t have the in-house expertise.

All of this said, it’s important to aim high enough that you keep moving forwards.

A conservative approach is helpful in some respects, but you still want to try going after two or three high volume and highly competitive keywords in your industry or niche. You might not rank for them right away but it’s a good goal for a year’s time when your site is more authoritative.

You also want to create goals with measurable KPIs. If you can’t measure progress, then how can you know if the agency is succeeding?

Avoid ambiguity and be prepared to outline exactly what you’re hoping to accomplish with SEO.

You may want to rank your entire website or specific keywords higher, drive sales or simply multiply the number of qualified leads and traffic that’s coming in. Your business goals and outcomes will influence what types of SEO strategies and tactics you’ll need.

Once you’ve got this set of information, you can look at which services each agency offers and whether they align with your goals.

Remember that as you progress it’s important to constantly shift the goalposts.

Once you’ve made it onto page one, you can certainly pat yourself on the back but keep pushing to move upwards. How often do you (and therefore any of your target audience) go below the top three, or even top five results when you are searching? Statistics say just 4% of the time.

Lay out a realistic budget for the upcoming year and set limits

If your marketing budget allows, hiring an SEO agency is an amazing way to expand your business.

But again, before you commence your search, you’ll need to lay out a budget.

Considering a cheap SEO company can be an attractive idea at first, but ultimately it won’t pay off.

If they’re offering you their marketing services at a fraction of the price of competitors, there’s probably something missing.

At this point you’d want to ask questions around how they’re able to undercut other agencies and see some of their experience through case studies.

Highly-affordable agencies often lack the dedication and technical knowledge it takes to receive actual results.

That said, if you’re a small business, there’s no need to empty your bank account with a huge agency that will provide you a big account team and try to upsell additional services to you.

You simply need a small team of experts that know what they’re doing but also know how to work alongside you to achieve your constantly evolving goals.

The good news is that once you’re paying your SEO team their retainer fees, there’s no additional costs like ad spend.

Be realistic with your expectations around what SEO agencies can and cannot do or achieve.

Like we said above, if you recently launched your business or are just new to the SEO game, don’t expect your agency to have you taking the top spot for all industry searches.

They may be marketing experts but they’re not magic

Although they can directly influence your position in search engine rankings, there’s no guarantee that the influx of traffic will necessarily end in a sale or new client for your business.

Be clear on the type of results you’re looking for and what services you’ll require. The agency (or shortlist of agencies) will then pitch to you, explaining the way they work and how they can hit your targets.

The best SEO companies will be upfront if the targets you’ve set are unrealistic or unachievable within the contract length.

They might also be able to advise whether you need additional marketing channels to reach your goals.

Decide whether you want an SEO-only agency or whether you need broader digital marketing services.

You want to tie your SEO goals into your marketing goals as well as linking them into overall business goals.

Just like any digital marketing channel, SEO can’t prop your business up as a stand alone strategy. It requires cross-support to be effective and generate results.

When an assortment of relevant marketing activities are integrated and aligned towards a common sales or business goal, you can maximise the exposure of your messaging.

Areas of marketing that drive and influence good SEO performance include social media, email marketing, paid search, content marketing and PR.

If you don’t have the capacity or expertise to do these things in-house then it might be worth expanding your budget and finding an agency that can help out across the board.

Things to Consider Before Employing an Agency

Although finding the best SEO company can be a time-consuming task, the below pointers and guide will help get things underway.

Some SEO specialists might be the perfect fit for one company, yet far less suitable for another. Whilst one won’t necessarily be better than the other, their suitability will be dependent on your requirements.

Let’s take a closer look at agency characteristics and their importance to you.

Are they specialists in your industry?

Whilst some companies would prefer to see a plethora of clients and case studies spread across a range of industries, others would prefer an SEO company that are experts in a particular niche.

The easiest way to find this information out is by looking at their website.

Generally their case studies and testimonials will indicate whether they tend to specialise in any one industry, location or service line.

