SEO is tricky.
I know that it makes perfect sense that you’d hire a reliable and reputable SEO agency to get you more leads, sales and customers (don’t say rankings) – after all, that’s probably why you’re reading this article. Yet the key words here are reliable and reputable, and, sadly, there are many SEO firms, both in Australia and overseas, that simply don’t measure up.
Unfortunately my industry has developed a very poor reputation over the past few years. The only way I can put it is that it’s a bit like photography, there’s an incredibly low barrier to entry. I could easily buy a camera today and call myself a “professional photographer” and it’s exactly the same in our market but with an ever growing number of ‘digital marketing gurus’.
But you and I know that the difference between a point and shoot and someone that understands apertures, ISOs, lighting and shutter speed is huge.
But truth be told, very few SEO agencies live up to their own hype.
In fact, I’ve seen businesses decimated and seriously hurt after hiring the wrong SEO agency and the reason I’m writing this is because I don’t want that to happen to you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to fear you. There are some great SEO companies but there are probably 2x or 3x in crappy ones who will use shady techniques to boost your rankings quickly. While these techniques may work in the short term they almost always backfire in the end when Google catches on.
As a business owner you want to know that you’re building your business on strong foundations, the last thing you need is to wake up one day and to see that the growth you built for your business is now suddenly gone, that’s a very real scenario.
How confident are you about your SEO company? If you’re reading this article, and you’ve already hired an agency, then it’s likely your gut instinct is telling you that something isn’t right. I’m going to help provide you with some indicators of good vs bad and if you’re still confused then just reach out to me and I’ll happily provide a quick video review of your site and give you my personal thoughts.
Signs Your SEO Company is Hurting You
If your SEO firm offers cookie-cutter solutions and offers opaque answers when you ask about the process, run. Here are four red flags that should send you straight to the door:
1. Private Blog Networks
Quite frankly, this one really grinds my chain, but a large majority of some of Australia’s largest agencies are using them and some are even open about it.
Let me explain, a Private Blog Network, otherwise called a PBN, is a network of sites that are under the full control of the digital agency.
Basically the way they work is that agencies will buy up expired domains, that have existing domain authority (i.e. have some power), and then build out basic websites with them that they can use to then link to their customers websites. These networks are against Googles Terms of Service which is why they are often hidden or spread across many different hosting environments to avoid detection.
When it comes to running an agency, finding links for your customers is always one of the most challenging and time consuming activities which is why agencies are always looking for shortcuts where they can to save time and increase their margins. For some agencies, it’s taboo to discuss but for others they’ll happily tell you that they’re using one. It’s your responsibility to ask the question.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to say that the technique doesn’t work, it does work and it can be highly effective. But when you use PBNs to build your business it means you’re building on shaky grounds, if Google catches on then your results can quickly come undone. It’s not uncommon for businesses to wake up one day and find that all their traffic is gone.
Using a PBN is a bet like investing in stocks for an unknown startup, you could make some easy money or you could lose it just as fast.
2. Hundreds of Article and Directory Submissions, Forum Comments, and Bookmarking are Promised
How can anyone deliver on quality, when they’re so focused on quantity? 700 directory submissions, 553 articles, and 3500 forum comments are the very antithesis of quality. This is a sure fire way to spot the worst type of SEO you can engage with.
This is something that is very common in the spam SEO emails that I’m sure you receive in your inbox everyday. It’s more often the type of service you receive when working with an overseas agency but aussie agencies can do it too.
Automated and spammy crap like this will not bring you new customers. Even worse? Google hates this kind of garbage and considers it to be the poster child of “webspam.” When you’re caught – and you will be – your site will drop like a lead balloon. Your site might even be de-indexed, which means you may have to start all over again with a new website because it’s so difficult to get it reinstated.
When it comes to link building always remember that less is more. You’re far better off having ten A grade highly relative links than a thousand directory submissions and forum comments.
Here’s my methods for determining a quality inbound link:
- Does the website have high domain authority?
- Is it relevant to the client site that I’m building?
- Does the site have quality content or does it feel spammy?
- Are their backlinks from a quality site or from spammy ones?
- Does the site actually get any traffic?
- Does the site appear to have had any penalties applied?
- Are there any major drops in traffic in tools like SEMrush or Ahrefs.
- Is the site indexed in Google?
- When was the last page indexed by Google?
