Author: Jamar Ramos
As a business owner, you can only handle so many responsibilities. As your business expands, you’ll eventually need to delegate duties if you want to keep growing—this may include your SEO and digital marketing efforts.
To ensure your digital marketing continues to fuel your business, you have two choices:
Build an internal marketing department
Hire an external SEO and/or digital marketing agency to handle the work
Both have their advantages and disadvantages. In this article we’ll focus on how to choose between an in-house SEO team or outsourcing, and what to do if you decide to hire an SEO agency.
Table of contents:
When to hire an SEO agency
The best time to hire an SEO agency is before you need one. However, that usually doesn't happen—clients tend to hire help when they’re overwhelmed and well past needing assistance.
That’s okay, too. That’s still a great time to hire an SEO agency. While an urgent need for SEO help is common, it’s not the only reason you might look externally for support.
Tory Gray, CEO of The Gray Dot Company, says this about when to hire an agency:
“My favorite use case for brands leveraging agency support is for ‘deep’ expertise—those highly technical or specialized services that brands desire but don’t need full-time. While some brands need to staff a technical SEO, for example, many others only need periodic support.” — Tory Gray, The Gray Dot Company
According to Gray, some of the most common use cases for this include:
New social media channel exploration
Custom link building asset creation (calculators and similar tools)
“Whether it's monthly support or yearly, get the right people for the right jobs—in the right amounts!” Gray said, highlighting the flexibility of working with an external SEO agency.
It’s also common to hire an SEO agency when:
You’re not ranking well or getting enough traffic — If your website is not receiving enough traffic, then an SEO agency can help you identify the reasons why and create a strategy to increase traffic.
You don’t have the time or resources to manage SEO — SEO can be a time-consuming process. If you don't have the resources or expertise to manage it in-house, you can gain access to both by enlisting the help of an agency.
You need to stay ahead of your competition — If your competitors are investing in SEO and you’re not, then you could be losing out on potential traffic and customers. An agency can help you stay ahead of SEO industry trends, new best practices, and your competitors.
The benefits of hiring an SEO agency
I’ve already touched on a few benefits of hiring an SEO agency (above), but there are more reasons why doing so might be the right choice for your situation.
Time-to-hire can be quicker with an SEO agency
If you’re in immediate need of help, hiring an internal team member (or the entire team) might take too long. There are many things you need to do to hire an internal employee:
01. Create the job description
02. Publish the listing to job boards/websites
03. Collect resumes
04. Conduct interviews
05. Select a potential hire
06. Send the candidate an offer letter
07. Onboard the new team member to your company
After all of those steps (a process that will likely take months), they can start working for you. Hiring an agency is a bit easier because you don’t have to go through all of the above steps.
However, just because hiring an SEO agency can be relatively quick doesn’t mean you’ll see results quickly—SEO itself can take months before results start manifesting. If you need faster results, consider hiring an agency that also specializes in PPC services as well. PPC may not have the long-term return on investment (ROI) of SEO, but it can jumpstart your online visibility while you continue to focus on your organic efforts.
SEO agencies have specialized knowledge and experience
SEO agencies typically have a team of experts who specialize in various aspects of search engine optimization. They have extensive knowledge of the latest trends, techniques, and tools, and can apply them to help your website rank higher, bring in more traffic, and convert more customers.
There are also a number of specialized tasks that agencies handle, including site migrations, conversion rate optimization, and A/B testing. Not only can an agency partner help free up some of your time that might otherwise be spent performing these tasks (and learning how to perform them), they’ll probably be more efficient at them due to their breadth of experience (i.e., unlikely to make novice mistakes).
Beyond their SEO industry knowledge, agencies may also have experience working with other businesses in your vertical. Some agencies cater to a single vertical, whether that be SaaS, hospitality, cybersecurity, cryptocurrency, eCommerce, or others. Hiring one of these agencies ensures you have a partner that is not only focused on strategy, but also knows how to speak your vertical’s unique language. This means your strategies will be aligned with your vertical’s benchmarks, buying cycle lengths, and use cases.
Outsourcing can help you free up resources
What successful business owner wishes they were busier? Practically none. SEO can take time to both learn and execute, and hiring an agency can spare you (and your team) that time investment. For example, an agency can handle all the technical details of your site’s online visibility, freeing you to focus on running your business.
Hiring an SEO agency may also free up monetary resources as well. While hiring an SEO agency may seem like an added expense, it can actually be cost-effective in the long run. An agency’s monthly retainer can be lower than what you’d pay an internal SEO team to do the same tasks. With the savings, you can make hires elsewhere in your company or purchase additional equipment.
Consistently investing in SEO can be a competitive advantage
Working on your SEO is better than not working on it, and working on it consistently is even better.