Bear in mind that it’s not at all necessary for them to solely operate in a single industry or vertical to run successful SEO campaigns.

Identify the techniques and processes they will use.

Unlike figuring out if they specialise in your industry, identifying an agency’s strategic abilities is near impossible from their website alone.

SEO is a complex process. If it wasn’t then you wouldn’t need an agency and anyone could make it to the top of Google.

The various subsets of SEO include:

They’re not different processes though and ultimately have the same goal: to make your website easier to understand/crawl by search engines, to boost your online visibility, and to make your site more user-friendly.

The exact techniques that the agency will use will be based on their assessment of your needs and business goals.

If you are a startup, an enterprise SEO agency might aim to attract, convert and nurture leads to improve your sales pipeline.

Whereas a B2B organisation might need help outranking competitors and taking more market share, or an e-commerce website could require specialist e-commerce SEO to optimise their website and get customers to follow through to purchase.

If you have specific requirements, it will be important that your SEO agency has the right skills.

Are they are data-driven?

Any reputable SEO agency (or any marketing agency at all for that matter) values data, analytics and results. They track and measure from day one and are able to report back regularly.

It is important to agree on a clear method of charting your progress once you get started.

Avoid the use of vanity metrics.

The agency should set specific, relevant and trackable SEO metrics that lead to your long-term marketing strategies and goals.

If they are just achieving a single number for vanity’s sake then it’s time to pack your bags and run.

With an array of technologies and programmes under their belt, agencies can provide all sorts of data. So much so that you could literally drown in it.

Therefore your agency needs to understands which metrics are the most important to your goals and outcomes.

Some example KPIs that are typically reported on include:

Unlike PPC it can be hard to provide exact ROI from week to week but you should request regular reports, with information condensed into something that you can understand and digest.

Do they have demonstrable experience?

Looking at an agency’s experience isn’t always the easiest task as their website is designed to sing their praises and showcase happy clients only.

It’s tempting to run a Google search of ‘best SEO’ agencies, but often these include companies that have paid to feature in the lineup.

When you first start out, have a look at online reviews, case studies and customer testimonials.

Start with the most recent ones and those most closely related to your business type and/or goals. Their recent work will demonstrate whether they are on top of current digital trends.

Good SEO agencies will have case studies readily on-hand and can pull together those that they feel are most relevant to you and your mission.

You could also look at how long the company has been in business, which can be an indication of their level of experience.

Set up a call or Zoom meeting and ask to see some numbers around key SEO performance indicators.

Due to customer confidentiality you might only have access to limited results but you’ll still get an idea of how good they are at their job.

If they say they don’t have the data then that is a giant red flag.

Instead, your most reliable source is going to be word-of-mouth recommendations and previous client references.

You could either do this by looking at client lists on the agency’s site or by asking them who they have worked for in the past, then set about making a few calls.

Past clients will be able to provide first-hand testimonials of SEO services as well as what it’s like to work with the agency themselves.

It might take a bit of extra effort but will go a long way toward giving you peace of mind before embarking on a long-lasting agency relationship.

The best firms generally have long-term customers who have referred members of their professional circle to the same service. On which note, you might prefer to simply ask other businesses within your industry who they use and if they’d recommend them.

Have they got the right certifications?

While Google, Yahoo and Bing have their own certifications for PPC, there is currently nothing of the sort in the SEO realm.

However, it’s still worth checking out which certifications an agency has, as it demonstrates their knowledge of and commitment to staying on top of search engine trends.

Are they mobile-optimisation savvy?

More than 50% of Internet users report surfing websites on their mobile devices on a daily basis and mobile search is on the rise.

Google has already switched to a mobile-first index, which means it uses the mobile content of a web page to determine its search engine ranking.

Mobile SEO also directly affects voice search, which is rapidly growing and mirroring the rise of mobile search. If you can keep on top of this, you are essentially future-proofing your SEO strategy.

Essentially, if your agency isn’t looking after mobile SEO, you risk having poorly ranked content.

