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Purna Virji

Hiring an SEO Agency: The Ultimate Client-Agency Relationship Guide

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search-marketing-successConsidering hiring an agency for some or all of your SEO efforts? What are the secrets to help the client and agency forge a successful, long-lasting relationship?

Let's dive into some best practice tips on how to select the right agency, maintain a strong working relationship, and deal with any hiccups along the way – including some hairy issues that no one talks about openly.

Pre-Hire Questions

1. How do you determine what budget you’ll need?

In SEO, you get what you pay for.

First, determine what you can handle in-house and what you absolutely need to outsource. For example, if you already have a great copywriter who works inexpensively then maybe they can continue to handle the copywriting with direction from the agency and you don’t need to spend expensive agency hours on it.

Then, analyze the risk/reward. What could a successful SEO campaign bring in each month for you? Even after paying agency fees and content charges, SEO tends to have the lowest cost per acquisition (CPA) of all the marketing channels and builds longer-term equity.

Unlike the situation with paid media channels, if you were to stop spending money on SEO, the results would not vanish overnight. You’d retain your rankings, and thus orders from the channel, until your competitors outranked you or the search engines changed their algorithms enough to push you down the SERPs. Thus, you're paying for longer-lasting value, so keep that in mind when setting your budget.

A reputable agency might cost a few thousand dollars each month, but if they can deliver results in a reasonable timeframe and have a proven history of success, then it would be less risky to go with them. However, if your budget doesn’t stretch that much, consider capable ex-employees of reputed agencies who now freelance. You’ll get big agency training at a lower hourly rate.

2. How do you find top quality agencies that fit into your budget?

The choice of agencies is immense. You want to be sure that whatever choice you make, you get your money’s worth.

While we’re inundated with emails proclaiming top results as we search for the right high-quality agency, here’s how to sift through the plethora of options.

  • Ask friends for recommendations or ask other business owners who they are using.
  • Visit local professional meet-ups and chat with the folks who work in the industry.
  • Look at speakers on the circuit; for example, SES does a great job of procuring high-quality consultants as speakers, so you know the agencies speaking there are of repute. Look at reputable industry blogs or news sites, such as Search Engine Watch, to see which agencies or talent write on them. Since the industry is so good at sharing information, thought leaders whose advice is sound and matching what you are looking for would be good to reach out to.

Once you have your shortlist of agencies you would like to hire:

  • Stake them out: Look at how they market themselves, since that’s a good indicator of how they will market you. Do they have a blog with good public interaction? Do they get high-quality links? How is their social media presence? Are they committed to sharing thought leadership? Do you agree with their mission statement and values? These are all key considerations.
  • Don’t just read the case studies. Explore the clients they list on their website and review their sites to see how they are performing. Are these clients being marketed in the way you would want to be marketed? If so, then that’s a good sign for you.

3. Ask the right people the right questions

Now that you have your shortlist, talking to the right people beforehand can help you narrow down your options. Things to keep in mind:

  • Sales people aren’t the best folks to speak with. Sales reps are well-trained to focus on all the positives and get you excited to sign the contract. You want to get a real feel for the knowledge and experience of the people you will actually be working with day to day, not only to gauge their experience with your type of business but also to get a feel for their alignment with your goals. Once you get your initial proposal and overview from the sales rep, ask to speak with the actual project leads whom you would be assigned to, in order to feel them out and gauge rapport.
  • After you have spoken to the project leads, review their social media accounts to get a better understanding of their personalities and industry involvement.
  • Ask the leads to describe the clients most similar to you that they have worked with. Ask for closely related case studies, and confirm the timeframe these results were achieved in to be able to better set your expectations.
  • If you choose, you can ask to interview these clients briefly, to better understand what other clients have liked and disliked during their working relationship with the agency.

4. Negotiating the contract

For your peace of mind, especially when starting out with a new agency, do your best to ensure the contract has a 30-day out clause, even if it is after the first 90 days, to let you cancel with minimal risk. Keep in mind that with SEO, results typically take 8 to 12 weeks to really be felt but in the rare event that things go south you will be happy you have the clause in there.

Additionally, have them sign a non-disclosure agreement, so you can be freer in sharing information with them. This will help them, as well as your bottom line.