Some businesses start and stop SEO work, while others ignore it altogether. Because SEO takes time, fixes may not start to yield results until months later, and websites that only sporadically tend to these issues will likely have more of a backlog to resolve. Ultimately, this can mean more time spent fixing problems than actually growing the business’s online presence.
If a business within your vertical fails to take SEO seriously, you can gain a competitive advantage over them when you consistently invest in SEO. Your website is in a better position to rank higher than your competitors, making it easier for potential customers to find you instead of them.
How to choose the right SEO agency
To figure out which type of SEO agency is best for you, you have to understand what your particular needs are—from marketing channels to contract length and even communication with your account manager.
Single-channel SEO agencies
If you know you only need help with your organic search marketing channel, it’s best to find an agency that caters to only that channel. That way, you’re likely to get a focused agency with experience in what you need.
In addition, working with a dedicated SEO agency might help to keep you away from additional services and upsells (in other marketing channels) that you previously may not have been interested in at all.
Multi-channel marketing agencies
Multi-channel digital marketing agencies offer various services to their clients, including:
Social media marketing
If you know you’ll need an agency that can handle more than one channel for you, or if you believe you’ll grow into needing multiple channels managed, this is the type of agency you should work with.
Enlisting one agency partner to handle multiple aspects of your marketing can be beneficial because the agency gets a more holistic view of your business and can leverage insights from one channel for another.
Some SEO agencies ask their clients to sign long-term contracts (six or more months). Some have month-to-month contracts. Others offer both. Let’s weigh out the benefits of each option.
Long-term contracts are good if your revenue is steady and you want to engage an SEO agency for 6–12 months (or more). This longer partnership allows an agency more time to understand your business, gather statistically significant data on your customized strategies, and maintain or pivot those strategies based on the data.
This can be especially true for SEO and content marketing strategies, which can take a while to build momentum and show positive trends. Retaining an agency that knows what they’re doing and can grow your strategies isn’t just valuable for now—it can be even more valuable the longer you work with them.
Month-to-month contracts are a good option if:
Your revenue is unsteady,
You want to test out your agency of choice,
Or, you only need marketing help for a limited amount of time.
One potential drawback of month-to-month contracts is the possibility of cutting an agency too early. As stated before, channels like SEO and content can take a little longer to show statistically significant progress. It can be easy to get impatient and fire an agency when it looks like its strategies aren’t progressing as quickly as you had initially expected.
After you’ve decided what type of contract best suits your situation, it’s time to think about your account manager.
It is important to get to know the account manager who will be working with you on your SEO. The account manager should be your main point of contact. They’re responsible for:
Understanding your business goals
Assisting in developing SEO strategies to meet those goals
Overseeing the execution of those strategies
Communicating progress to you (the client)
By getting to know the account manager, you can determine if they have the skills, expertise, and experience necessary to help achieve your goals. The SMB can ask questions about the account manager’s experience, their approach to developing a strategy, and their communication style to determine if they are the right fit.
If you don’t get along with the account manager, feel uncomfortable communicating with them, or don’t trust their expertise, it can lead to miscommunication, misunderstandings, and ultimately, an unsuccessful partnership.
Meeting your potential account manager while you shop for agencies can help determine whether you can work with the team and trust them to achieve your business goals.
The standard process for hiring an SEO agency
With the landscape of decision factors now laid out for you, let’s turn our discussion to the actual steps you’ll likely have to take when you approach an SEO agency.
01. Fill out a lead form
Most agencies have a call-to-action button on their website that takes you to a lead form.
Fill out the form and someone from the agency should contact you shortly to schedule a discovery call.
02. Meet the agency at the discovery/pitch call
Depending on how much information the agency collects on their form, they’ll reach out to you to schedule a discovery call or a pitch call. What’s the difference between the two?
Some SEO agencies will ask for a limited amount of information on their form—just enough to understand the channels that are most important to you, your company’s website, and a contact email so they can schedule a discovery call.
This call allows you and the agency to get to know each other and for the agency to learn more about your company.
After your discovery call (or after the agency collects the requisite information through their online form), they’ll schedule a pitch call with you.
During this call, the agency will present a customized SEO strategy based on your company’s goals and also present the price and terms of their services to you.
03. Choose your agency
After you’ve heard pitches from different agencies, it’s time to choose the one you want to work with. After you’ve chosen your agency, they’ll send you a contract that outlines:
The services you’ll receive,
The monthly retainer you’ll pay,
And the length of time for the relationship.
Common mistakes to avoid when hiring an SEO agency
Your particular needs and goals will heavily influence what SEO agency you partner with, but even so, it’s important to steer clear of some potential pitfalls that can negatively affect your success.
Looking for a bargain
The more you save on costs, the less an agency can offer you. At a certain point, the bargain isn’t worth the sacrifice.
