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Is it time to fire your SEO agency?

Is it time to fire your SEO agency? Ron Belanger

How good is your SEO agency? If you're like most CMOs I speak with these days, you won't be able to honestly answer that question without relying overtly on your intuition. Hopefully this article can allow you to answer this haunting question with a bit more certainty. We'll review some red flags that may cause concern, and allow you to make an informed decision going forward.

Doorway/cloaked pages
Industry insiders often refer to the difference between "Black Hat" and "White Hat" SEO tactics. While it may sound like something out of "Harry Potter" or "Dungeon & Dragons," it's relatively important to know the difference, at least at a high level. "Black Hat" tactics generally consist of attempts to game the search engines, by utilizing tricks that may artificially raise a particular site or page in the rankings.

One of the most common ways of tricking a search engine algorithm is by the use of "doorway" or "cloaked" pages. This consists of constructing a special page made only for the search engine crawlers. This causes the search engine to see and score one page, while directing the consumer to the actual site. Anytime you hear your search agency talking about these types of activities, it may be time to engage with a more reputable firm that follows the anti-spam guides of the major engines.

"It's a warning sign if the agency hasn't sat down with you to explain the continuum of best practices that range from white hat to black hat and where they recommend your campaign sit on the continuum," says Kevin Lee, chairman and CEO of Did-It, a search marketing agency located in New York.

Myopic focus on rankings
Many SEO agencies, especially in the business development phase, are prone to creating rankings reports that show a client how well (or poorly) their website ranks for a list of keywords. It isn't entirely impossible to see how a CMO or marketing executive would be compelled by this type of data. After all, if your website isn't ranking well for terms that seem applicable to my business, then how well is your site really optimized?

At the end of the day, however, rankings don't translate that well into overall business objectives. Who cares if you're ranking No. 1 at Google for a particular key phrase? Is that how you're being measured as a CMO? Doubt it. What is truly important is the quality of business activity your SEO efforts are driving. Quality traffic is a better measure, while measuring conversions is better still.

Hoarding SEO knowledge
There is no doubt that SEO professionals have spent a good deal of time acquiring knowledge about the search business. That is, after all, why are you paying them. However, I have seen a clear delineation between the types of SEO professionals that hoard that knowledge, and those that freely share it. Too many SEO consultants fear that their contracts may be in jeopardy if the clients learn too much. This type of attitude will not help your entire enterprise get up to speed on thinking through an SEO lens.

Scott Smigler, CEO of Exclusive Concepts, a search agency located outside of Boston, feels the role of the agency is to disseminate the knowledge as the engagement blossoms.

"We've worked with hundreds of growing businesses throughout the years to improve their search engine optimization. We've found that when our clients are engaged in an open dialogue with our internet marketing strategists, and when knowledge is shared freely between the two parties, very strong results follow. I would suggest that companies should fire their SEO agency when SEOs start answering questions with words like, 'trust me,' rather than laying out a strong business case and teaching while doing," he said.

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Hiding in the search dungeon
Successful implementation of SEO requires touching almost the entire web operation, including IT, site design, advertising, merchandising, finance and analytics. With so many stakeholders to appease, it is absolutely essential that your SEO agency has a proven track record of working in a cross-discipline matrix.

In many cases, there will be trade-offs that will need to be made in order to provide a strong business balance. Rob Griffin, national search practice lead at Media Contacts, sees it as a system of checks and balances. "Not every change an SEO expert wants should be made from a design perspective," said Griffin. "There needs to be sacrifices [and] we need each other. SEO specialists know the engines better than site designers, [but] I don't want my SEO teams building sites and creating copy."

While nearly all SEO firms will claim integration as a core strength, it's a relatively easy claim to verify. As one of the references, try substituting the typical client call with a call to one of the agencies, or design teams, that the SEO shop had to successfully work with to achieve their objectives. It will be apparent rather quickly whether your SEO firm has what it takes to work in a collaborative setting.

Managing expectations
A common reason for dissatisfaction between a client and its SEO agency is that of failed expectations. Competing for a client's business is a tough, tough task, and the tendency to over-commit during the sales process can be tempting. However, many firms do just this, and this can lead to disappointment. It is better to be honest and upfront about what can and can't be done, leading to potential over delight, rather than frustration.

Plain and simple, SEO is tough work, and many make shortcuts once the contract is signed. "The fact is [that] SEO is a tedious and ongoing process, and SEO companies are not putting in all the work that truly goes into a proper program," said Andrew Beckman, CEO of Colorado-based Search AdNetwork. "We have been winning a lot of SEO deals over the past couple of months, and I think the main reason is managing client expectations."

There is no question that SEO is a highly specialized field that requires dedicated resources and an unflagging commitment to integrity. Despite that, CMOs should not be so confused by shop talk that he/she can not measure the quality of services being delivered. As SEO becomes more mainstream, there will be a push from the client seat to ensure their SEO agencies are fully transparent, playing above board, constantly educating the enterprise and working well with other stakeholder groups. If you feel that your SEO agency is not engaged in these practices, it may be time for a re-evaluation of services.

Ron Belanger is VP of agency development at Yahoo.

Ron Belanger is Vice President of Agency Development for Yahoo!.  He is responsible for building mutually beneficial relationships with Yahoo's! agency partners. By supporting a number of initiatives such as joint research, agency staffing,...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Brandt Dainow

2008, November 06

I have to disagree with Ron on this. Rankings matter because people don't click on listings 50 places down. Of course, they need to be for relevant phrases. Secondly, as an SEO consultant I refuse to be assessed by conversions - it's not my site so I can't control or even influence what happens when visitors enter it. My job is to get quality leads into your site - it's not up to me to convert them - it's up to you. Finally, I have no intention of telling you what I've spent years learning about SEO - that is valuable information which cost me time and money to acquire. You're buying my services, not my knowledge. If you want that knowledge, pay for it or work it out for yourself.

Commenter: Tim Trent

2008, November 06

Amazing, isn't it, that so many people seem to think that SEO requires an agency. You prompted me to write a follow up article on my blog to remind people that none of this is rocket science.