Investing in SEO for your business is a great way to tap into a huge digital pipeline of leads and sales. In the long run, capturing organic search traffic is low-cost, high-return territory. But SEO can be a vast undertaking for companies with limited internal resources, or small businesses where the owner already wears many hats.
Hiring an SEO agency or consultant can be daunting, though. There are many horror stories of snake oil salesmen and promise-the-world, deliver-nothing agencies.
So, how do you ensure that you make a wise SEO investment for your business? Great question! Follow along…
First Things First
Before we get heavy into the process, let’s set some initial expectations that you should carry into your quest for an agency.
- SEO is not an instant gratification game. Desired results will take time – months, even years, depending on your vertical and competition. If you hire an agency, one year should be the minimum amount of time you are committed.
- Hiring an agency or consultant opens a two-way street. Yes, they are working on your behalf. But you will be asked to do things, too, like implement content, redirect URLs, modify your XML sitemap, etc. You have to have a plan to execute on-site work. If requested changes aren’t made, results don’t happen.
- Communication is everything. SEO can be technical, but it can be fun, too. Be excited and ask questions of your agency or consultant. On the flip side, the SEO consultant should be excited about your business and your success, too.
If you are on board with those three starting mantras, then you are ready to begin the hunt.
Step 1: Know Your Website. Love Your Website.
Ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, said, “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” Setting the stage for a successful SEO partnership begins with a reflection on your business goals and processes. Do some digital soul searching and ask yourself:
- “Are we in love with our website?”
- “Does our site excite us?”
- “Do people who find our current site now convert?”
SEO is a complement to what already exists. The goal is to bring more people to the site so your law of averages can amplify. If your site is lackluster, doesn’t convert, or feels outdated or confusing, SEO won’t provide the results you want. At that point, you should be starting with a site update or redesign.
During a redesign process, though, you should still move forward with looking for SEO agencies. Bringing an SEO expert into the redesign can ensure your site has best practices for SEO in place before launch.
If you love your site (yay!) and are ready to start ongoing SEO, compile as many resources and answers pertaining to both your website and your web analytics platform as possible. Go through this checklist, creating a spreadsheet or document for easy reference:
- What platform is our website built on? (e.g. WordPress, Shopify, Magento, custom, etc.)
- What is our content management system (CMS) login information?
- What is our Google Analytics login information?
- Who makes changes to our website, such as technical changes to site code?
- How does our company prioritize and manage website work, such as a web support ticket system or Basecamp?
- Do we have the ability to add new pages or sections to our website?
- Can we customize our page metadata, or is it dynamically created?
- What would a content / site update approval process look like, and how long would it take?
- Is our website mobile-friendly/responsive, dynamic serving, separate URLs?
Take away: Knowing all this information will ensure you are on solid ground to begin on-site SEO work. Any SEO agency you work with will thank you for being prepared. This info helps both teams align expectations and execute efficiently.
Step 2: Internally Define Your Business Goals & Audience In Context Of The Web
You should clearly define what the outcome of ranking higher in search engine results, and subsequently sending more traffic to your site, will mean to your business. A great way to approach this is to understand the actions on your website that hold the most value. Having more than one is OK. Examples are:
- Newsletter signups or email list opt-ins
- A PDF download
- Purchasing a product or subscription
- Scheduling an appointment or making a reservation
- Driving phone calls
Further, having accurate information about your audience demographics is crucial. Age, gender, and interests are excellent starting points. To go further, understanding how they find you online – referrals from affiliate sites, strong brand name, large social media presence – will help your agency-of-choice develop a more targeted strategy. Having data to work with at the start will create a stronger launch.
Take away: Knowing who your customer is and what actions you want them to take will help you align your goals with your selected agency, creating both focused work and measurable objectives.
Step 3: Have An Idea Of What SEO Work You Need
By no means do you have to be an expert in SEO before going into pitch meetings or calls, but you should make a concerted effort to understand the basics. Here’s where you should start:
- Understand the differences between off-site and on-site SEO.
- Know if you need national or local SEO campaign objectives, or elements of both.
- Keyword research, such as what keywords matter and which you want to rank for.
- Understand basic SEO elements, like title tags, meta descriptions, and H1 tags.
- Know how your pages look in search results by running a site: operator search in Google. See if title tags and meta descriptions are too long or short, truncated, and/or duplicates.
- Understand what your backlink profile looks like by going to www.ahrefs.com, and do the same for your competitors.
Most SEO firms or consultants will want to utilize both on-site and off-site efforts to push your site to the top. Knowing where you stand in terms of basic weaknesses or strengths will help expedite and focus the efforts of your agency. Being able to point out specific problems, like “our site title tags are a mess,” will help your agency turn your observations into action items with speed and precision, producing results faster.
