SEO agencies come in all shapes and sizes, and it can be quite confusing selecting the appropriate agency to meet and exceed organic goals and business objectives. To better comprehend the agency selection process, it helps to start off with a handful of understandings about the SEO business environment.

  • Google made over 500 changes to their algorithm last year that included updates to Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and Pigeon
  • It’s the service that separates the best agencies across the board. The best SEO agencies are transparent, honest, dedicated, high quality, ROI driven, proactive, up-to-date, and serve as strategic partners
  • For small and medium-sized businesses choosing a SEO agency for the first time, sadly, most decisions are based on the lowest price offer
  • With SEO, you truly get what you pay for. Typically, the lower the price, the lower the value, level of service effort, and reporting output/performance
  • Every year, there are various new SEO-type shops opening their doors; it’s a confusing world, so your really have to conduct your due diligence regarding who you hire and what you get
  • Anyone online can call themselves or their company “SEO Professional,” so be wary of anyone who utilizes SEO shortcuts. These tactics can incite website penalties and potentially ruin brands. Instead, go with agencies who solidly demonstrate SEO best practices

With so many SEO businesses jumping into the digital marketing bandwagon, the challenge for many companies is selecting the right agency. My goal with this article is to cut some of the clutter and help you make a more informed decision. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the SEO Agency (not freelancers or contractors).

seo agency

Getting From Point A to Point B

An agency’s sole purpose is to help clients get from Point A to Point B – achieving a set of objectives and goals – through a trackable, systematic process and service methodology.  But, just as there are many SEO shops, there are also just as many SEO business types, work ethics and service approaches.

Not all SEO agencies are the same, nor should they be. Two variables, the size of a company and annual revenue, usually directs the selection of the appropriate SEO agency type. Large, enterprise companies like Kohl’s, Walmart and Victoria’s Secret will utilize full-service, enterprise-level agencies, whereas medium-sized companies will fall in line with mid-market agencies. Small mom-n-pop/one-person shops will most likely choose a small agency or SEO freelancer.

The lines between large and medium-sized businesses can be blurred between enterprise and mid-market SEO agencies. Agencies in this realm offer near-identical service levels and support relatively large SEO budgets. Where the distinction, and oftentimes the challenge is found, rests among the pool of small SEO agencies. Small businesses and start-ups, initially budget bootstrapped, are ideal small-agency client candidates, but expectations on dedicated management, service and performance results are often misaligned. Oftentimes, as businesses grow, they graduate to larger, more sophisticated SEO agencies. Let’s break down the agency types.

Breaking Down the Agency Type – What to Expect

Certainly, many factors determine an SEO agency’s capabilities and ideal-client fit. For the sake of this article, I lumped agencies into three groups and provided a simple high-level overview. Hopefully, the outlines will showcase differences where they are important to you as you seek an SEO agency and will help you choose an agency partner appropriate for your digital needs and online objectives.

 Enterprise SEO Agencies

An enterprise-level company can be defined as $500MM – $1B+ organizations having many internal business units covering multiple geographic locations (domestic or global). Their websites are massive, often calculated in the thousands and millions of pages. Catering to the demands of these very large companies takes an equally large, enterprise-level SEO agency often compartmentalized within a full-service digital firm. Characteristics defining an enterprise-level SEO agency include:

  • Global offices with indigenous SEO practitioners in the foreign market
  • Dedicated SEO account staff to manage and direct the flow of cross-regional campaigns
    • Client-centric (High-touch service with the addition of a Client Service team)
    • Performance-driven (campaign management involving multiple layers of SEO leadership)
  • Robust reporting and analytics tools to drive deeper correlation, multivariate and attribution analysis
    • Campaign reporting includes high client touch and communication on a  weekly / bi-weekly schedule
  • Agencies are selected based on a company’s vendor-procurement department
  • Retainer-based SEO fees with minimums starting at $10k-$20k per month

Middle-Market SEO Agencies

Mid-sized agencies can serve large enterprise clients, but most clients represent mid-market businesses. Businesses of this nature are regionally focused (west coast, east coast, mid-west) or national. Attributes describing mid-sized agencies involve the following:

  • New business won through client referrals, agency partnerships, RFPs, and lead-generation and marketing activities
  • Offer high-end, customized services, but beware of the one-size-fits all campaign methodology particularly for the smaller client with limited budgets
  • May have a few centralized offices assisting regional and national clients
  • Retainer budgets in the range of $2k – $6k+ per month. Most middle market agencies come with monthly retainers considering all digital services
  • Client account team usually comprised of a dedicated Account Director, Account Manager and 1-2 analysts
  • Campaign reporting and client meetings typically occur monthly and are driven by the Account Manager
    • Reporting platforms are generally sophisticated and deliver robust reporting features

Small SEO Agencies

Usually, within this group of agencies, the SEO “snake oil” is sold.  And it’s typically with this group where the SEO learning curve begins for most small business and startups. Businesses utilizing small agencies are geographically local and include landscaping companies, hair salons, restaurants, dentists, auto body shops, etc. Small agency characteristics include:

  • New business won through client referrals, but most new clients are attained from heavy lead-generation sales/cold-calling and marketing activities
  • Campaigns can be highly customized, but beware of the cookie-cutter campaign delivery system and agencies that deliver limited to no reporting
  • Agency is local in one market
  • Retainer budgets can range from $250-$750 per month for small local markets and up to $1,500 per month for larger populated markets
  • Reporting is generally automated and sent monthly by email, particularly for very small budgets. As budgets increase, the opportunity to obtain a dedicated Account Manager also increases
    • Reporting platforms are often small and deliver simple campaign reports/metrics

In the End, You Really Get What You Pay For

It is important to conduct appropriate due diligence and consider the benefits and downfalls of the agencies you’re considering. Also, be sure to ask the right questions! In the end, you really get what you pay for with a SEO agency. Avoid the churn-and-burn, fly-by-night, moonlighting, automated, no-touch SEO agency by looking out for red flags. As an alternative, look for SEO agencies that really care about you as the client:

  • Place your interests ahead of the agency
  • Exemplify proactive account management
  • Demonstrate strategic thinking combining digital goals with company objectives and brand mission
  • Lead by example through an educationally-driven mentorship
  • Provide open and transparent communication abolishing all doubt
  • Treat you as “part of the family”

To generating happier, healthier and more successful agency/client relationships!

To help the process, you can acquire a sense of great agency characteristics and build upon your own SEO education by downloading BFOs “The Marketer’s Guide to Managing and Maximizing SEO Success”.

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