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What to Look for When Hiring a Search Marketing Agency

Search Engine Marketing

Hiring a reliable, reputable search marketing agency is about more than just finding “someone who knows SEO.”

It’s about working with a company that’s not only up-to-date on the changes in technology and search algorithms, but knows how to apply that technology and how those changes affect your business.

As you delve deeper into understanding what makes a qualified search marketing agency, you’ll likely get caught up in all kinds of terminology and recommendations. Let this article serve as your step-by-step guide to hiring an optimization company with confidence.

Here’s what to look for:

#1: Technical Experience – Hiring in a Post Penguin and Panda World

Even the best search marketers were thrown off-guard when Google Penguin and Panda updates hit the web. Suddenly, all those stalwart bastions of rankings, namely article repositories and how-to sites, were relegated to shells of their former status as rank magnets.

If nothing else, Panda and Penguin taught us that no sure-fire method lasts forever, and the best search marketing agencies were those who not only planned ahead, but spread out their strategies to encompass more than just search engine algorithms and tools.

#2: They Know How Changes in Ranking Factors Will Affect You

Don’t hesitate to ask any search agency you’re looking to hire what they know about the latest Google algorithms and other search engine shifts that are currently affecting the market. Even though the big updates get the most exposure, Google and other search engines are constantly tweaking the factors that they consider “rank-worthy” and independently judging sites on how well they conform to those expectations.

All these little things can add up—so knowing not just what they are, but how they affect your site will show you that the agency really does understand the technology and its impact across the web.

#3: They Know How to Handle Penalties

If your site was blacklisted or has fallen out of Google’s good graces, a good search agency can help you clean up your act and get back in league with positive ranking practices. No penalty lasts forever (unless you continue to knowingly break the rules and push the envelope), and truly experienced search marketers can take steps to rid your site of the muck that’s keeping it from performing and ranking as well as it could, including:

  • Duplicate content
  • Scraped or spun content
  • Your site harbors known malware, viruses, spam or other nasty junk
  • Your server or email records are on a blacklist

Any of these things can even happen through no fault of your own by way of hacking, a spammer or scammer on the same web host as you (cheap hosts are particularly bad about this), or through malware on your own computer.

And while search marketing agencies aren’t typically responsible for security issues, they can help your site get back on the right track after a hack has been resolved and the security issues cleaned up.

#4: They Properly Optimize for Content and Social Media Marketing

Search engine optimization is no longer a standalone practice. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and even relative newcomers like Instagram (now owned by Facebook), Pinterest and Tumblr, social media is here to stay, and all signs point to these sites having an effect on search engine rankings.

A good search agency will take these signals into account and use them to create a targeted, optimized message that spans multiple platforms, so that your business pins on Pinterest match your activity on Facebook which matches your timely posts on Twitter.

Not all search marketing companies will directly engage in social media marketing for you, but they will leverage these key points to help implement updates that shift search engine rankings in your favor.

#5: They Have Experience with a Wide Range of Tools

Like any good profession, search marketing agencies typically use and have solid experience using a variety of tools. These can include tools which help them perform important tasks such as:

  • Keyword research
  • Site analytics
  • Backlink checking
  • Competitive analysis and intelligence
  • Pay-per-click ad monitoring and management
  • Customer relationship management (CRM) software or services

Don’t be afraid to ask any potential search marketing company you’re interviewing what tools they use and how those tools help them improve rankings and traffic for sites like yours.

#6: They’re Adaptive and Flexible Enough to Handle Each Client’s Needs

Right alongside the tools they use are the skills they possess, and any serious search marketing company will be able to adapt and change to fit each client’s specific needs. This means taking the time to listen to your goals and crafting a strategy that helps your business grow.  It doesn’t mean pushing their agenda on you with reckless abandon.

Let’s face it, some companies want more exposure on Facebook, while others are more visually-oriented and thrive on Pinterest.  Some want to focus on building quality backlinks and others need to better manage their pay per click accounts.  The best search marketing agencies understand this and will adapt to suit each client’s goals.

What’s more, they’ll welcome your questions and take the time to clarify any process or technique for you before they implement it.  Reliable search marketers will provide helpful, friendly and jargon-free answers, not cryptic responses best fed to a computer terminal.

#7: They’re Open and Honest Right from the Start

Lastly, but perhaps most important is honesty.

One of the best ways to gauge whether or not the agency you’re considering hiring is worth it is to look at their own pages and social media profiles. If their last tweet was from 2011 or their Facebook page is a ghost town, it might be better to look elsewhere.

Does their site look trustworthy to you? Do you feel confident about handing them the keys to your search ranking and hoping they don’t crash?

Don’t hesitate to ask whether or not the company works as an in-house team, if they outsource, and who their vendors and partners are. While there’s nothing wrong with outsourcing, many a website owner has discovered too late that their agency’s desire to cut corners has led them to source out all of their work to the lowest bidder, meaning lots of missed deadlines and excuses. Know who you’re working with—and that includes across the ocean as well.

Good search marketing companies are fully transparent about their strategies, and practice what they preach. Their site ranks well, their social media profiles are blooming with discussion and they take the time to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world to them, because in truth—you are!

The Final Word on Hiring a Search Marketing Agency – Understanding Reports

Speaking of handing over the keys, you wouldn’t just give up full control of your website to someone you’ve never met, and the same goes for any marketing company you work with as well. As you work together with your chosen agency, make sure they provide you with timely reports on a regular basis. These reports should ideally show you a baseline for where your site is ranking (if it’s ranking at all), what your current traffic looks like, and other important factors.

From here, the search marketing company should tackle key issues head-on, taking steps to make improvements, and discussing the strategy with you step by step. Ideally, they’ll explain everything fully, so that you can independently evaluate whether or not you wish to continue.

The reports you receive should be less about fancy graphs and charts, and more about concrete steps the agency is taking to improve your rankings, grow your traffic and improve your overall reach in search engines and beyond. If they simply forward you a PDF with no explanation, it may be time to reassess the team you’re working with.

As you can see, working with a search marketing agency is about more than just convincing words on a page or a nice website design. It’s about working with a company that’s ahead of the curve on search engine shifts, and has enough business sense and experience to put those changes to work in a way that will positively grow your business.  It’s about choosing an agency that understands that search, social, links and other ranking factors aren’t independent vehicles, but rather parts of a whole that should work together seamlessly.

And finally, it’s about working with someone who values your business and treats your project as if it were their own, helping it to grow and evolve from startup to success.

Have you ever hired a search marketing agency? What has your experience been? Share your highs and lows in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Maureen Flynn-Burhoe, Creative Commons license


120x120 Gary VicGary Victory is the go to business analyst at Elite Group Marketing. He works with both startups and multi-national brands focused on business marketing strategies and technology. He is a contributing writer to KISSmetrics, Crazy Egg, Social Media Examiner, Elite Group Marketing Blog, and others. Follow him on Twitter @GaryVictoryLDN.