SEO guru and founder of Backlinko, Brian Dean, recently published the results of an interesting study, done in collaboration with Northstar Research Partners, about the state of the SEO-services industry.
They gathered data from 1,200 business-owners and decision-makers, from businesses with fewer than 100 employees. They asked questions like:
How much are you spending on SEO?
Where are you finding service providers?
Why did you choose one provider over another?
Why did you stop doing business with a provider?
Obviously, as a purveyor of SEO-services (along with other comprehensive digital marketing services) we are interested in the results of this study.
The results and the breakdown of the study’s methods sharply illustrate, with data, what we already knew.
They are many substandard SEO companies serving unhappy customers, giving the entire SEO industry a bad reputation.
With that in mind, we have written this guide to help you hire the right SEO firm that will make you happy. We will cover:
What an SEO firm should be able to tell you before you hire them
How to help your chosen SEO firm deliver and exceed your expectations
Get high-performing, verifiable ROI from your SEO budget
But first, a little background.
Many So-Called SEO Agencies Take Advantage of the Fact That Most Owners and Business Decision Makers Don’t Know What SEO Actually Is
According to Dean’s study:
27% reported that they “...find SEO to be confusing and unclear about what services [the provider] offer[s]”
25% report that they “...are not sure what [they are] really paying for with SEO with SEO.”
23% “...feel like SEO companies are very unreliable.”
24% “...don’t think SEO is worth the money for my business.”
So, what is SEO?
SearchEngineLand.com defines SEO as:
SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” It is the process of getting traffic from the “free,” “organic,” “editorial” or “natural” search results on search engines.
This process, simply described above, involves an evolving set of variables that aren’t always immediately clear. Additionally, effective SEO doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It usually touches many other aspects of online marketing, including but not limited to:
Technical SEO that overlaps with web development
Content marketing that overlaps with copywriting
Design and user experience that overlap with web design
Link promotion (or link building) that overlaps with social media
Local SEO overlaps with multiple other areas
A great SEO company is like a private detective. We investigate your current situation in order to uncover deficiencies.
Then, we are like a doctor, and we prescribe an SEO strategy that will cure the deficiencies so that your company’s website and digital presence is elevated on search engine results pages.
If an SEO firm is not following a similar process, uncovering the issues that are holding your business back, and making a custom solution, then they are probably ripping you off.
Substandard Providers Charge Just The Right Amount to Avoid Regular Scrutiny
According to Dean’s study, the average cost of SEO services, paid by those surveyed is $497 per month.
Those that spend less than $500 per month, also report the highest level of dissatisfaction with their SEO provider.
We know from our experience, that $500 isn’t much to work with if you are expecting actual results in the form of new clients and revenue.
However, $500 *is* an amount that many small businesses will spend on a monthly basis without thinking too much about it, nor paying too much attention to the results.
Some SEO agencies leverage the fact that most business decision-makers don’t understand SEO, plus, the fact that $500 per month is a small enough expense to avoid regular scrutiny, and they sell their clients something called “SEO,” whatever that actually turns out to be.
The study also found that a whopping 43% of those surveyed were purchasing SEO services from their web hosting company as an add-on. We assume that the entire SEO buying process consists of ticking a box on a web host’s online order form. There is little-to-no exploration nor diagnosis.
Many of those surveyed were so unclear about what actually constitutes an “SEO service,” that the researchers ultimately excluded those panelists from the final reports because of the confusion.
In this common scenario, there is little-to-no diagnosis made, and it is unclear what “SEO” services are actually being provided (or if they are even what your business needs). However, the SEO company reaps an ongoing $500 fee until the client comes to his or her senses.
At an average cost of almost $6,000 per year, that is a significant blind purchase.
It is no surprise that, of the businesses using a web hosting company for SEO, only 18% report being extremely satisfied with the services rendered.
Never buy SEO unless the provider can provide these three things:
A comprehensive report on how your business’s website and digital presence is currently deficient.
How the SEO company is going to remedy those deficiencies.
A ballpark timeline on when you should start seeing results, keeping in mind that SEO results take time.
What are Your Goals and Why Aren’t You Reaching Them Now
A good SEO company will start with two steps:
Uncovering and exploring your specific goals
Uncovering why your website and other digital assets aren’t delivering on your goals right now.