Managing the Relationship

1. Striking the right communication balance

The right communications can help set your agency up for maximum success. Share information about the business with them, and set up an optimal ongoing communication schedule. Here’s how:

  • Empower your agencies to help you better meet your goals by being open (with an NDA in place if needed) about your exact KPIs, past performance on those numbers, past efforts, the different channels you use for acquisition, past hurdles and successes, and what senior management is expecting. If you can share profit data it can be very helpful too. Giving the agency clear goals and a clear understanding of how your business works will only help them to help you more.
  • Share weekly reports on SEO performance, so they are always in the loop and feel as vested in the numbers as you are.
  • Have bi-weekly calls with your agency reps. When working with multiple clients, it’s only natural for agency members to feel more involved with the client they are in regular communication with. It doesn’t need to be long, but 30 minutes every other week is critical to keep things smoothly on track, in addition to regular monthly calls.

2. Strategizing

  • Before you begin, have an initial three-month strategy in place that maps out the work that will be done each month, with very clear explanations on why each action has been chosen. This way you have clear expectations on efforts and potential results, and have a progress-tracking checklist in place.
  • During the monthly calls, look at the things that have gone well in the past month, and review strategy for the upcoming month, in addition to just looking at the reports together. This way, you can remain fluid with your strategy and optimize it as you go along. Tie it into how each element has affected your bottom line or anything from your end you have seen change as they have executed the tactics. For example, certain outreach efforts may bring in more referral sales or phone calls to your company, which the agency may not be able to see unless you mention it to them.

3. Setting goals

Especially in SEO, most good agencies may balk at the idea of hitting certain monthly goals for links. But it is still a good idea to set some numerical metrics to target, simply for instance, because you may want to increase budget with the agency. You can then get a clear picture of how much more value you are getting with the additional budget; after all there does come a point where additional budget doesn’t result in a proportional increase in value.

For example:

  • You can tier the goals (e.g., hit at least 3 to 4 80+ domain authority links each month as tier 1 and at least 5 to 10 links for key sales pages as tier 2).
  • Once the agencies comfortably start hitting these goals, you can look into raising them.

It's important to get their buy-in and input on setting these initial goals instead of simply handing them over as a mandate since you want this to be a strong partnership.

  • Based on the three-month strategy document, you can keep track of what has been done and what is outstanding. Work in tandem with the agency to keep a strong rhythm going (e.g., constantly planning the next outreach effort while doing outreach for the most recently developed piece of content or link bait).

4. Setting up an open feedback loop

Agency workers, like all of us, love to receive feedback. If things are going well, be generous with the praise and showcase your appreciation in words. An extra thank you email from an appreciative client can go a long way in boosting morale and strengthening the relationship.

If things aren’t going well, also take the take to mention that this is something you have noticed, and ask questions rather than placing blame. Is there anything you could provide them to help them execute better? Are there roadblocks they have seen that are hampering progress? Is there anything on your end you could do to expedite their progress?

Each time you speak, take the time to provide some feedback to ensure clear and open lines of communication.

Troubleshooting or Ending the Relationship

When a good relationship starts to go south

Even the best agencies can sometimes falter or burn out on an account. Talk openly and honestly, in a neutral and non-judgmental tone about what you have noticed is going wrong.

Has quality slipped? Have deliverables not been met? Since they have been a strong partner in the past, see if you can speak to their management to consider switching out the leads on your project.

Sometimes fresh eyes may be all that is needed. A first-hand example is one where we worked with a top agency that we loved to bits, but a couple of the team members burned out on our account and results stopped coming in. We had a candid conversation, saying we wanted to work with them and appreciated the past wins, and they came back to us with a new team and an enhanced strategy; performance now is the strongest it has ever been.

If they have caused a terrible result through incompetency

If your agency has done something that resulted in a penalty, or if you notice that they are doing work that is shady or you aren't comfortable with, don’t hesitate to bring it up to their management team immediately.

If you aren't sure of the quality of the work, reach out to someone you trust to provide a second opinion. If the situation is dire, immediately start looking for another agency that has experience addressing the penalty you're facing while you exercise your out clause and end the contract.

Don’t end things on a sour note, however. People move around often in this industry and chances are they were following the norms of their company and this is not how they personally operate once they change environments.

Have any further tips, questions or comments? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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