Choosing a search agency. 10 simple questions to distinguish the 'dream teams' from the 'donkeys'!
When selecting a new search agency there are, of course, the basic questions that most clients will ask. You know the sort, those normal questions that agencies are expecting and can prepare for – about things like ‘proven case studies’, ‘client list’, ‘client testimonials’, ‘ethical standards’ ‘in-house or outsourced’…
These questions alone, though, won’t always be enough for you to distinguish the men from the boys, the cream from the cowboys, the dream teams from the donkeys.
What you could really do with, we figured, is a few tricky ones in your armoury that will really get under the skin of the proposition, a few killer questions that just might reveal those beads of perspiration on the brow of even the most confident of pitch presenters.
So here goes, our 10 questions that are designed to do exactly that. We hope you find it useful. And just by way of giving you a benchmark, we have taken the liberty of briefly explaining how we at Further approach each of these areas.
1. “How do you report your results to your clients?”
Communication between search agencies and clients has never been the best. We hear horror stories from clients who have dealt with other ‘agencies’ in the past all the time. Some have never met, let alone had a call from, the agency once the work has been signed. (Yes, sadly it’s true.) Others have never had any kind of regular reporting to rely on. Yet it is important that you know exactly how your campaign is performing. Vitally important. Therefore, we’d strongly advise you ask this question and get an agreement on reporting before signing anything contractually.
At Further we email every client every month with;
i) a full dashboard report detailing traffic numbers and its source by search term and search engine
ii) a rankings report which shows current ranking position for each keyterm you are chasing compared with last month’s position.
iii) a Summary written by the SEO team explaining the progress during the month and on the revenue gained from our organic search activity.
As of March 2010, all Further clients will also be able to access ‘live’ reports 24/7 which detail progress across the period of your campaign, right down to the value of each keyword.
We believe SEO agencies should not simply be judged on rankings, but on the ROI they achieve for their clients. After all, it can be very easy to gain top positions for some terms, but if those terms do not convert for you, then there is little value coming back to you. You are still paying your SEO agency, yet receiving no enquiries or revenue.
Ideally, when working with ecommerce sites we will have full analytics access, which allows us to report on return on investment so you can instantly assess the value of our expertise.
2. “Who will be physically carrying out our work?”
In some agencies you may not meet the person who actually does the work, just the sales person. That way, you’ll never know whether you are receiving senior or junior level attention, or if your work is simply being outsourced.
At Further we have what we believe is a more client-friendly structure. There is the SEO professional who is responsible for your work, and then there is your Account Manager who is there to look after you on a day to day basis. We are happy for you to meet both of the people who are responsible for making your account successful.
All of the Further SEO team are experienced professionals with a proven track record in search, so you know the profitability of your account will not be in the hands of a Junior.
3. “How many clients do they handle per month?”
The SEO professional who carries out your work will more often than not have other clients he or she will be responsible for. However, if the agency has 200 clients and only 10 SEO professionals, then chances are you won’t be getting a great deal of attention, no matter what their proposal states. Do the sums!
At Further each SEO professional will have a small number of accounts they are responsible for as we are conscious of the need for every client to have the necessary time spent on their account in order for us to hit their targets and retain clients longer term.
Another added advantage of working with Further is that each account will also benefit from the input of other members of the team from time to time, in order to bring new innovative solutions to the account to keep you ahead of your competition.
4. “What is the strategy?”
Real strategy will be a term that is alien to some search providers. However, the only way an agency can achieve your goals is to apply some science. They should know about your business, your objectives, your competition for search positions. By researching and mapping you against your competitors, they should be able to work out what it will take to hit your target. The resulting strategy should outline the activity month by month and indicative expectations from the campaign. That strategy should be bespoke to you, and not an off-the-shelf programme.
5. “How does the monthly cost relate to your input?”
Often your proposal will state a monthly SEO retainer cost. Don’t be afraid to ask exactly how this is split down to ensure you are getting full value from your investment.
At Further, we ensure that if we say your account requires, for example, 6 days a month, then it will be worked on by the SEO team for at least 6 days a month. The day to day services of the Account Manager are included in this retainer cost and do not eat into your SEO budget. We invest in Client Services because it leads to longer, stronger, closer client relationships, so it is in our interests to do so.
6. “Are you working for anyone else in my sector?”
On one hand it may sound great if an agency is already working within your sector, especially if they have performed well as it will give you the reassurance that they know your industry. But while knowing and working in your industry is great, you have to be very careful if they are currently working with a direct competitor of yours and chasing the same keyterms. After all, there can only be one No.1!
Unless you have an agreement for keyword exclusivity, then this is not an ethical situation and one you should think very carefully about. So, in summary, it can sometimes be a help if the agency knows your industry, and if they have had a good track record with a past client who is a competitor. However, beware if they are currently contracted to a keyword-comparative competitor. You can do without a provider with split loyalties.
7. “How often would we meet to review strategy and results?”
Any agency worth its salt will offer its clients face-to-face meetings at set points during the campaign to discuss results, activity, changes in the market place and to agree any new direction in the strategy which may be required. Again, this is an area you should interrogate the agency on and ensure it is part of your agreement, because it is crucial that all stakeholders are understanding of the progress and the strategy being followed.
At Further we always offer client review meetings and the frequency of these meetings will depend on the nature of the campaign and client. Some clients meet with us twice a year, others every three or four months.
8. “ How many of your clients have been with you longer than a year?”
Admittedly search, because it is relatively new in the relative scheme of things and has an element of the intangible about it, has a tendency for churn. Love it as we do, it is admittedly not as sexy or real as a clever, beautifully shot double page spread in colour with your logo on it – a masterpiece that you can proudly show around the office.
Having said that, there’s churn and there’s churn – and some SEO agencies are far better at pleasing and retaining their clients than others. Whether it is via results alone, or client service and communication allied to performance, client retention is a pretty fair way to distinguish between agencies.
At Further 82% of clients who came on board before December 2008 are still with us over a year later.
9.”If we don’t like you, when can we get out?”
We come across potential new clients who are ‘locked’ into expensive contracts long after the relationship has broken down irrevocably. Is this really fair on both parties?
At Further we look at things differently. We believe we perform better when we enjoy healthy, open and honest relationships with our clients. Therefore, as SEO often requires an initial few months before its performance can be measured properly, we offer clients the opportunity to cancel at pre-set points.
10. “Will you guarantee us rankings positions?
”The trick question, of course. While we would all love to say ‘yes’ to this, no agency on this planet can guarantee organic search rankings. If they say they can, then throw them out straight away, there’s no more to say.
Just maybe this should have been the first question! It could save you a lot of wasted time!