Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Agencies all claim the same thing: that they get your business “on the first page of Google” (or Bing, Baidu, etc).
This pitch alone is usually enough to convince a business owner to “try SEO” — which typically entails paying an agency a hefty setup fee and additional monthly “maintenance” (sometimes to the tune of $10,000 USD/month or more).
Unfortunately, many business owners have no way of knowing whether these SEO services are a good investment or not. Even after the initial phone consultation, there are often unanswered questions around specifics (“what is this agency actually doing?”) and success metrics (“how do we know if this SEO stuff is even working?”). Not many have the time and/or patience to dig into the weeds and figure out what’s going on.
For business owners, it all boils down to one question: “is my SEO Agency adding value, or are they taking me for a ride? Am I being ripped off?”
Here are five potential warning signs that you’re (seriously) overpaying for SEO “services”:
Sign #1: Your target keyword search rankings aren’t improving over time
The whole point of SEO is to appear higher up on the search results pages; if your keyword ranking isn’t steadily going up, something is seriously wrong.
While you can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to see rapid gains, there should be a clear month-over-month trend. If you ranking is flatlining—or declining—it’s possible that your SEO Agency is simply not doing much.
Here’s how to verify what’s going on:
- If you haven’t already, sign up for Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools and register your web properties on both services (it’s free)
- Start checking the Search Analytics reports on a regular basis to monitor your organic search ranking over time (for the keywords you’re interested in). Hint: the lower the “average position” number, the better (i.e. “position 1” means your site is the first search result)
- If you notice that your keyword ranking isn’t showing marked improvement over time, ask your SEO Agency to explain why!
While this is definitely the #1 giveaway that something is off, there are a few other ways to spot a less-than-honest operation.
Sign #2: Your search ranking is only great for low-volume keywords
Don’t get me wrong—ranking well for “long tail” (i.e. more obscure) keywords certainly has its benefits. For one, you’ll have a leg up over the competition if that keyword becomes more popular over time. Secondly, ranking highly for many low-volume keywords could result in the same amount of traffic as ranking decently for a broader term.
There is a problem, however, if your SEO Agency is focusing on improving the ranking for keywords you never agreed on.
Consider the following scenario:
- An SEO Agency approaches a New York area plumbing company with a promise to rank them #1 for “plumbing related keywords”
- A few months pass, and the plumbing company notices it’s only on the first page of results for keywords that are not even tied to purchase intent (e.g. “plumber meaning” or “how to be a plumber“). Meanwhile, it’s not even on the first page of results for the keywords that would actually drive additional business (e.g. “find a plumber” or “emergency plumber“)
While the above sounds an egregious case, it’s more common than you may think. As in any other large and unregulated industry, there are plenty that make a living by preying on unsuspecting clients.
Here’s how you can check the situation for yourself:
- If you haven’t already, sign up for a free Google AdWords account
- Inside AdWords, navigate to Tools > Keyword Planner (direct link) and perform a search for a broad keyword that describes what you sell in 1-2 words (e.g. “home insurance” or “pizza”). Make sure to limit your targeting to only those locations where your business is present. Also: flip the setting for “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms” to ON.
- Sort the results (keyword ideas) by their estimated average monthly volume. As a general rule, you should be trying to rank for keywords that have the potential to bring in the most revenue—these are almost always the ones where the “Suggested bid” (if you were to bid on those keywords within AdWords) is high. Note: “Competition” in this report isn’t referring to SEO competition, but rather to the raw number of advertisers bidding for that keyword (vs. the baseline).
In a nutshell: do your due diligence to make sure that the keywords your agency is trying to rank you for are actually (a) seeing significant monthly search volume in your area and (b) are tied to purchase intent.
Sign #3: Your site’s On-Page Factors aren’t absolutely, positively tip top
While no one (outside of Google’s search team) truly knows how their ranking algorithm currently works, there is a general consensus that two categories of factors play a large part in the calculation: content and backlinks.
While building quality “backlinks” (links to your site from other websites) is a core part of any SEO strategy, the first step almost always should be making sure that the on-page content is actually optimized for search engines.
Think of this stuff as the low hanging fruit for SEO: it’s easy to implement, and there’s an almost immediate benefit (you’ll likely see better rankings in days as opposed to weeks).
If there’s at least one self-proclaimed SEO professional working on your website, there is absolutely no excuse for:
- Missing (or duplicate) page titles
- Missing meta descriptions (the descriptive snippets of text that are displayed on search engine results pages)
- Missing (or poorly chosen) meta tags
- Missing image titles
- No internal links (i.e. links between pages on your site)
- Lack of content structure (via body tags such as <h1>, <h2>, etc.)
- Lack of search engine friendly page URL structure (i.e. https://admend.com/blog/sample-post/ is better than https://admend.com/blog/?p=123)
- … and a whole bunch of other, easy-to-implement on-page SEO techniques (additional reading: On-Page Factors by Moz).
While a business owner will probably not have the time to learn about all these things, there are ways to quickly check if your site’s on-page factors are optimized or not.
Here’s how you can perform a quick “On-Page” check-up of your site for free:
- Register for a free trial of Moz Pro (I’m not affiliated with them)
- Within the Moz Pro interface, Run a Site Crawl report for your site’s URL
- After 30 minutes or so, you’ll get a report showing all the obvious on-page issues—along with tips about how to resolve them
Bottom line: if you’ve been working with an SEO Agency for months and there are still glaring on-page issues, you’ve probably been taken for a ride. C’est la vie.
Sign #4: They use unnatural (“spammy”) link building techniques that court hurt your ranking in the long run
As mentioned earlier, backlinks (external links to your site) play a significant part in determining your search ranking.