As such they should run a review of your website to optimise content, fix faulty redirects/cross links, keep page loading times to a minimum and allow for a lightening fast website, optimise meta data, and the list goes on.

And that’s just as a minimum.

Make sure you ask questions around their mobile approach and ask to see examples from previous clients.

Will they employ impeccable keyword research?

Keyword research involves finding words and phrases that users are searching for on various search engines.

These terms are related to the products and services on your site and the most popular ones are, understandably, in the highest demand and thus the most competitive.

What you want to rank for and what your audience actually wants are often wildly different.

Rather than focusing on arbitrary industry keywords, your agency will do the research into what your target audience is after. From here they can use keyword data to hone those insights and deliver more successful campaigns.

If your agency doesn’t spend adequate time and resources on identifying the right keywords, your website and content within will be all wrong and your rankings (as well as your authority) will either stay the same or get worse.

Does their knowledge encompass all things digital marketing?

As great as it is, an effective marketing strategy shouldn’t focus on SEO alone. Consider SEO as a companion to your social and content-marketing strategies.

Therefore your agency should be looking at the bigger picture.

Back in the day SEO was all about putting the right keywords in the right places, throwing in a few links and waiting for the free traffic to roll in.

Many of the practices and methods have since changed. For example, Google’s 2019 BERT update put the pressure on SEO professionals to focus more on optimising content based on search intent rather than keywords.

Essentially, the onus shifted to serving useful, relevant and engaging content and sites to users.

Although you don’t want them to constantly upsell other services, if your agency treats SEO as a stand-alone project or function, it’s doomed to failure.

Ask your agency if they offer more than just SEO or take a look at their company portfolio to see how they tie various marketing strategies together.

Just like any digital marketing channel, SEO can’t prop your business up as a stand alone strategy. It requires cross-support to be effective and generate results.

You want to tie your SEO goals into your marketing goals as well as linking them into overall business goals.

Ideally you want to take on a team that can work on your SEO whilst simultaneously improving all aspects of your digital presence.

When an assortment of relevant marketing activities are integrated and aligned towards a common sales or business goal, you can maximise the exposure of your messaging.

Areas of marketing that drive and influence good SEO performance include social media, email marketing, paid search, content marketing and PR.

If you don’t have the capacity or expertise to do these things in-house then it might be worth expanding your budget and finding an agency that can help out across the board.

Another great way to gain insight into the agency’s wider digital knowledge is to take a look at their blogs, social media and research papers.

Subscribe to their email newsletter, follow them on LinkedIn and look out for their brand being referenced as an industry expert.

The company blog content will be an indication of their knowledge and priorities, and whether they’re consistently on top of trends.

This is also a chance to look at their tone of voice, as blogs and social media bring out the less formal tone of the business.

If they’re truly thought leaders then their company executives may have been asked to provide comments in news articles or share insights via blogs.

Does the agency’s working style and ethics match your requirements?

If and when you contact an agency’s previous clients, you’ll be able to glean whether they’re good fun to work with or a total nightmare.

Firstly you’ll want to consider how are their teams made up, who will be responsible for the strategy versus the day-to-day maintenance, and which members will you be liaising with.

If they’re a bigger agency with lots of clients on board, find out how long it will take for them to respond to your queries and implement requested changes.

SEO companies usually have references to their company culture and working style on their websites, so you can decide if their values and style align with your own.

Next you want to ensure you’ll be on the same page in terms of communication, meetings and your general working relationship.

They’re the ones with the time and knowledge to analyse extensive amounts of data and regularly tweak your site. As such you need a team that communicates clearly and fosters a sense of trust.

Because working with SEO is playing the long game, you could well be working with this firm for years to come. Without a constructive working relationship, both parties will struggle to thrive.

SEO agencies have been known to let go of nightmare clients who prevent them doing their jobs too!

Finally, take a moment to research the agency’s ethics. This is surprisingly important yet often overlooked.

