Let me make one thing clear: I am not against the idea of anyone hiring an SEO agency in general. I am just a critic of anyone hiring a useless SEO agency. They’re out there wanting your money and sometimes people fall for it.

There are crappy SEO agencies that will overpromise, underdeliver, and mislead you. They’re unavoidable. You probably came across one; some of you might have even hired one. In fact, some of you might have a frustrating story to tell about your experience.

As a WordPress developer, I’ve dealt with numerous SEO firms that were (or still are) retained by my clients. Some were good; some were trash. So in light of this, I wanted to put together this guide to help those that may be thinking about hiring an SEO agency.

First, understand what an SEO agency will actually do for you

“[We] can get you on the first page of Google!”

That is your cue to run. No one can legitimately guarantee that without explaining the truth about all of the caveats that make that statement a bit more complicated.

SEO firms focus on optimizing your content for search engines. This may include updating existing content or writing new content. Optimization is not just limited to text; images are a part of the effort, too. Image optimization includes adding alt text (which are read by search engine robots) and additional metadata through geotagging. Building backlinks and managing citations (the distribution of your name, address, phone or NAP information on various online directories) round out some of an SEO agency’s core services.

There are no tricks and no guarantees when it comes to organic SEO campaigns

There’s no real magic trick here. You pay an SEO agency to do the optimization work that is often too much for some businesses to handle on their own. This is usually because they lack the human capital to do so, whether it is from a standpoint of personnel or knowledge.

The SEO agency’s goal is to get you to rank for keywords that will bring your site traffic. This is includes ranking for relevant keywords to enhance your visibility.

Now here’s the kicker:

None of this guaranteed to get you on the “first page of Google” in the way that you might think they mean. If an agency puts in effort in an “easy” keyword—that is one that has low competition—then sure, you can appear on the first search result page. However, if that keyword doesn’t generate traffic, then it doesn’t mean much.

Secondly, understand that your mileage will vary with organic SEO

In my experience, this is probably the number one thing that clients fail to understand.

If you believe that SEO is solely about “ranking high on Google”, then you are going to spend thousands of dollars in disappointment and frustration. Why? Because you are holding on to an unrealistic expectation of what a SEO campaign actually entails. On the other hand, it’s also important for SEO firms to educate clients about the realities of SEO campaigns rather than just making promises.

Some keywords are much more competitive than others. Increased competition is going to make your efforts more challenging. This is regardless of how many keywords you target and how effective the SEO agency claims to be.

Consider this search for the competitive keyword “plumber near me houston tx” (Note: I do not have a plumbing services client).

plumbing search results part 1


All of those results are before the jump.

Let’s see what happens with one rotation of the mouse wheel:

plumbing houston tx search results part 2

And one more turn:

plumbing search results part 3

The first three organic searches are dominated by directories—Angie’s List, Yelp, and Home Advisor. In the home services segment, they are always going to be among the top three or four organic search results no matter how much money you spend. This means service providers in this industry are essentially competing for 6 or 7 spots on the first page.

Who has the advantage when everyone is playing the same game?

Let’s assume all of them have retained the services of an SEO firm to work on their organic reach. That’s 6 to 7 companies playing the same game. It makes things more challenging; it becomes daunting when your expectations are unrealistic.

Most SEO firms will navigate challenges like those above by targeting much more specific keywords. Some of these keywords may refer to a specific location or a service, such as “water heater repair cypress tx”.  It’s a good move, but your mileage will vary based upon how intense the competition is in your market.

In other words, regardless of how much money you spend on an SEO campaign, there are other factors beyond your control (your competition) that will have an effect on your efforts. In essence, I encourage you to be realistic in your expectations.

Third, be wary of anyone that says you “eventually” won’t need pay per click advertising

I’m going to come out and say this directly: in many cases, this is a misleading promise. The realities of your market will determine what marketing strategy works best.

Unless an SEO agency has such as a robust market research team that can keep tabs with the different goods and services verticals out there, no one can say this. It’s deeply irresponsible. If any firm says this to you as part of their sales pitch to get you to sign up for their services, do not hire them.