Not all backlinks are created equal, however.
Examples of “good” backlinks: links from .gov or .edu domains, links from major publications (e.g. New York Times), links from authority sites in your niche (a link from Moz to this site would likely give my site a significant boost)
Examples of “bad” backlinks: links from auto-generated content farms, links from sites that have been caught openly selling backlinks, links from sites completely unrelated to your niche, etc.
As a general rule, you should aim to be building backlinks from high-quality, authoritative websites.
Don’t be tempted by “silver bullet” link acquisition techniques (i.e. anything that sounds too good to be true). Search engines are becoming scarily good at detecting unusual link activity—what may sound like a cunning “growth hack” today could haunt you in the long term if your property gets slapped with a ranking penalty.
Some obvious red flags:
- A sudden influx of links (dozens or hundreds of new links to your site in a short period of time)
- High proportion of backlinks (>2%) with keyword-rich anchor text (e.g. AdMend and this blog post look like typical links, while Performance Marketing Consultancy looks like an obvious attempt to stuff my target keyword in the link text)
If you have access to Moz Pro (alternatives: Ahrefs, Majestic SEO), you can run an Inbound link report on your domain to see all the links that are currently pointing to the site. As shown in the screenshot below, Moz will output a clean list of all external links—along with page/domain authority metrics and an evaluation of how “spammy” each linking domain is. While this is far from a “perfect” solution, it’s a quick way to get a sense of what’s going on.
Any reputable SEO Agency should be well aware of what constitutes a “good” backlink—and should only be building quality, relevant links to your properties. If you suspect they are doing otherwise, I recommend firing them immediately.
Pro tip: before working with any SEO agency, warn them upfront that you’ll be actively monitoring your inbound link quality.
Sign #5: The content pieces they produce are too short and/or don’t add much value to your site’s audience
There’s only room for a few websites on the first page of search results—this is truly a “winner-take-most” situation where only the most relevant content can ever claim a spot at the top.
This isn’t rocket science. If you want your website to be scored highly by search engines, make sure the content delivers real value to the reader (or viewer). Where possible, strive to produce content that is 10 times better than the competition’s.
The easiest way to produce “better” content is to think about what your audience would find the most valuable. Instead of merely entertaining the reader, aim to inform them—give out information that they would find useful. The more value you can create with your content, the more you’ll be rewarded for it by humans and search engines (robots) alike.
Sure, there was a time when uploading thousands of “spun” and “re-spun” 250-word articles was a legitimate SEO strategy. Before search engines wised up to what was going on, industrious marketers got away with such shenanigans—essentially passing off a low-effort content farm as a large, authoritative portal (don’t even get me started on keyword “stuffing”).
Those “Wild West” days are behind us, however. Search engines are highly sophisticated now, and are regularly updating their predictive models with additional signals. It’s getting harder and harder to trick any major engine into thinking your subpar content is any more valuable than generic filler text.
[Aside: I can almost hear some of you muttering, “do you even PBN bro?” Well, PBNs will get K.O.’d soon too, just watch.]
Smart marketers know that if you’re going to create content, you might as well focus on making it as valuable as possible. Unsurprisingly, there’s now a trend of writing very long (3,000+ word) articles—comprehensive pieces that are structured (and read) like a short book. In the majority of niches, you simply can’t add much value with just 250 words and a stock photo.
Unfortunately, many SEO Agencies haven’t quite moved on. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, they continue to pump out generic articles for their clients’ blogs (with the actual writing typically outsourced to a freelancer). Instead of getting to know a client’s business and producing “cornerstone” content that readers would find most valuable, they simply focus on meeting some minimum word count and churn out the articles as quickly as possible. Sometimes, these are so poorly written that they require a re-write by someone on the client’s marketing department.
If you want to ensure that your content is valuable, just take a look at the Top 10 search results for your target keywords. At minimum, aim to deliver more value than your competitors—and encourage anyone working for you (such as an SEO Agency) to do likewise.
Otherwise, continuing to churn out generic blog posts in 2018 is well and truly a waste of time.
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Bonus Warning Sign: They blatantly lie to your face about timing or capabilities
Here’s another obvious (but somewhat overlooked) sign: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Sure, we let marketers and “advertising people” in general occasionally get away with “harmless” lies. Examples:
- “We’re the best in the industry”
- “All our clients are absolutely in love with us”
- … and other pompous self-assertions of that nature.
Alarm bells should go off, however, when mere chest-beating turns into con-artistry. Claims such as the following should not be forgiven:
- “We know exactly how the Google algorithm works”
- “We can get you on the first page in a week”
- “We can trick search engine crawlers”
- “Our proprietary algorithms keep us one step ahead of search engines”
When you hear something outlandish, just ask them to clarify what they mean—and to provide a case study that demonstrates the claim. Chances are, this is where they’ll decide that you’d be “too difficult” to work with. Do yourself a favor and avoid these kinds of operations.
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I know I’ve made some bold claims of my own in this article—now is a good time to remind everyone that there are always exceptions to every rule. I certainly haven’t considered every edge case (far from it).
Even if you notice one of the warning signs, it’s not 100% evidence that you’re being taken for a ride. There may even be a legitimate reason for it. But I will say this: where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire.
I hope this short guide has given you some ideas about what to look for in an SEO Agency—or how start a productive conversation with your existing one.
Good luck out there! As always, feel free to reach out if you’re looking for assistance with your online ad campaigns.
P.S. I realize the on-page settings for this post (and blog) are far from optimized. It’s a work in progress!