You may have heard the terms “white hat” and “black hat” before, and these are worth considering here. If your SEO agency has a questionable code of ethics then they will likely take shortcuts to rank your website higher, putting your site and reputation at risk.

Some examples of unethical practise might include:

If you catch wind that the agency is utilising these tactics, avoid or sever the relationship with immediate effect as it will impact your site performance and/or how the audience interacts with your brand.

How to Get the Most Our of Your PPC Agency

Set clear goals and communicate your expectations

Like we mentioned at the start, you can’t undertake this journey until you know what you want to get out of it.

Once you have measurable goals and objectives, you can communicate them clearly to your agency of choice.

If you’re unsure of what exactly it is that you’re after, sit down with your own company’s marketing, sales and management team to seek clarity. After that you can sit down with the agency to communicate what you want.

Only look at companies that are going to be attentive and listen to your goals and objectives. It will be helpful to give them as much information as possible around your business, website history and target market.

On top of that, clarify that the ownership of all new and existing content, collateral and creative assets will be 100% yours.

Be clear about your budget

Before you began your search you considered exactly how much of your marketing budget you can afford to dedicate to SEO.

Only inquire about SEO agencies and packages that fall within your budget and don’t let yourself get sucked in to unnecessary add ons.

Ask about their fees and structures. Most agencies work with a retainer fee, paid monthly or in longer windows – for example the upcoming year – and guarantee a set number of hours from their team.

Others work on an hourly fee, and the cost will vary with the seniority level of each team member.

Just like you’d shop around for a builder, gardener or any other service, you should have some comparisons when searching for digital marketing services.

Don’t be embarrassed to make pricing one of the first questions you ask during the initial conversation.

Ask what their fees are, how long they expect you to commit for and what the process would be for canceling services if it didn’t work out.

Just remember that SEO strategies work in months rather than days or weeks, so you should commit to at least six or 12 months service.

However, it’s worth noting that low-cost SEO agencies may not properly adhere to Google guidelines and are therefore a risk to your brand’s reputation. Even worse, they might even incur Google penalties on your site.

With SEO you truly get what you pay for

Have one main point of contact, regardless of your dedicated team size

It’s important to have one primary point-of-contact with whom you can discuss any questions, concerns and strategic changes.

Having a whole team is great but being bounced around between individuals can really slow decisions down.

If your main contact is a senior team member, check that you will be able to reach them with ease rather than your questions getting lost in a daily barrage of emails.

Have regular check ins (but don’t micromanage)

Set up regular meetings for the agency to share updates around how your campaign is going  and discuss changes they’d like to make.

Here you’ll be able to ask any questions about what the reports are showing, seek clarification if something is unclear and let them know if your goals or priorities have shifted.

Don’t forget that they’ll need your input too, so don’t skip out on scheduled check-ins. It might even be worth occasionally bringing along someone from your management team to get the occasional update on how things are going.

On the flipside, don’t bombard your agency with emails or constantly request updates. SEO can a slow but rewarding process, so let the experts take the lead.

Let them do their thing and trust the process.

Be prepared to take on their advice and suggestions

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Whilst it’s great to be hands on and have regular check-ins, try to remember that you’ve hired an SEO agency for a reason.

They’re the professionals and once they’ve got all of the key information from you, you should trust them to make the right decisions for your brand.

After all, there’s no point going through this painstaking process to find the perfect agency if you don’t intend to loosen up on the reins.

Getting Started

Now you’ve got all the information you need to make the best choices for your brand or company, it’s time to get started on your search.

Just follow the steps below.

Make a list of your expectations and ensure everyone is on the same page

We know we’ve covered this one numerous times above but we can’t emphasise it enough.

Clearly laying our your goals and requirements is the building block for this entire process. It will also make it much easier to start the search process.

There are literally hundreds of SEO agencies to choose from. Each will have their own nuances and specialise in certain industries or campaigns.

Within your own company you also need to get relevant teams on the same page.

Sometimes management or board members can need a bit of convincing – particularly when the additional budget is coming out of their pocket.

