What questions should you be asking your SEO agency?

A lot of our clients come to us in the first instance because they have concerns about the state of their website performance in search engines. Often, those concerns and the questions that they have for us are very similar. For instance…

  • My website has started to plummet down search engine results My website used to attract a lot of traffic but recently it has dropped dramatically
  • My competitors are always out ranking me despite spending a lot on Adwords
  • My website is useless at converting sales and is not an effective marketing tool
  • Few visitors get beyond my homepage
  • I’m producing a lot of content but there are no visitors to those pages or posts
  • All my traffic is paid for, nothing is organic

If all this sounds familiar, then don’t worry. You are not alone. We get a lot of SEO SOS distress calls from people who suspect their SEO agency may not performing as well as they should , or changing with the times.

Poor search engine optimisation (SEO) may see your site punished by search engines like Google, often for reasons that are difficult to understand. First and foremost, content is a website’s lifeblood, and SEO, simply put, is the process of improving your website content to make it visible for search engines to read. SEO helps Google understand what your website is about and what it’s offering to the searching consumer.

NB: We use SEO to mean Search Engine Optimisation, and confusingly, also Search Engine Optimiser, i.e. a person, agency or company providing a service to optimise your site for Google. For the sake of this article we will specify SEOs as agencies, though they can exist in any of the aforementioned capacities.

The problem with the SEO industry

One of the first things that we do whenever we meet a new client in this difficult situation is carry out a technical, website health check using a collection of tools that can pinpoint the reasons for your site’s poor performance. Some of these tools are paid for, others are free and listed at the bottom of the article if you would like to know more.
This can lead to some fairly tough, frank conversations. Often, our clients have already spent precious budget on their site build, their content, their Adwords and their SEO, so feel uncomfortable at the prospect of shelling out more cash to rectify a problem they weren’t aware was being created. Often, they are also embarrassed that they have not had much success and feel that this confusing and expensive marketing channel is ripping them off.
And one major problem is that – like a lot of other industries – not everyone claiming to be an expert really is. Anyone can present themselves as a website aficionado but could be lacking experience in delivering high quality websites that perform well in search. Like a dodgy tradesman dealing in a specialised trade, electricians, mechanics, builders, there is an inherent risk that your lack of understanding could end up getting exploited.

What does a dodgy SEO provider look like?

The SEO industry is awash with salesmen who rely on a client’s ignorance or lack of understanding, and continue to charge monthly for work which is either non-existent or unhelpful to a website’s long term goals.

These ‘short-term fixes’ can ostensibly indicate a website that’s on the up; growing traffic, moving up the Google ranks for example, but could be using methods which Google deem ‘unethical’.

Many SEO companies use complex jargon, promise unrealistic expectations – like wrongly guaranteeing a place on the first page of Google - while doing very little for their monthly pay-check.

Google itself has written some pretty damning support articles on this, saying “we've encountered firms calling themselves SEOs who follow practices that are clearly beyond the pale of accepted business behaviour.” Signing off with a slightly unnerving “be careful.”

Another Google article discusses the importance of hiring an ethical SEO agency along with a handy video tutorial on ‘How to Hire an SEO’ agency in an effort to expose poor industry practice.


How search engines work to prioritise their users

Let’s briefly recap how search engines work, because SEO is tricky, but not tricks-y. It’s only difficult because it requires hard work and patience, not because it’s black magic.

Google’s first priority – bar none – is to help its user find answers or solutions to their search query. They want to maintain a high-quality search experience for its users. Google rewards companies that invest in their content, their information, and so tries to reduce or eliminate any advantage of those trying to find a quick fix, or scam their way to the top of the search engine results page (SERP).

If you create content and do it in honourable ways, aligned with Google’s process, your site should do well in contextual rankings and as a result, your natural traffic volumes will increase over time. Regardless of changes to Google’s algorithms. If you’ve been with an SEO agency for a long time and your traffic is declining rather than increasing, or even stagnating, you need to ask them some serious questions as to why that is.

