Why your SEO agency isn’t working (and how to fix it)

The other day I was at a networking event chatting to an SEO guy. He actually introduced himself as ‘an SEO guy’ – so I thought, out of respect for a fellow digital marketer, I’d give him a chance to pitch me. What followed was excruciatingly painful. “We’re Google Partners. We have an extensive network of affiliate sites and listings where we submit client websites. We’ve got this automated tool which has been cleverly engineered to take advantage of the latest Google algorithm….” If that sounds encouraging to you, then I think you really need to read this article. If it doesn’t, then you probably have some idea how I felt.

Here’s some nuggets of wisdom which can really save you wasting a LOT of money when talking to ‘the SEO guy’:


If you hear an SEO guy say any of the following, back away slowly


We’ve got a special relationship with Google

Sorry to break it to you – no, you don’t. There is no ‘trick’ to get to first place in Google. In other words, their algorithms are not something which can be ‘cracked’ when it comes to SEO. There is no software which somehow gets you to the first page.


You don’t need to give us access

If they don’t plan on asking you for admin access to things like your CMS, Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, even your Social Media, then be afraid – be very afraid. Good SEOs work by looking closely at the data: keyword performance over time, past audits and reports, etc. Things you can only see through looking around in the ‘back-end’.


We’re going to list you on loads of local search engines/directories/forums/etc.

This is a tactic called ‘link building’. Whilst its benefit is still in debate, it’s clear that Google doesn’t want you doing this arbitrarily (they will penalise you if you spam the web with backlinks). They want you to populate the web with quality content. So a quality SEO agency will focus on doing this instead of planting links to your website all over the place.


We’re a Google Partner

A Google Partner qualification means you’ve passed the test for selling Google AdWords and related Google products (nothing to do with SEO). Sometimes you’ll even hear, “we have contacts at Google/Yahoo/Bing” – maybe they do, but they won’t have the ability to manipulate the algorithm a billion-dollar company stakes its reputation on.


Our minimum contract term is 1 year

Any decent SEO agency should begin to show results within 3-4 months. Good SEO is painstakingly detail oriented. It needs consistency and regular attention but it’s not something that requires a year-long commitment. If you hear this one, look somewhere else.


We’re working on our references

This is a red flag. A good SEO agency gets business through word of mouth and by having a website that – you guessed it – ranks well in search engines. Be sure to ask for client case studies or references, and check more than just one or two keywords. This should give you a good overview of their competence.


We have the following packages

Beware anything that isn’t custom made, or looks like a pre-made, cookie cutter set up. A good SEO agency will analyse your website beforehand and come up with something tailor-made for you. That ‘gold package’ might sound great on paper, but 95% of all the penalties I come across are the result of some kind of pre-made SEO ‘package’.


We have this amazing tool that creates content/builds links/etc.

There are many automation tools, like content scrapers and link building software, still lurking around the web from 2005. Using them nowadays is the quickest way of getting slapped back down the rankings. There is no software to ‘crack’ SEO. If they say otherwise, walk away.



Why the company the SEO guy works for isn’t that good


They don’t understand SEO

…but they understand business. That’s because most SEO companies are run by businessmen, driven by the desire to make money. Like any good businessman they try and find a formula that works and do their best to replicate it ad infinitum. The reality is, different size campaigns in different sectors and geographical locations require thought and planning, not formulas.


They don’t understand Social Media

Everyone is on Social Media – more importantly, your customers are on Social Media. They’re the ones you want reading and sharing your content. If an SEO doesn’t talk to you about engagement rates, reach, and amplification, beware.


They don’t understand Content Marketing

Their blog articles are generic and unengaging. Or sound like they’re written by a bot. Great content requires great ideas, creativity and an understanding of your audience. Too many SEO companies treat it like something you just churn out a.k.a. bad content marketing.


They don’t embrace Google Updates

This is a big red flag – the only people scared of Google Updates are those not following Google best practices. Many (dubious) practices which worked a few years ago now get penalised by Google.


They’re not sustainable

The people who hire SEOs nowadays are starting to wise up (like you reading this article). This is raising the barrier of entry. As a result, most of the SEO agencies I’ve been debunking here will start disappearing.


YOU don’t understand SEO

Conversely, because the reality is that many businesses still don’t understand SEO, there are hundreds of SEO companies underperforming. They continue to operate because their clients don’t really understand what they do.