There are all ways you can check the quality of links being built and it shows that an agency cares when they aren’t just interested in building every possible link.
2. You Have No Idea What They’re Doing
This is for those that are already engaging an agency.
SEO can seem like it’s cloaked in mystery. Since it often takes months of effort to pay off, you might wonder what your SEO firm is actually doing with the money you’re sending over. Understandable.
I speak to tonnes of business owners and a large chunk of them are absolutely clueless as to what their SEO agency is doing. They mindlessly pay the invoices without any expectation to know what or where their money has been spent. This normally results in future realisations about just how much money they’ve lost and how little work was done.
Quality agencies or freelancers will be able to walk you through the work they’ve done, which may include:
- An SEO audit
- An overview of what they’ve changed with your site
- Provide you with detailed work summaries of the work they carry out
- Provide you with accurate performance tracking
- Provide you with performance tracking dashboards that highlight leads, sales and other important conversions.
- Show you the links they’ve built for the month
A good SEO company will describe what they’ll do for you and how they’ll do it, for my customers i’m more than happy to jump on a video call and walk them through, in as much or as little detail as they need.
3. They Don’t Ask for Access
If I work on your website then I’m going to need access to do my job properly. I’ll ask for things like access to your Google Analytics, Webmaster tools, FTP/Cpanel and your Google My Business at a minimum. Without having access to these accounts, it’s like a surgeon conducting a procedure before you’ve made it into the surgery.
How can an SEO “expert” craft and implement any kind of strategy for you if they don’t have access to key tools? It’s obvious – they can’t. Which means they could be engaging in spammy practices or even worse, not doing anything at all (it happens).
While many aspects of SEO, such as offpage and link building aren’t immediately visible to you, there are many that are such as on page and content marketing. If you’re not seeing any changes to your site, and your agency isn’t explaining the work they are completing, then it should be seen as a big red flag.
4. Your Rankings Drop and/or You Get a Manual Penalty
A sudden traffic drop could be a sign of a problem. For example, when Google does their periodic algorithm changes, sites with shady SEO are often hit. Sometimes, they drop hundreds or thousands of positions overnight. And in some cases, they may even be de-indexed by Google.
You do not want this to happen. A manual penalty is also a bad sign. You may be notified by email, and it will show up in Google’s Webmaster Tools. Because there are thousands of tiny changes made by Google on a regular basis, they might not be obvious. This is another reason your new SEO agency would want to review your Webmaster Tools – to assess if something like this exists.
If you recently hired a new SEO agency, don’t panic – it might not be their fault. However, you do want to let them know what happened so that they can investigate.
You might want to ensure that you have a Google Search Console account and ensure you receive any alerts that Google sends to you. Don’t worry, not all of them are a bad and Google is known for having a lot of false positives (incorrect alerts) so a good agency will be able to help you to differentiate between good and bad.
5. They Aren’t Doing Anything
The issue with most agencies is that SEO is a very hard service to scale, it requires a huge investment of time in most industries to get results.
As an agency scales, taking on more and more customers, it means that they become stretched and only have time to focus on customers that need the most attention. It’s because of that we often find agencies might do a lot of work upfront, when you come onboard, but then once you’re seeing results that begin to ignore your campaign and focus on others who need it more.
It was only recently we saw this with a client we acquired who had lost thousands of links just before they came on-board.
Very little work had been completed over the past two years after some very strong results upfront. The agency had been using a PBN and for whatever reason a large number of links were dropping off causing significant instability.
This is a snapshot from Ahrefs which you can use to get an indication of the links being built and whether your link profile is improving or declining.
Signs Your SEO Firm is Helping You
No one expects you to be an SEO expert. That’s why you’re outsourcing the work.
However, it is your job to know a little bit about what makes for a successful SEO campaign so you can make a decision about hiring the right SEO company.
We’ve focused on the negatives but let’s talk about the positives now.
1. They Focus on Your Site Content
Instead of mindlessly spamming the internet with crummy, keyword-stuffed content and spammy links, a good website focuses on quality content and becoming an authority.
This might seem strange, but I could care less for keywords and rankings because I know that if I continue creating great content then my site will inevitably rank for many keywords.
I focus on using quality content to attract customers with buying intent and building traffic to attract my ideal audience. Google doesn’t want to rank a five page website, they want to rank an authority website.
