SEO Companies, my experience.
It is probably the most important business decision you will make. It could literally mean the difference between a successful thriving business and bankruptcy. And yet, it’s the one decision most people make without taking the time to educate themselves on what it is, what risks there are, and what they should look out for. When it comes to choosing an SEO company, we all seem to throw caution to the wind and just do a Google search.
This behaviour is partly to blame for the bad name that SEO companies have these days. The online marketing industry is plagued with ‘SEO agencies’ that are there with the sole intention of taking your money for as long as they can before you realise that they are not providing results. We can’t really blame them. The demand is there and while there are people willing to pay for terrible SEO those companies will continue to exist and even flourish. Read this guide and avoid becoming one of those people supporting such companies.
I have decided to write this list of questions and answers to provide you with the best start when searching for SEO services.
There are hundreds of SEO companies. Some are asking for £300/month while others charge £10,000+/month. If they are offering the same, surely it’s worth trying out the cheaper ones first to see if they can deliver?
And that is, in a nutshell, where most companies go wrong. They assume that there is only one path to high ranking and hence, it makes sense to try out the cheaper SEO firms first. The problem is that studies show that most of the cheaper SEO companies use tactics that are blatantly against google guidelines. Applying this type of SEO on your site would produce no long term results at best and be devastating to your business at worst. The damage it can do to the trust of your site, in Google’s eyes, is long term and sometimes irrecoverable. It is important to ensure that your SEO Company does things with transparency and correctly first time. Falling into a Google penalty can mean years of struggling to convince Google you have learned your lesson. We made this mistake and it’s the one biggest mistake we made. I will try and explain, with hindsight, how not to make that mistake yourself. If you see suspiciously low prices, you have to ask yourself why.
Ok, so what would you say are suspiciously low prices?
To answer that you need to understand a little about the process of good SEO. To keep this guide readable, I’m going to cut to the chase. Assuming all else is equal, the biggest signal to Google that your site is better than your competitor is the quality of links pointing to it. (Note I said Quality not Quantity). The crux of your decision lies in how the SEO agency you approach creates those links. There are other considerations, but this is by far the most important one as this is what can make or break your business. Let’s get back to that question a little later. First let’s look at the type of link building that can be carried out.
So what are the types of links you are talking about?
a. Automated Links – Where the SEO will use automated tools to spam the web with all sort of rubbish links to your site. This can be forum spam, comment spam, forum profile links, pingbacks and a variety of other automated links that neither me nor you have ever heard of. This is pure spam and Google has a penalty specifically designed for this type of crap. Avoid.
b. Mass Paid Links – This is mainly links that are paid for in batches. The SEO will use a supplier of services such as mass directory link submission where the person will insert a link to your site on low quality link directories. Also against Google’s guidelines as these links aren’t natural and will eventually trigger a penalty.
c. Free site link farms – Your SEO will create lots of pages on free sites with badly written articles on your niche and link back to your site. Spam also.
d. Link Baiting – Creating stories, videos, content that goes viral and builds masses of links to your site. As these links are ‘editorially given’ these are natural and within Google’s guidelines. You will need an intuitive, imaginative team behind you to be able to not only come up with the ideas, but also execute them for best results.
e. Link Earning – Creating content which is above and beyond anything else on the web on your subject. Your resource should be so good that it is referable and people link to it naturally.
Yes, there are lots of others but you get the point. A, B and C are all automated and scalable meaning that your SEO can order them on a monthly basis from a service which more often than not originates in the Far East. They then blast your site with those links and hope for the best. You may actually see an increase in the beginning earning the SEO firm some misguided trust. Then, one day, you either stop gaining traffic or drop like a lead balloon. Welcome to Google penalty land. The total cost of such service to your SEO company is around $50 -$100 / month. (Approx. £30-70). They then charge you £300 and make a clear profit of at least £200/month for no effort whatsoever.
On the other hand, we have D and E. These are the ideal, sustainable way to build links to your site but unlike the previous methods, these are not scalable, they do not guarantee an exact number of links every month and they mostly require a whole team of people to achieve. This obviously increases the cost dramatically. All of a sudden, you need a team of people. People who are breaming with ideas, skilled researchers, skilled writers, skilled graphic designers etc. The quality of the links will be very high and these links will be completely within Google’s guidelines. Remember, today, quality over quantity wins every time.