As a result of all the above, you are likely going to be faced with 2 major issues: the SEO agency will have nothing to show and they will have no suggestions for improvement. If that’s the case, then you likely need to call me, or Aquare (my agency)…!



What the SEO guy and his agency SHOULD be doing


In the first few months of a contract a good SEO agency should be able to provide you with some kind of example of their progress.

They should also be able to make recommendations to continue to improve your SEO. The best companies will view their relationship with you as a partnership and will actively interface with you to make sure that partnership is working effectively.

They will stay focused on your goals, helping you to choose search terms that are effective in converting to sales. The strategy they will develop will boil down to a few simple things: create great content; let people find it on social media; get inbound links; grow your audience; amplify; repeat.

Here’s some clear signs that an SEO agency knows what it’s doing:


Their client portfolio says ‘quality’ rather than ‘quantity’

If you don’t recognise any of their clients and there seems little evidence of long-term relationships, then they probably aren’t a very good company. Take a look at their case studies and client testimonials. If this info is not available on their website, then ask for it. A company that has formed long-term relationships with clients understands how to work as a partner. Willing endorsements (client testimonials) are a good sign that they deliver return on investment.

They set honest and realistic expectations

You want honesty from your SEO agency. They may tell you they can’t achieve what you want in the time you want it but you will thank them for it eventually. Better than promising the moon and failing to follow through on that promise, which is what a lot of SEO companies do. That’s a costly mistake for you.

They clearly define the deliverables

After honesty, the next thing you need is transparency. They may not be able to get you to the top of page 1, but a good SEO agency will provide you with details of the work they’ve done that is contributing towards that. For example, they may provide:

  • A website SEO audit with action points for improvement
  • Your link profile, with evidence of genuine backlinks from other (reputable) websites
  • Optimised content, either new or developed from your existing content
  • Articles published on other websites that are linking back to yours
  • Weekly or monthly reports detailing work done and how your site ranks

They come up with recommendations

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: a good SEO agency works in partnership with you. This means they won’t just do what you tell them – they’ll make recommendations. For example, they might suggest you;

  • Develop a content strategy
  • Get your employees to start blogging
  • Make alterations to the site architecture
  • Start using internal links to other pages on your website
  • Make social media more of a priority in your marketing plan
  • Stop using certain social media channels and use others more suited to your business


Extra services may cost more but do not automatically assume they are just trying to upsell to you. If they tick all the boxes we’ve already been through in this article, then their recommendations will almost certainly help you achieve your goals.

As a customer, they make you feel special

We’re not talking about good customer service – we’re talking about GREAT customer service. The kind that makes you feel valued, important…special. If an SEO agency is responsive, accommodating, provides regular feedback and reports – and if the client (you) feels that they understand and are comfortable with the relationship – then that’s great customer service.

They get results

Hopefully, you start moving up the search rankings – and stay there. Notice I said ‘start’ moving up. Don’t expect to get to the number 1 spot overnight. Instead, look for consistency. Moving up and down on a weekly basis is normal – dropping position day after day is bad.


Another success indicator is an increase in revenue. However, here’s an interesting point – website traffic can go down, but if you’re revenue is going up it’s still a win. This is because your goal should not be just ‘lots of traffic’. It should be ‘targeted traffic’. For example, I worked with one company selling women’s gym clothes. They had a huge amount of traffic, but 95% of it was from men (the clothes were quite revealing). Consequently, they weren’t seeing many conversions. By targeting the right long-tail keywords and the right audience (more women), the traffic went down (less men were visiting the site) but they started making more sales. Higher revenues, less traffic, more money. It pays to be picky, especially in SEO.


In conclusion


Be careful to do your research and have in-depth conversations with any SEO agency before moving forward.


Avoid anyone who says they’ve got a special relationship with any of the search engines, doesn’t need access to your website or analytics, says they’re going to list you on loads of directories, has a long minimum contract term, sells SEO ‘packages’, won’t provide client references or has some kind of amazing automated tool.


If their clients impress you, if they seem to set honest and realistic expectations, if they can clearly define the deliverables, and you feel comfortable working with them, then you’re on to a good thing. Expect them to provide regular feedback and reports, make recommendations and ultimately get results and you won’t be expecting anything a good SEO agency shouldn’t be able to provide.


And remember, improving SEO is a 2-way process with your agency. In short they need your help to help you: give them as much information and assistance as you can. There are some very good SEO companies out there which will actually ‘fire’ you for not being helpful – this is because if you aren’t helping them help you it is totally pointless continuing to work together.

Bogdan Stevanovic