Let’s face it, for most people, the thought of picking a new SEO or digital marketing agency is about as exciting and worrying as planning a trip to the dentist or chiropodist – more so if you have experienced the horrors of our industry by working with a poor agency previously.

It’s not even as if you can have recourse to the good old Yellow Pages or other directories to help in your search for a good supplier as surely anyone who knows what they are doing will be found at the top of online search results, not in old school paper listings?

Unfortunately whilst that seems obvious it can also be hugely misleading – novice buyers looking for an SEO supplier can easily be swayed by a highly prominent result in the PAID results within search engine queries – and any agency having to pay for traffic rather than optimise to get it for free surely can’t be any good at SEO for its clients?

And even if they are at the top of the free organic results for a term that’s relevant, say, search engine marketing agency, does that mean they are getting there the right way, or playing short-term tricks?

Over a decade ago, prior to selling out our bigger SEO agency (and starting again as a bespoke supplier to smaller businesses) we had 55 staff and circa 10% of these were employed just to keep our business near the top of Google rankings, they didn’t work on ANY clients – with overheads etc that probably equated to an investment of at least £150,000 per annum. It was tough to achieve results then and would be a lot more expensive now – we estimate online marketing gets 1% tougher each month generally, so if we applied those maths to ourselves that might be a budget requirement of around £650,000 per annum or £50,000 per month just to promote ourselves. The high cost is of course a reflection of the difficulty of promoting yourselves when all your competitors also know how to game the system of at the very least trick it temporarily.

Not many SEO agencies have the scale to afford this level of internal investment, at least not for a sustained period – it would add such a huge premium to client costs. So instead what tends to happen is results fluctuate, businesses game the system using tricks so when they are discovered they go from hero to zero almost overnight and nobody dominates the search results in the way you might say expect Dyson to dominate vacuum cleaner sales.

We have even come across competitors who appear to make ZERO effort on clients’ campaigns and all they do is spend all income on themselves to attract a constant churn of new clients – and they rely on the fact it will take a few months for clients to wise up, Some will do so quickly, otherwise slowly, none will benefit from the relationship but on average the agency will have had say 3 months money to spend on its own self-promotion. Shocking.

Our small agency is a little different – we make almost zero effort to optimise our own business as we know it’s too tough a market to crack with a reasonable and affordable level of resource (without jeopardizing client performance to cross-subsidize) so instead all our effort goes into our clients’ campaigns, in sectors less competitive than our own. We get good results month on month (on average growing clients’ prominence 2%+ per month), and they stay for years and recommend us – so we grow by referral from clients and web agencies who know how to spot a good thing.

So, let us assume, despite the bad press, you’ve realised that SEO when well done, can be truly transformational for almost any sector. We’ve enabled many clients to sell up and retire early! You’ve decided to pick your first SEO agency (or change from a not-so-good one) – sometimes called Digital Marketing Agencies – but this is not to be confused with website development or design. SEO is about optimising that work so the search engines love it and keep coming back for more, pushing you up the ratings in the meantime.

So what are the questions to think about when you look for an SEO agency?

• Ask about the QUALITY of work. In the past we had numerous offshore offices and for every £1,000 spent we aimed to deliver 1,000 tasks. These days quality trumps quantity so 100 tasks would be more appropriate – this tends to point towards picking an agency in your own country.

PRICE  is always a consideration and cheap is not necessarily a bad thing as no business wants to pay too much. The key here really is are you asking for too much on a small budget or not enough on a big one – so try to think in terms of VALUE instead. If your goal is to dominate Google for £100 a month, forget SEO, you’d do better to try Paid Adverts yourself, pay a decent Per Click price and at least dominate the search pages for a few minutes each day until the budget runs out. In our experience, you won’t get much done for less than £15 a day in SEO, and that’s if it’s a very uncompetitive sector – for most, £30-£50 is enough for a test project and should come in at less than employing someone in-house who is learning at your expense.

• It’s common to worry about COMPETITION and whether an agency has other clients in the same sector or prior experience. This isn’t really much of an issue as optimisation is about (among other things) words. There are so many variables to pick from, no two companies are at the same point of evolution or have the same goals – so it’s easy to work around any conflict and it just takes time to learn the vocabulary. It is worth considering though whether an agency is an expert in B2B markets, B2C or a mixture, as these each have different emphases. Our mix is 80/20 B2B – to some that’s a bit boring but we enjoy it!

• We think client GOALS are really important as how you optimise for, say, a VC-backed business looking to flip the company in 24 months might be very different to how you build long-term growth for a family-owned firm or one who is cash-strapped and risk-averse – so we think this is an important part of fact-finding – not many agencies do.

BUDGET setting is also important. We think this is a mix of hitting the sweet spot between what a clients cash flow can sensibly afford and what is sufficient to start delivering results, for example, in a smaller budget pilot program. We’ve developed unique algorithms to help make a process that is otherwise guesswork into something more scientific.

• The final part of the equation has to be TRACK RECORD. Any good firm should have clients you can speak to to check out what gets done and whether it really does what it says on the tin. We’ve never had a client website penalised in over a decade – good agencies should be similar. If clients won’t discuss campaign failures, that has to be a worrying sign.

These are probably the most significant factors to consider to help pick for yourself not only the best SEO agency but also one that is appropriate for your own goals.

Good luck in what may well be one of the most significant business purchase decisions you will ever get the chance to make in your company.

And if we might be right for you, or you want to have a chat you can get in touch with us. We’re a friendly bunch!