Consider a best selling book for example, it’s unlikely that a five, ten or even thirty page book would become a best seller because it’s impossible to have any depth on a topic with such a small number of pages.
A good agency may also suggestions for improvements for your existing, which may include:
- Adding content to specific webpages (like your homepage or services pages)
- Modifying the site structure to improve visibility on certain search terms
- Optimizing all site content
- Changing site design to improve conversion rate
- Building an ongoing content strategy
Today’s SEO is about so much more than just keywords and backlinks but for some reason many businesses owners are fixated on it. Great onpage and content is an essential part of SEO these days, links are pointless if you don’t get this area of your site correct.
2. They Provide Work Reports
A Good SEO agency will be very transparent, they’ll happily provide you with work reports, videos and live dashboards so that you can track and understand exactly what work has been carried out on your site and how your campaign is performing.
This comes back to my frustrations with rankings, a rankings report leaves you utterly clueless about how your SEO is performing. Who cares whether you’re 2nd page for a key term, what matters is whether your organic traffic and more importantly your organic leads are increasing over time. Ranking reports however can highlight that Google is starting to see your site more positively as good SEO will have a positive impact on your search visibility.
Each month you should know what work is being completed for you so that you’re more aware of what your money is paying for and that the changes being made are moving your campaign in the right direction.
Remember, SEO is not an overnight strategy. Too many business owners want short term results when you should be playing a long term game. Don’t be surprised if after three months your results haven’t drastically changed. However you should know what is being completed and how that aligns with your targets and time frames.
3. You See a Boost in Rankings, Traffic or Leads
By now you know that my overview is that rankings suck.
This might seem unusual for the owner of an SEO agency to be telling you this, but hear me out.
If you’re an owner that’s fixated on small subset of keyword rankings then i’m sorry, but you’re failing to see the big picture. Rankings are a byproduct of successful SEO, they are a metrics you can be use to determine success but should never be the only factor.
You see, SEO isn’t just about rankings, what you are actually trying to do is achieve more leads and sales. When it comes to organic, you need to understand that your customers are at different stages of the buying journey which means fixating on a small subset of keywords means you could be missing out on a much larger pipeline of potential customers.
These stages are part of what’s called “The Buyer’s Journey.” This journey covers:
- becoming aware of a something (“I want to take a trip”)
- consideration (“where will I go”)
- comparison (“what’s available”)
- decision (“let’s do it”)
What most customers often do do is focus on the “decision” phase or those high competitive keywords that all of your competitors want to rank on too. However when you implement things like site structure and a sales focused content marketing strategy you begin to increase your traffic more quickly and create much larger brand awareness by being position on search terms across the buyers journey.
A good agency will be able to highlight a boost in your traffic, search visibility and your organic leads as your campaign matures.
What You Need to Know (and Steps You Need to Take)
1. Get Referrals
Check with other business owners to find out who they use and the results they’ve achieved. While every SEO strategy will be different, other businesses who have great long-term results from their SEO company can be a good place to start.
Sales guys know how to target your pain points and make their service look incredibly enticing, it’s your job to use referrals or their customers to know whether that is true or not.
2. Be Patient (and Realistic)
SEO takes time. Don’t expect miracles within the first two or three months. It can take six months or more to see tangible results. If you’re coming onboard with an agency make sure you’re determined to stick with it and know that it’s the 6 – 12 month campaigns that often reap the greatest reward.
However, at the same time, don’t just blindly pay a monthly bill without paying attention to what’s going on.
As mentioned above, a quality SEO company will make recommendations and do work each month to move you forward toward your goals. Be very ware of long term contracts especially where they don’t come with a referral or significant research first.
Also, SEO takes people hours, which means it will cost more than you might think. Too many business owners expect top positions on Google for $500/month. That is not realistic. Think about it: if the first place position could be had for so little, wouldn’t everyone do it?
3. Ask For A High Level Audit
At Pixelrush, we take all of our customers through a detailed strategy presentation which highlights things like our case studies, our processes but more importantly it walks you through a high level audit of what we feel is currently wrong with your site.
Don’t expect a 30 page report but know that a company that wants your business will be willing to put a bit of work up front to gain your trust and provide you with an indication that they know what they’re talking about.
If you’d like a review of your site then get in touch with me and I’ll happy put together one of these presentations for you, or even audit your existing agency, and let you know some of the key elements that are currently holding your site back.