Explain why your company needs to hire SEO professionals, rather than you managing the process, and be sure to include the positive impacts on your business.

Once they’re on board you can plan to sit down with the agency of choice and share everything about your business and goals to help them customise strategies and plans.

Be wary of unrealistic guarantees

If an agency is promising unbelievable results, then it’s probably because they’re not to be believed.

Agencies should be realistic with their claims and will avoid offering guarantees.

Even if they’re the best in the business, no one has the ability to guarantee rankings as SEO is a constantly evolving and ongoing strategy.

Search engine algorithms are beyond an agency’s control, even if they’re on top of digital trends.

This is why the experience and number of years that an agency has been in the business will go a long way in determining how effective the agency will be when new changes crop up.

Good SEO requires a deep understanding with the ability to constantly adapt and modify campaigns.

Come up with a shortlist

Now comes the time to start researching.

You could use an agency directory or Google SEO agencies in your locale. Make sure they are in the right time zone or at least have local hubs and teams that you can meet in person.

As we touched on before, your best option is to talk to people in your professional network and ask for referrals.

Whether that’s ex-marketing colleagues, previous employers or other businesses in your industry/vertical. Alternatively you could whittle down your list of agencies by reaching out to their previous clients.

Once you’ve built a sizeable list, make sure they meet all of your key requirements listed above or scratch them off and you’ll soon find yourself with a shortlist.

Take a deeper dive

This is where your due diligence and patience come in to play.

Set aside some time to check out each agency’s client list and case studies. Were they successful? What strategies did they use?

Explore their company culture and how they work, and investigate whether they are truly experts in the field by reading up on the content they churn out.

Do they tick all the right boxes? If not, do they at least tick the really important ones?

By perusing their portfolio you can get a sense of their style and what types of results they are capable of.

It will also become clear whether they can integrate other digital services with their SEO, including pay-per-click (PPC), content marketing, social media and web design.

As well as you getting to know them better, the agency will probably conduct their own deep dive on your business.

They’ll want to look at your company background, target audience, marketing requirements and goals, which will in turn inform what steps they take next.

The best SEO agencies won’t be able to turn around a quote within a few days.

They’ll need at least a week or so to delve into research and analysis that covers both your company and your competitors.

Learn about each agency’s methodology and ask questions

Get in touch with your shortlisted agencies and set up a meeting.

Ask if you can meet with the people who will be involved with running your account. Phone calls serve a purpose but meeting the team face to face will let you get a sense of whether they understand your business needs.

They will likely pitch you with a presentation around their strategies, including keyword research, and example campaigns.

After their dedicated research time and a meeting with you, they will usually share recommendations of what needs to be done to get maximum results.

This might be via email or phone or in a presentation format. They’ll also put together a personalised proposal or quote.

Sign on the dotted line

You’ve made it all the way to the finish line and this is the scary/exciting part. Just be sure to carefully read the terms and conditions before you sign the contract.

It will touch on the deliverables (though none of those awful guarantees, as discussed above) as well as fees, contract length and what is expected from each side.

It is best practice to get eyes on the contract from all relevant members in your team, particularly those who will be working directly with the agency.

Begin the onboarding and get ready to rank

It’s important to dedicate at least half a day to an onboarding session with your account team from the agency before work begins.

This is your final chance to share business details, historical data, tweak goals and scope out the project.

They will need access to some of your digital assets, including your website logins if they are to do any content or meta data work.

To maximise chances of success you will probably also want to allow them access to your blog, social media and analytics tools, as well as linking them up with members of your marketing team.

If you don’t trust them enough to hand over this information then you have to ask yourself whether you’ve chosen the right agency in the first place.

From here you have to have faith that you made the right choice and remind yourself that SEO isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. It will take time before you start seeing results.

However, you can rest assured that it is well worth the wait. SEO has a bit of a snowball effect and when executed correctly, things will just keep getting better and better.

So be patient and good luck!

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