Unethical SEO companies are bad for everyone

Bad SEO, ‘unethical’ or ‘Black Hat SEO’ uses aggressive techniques focused on manipulating the search engine themselves, a strategy not in the interest of the human user, and are designed to deceive algorithms in a bid to advance up the rankings. An unethical SEO will implement shady practices, such as paying for a multitude of links on countless, irrelevant websites, and pumping pages full of keywords. A detailed outline of unethical SEO examples can be found in our previous article Black Hat vs White Hat SEO Today.
Adopting any of these techniques increases the risk of a website being, at best, a poor performer, and at worst, penalised in the search engine rankings.
Why do these agencies continue to disregard the rules? Because it’s easy. It can also yield results quickly before being detected. Without a doubt, it’s easier to cheat the system for a short while than it is to think and create original content ideas that continue to generate traffic to targeted customers.
Google is only going to get tougher on those who blatantly disregard and repeatedly violate the rules. Earlier this year the Google Fred update targeted low-value, poor quality content sites, based on data analysed by Sistrix SEO data collection company.

Ethical SEO supports a healthier internet

Ethical SEO, also known as ‘White Hat’ involves following the rules set out by Google on how to create a successful website and how to produce content. Good SEO starts with well written content (and lots of it) which is both contextually relevant and easy to understand. You can read more about good SEO practice in our article Black Hat vs White Hat SEO Today article.

Then you need a healthy platform to display it on, with clearly-identifiable pages and site structure. This means providing a good user experience for the human and bot alike. Your main goal is to make it easy to get access to the desired content and make sure it stays accessible. Google hates transient content that’s here one day and gone the next. It likes accessibility; device compatibility, stability, accuracy and simplicity. Regular updates are equally beneficial.

A good SEO agency should want to work with you, educate you about the work they’ve been doing and fundamentally be willing to explain how their work benefits your website’s ability to be read and understood by Google. Transparency is key. The more transparent and open your are to Google, the more likely it is that Google will bring you customers that are genuinely interested in what your business offers.

Google looks to improve the entire searcher experience. A good website designer will be designing pages for users, not search engines. And to misquote Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, “if you build it – properly – they will come.”

How do you know if your SEO agency is any good?

As should be clear by now SEO can be an elusive beast, which is why many companies choose to employ an SEO professional to manage this aspect of their digital strategy.

A good agency should want to work alongside you, learning about your business and your customers to more specifically market to your audience online. And while SEO is complex, a good agency should be able explain their approach for you in simple terms and provide you with a detailed report of any website changes being made. Be wary if they are being deliberately evasive as to their methodologies.

There’s also no such thing as quick fix. If an SEO approach suddenly bumps you from page obscurity to page one in a few days, then chances are there’s something fishy going on and that this position is likely to be very short-lived.

Seven Top Tips to Weed out a Bad SEO agency:Cross reference their suggested methods with a documented statement from Google, or from their webmaster support articles – if it involves buying links, for example, that’s a bad sign.

  • Check their credentials and references. Who are their previous customers? How do they rank? What do their previous sites look like?
  • If they’re hosting your website as well, ensure they’re paying for a good quality hosting provider. If they use cheap hosting then you can expect poor support and weak server speed.
  • If they send you a list of inbound links they’ve provided for you, check them. Would you want to be associated with those businesses in real life? If the answer’s no, run the other mile.
  • Ask if they carry out SEO work for any other businesses in your field* or that sell the same product?
  • If they promise you the top spot in Google, or even guarantee a first page position in the SERP, likewise, run in the opposite direction. Absolutely no one can guarantee search results; it’s out of everyone’s control except Google’s.
  • If they promise you instant results, or results within weeks, this is a bogus promise. Technical SEO changes can take Google months to register and recalculate, and Google explicitly states that in most cases “SEO [agencies] need several months to a year to help your business first implement improvements and then see potential benefit.”

*Unlike other industries, where it can be beneficial to have similar clients on your roster, and specialise in a particular field, within the SEO community it’s largely considered a conflict of interest. Good digital marketing companies will not take on two competing businesses, it’s a policy and concept we hold very dear ourselves.

A last point to remember is that good, honest SEO companies will emphasise that optimisation is a long game, not one with immediate gratification. Even with a good SEO agency, it’s expected to take a while for results to show. Your website is never fully optimised, it’s a continual process and it’s best to think about it like ‘the journey of optimising your website’.
If you need quick results then SEM (search engine marketing Bing / Google Adwords) is your best bet and an approach that is fundamentally different to SEO
If you’re worried that your website if not reaching its full potential as a result of bad SEO conduct, give us a call and we would be happy to help. If you would like to understand more for yourself, below is a list of the free tools you can use:

  • Google Analytics
  • Check my Links
  • Google’s Fetch as Google tool
  • SEO Report Card
  • Hubspot’s Website Grader



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