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How to Choose an Ecommerce SEO Agency: What to Look Out For

You know you could do more to increase organic traffic, you don’t have time or internal expertise to do it, and you’ve decided to hire an SEO agency. You know what to ask them — if not, check out part 1 of this series: What to ask an Ecommerce SEO Agency — and you’ve set up consultations with a few prospective agencies you found online.

It’s about time you know what to be on the lookout for.

Like every area of digital marketing, SEO has its share of shady practitioners and deceptive sales tactics.

What to Look Out For:

Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of reputable marketing agencies who do fantastic work, and I highly suggest you go with a recommended service. Regardless of who the agency is, though, it’s good to be armed with a checklist of factors that, if encountered, warrant a follow-up question or two.

1. The Fly-By-Night SEO

When you’re not intimately familiar with a topic, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking someone else is an expert. By just using SEO lingo and throwing together a respectable website, anyone can claim to be a bonafide SEO expert. Keep an eye out for the 5 following signs to spot an SEO imposter:

  • Short history: Agencies that have been in business for less than two years could be a red flag. Yes, maybe you’re getting a fantastic deal by going with the SEO equivalent of Michael Jordan in his rookie year . . . but you may also be the guinea pig for someone’s side-business experiment. If you really get good vibes from such an agency, make sure you talk to references and see examples of their work before moving forward.

  • Missing information: No contact information on their website, lack of yellowpage/Google local listings and no social media are all signs you may be dealing with an imposter. These outlets allow for social proof through reviews and number of fans. If they are non-existent, so might be the business.

  • Poor design or SEO: Anyone who offers to help with your SEO better have spotless SEO themselves. Lazy site design is another sign that a website was thrown together with the intent of taking advantage of ecommerce websites seeking quick, inexpensive help.

  • Cold calls: Blindly calling potential clients may be an indication that an agency values quantity over quality. Be especially critical of agencies who reach out to you without a formal introduction.

  • Inexperienced employees: Get business cards and look up the SEO experts themselves on LinkedIn to make sure they’ve done this before — preferably many times. A small number of junior employees at an agency is quite common, but if a so-called “SEO expert” was selling can openers door-to-door two months ago, you may want to run in the other direction.

2. Performance Guarantees

Organic search is governed by proprietary search engine algorithms that are vaguely understood by the outside world — and that’s being generous. Smart SEOs are optimistic about the possibility but always frame the conversation within a lens of uncertainty. When agencies offer up specific performance guarantees, it’s a big red flag. These include:

  • Ranking: Simply put, there’s no way to guarantee rankings. A site can be perfectly optimized for important terms, and an agency could forecast that it *may* eventually rank in the top half of Google SERPs for money keywords. But, ensuring #1 rankings is overconfidence at its worst.

  • Exact number of new links: When an agency guarantees a specific number of links, it means one of two things: 1. They are lying; 2. Even worse – they have paid links lined up. These can do irreparable harm to a website’s search engine performance and are one of the surest signs that you should run — not walk — away from an agency.

  • Visits: Like rankings, directional forecasts are entirely different than boasting specific visit volume. If an agency can accurately predict that, I need to talk to them!

  • Conversions: It’s one thing to say that optimizations should lead to more sales, but to guarantee specific numbers is an outright lie.

An SEO Agency’s role is to identify opportunities and optimizations that increase qualified traffic to your online store. Be sure your consultant explains their strategy and why they’re confident it will be an effective one. Instead of performance guarantees, set benchmarks for success: how much revenue should organic search be generating in 3, 6, 9 months? Keep in mind — SEO is a long-term game. Look for examples of comparable work that show a firm’s experience in driving visitors who convert.

3. The Unknown Foreign Agency

SEO is a worldwide practice, and experts with amazing depth of knowledge reside in all corners of the globe. Differing exchange rates and going market prices can make overseas agencies a great deal, and I know of many companies who’ve had fantastic experiences with SEO professionals from Europe, Asia, and South America. But be warned: the ever-present need for SEO services has inevitably led to the presence of dishonest people who prey on North American companies eager for a good deal. SEO is no different than anything else — you get what you pay for.

