What Marketers Really Want

Having just returned from Technology for Marketing and Advertising show (TFM&A) this week; one of the main things that struck me from speaking to marketers was how under confident people feel about the SEO industry at the moment.

Many of the people we spoke with had been stung by their existing agency relationship (either because of a lack of transparency into their methodologies or because they had massively under-performed against what they had originally promised). Others simply could not work out how to differentiate between the agencies. All agencies seemed to make the same claims about their SEO practices, so who do you pick?

Lots of people asked me; 'how do I know that what I am told is true'? With so much competition in the market place (and lots of SEO agencies showcasing their wares at TFM&A for example) how do you tell the difference between the truth and what agencies would like you to believe?

Lots of people also quoted the J C Penney SEO story which recently made the news for all the wrong reasons. (J C Penney in the USA got forced off of their top rank in Google once the New York Times unearthed their SEO agency's less than ethical techniques for link building). It's no wonder clients are concerned about picking the right agency; and one they can trust. From my own experiences as a Marketing Manager, I know how hard it is to tell the good agencies from the bad.

I'd like to share some findings with you so that you can make better-informed decisions about which agency you hire to manage your search engine marketing

1. Are they taking the pitching and proposal process seriously?

Do not let agencies gather details solely over the phone, even if they are not based locally. If they won't spend time driving to your offices for a meeting then they probably don't really want your business. How an agency acts when asked to travel a distance to meet you may be an indication of the level of service they are likely to provide moving forward.

2. Do they really understand your business?

Ensure they understand your business, your stressors, and your barriers to sale. If they haven't asked the right questions, how can they possibly understand your needs? You should feel that they truly understand every inch of your business, your objectives, your products and the buying process. Furthermore you want the agency to understand the relationship between quality and quantity. Some businesses may want to build traffic, but most really want more conversions so make sure this topic is covered in your meetings.

3. Are they looking at the bigger picture?

Your existing online presence is very relevant to a new agency looking to take on your business and is an area many agencies fail to research before meeting a client. If you have negative press online about your business, the first port of call may be online reputation management. Do you need SEO simply to get better rankings on Google and increase revenue or is there bad press online that you need to give attention to? SEO can be used to effectively push this negative press out of your customers' line of view. If your website ranks top of Google for your key terms but underneath in position two is a less than flattering review of your company or products then are you losing customers who see this press?

4. Have you met the team?

My best advice is to take time after the pitch and before you sign any contract to meet their team at their offices. They should be open and willing for you to visit and should show you around their offices not just their meeting room. You should be able to meet the people who will work on your SEO and if the offices or setup seem smaller than you think is fitting - ask yourself why?

5. Have you established the difference between sales patter and the truth?

The fact is you will never necessarily understand everything that goes on in an SEO agency, however, there are some obvious clues which you could detect if you saw their operations.

Many agencies claim to be 'ethical' or use 'white hat' techniques. They claim to provide in a sustainable, natural way and claim to have numerous staff who perform this function for them in-house. The fact is that unless you visit them, how would you ever really know that the work is done in-house? While visiting them may seem a hassle, one afternoon out of your week is little time lost considering you may be working with (and paying) the agency for years to come.

The problem is that a huge part of your will be link building and done properly, using ethical techniques link building is actually very manual, time-consuming and arduous work. There are no shortcuts, and to get quality links to your website from relevant high authority websites in your industry is hard work. Many agencies outsource this work abroad, or to out of office staff over which they have less control. This can mean that best practices are lost or put aside in the name of delivering quick results. Sadly, sometimes adding large numbers of irrelevant links to poor quality sites is easier than getting a few really top quality ones.

The only thing you can do to avoid this situation, is to try to understand what it is the agency will do to build links for you. You can go and meet their link building teams to ensure your agency is doing what they say they are in-house.

In addition, you can ensure the agency you choose promises complete reporting and link profiles for the links they get for you. Transparency is harder to achieve than you would think but don't fall into the trap of believing that SEO is a dark art – it isn't.

6. Have you discussed contract terms?

Most agencies ask for long term contracts to be agreed so that they 'have time to demonstrate' their SEO skills but few companies like to be tied into a new relationship which is yet to prove itself.

Ideally you should work with any agency that is confident enough about their services to offer a rolling contract if you want it. Many will say that you need to commit to a long-term contract because the effects of SEO work are not instant. Patience is required and it's fair to say you have to be prepared to commit to the work and timescales agreed but if you are not still fully convinced by the agency you are considering hiring then ask for short-term contracts.

Employing an is a long-term arrangement; it is a key decision which directly affects your revenue and your reputation so choose which agency you work with very carefully.