So, in short, to answer the question about suspiciously low prices…
Be incredibly suspicious of services from £50/month - £700/month.
Be very suspicious of services from £700 - £1500/month
Be suspicious of £1500/month - £10,000/month
Note that the word suspicious appears on all price ranges. Keep in mind that although it’s definitely not possible to do great SEO for £300/month, it is possible to do terrible SEO for £10,000/month. A high price does not guarantee quality, but a low price does guarantee no quality.
At this point, I just want to say this. If you can’t afford anything approaching £1500/month, then you should look at other alternatives such as:
1. PPC – Not as good as Organic search results but immediate results and controllable/scalable.
2. Doing your own SEO – The trick here is not to get blindsided by all the various ‘black hat’ forums offering services that are tempting. Just use reputable sources for information such as MOZ (check out Rand Fishkin’s whiteboard Friday Videos. They are a must) and learn about the right way of doing SEO.
3. Joint Venture – This is a relatively new but wonderful way of getting access to first class, top end SEO and content marketing without spending a penny. Some SEO companies now offer this option for exactly the sort of people who just don’t have the start-up capital to invest in top class online marketing. If they like your business model, and you convince them of the potential of your business, you can come to an arrangement where the company will receive the required SEO for a percentage of the company. If this can be agreed, this is one of the best ways of getting good SEO for no initial investment. All precautions mentioned in this page with regards to finding the right company to work with still applies. Arguably, even more as you are in essence entering a partnership with them. Carry out your checks before you enter any long term agreement.
Ok, we have a healthy budget for SEO but what questions do I need to ask to ensure that I don’t blow it on a cowboy company?
The one-million-dollar question.
You will see lots of guides on how to choose the right SEO Company. Many have been written by SEO companies themselves so take them with a pinch of salt. These are, from experience, what I should have asked from day one:
1. Please provide me with at least 5 references of companies that you have been working with for at least one year but preferably more. – This question is a killer and will be the most efficient way of separating the grain from the chaff. Most companies will baulk at this question for the following reason; Low quality SEO companies do not have long term clients. Their clients mostly realised that they are getting nowhere within the first 6 months so they leave. In my experience, most will excuse this inability to show happy clients by saying their clients’ privacy is very important to them, or they sign an NDA with all of their clients or some other excuse. Be very certain, these are just excuses. When you do come across a company that is providing good results, they will be more than happy to share them with you. The only caveat which you should accept is that they would like to share the references with you as a last step in the process. This is fair enough as they don’t want to bother their clients with every Tom Dick and Harry that calls them for some advice. But make sure that they understand that you will not sign or pay until this one major requirement has been satisfied. And don’t bluff. Check those references. Make sure they are from real companies and not the SEO’s brother in law plumber or other relative posing as a client.
2. Please show me examples of links you have achieved for at least 3 clients – Another killer question. Here you are looking to see examples of actual content or viral campaigns created for the client site. You want to see high reputation websites like local/national newspapers and other authority websites within the niche. You want to see that the company is able to create content that is referred to from other sources and also that the company is able to come up with creative ideas for stories/studies/research which naturally attracts links. If the company can demonstrate several campaigns that have resulted in good quality links, then it’s a good one and should be in the running. If the company is avoiding this for any reason, be very suspicious and avoid.
3. Please show me examples of content you have researched and created for your clients – As above, you are looking for content that has been researched and is incredibly engaging. Please remember that creating good quality, engaging content on your own site is something you want to encourage. Your site is an important (if not the most important) asset of your business. Building it up with well-researched, engaging content is a way in investing into that asset. Knowing the difference between what is good content to just readable, unique content is the key here.
4. Please show me at least 3 examples of high competition and volume terms you have achieved good results for in a variety of niches. - If all of the above checks out, this is the final and most important stage. Proving results. Creating great content is a good start but if the SEO Company is incapable of getting that content under the noses of influential people like journalists, editors and bloggers then it will just remain great content without ever earning any good quality links.
5. Does your company contribute on any important forums, run any publicly made experiments/studies or received any acknowledgment from your peers? – This is a really interesting one that is purely my experience with many SEO companies in the past. I can honestly say that the ones that were active in the SEO circles were the best ones to work with. They were confident, showed great knowledge and were able to answer any question posed to them convincingly. A really good SEO company would run public experiments to continually prod the Google algorithms. It’s perfectly understandable that some of those experiments are not made public, but being able to show you well researched and widely accepted experiments and studies that have been made public should be treated as a massive plus point to that company. This one really separates the good from the bad.