Established foreign agencies are often not much more affordable than domestic offerings because they pay for top talent who can do an exceptional job optimizing an ecommerce website. Cheaper options tend to employ folks with little or no SEO experience, which can be a huge waste of time and money on your part. Be extra cautious when considering a foreign agency and be sure to talk to references and ask the right questions. With a bit of extra homework, you could land a great deal on a fantastic agency.

4. The SEO Switcheroo

The oldest agency trick in the book — regardless of what’s being offered — is the one to be most wary of. All agencies want to turn prospects into clients by putting their best foot forward, but some resort to bait-and-switch tactics in order to accomplish this. When a highly-regarded or experienced SEO expert is being cited as proof of an agency’s proficiency, make sure to clarify who will actually be doing the work. Yes, it’s a good sign when an agency employs industry veterans, but it may not do you a world of good if they never interface with your account.

acity. Everyone has to start somewhere, and a lot of hands-on SEO work doesn’t require years and years of experience to do a great job on. Great leaders know when to delegate, and senior optimization wizards are no different. Like any contract, transparency is key: know what to expect, and be sure to get face time with the account lead on a regular basis. If you’re sold on a rock star, don’t sign a deal until you know the work will match the expectation.

SEO is a top priority for online businesses because, unlike other acquisition channels –– i.e. PPC, display and retargeting –– SEO drives completely free traffic. Well, almost free. Optimizing your site, creating quality content and adhering to best practices takes time, and it’s not always feasible for every business to bring that function in-house.

SEO agencies allow you to get this vital work accomplished without having to worry about onboarding additional employees. But, while agencies are convenient, they come with some inherent risk as well. Do a quick Google search and you’ll come back with more than a few SEO agency horror stories. Choosing the right agency, i.e. the one which does quality work and truly aligns with your company’s vision, is an absolute must –– and not just because of those horror stories. Poor SEO does a lot more than not benefit you –– it can do irreparable damage to your website.

Things To Ask Prospective Agencies:

In part one of this series, we’ll look at three key questions to ask prospective agencies to help you narrow down options and find the best fit for your business.

1. What similar work have you done?

While many SEO best practices transcend web verticals, industry-specific knowledge can be the difference between the first and second page of Google SERPs. Optimizing a car dealer’s website, for example, entails an entirely different strategy than an online clothing store. Ecommerce optimization has intricacies and special considerations that agencies should have proven experience in if they’re to be entrusted with the key to your castle.

Within ecommerce, different spaces have their own challenges. If you sell shoes, enlisting the help of an agency with clothing ecommerce experience is recommended because they already know what to look out for. Agencies will gladly take on any work, but it’s important to know that they’ve done something similar to your business. They need to have examples they can show you, and don’t be afraid to call the company and ask for a reference as well.

At the same time, a great agency knows that every client brings unique challenges. Adaptability is just as –– if not more so –– important as relevant experience because it demonstrates their ability to analyze the competitive space and employ the right tactics. While experience in ecommerce should be a must have, domain-specific knowledge isn’t necessarily a make-or-break factor. Just make sure you don’t let them sell you on adaptability when their entire portfolio consists of optometrists in Northwest Kansas.

Links are one of the primary foundations of SEO, and great online marketers don’t just wait for other websites to find them: they utilize link building to expedite the process.

The downside? When done improperly, backlinks are one of the easiest ways to incur a Google penalty. Worse, sketchy backlinks are an easy way for the ill-intentioned agency to get quick results, only to leave you by the side of the road when Google swoops in. Your number one priority in choosing an SEO agency is finding a firm that works with your long-term prospects in mind, and links are a classic case of short-term gain, long-term loss. Even if you determine that link building isn’t something you want help with, it’s an effective means to evaluate an agency’s values.

