Hiring a search agency is a complicated decision and a major commitment.Alongside the maturity of search marketing as an industry, we are seeing a lot of commoditization between agencies and consultants.
Buzzwords like “full-service” or “specialists” are common on websites, in pitches, and out in the wild.
The fact that we now have so many agencies, consultants, and practitioners who have been doing SEO and PPC work for decades – plus the relatively low barrier to entry for new agencies, consultants, and freelancers – means there is great variety in viable providers.
What should you be looking for in your choice of search agency?
Here are nine factors to consider when deciding which one best suits your brand’s unique needs.
1. Process & Methodology
Any great SEO or PPC practitioner or firm will have a process and approach to how they do their work.
You definitely want to learn about it.
Take notes on things they talk about and how they stay current with changes in search algorithms and advertising networks.
One of the risks of working with an agency that throws around buzzwords and technical terms is that they are using outdated methods.
You may want to search the tools and terminology used to make sure it’s current and relevant.
Another risk is that they are good at talking on the surface about the subject matter, but lack the depth to execute a strategy beyond optimizing some tags and copy.
You definitely want to see a sample plan to know how they will organize their work.
Look for recent examples of measurable results for others, as well.
You need to have confidence that they are on top of their game and aren’t going to always be playing catch up or putting out fires when working with you.
2. Level of Customization
A challenge that remains regardless of who you partner with for search marketing services is the intangible nature of the work product and service offered.
It’s easy to say all the same things or even the “right” things to win a contract.
How much time has each prospective search agency spent asking about your business and goals versus telling you what their solution is?
We want our search agency to have a process and plan (see above). But we don’t want the off-the-shelf or one-size-fits-all plan.
Even if they are the top agency for your industry, press to find out how much of the plan is custom and tailored and integrated into your goals and business metrics, not simply focused on their metrics and process.
3. Verifiable Track Record
Don’t be shy in asking about clients, requesting case studies, checking references, and reading reviews.
A search agency’s history and track record can say a lot.
One year may not be at the same level as the next for a number of reasons such as scaling too fast, poor hiring, high turnover rates, or shifting focuses.
Look for recent use cases and ask each agency what makes a good partnership and what doesn’t, in their opinion.
Ask what they believe the greatest challenges may be in your engagement.
Ask for common reasons that PPC or SEO engagements don’t work.
What you’re looking for here is a certain level of honesty.
This process can provide valuable retrospection on whether your brand is a good potential fit for this particular agency, too.
4. Stability in Service
SEO takes time and is an ongoing process.
Great paid search campaigns build and scale over time, too.
Plus, the learnings and integration of both SEO and PPC can provide meaningful insights.
Sure, an agency can tell you they’ve been in business for a long time.
Dig deeper, though.
How long have they been doing search optimization?
What are their client retention rates over time?
What are their employee retention rates?
Also, what is their focus?
Hopefully, search is a major part of it and one that they are committed to for the long term. If they are in growth mode, make sure they can articulate what happens to your account as they grow.
5. Credentials and Qualifications
Certifications and credentials are often a given or minimum.
Most search agencies will display the Google Partner badge and be able to talk about their certified analysts.
Press to learn more about which specific team members you’ll be working with and their level of experience and training.
Small agencies might give you one analyst.
Larger agencies might have a team approach.
Regardless, you don’t want your company’s search performance limited by the experience or ideas of one or two people.
Dig into who you will be working with and whether they act as an extension of your team or simply provide a service or commodity.
6. Attribution & Measurement
You’re likely going to measure the success of the agency relationship partnership based on performance.
Early in my career as a search marketer, I learned a difficult lesson about not going deep enough in the measurement of my successes. I was happy so long as search metrics were improving and looking good.
In a couple of cases, however, as I sat across the table showing my green numbers and graphs that were going up and to the right, I hadn’t integrated my reporting deep enough to know that those conversions were all crap.
In fact, none of my metrics mattered as no new business was generated.
Make sure you understand what level of reporting to expect, how deep the agency will go in terms of integrating with your sales or CRM data, and if they can close the loop to attribute performance to their efforts.
The last thing you want is to get six months into a campaign or relationship with an agency and not know if it is working or not.
You definitely want to like and be able to relate to the people you work with.
Search (especially SEO) can require a great deal of agency/client collaboration.
What are the expectations of both parties?
Will you be working with the people implementing and optimizing?
Or, is there some level of account service or project management?
Who is your primary contact?
Getting a clear definition of roles, responsibilities, and having longevity in those relationships is important.
If we’re investing in people to help work as an extension of our team and they are performing, we probably also want to like working with them along the way, too.
In my experience as an agency leader, communication is often at the root of troublesome search agency and client relationships.
No agency and no person is perfect (this goes for the client-side, too).
However, much can be done to prevent mistakes and issues.
When hiring a search agency, understanding the lines of communication, roles in communication, and communication tools on offer is critical.
This ranges from the use of email, Slack, phone, texts, project management systems, and more.
It’s important to find the right fit and methods for communication.
Equally as important is to ensure that communication is planned and flows well.
In most cases, I have found that more communication and agile work is best.
The days of spending a week to create a fancy deck and present monthly to clients are gone.
It seems wasteful to sink a bunch of hours into a formal presentation.
Make sure the agency is professional and has things buttoned up, but isn’t stuffy and overly formal.
You do not want to pay for hours wasted on unnecessary presentations and pitches after the contract is signed.
Building on the less formal, yet professional mantra noted above: you want an agency that wants to be part of your team.
That might sound as cliche as the word partnership but push for understanding into how badly the client wants your success.
Hopefully, they understand that your success will lead to theirs.
Silos are long gone in search marketing now.
Collaboration is key for timely approvals, content planning, sales data integration, and ongoing feedback.
I don’t know many clients who don’t care to know what is happening and to just get a few check-ins per year.
Make sure you know what the level of collaboration will be and how the agency sees you in terms of being a partner or for team integration in the effort.
Hiring a Search Agency is Worth the Time & Effort to Get It Right
The truth is, not every agency is a good fit for every client.
A search agency might have a good depth of technical knowledge needed, strategies tailored to client goals, and great communication.
But if they don’t tick all of your boxes, you need to keep looking.
My wish for you is to find the right fit by taking care to properly consider the factors that will make for a successful, profitable, and enjoyable long-term partnership.