Take away: Preparedness goes a long way to forging a working partnership. You’ll learn a bit about how SEO works, making you more informed. Your agency partner will have a preview of hurdles or opportunities before an in-depth audit happens.
Step 4: Hear Multiple Presentations Or Pitches From Agencies
After completing your internal research, start looking for SEO agencies.
If you are in a specific vertical, searching for specialized agencies who operate in that vertical is a good starting point. Agencies may specialize in local SEO, medical SEO, B2B SEO, Ecommerce SEO, or other areas, so try weeding out some noise. Another great option is asking for recommendations from respected peers or professionals. This lets you obtain some details about approach, communication, cost, and results before getting in touch.
After you have a few options in play, reach out to set up a presentation from each agency as to why they deserve your business. Don’t tell the agencies that you are hearing multiple presentations. It’s my opinion that each agency should have their chance to present a sound assessment with your business as the focal point, not the lingering presence of being one of many. Now, if you want to turn up the competitive heat, that’s your prerogative.
Here’s what you can expect in the presentation phase:
- The agency will want to do research about your business, your competitive landscape, and your website. This may take several days to one business week.
- You will be asked about your goals, your intended reach, and/or target demographics.
- They will want to know what is working for you now and what your pain points are, and, in a perfect world, what you could snap your fingers and change to align in your favor.
- Your competition will come up, both actual and perceived.
- There will be a discussion about what other marketing channels or strategies you pursue and the effectiveness of those channels.
- They will want to know if you’ve done SEO before and what your experience was.
- You will be asked what your budget is, or how much you are looking to invest in SEO.
- The presentation will be done either in person, via phone, or through video conference.
- You will be shown weaknesses, strengths, a comparison to your competitors, an action plan and timeline for deliverables, examples of reporting, likely a case study, and a quote for the project cost.
Here’s how you should interpret the presentation:
- You’ve done your homework, too. So, how does the agency incorporate your needs and wants into their presentation? Did they listen? Or is it a one-sided agenda?
- How does the consultant or sales rep make you feel – at ease, pressured, etc.
- Do their numbers and key points align with your research or findings?
- Do their action plan and deliverables align with your values and objectives?
- Does the presentation incorporate creative, personalized ideas – or a templated structure?
- How do they present ROI, goals, analysis, and reporting?
- Do they discuss who will be doing the work and who will be communicating with you?
- Does the cost fit your budget?
Take Away: By being prepared, hearing multiple presentations, and knowing what to look for between the lines, you will be able to distinguish who matches up best with your business on all fronts.
Step 5: Don’t Commit Until You Hear The Who, What, How, & Why
After the presentation and consideration phases, you should have a front-runner. Before going all in, arrange one final conversation with either the consultant or sales rep. For this conversation, you should first let them know you are impressed and you think there’s a fit, but would like to know a few more details. Come prepared with a few experiential questions designed to extract stories.
- Who have you produced the best work for, in your mind?
- Who in your client roster reminds you most of our business?
- What did you do for that client to help them?
- If we commit, how do you envision our next six months of progress?
- Who can you introduce me to via email as a reference to your agency’s work?
Take Away: This type of interaction goes beyond a sales process. It’s the essence of human communication. It creates a natural, honest, transparent dialogue. If you feel good after this conversation, you can rest assured that you are embarking on a working partnership.
Step 6: Maximizing The Kickoff – Reset Expectations
The kickoff meeting or call is one of the most important interactions of the relationship. You will typically meet your team for the first time – the people who will be in the trenches with you, executing the work for your business. This is one of the rare times in life both parties have a second chance at a first impression.
As the client, you are able to reinforce the goals and objectives that are most important to you. You are essentially a pro at this point, having completed your research and gone through multiple informative pitch presentations.
Similarly, the team, or SEO manager, who is on your account will already be briefed by the sales rep and have a thorough understanding of your account – pain points, strengths, competition, keyword targets, and site capabilities. There should be a clear, strategic, technical and creative plan presented for deliverables, reporting, goals, and communication.
SEO is as many things as it is not. It is highly technical. It is not mystifying smoke and mirrors. It is a methodical, duplicatable process that can lead to measurable results. It is not a magic button to leads or sales. It is a sound, long-term marketing strategy. It is not guaranteed.
If you follow these steps as a business owner or marketing manager, you will first have a firm understanding of SEO, and second, be in a position to make a quality decision about how to invest in an SEO agency to execute work on behalf of your business or company.