Of course, there are perfectly legitimate ways to build quality links, all revolving around creating content that people want. Link building isn’t always an agency responsibility, but the topic will invariably be broached. Good answers to this question could include:

  • Promotions: Reach out to niche websites whenever you have a big sale or offer significant discounts. If you sell shoes, contact webmasters of shoe blogs to see if they’ll tell their readers about your sale.

  • Content marketing: If you have –– or plan to create –– informative content, your best bet is to promote it on social media and reach out to industry leaders who can share your great work. Informative content is not product listing content. Blogs, white papers, LinkedIn posts and Medium articles all have something to offer besides the potential to generate sales.

On the subject of content, many agencies are able to produce category page blurbs, blog posts and other texts that target important terms for your business. While you may handle writing internally, it’s also common for agencies to do the creative work for you. Find out more about how the agency will actually get this done.

  • Who will actually write the content? Maybe they hire former journalists who can whip up tantalizing, keyword-rich content –– or maybe they outsource to an overseas content farm. These are very important differentiations.

  • Can you show me an example of content you’ve written? More important than how it’s done is what it looks like and how it reads. High quality, informative and engaging content earns the most organic backlinks. If you aren’t producing this type of content, you’re wasting both your and your readers’ (i.e. your potential customers’) time.

3. How do you execute SEO in alignment with company goals?

If SEO professionals ruled the world, every title tag would be keyword rich, websites would have comprehensive menus and strong interlinking, and the entire marketing strategy would revolve around flawless SEO. Alas, that is not the case. Like any professional situation, it’s an agency’s job to understand their environment and make suggestions within it.

Agencies who go on and on about moonshot projects that would never get executive sign-off are best avoided. Sure, those ideas might be great in theory, but you can usually tell right of the bat if suggested strategies have a long-shot chance of coming to fruition. Establish objectives and constraints early on to determine how the agency will help you achieve them. These should include:

  • Short and long-term goals: Do you want a particular product page to rank well? Need a time-sensitive campaign to take off? Or, do you simply want the best possible SEO performance across your website? Establish project scope early on so that proposed agency initiatives fit in with your needs.

  • Technological impediments: Before an agency can suggest any deliverables with confidence, they need to know what you’re working with. From CMS to engineering resources, their success is closely tied to how changes are made on your website.

  • Budget: It may sound obvious, but it’s uncomfortably easy to let an agency sell you on their high aspirations –– only to find out that your budget doesn’t match. Let an agency sell you on what they can do within the comfy confines of reality, not a best-case, impracticable solution.

Another important consideration is how a prospective agency factors brand into their work. A relevant term with high search volume may violate your brand playbook, and establishing these restrictions off-the-bat is key to choosing an agency. Branding guidelines may extend to menus, links on page and a number of other website components with SEO impact. A great agency will ask for this before they start, demonstrating their desire for a collaborative, brand conscious effort.

Don’t Underestimate SEO

SEO is most effective when ingrained into your company’s marketing DNA. Relying on it too much up front can produce overly-optimized, off-brand pages, while seeking SEO touch-ups after completing the planning and creative will likely land your website in Google purgatory. Outsourcing your SEO makes this alignment tougher, but far from impossible.

Evaluate an agency with the same general criteria as you would to hire an employee or select a business partner.  Look for proper experience, integrity and the desire to do things the right way. Interview each option, get a list of reference, call those references and be sure that your objectives and what the agency can accomplish (both their verbal commitment as well as their historic accomplishments) are aligned.

Choosing an SEO agency is ultimately no different than hiring a plumber to mend leaky pipes, or finding a construction firm to remodel your kitchen. The vast array of choices will always include some subpar options — and even flat-out swindlers. As always, knowledge is power. Use these pointers in your vendor review process and make sure you feel good about the agency who can ultimately make or break your online store. Take your time selecting an agency and don’t be afraid to consult your network if something doesn’t sound right.