The answers to those two questions start the SEO marketing strategy building process.
Uncovering Your Specific Goals
In Dean’s study, 28% of the panelists indicated that business growth is their top priority; 8% indicated that they are just seeking to maintain current business levels; and, 64% would like a balanced approach between aggressive growth and simply maintaining.
Your SEO company needs to know what your goals are before they develop a strategy. The more specific the goals, the better.
Ideally, you should be able to state your goal as a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based (which is the SMART goal framework).
An example SMART goal could be something like:
Increase monthly revenue from new customers, sourced from the company website, by $120,000 by the end of the year.
For our clients that can’t already articulate this SMART goal, we help them through the process.
If aggressive growth is your top priority, then you need an aggressive SEO strategy. If you are just trying to maintain, then your SEO strategy would be much different (and less expensive).
Uncovering Why Your Website and Other Digital Assets Aren’t Delivering on Your Goals
You probably wouldn’t be engaging an SEO company if you were meeting your goals. So, we assume that there is some kind of deficiency.
A good SEO company can’t tell you how much their services are going to cost until they know what you are trying to make happen and what needs to be overcome.
Sometimes, when we first analyze a new client business’s website and digital assets, we discover that a web design company has done the client a disservice by leaving technical issues on the site that impede SEO.
Even worse, sometimes, that same web design company is also, ostensibly providing that $500-per month “SEO” service.
The remedy to this situation is usually a tedious but effective technical SEO strategy that unlocks your site’s content.
In other cases, good content is lacking. Valuable and engaging content, that satisfies the user’s search queries, is critical for high search rankings. B2B SEO agencies, like Bridges, tackle this issue regularly with high-quality content marketing services.
Sometimes, content is poorly focused. If your company website is generating a lot of visits (or traffic) but few new leads and customers, it might be that your site content is not attracting your ideal customer.
The first step in remedying this issue is drilling down into your business’s ideal buyer persona. The next step is in-depth keyword research. And then, content adjustment and/or new content, to refocus your business’s site so that it serves users that are potentially good customers for you.
Set the Strategy, Execute, and Be Patient for Verifiable ROI
Once your SEO company has developed the strategy, set them free to execute it.
Keep in mind that SEO work usually takes months to pay off. SEO is like a capital investment. It doesn’t pay for itself at first. The ROI curve is often shaped like a hockey stick.
In our experience, new content normally takes eight to ten months before it reaches its total potential organic traffic. You have to be patient.
You won’t see a dramatic impact on your traffic and lead flow until your pages are ranking on the first page of Google search engine results pages.
It happens often that our client sites rankings for valuable searches will bubble around in the teens or twenties (or on the second or third page of results pages). While we can detect that the SEO work is starting to impact the rankings, using our SEO tools, there isn’t much appreciable increase in new leads, customers, and revenue.
At this point, the growth curve is flat and ROI negative. But, hold on!
Then, a few keywords will begin appearing on the front page. Site traffic and lead flow modestly increase. Phone calls and in-person visits might increase, too, in the case of local SEO for brick-and-mortar locations.
The growth curve gently rises and ROI begins to approach neutral.
Next, a few more keywords cross over onto the first page, driving more traffic and leads.
The growth curve starts to slope up ever slightly more and ROI is flat or might be just slightly positive.
Finally, the most dramatic moment, pages on the site begin to rank in the top three results, drawing traffic from 10% to 33% of all searches for the term.
The growth curve is now steep and ROI is 10x or more.
The Next Steps
If you are interested in learning more about how to hire an SEO company, or how to hire a B2B SEO firm, let’s take fifteen minutes to talk.
We offer a low-cost introductory SEO consultation that can help you define and clarify how you can meet your goals. We will:
Analyze your website
Share applicable case studies and/or examples about how similar businesses had SEO success
Jake Fisher, a co-founder of Bridges, is a multilingual B2B entrepreneur. In 2012, Jake co-founded Bridges with Ashley Quintana, a former coworker at Tyler Media. Within two years, the partners scaled Bridges to more than one million dollars in gross revenue from a $10,000 initial investment. Combining business knowledge and insight with the comedy from his radio days, Jake regularly speaks at events sanctioned by organizations such as the American Marketing Association, Public Relations Society of America, and HubSpot.