Unfortunately, a very large portion of SEO firms out there are terrible (I’m talking complete garbage). SEO has earned a poor reputation as firm after firm violates Google’s guidelines in one way or another and gets another business penalized overnight. The sad part is that these firms are destroying companies who think they’re doing the right thing and are working very hard to grow – these companies have no idea they’re paying for their own demise.
Take The North Face for example, a highly reputable well-known brand name. Well, earlier this month their SEO agency was caught manipulating Google Image Results using Wikipedia.
As you can imagine, this can be pretty frustrating for the true white-hat SEO firms out there that are driving real, sustainable growth for clients. So what can we do? Well, we can help inform potential clients of what to look for to separate the good guys from the bad guys. Below is my list of the 5 most obvious signs of a bad SEO firm.
1.) The Firm That Says They Do “Everything”
I want to make this abundantly clear – SEO is not a project, you can’t just “SEO your website”. SEO is a living and breathing thing that touches almost every department in your company. Website design? SEO component to it. Conversion Optimization? SEO component to it. Customer service & reputation? SEO component to it. You get the point.
Any SEO firm that can do “everything” either looks at SEO in a silo (which is a clear sign of an amateur SEO) or they’re a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Look for an SEO firm that has an ability to offer a pure consulting package, meaning they have a package where they simply inform on what your company should be doing to maximize SEO as opposed to only executing. Ask them to touch on how they see SEO and what areas of SEO they would consult on. For example, we break SEO in 6 buckets that can be easily explained and visualized:
You can easily tell by that screenshot that we’re looking at a wide variety of things, not just meta tags. Which brings me to #2…
2.) Obsession With Meta Tags
Look, Meta Tags “can” still be important, but they’re not nearly as important as they used to be. An agency that’s bombarding you with meta this and meta that is either proposing it because it’s an easy fix and it’s all they know how to do or they’re an outdated firm that hasn’t studied SEO since the early 2000’s.
Meta tags can help define what the page is all about and shift the query mix a page is eligible to rank for (the “theme” of the page), but these days they have little to no impact on actual search ranking. Meta keywords aren’t even used anymore (except as a spam signal for Bing), the meta description can help CTR but doesn’t directly influence ranking, and there’s only so much you can do to perfect those Meta titles.
It’s useful, but it’s only one part of an overall SEO strategy.
3.) The “First Page of Google” Promise
Aye yai yai, this is the worst. Every single time I hear that phrase my palm immediately covers my face as I shake my head side to side. Check this out:
This is a legitimate screenshot from a website I just found that’s somehow still in existence in 2019. It’s as easy at that, give them $215 and they’ll rank “your website” on the first page of Google!
What do they mean by “your website”? For what keyword, something 15 words long with no search volume? This is such a manipulative, scummy tactic but unfortunately people fall for it all the time.
The common misunderstanding here is that while we track keyword rankings, domain authority, search visibility, etc. at the end of the day what matters is traffic and ultimately revenue. An SEO firm’s goal should be to grow your business and make you more money. That’s what matters.
Avoid link buying schemes, companies who guarantee the “first page of Google”, and those who claim they’ve got “secret data” on the algorithm. They don’t, you’ll be better off moving on and looking for an SEO firm that knows what they’re doing.
4.) Stock Template Audit
Another big red flag is a stock template audit. If the SEO firm you’re engaging with turns around their free audit in 15 minutes during the pitching process and it’s filled with advice that isn’t personalized like “257 title tags are too long”, you can expect their actual SEO plan to not be tailored to you.
Every business is so different, and thus an SEO strategy should be tailored to each specific client. While there are some best practices that can be recommended to most clients, it’s what isn’t “stock” that typically separates your SEO strategy from your competitors. Everybody is optimizing their title tags these days if they’re hiring any SEO agency. But are your competitors writing really unique and compelling content? Are your competitors adding a dynamic module to the website to integrate relevant blog posts or reviews to category or product pages? Are your competitors optimizing their Time to First Byte?
A truly knowledgeable SEO firm will take you beyond the basics.
5.) A Poor Website
This seems so basic but it’s so often overlooked – dive into the SEO firm’s website! Read their content. Do you find it interesting? What brand voice do they use? Do they sound knowledgeable or is it just marketing speak everywhere? When you see them in a Google search result, does their listing look better than the others?
Pro tip: go to www.semrush.com and enter in their website. For free you can see how THEIR website is trending in organic traffic. A disclaimer here is that many agencies don’t spend a ton of time on their own SEO (admittedly we’ve grown so much we fell into the trap of neglecting SEO as a growth tactic for Digital Position) but it’s still something good to look at. If they’re advertising who they work with, plug THOSE websites in and see how their organic traffic is trending!
For example, we work with Fleet Feet, a national running shoe store. If you enter in their domain in SEMRush, you see this:
This is free, public information. I’m not divulging anything here that you can’t already find out for yourself. Use SEMRush to take a quick peek at the companies the SEO firm is working with!
Overall, my intention with this post is to help educate others when looking for an SEO agency. At the end of the day, SEO is all about collaboration. Your SEO team should be an extension of your marketing department. Communication is vital, so find yourself a partner that values these things and SEO won’t just be a gimmick but the lifeblood of your online business!