Are there any tell-tale signs of a terrible SEO company?
Here are a few I’ve picked up on. I will update this article when think of others.
If the company does not explain how they get their links or if they explain it in a vague manner – Stay away.
If the company offers you link building packages – Walk away.
If the company uses Public link networks (PBNs), directories, comments guest blogging – Spam. Walk away.
Is the company a one-man band? – Walk away. SEO today needs far more than what just one person can deliver
When they show you ranking results for terms that no one would ever search for - i.e LOOK!!! We are number1 in Google for: [how to make chicken soup without chicken]. To make things worse, they don’t tell you the company name that those rankings are for so you can’t even verify those rankings are correct or just made up. Make sure the results are for competitive terms, the client website is shown so that you can confirm the results and do make sure you confirm the results!
Does the site offer a free website report or some sort of ‘Audit’ – In my experience, the majority of these are auto generated and it’s just used to scare you into believing your site is about to implode if you don’t sign on the dotted line immediately.
When you call the company and you can hear children in the background – Yes, I know, controversial. We all had to start somewhere BUT, please remember that you should treat your site as the most important asset your business has. You want professionalism all the way through. I’m afraid that experience shows that one person just can’t do all the work necessary to rank a site reliably any more. Whether they have their 3 and 5 year olds in the background helping or not.
A blog that has not been updates in months? – stay away. If they can’t be bothered to keep their own blog updated, would you trust them with yours?
Is the company really a web design company who just offers SEO as a convenient sideline? – This is almost like an afterthought and having used two previous companies such as these in the past, I can tell you that they tend to have very limited and out of date knowledge. If you are looking for Web design also, then finding a primarily SEO company that offers web design can be a good idea as they would then be able to build your site with SEO in mind from the outset.
These are just pointers of stuff that I have experienced. None are set in stone and I will add more as I come across them.
Should I be wary of contracts?
This is an old question but still relevant. The traditional view (and you can read this on pretty much every site offering SEO services with no contracts) is that there is no need to tie you into a contract. The logic dictates that if the SEO Company delivers as they promise, you will want to stay with them anyway so there is no need for a contract to be in place. However, now that you are aware of the difficult and complex process that is involved in good quality SEO, it’s easier to understand that some type of content needs a far longer timeframe than the month which a paid invoice covers. For example, let’s assume that an SEO company has a client who is a cosmetic surgeon. The SEO Company has decided to run a study on the way that a tummy tuck changes the lives of 5 participants. To make the study as high quality as possible, they need to be following the progress of these 5 participants for at least 3 – 6 months to see how the surgery changed their life. If the cosmetic surgeon is in a 1-year contract, it gives the SEO Company proper scope to carry out such long term studies. Otherwise, it limits what they are able to do to only projects/campaigns that can be completed in one month. So as you can see, there is some big advantages to contracts but they need to be entered into carefully. Only after you are 100% sure the SEO Company you choose are the right open. I do know that some of the more serious companies are happy to offer a 3-month trial where you just pay monthly and experience their abilities before asking you to enter a contract. These are in my opinion a good idea and should be considered.
So what is your personal experience with SEO companies?
Vast. I own 6 businesses and over the last 13 years, from a very quick calculation, I must have spent just under a cool £1,000,000 on SEO. I have developed a 6th sense when it comes to SEO. I can normally tell, within 1 minute of talking to someone if the company I reached is any good or not. In fact, I will go as far as to say, slightly arrogantly, that I probably know more about real SEO then the vast majority of SEO companies out there. I have had the pleasure of seeing scammers, pretenders, and real experts at work. I am now with one amazing SEO company. I have been with them for 3 years now and they will remain nameless. I did not wish to use this article to point fingers at online marketing companies but rather as a method of providing you with the most important tool you can have in spotting those dubious companies; Knowledge.
Any final advice?
Yes. Treat SEO like an investment. Do due diligence and make sure you have covered all of the angles and possibilities. Learn enough about the process of SEO so that you can learn to judge the performance of a company or understand what to look for when looking at references. Good luck.