There’s a limit to guarantees by a marketer

Some SEO agencies will insinuate that they have a fool-proof, tried-and-true strategy. Whether your budget is $1,000 a month or $3,000 a month for an SEO campaign, the bottom line remains constant—you follow the market.

The consumer buying process is consistent, but not always linear. In other words, triggers will vary based upon the problem and product in question. For example, how a customer searches for a computer to buy is going to be similar, but not exactly like the way they would search a home services technician. You might win organic traffic, but you may win converting traffic with paid search ads.

This is not so much about organic SEO versus pay-per-click advertising—there’s a time and a place for one them or both of them. This is about an SEO agency claiming something that they shouldn’t.

(There will be at time were I will talk about organic SEO versus pay-per-click—also known as PPC for short. It’s just won’t be on this post because it’s irrelevant to my larger points.)

Fourth, take note as to whether or not an agency actually specializes in serving clients like you

Not all industries are the same. The consumer buying process is consistent, but not that consistent. You’re not going to shop for a computer the same way you shop for a car. The way you approach buying make-up is different than the way you approach buying furniture. This applies to just about everyone!

Consumers will have different triggers based upon the “problem” that they are trying to solve. Not only do the targeted keywords have to be relevant for the purposes of visibility; keywords have to relevant to where a customer is during the buying process. An SEO agency that lacks specialization is going to focus on the former; a marketing agency that is dedicated to a certain sector may excel at the latter.

This is not saying that an SEO firm has to specialize in your industry to earn your business. What I am saying is that all marketing agencies, including SEO agencies, have strengths and weaknesses. An agency that may be great at generating traffic for fitness clubs may struggle or outright fail to deliver the same results for law firms.

In short, you’ll want to ask any agency that you interview about their strengths and weaknesses. If a firm is willing to be full disclosure, they will tell you which industries they are strongest at. High rankings is one thing; high conversions are another, and conversions are far more important than rank. In certain cases, you may be better off hiring an agency that specializes in your industry.

Finally, understand that organic SEO is only part of your overall marketing strategy

If an SEO firm tells you that your search engine ranking will determine the fate of your business, then they’re manipulating you. Plain and simple.

This is not to say that search engine rankings aren’t important; what I am saying is that any organic SEO campaign you invest in has to be part of a larger marketing strategy. This may include social media advertising, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, or even old-school tactics such as mailers, flyers, brochures, business cards, and door decals.

For example, I have seen some clients invest in an organic SEO campaign that managed to change their business for the better. For others, I’ve seen them get more out of social media ads to the point where they regarded SEO as a sunk cost. I’ve even seen those that rather rely on sending out periodic mailers than invest thousands into online campaigns.

The realities of your market—your industry, your competition, and your consumers—will help you determine what would be the best marketing plan for you.

For the SEO professionals that may stumble across this and claim that you might be able to do better for those clients, that may very well be true. On the other hand, an SEO agency will always follow market forces, not the other way around. Sometimes, an SEO agency can do everything that they could from an organic standpoint and those efforts end up making little difference for a business’ bottom line. Macroeconomic conditions can be a factor as well.

Your marketing needs may not be met solely by the efforts of an SEO agency. If there are other auxiliary marketing services that they offer, ask them about it. Push them to give you an as accurate of a picture as possible about their level of competency in providing those additional services.

I won’t tell you what to do, but…

This guide is not meant to discourage you from hiring an SEO agency. If you feel an SEO agency can help you take the next steps necessary in reaching your business goals, then hire one. However, keep all the things I discussed in this post in mind when interviewing one.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • Understand what an SEO firm can do for you.
  • The intensity of competition can and will factor into how well your organic SEO campaign actually performs.
  • Beware of any SEO agency that openly bashes another form of marketing as part of their sales pitch.
  • Consider if that prospective agency actually specializes in serving your industry.
  • Remember that organic SEO is only one part of your complete marketing plan.