When you hire an SEO or digital marketing agency, you’re hiring multiple people with numerous years in the industry. Due to their collective experience and success with prior clients, services will likely run you a couple of thousand dollars a month.
Not only are you paying for the hours your agency works with your company, but you’re also paying for the tech stack, the data reporting stack, and any proprietary technology the agency uses to enhance and automate its services.
Having unclear goals for the partnership
Before you hire an SEO agency, make sure you know what you want from the partnership.
What channels do you want the agency to manage?
What responsibilities within those channels do you want the SEO agency to handle?
Who will be their point of contact?
How do you want them to present their reports?
How often do you want the agency to send you reports?
How often do you want to meet with the agency?
These are all things you should have answers to before you start your SEO agency search since defining them can help you control the relationship. When you don’t know what you want or can’t clearly communicate what you want, it’s harder to cultivate a successful relationship. No matter how good an agency is, only you and your internal team know the intricacies of your business.
To that end, be explicit with your goals and needs, so your agency can devise strategies to achieve them. With regard to this point, Amalia Fowler of Good AF Consulting, an agency that works with local services businesses, had this to say:
“It isn’t only goals for the partnership you want to look for, but also someone who understands how to track the actual online goals you have in Google Analytics. Having a marketing partner who sticks to their channels and never looks at outside data to verify success can be a red flag.” — Amalia Fowler, Good AF Consulting
Having an unclear budget for ads
If you’re hiring an SEO agency, it’s common for them to bundle PPC alongside their services. If you ask them to run your paid ads (or enlist a dedicated PPC agency), you should have an established monthly budget in mind when engaging in a partnership. A consistent budget helps your agency in several ways:
Effective campaign planning
A well-defined budget allows your digital marketing agency to plan and execute effective campaigns that align with your business goals. By understanding the amount of money available for paid advertising, your agency can determine the best platforms, ad types, and targeting options to use for your campaigns.
With a clear budget in place, your digital marketing agency can ensure that they don't overspend on your campaigns. Overspending can result in wasted ad spend, inefficient targeting, and a negative ROI.
A clear paid ad budget allows your digital marketing agency to optimize your campaigns for maximum ROI. They can adjust bids, targeting, and ad creative to ensure that your ad spend is used effectively and efficiently.
Hiring an SEO agency without checking their experience and references
Just like hiring a full-time employee, you should check the references of any marketing agency you want to hire. Here are a few reasons why:
Ensure the agency can deliver results
You’re hiring an SEO agency to improve your company’s online presence and increase revenue. Therefore, it’s crucial to check references to ensure the agency has a track record of delivering results. The references should provide insight into the agency’s ability to achieve your goals.
“However, you don’t want to work with someone who promises the moon,” Fowler said. “When it comes to ads and channel management, there are too many external factors for someone to be able to promise specific results. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Assess service quality
Another factor to ask for references about is the quality of service the SEO agency offers. The references should give you an idea of how the agency interacts with its clients, its level of professionalism, and its overall approach to delivering services. If an agency can deliver results but is unprofessional and difficult to work with, you might choose to work with another agency.
Gauge their industry knowledge
SEO is constantly evolving, and you need to work with an agency that keeps up with the latest trends, technologies, and updates. References can help you assess the agency’s industry knowledge and its ability to stay up-to-date. This information is vital as it ensures the agency can provide innovative solutions to help your business achieve its goals.
Verify their credibility
Working with an SEO agency requires a significant investment, both in terms of time and money. So, ensure you are working with a reputable agency by asking for and checking references to verify the agency’s credibility and determine whether they are trustworthy and reliable.
Hiring an agency because they are local
If your company is a small brick-and-mortar business with a couple of locations in the same city, it might make sense to hire a local marketing agency. Otherwise, you can hire an agency from anywhere—generally speaking, there is no inherent advantage to hiring an SEO agency that is local to you.
As a matter of fact, looking more widely may yield more SEO agencies that are potentially suitable for your budget/goals.
What to expect when partnering with an SEO agency
Once you’re ready to hire an agency, knowing what you can expect from them can help the first weeks run smoothly. Let’s dig into a couple of the first steps you can expect the agency to take.
Most agencies will have some onboarding forms for you to fill out. The forms are used to gather:
Additional information about your company
Your current digital marketing campaigns and channels
Updates on products or services you offer
Any other data the SEO agency might need to add to the strategies they presented during the pitch call
Analytics and reporting
Your historical data can help inform the additional strategies your SEO agency develops for you during the onboarding phase (to go with the ones they formulated for the pitch meeting).
The agency also needs to see up-to-date data to gauge the effectiveness of the SEO efforts you’re running together and to provide regular reports highlighting key performance indicators and their progress. These reports provide insights into how impactful the strategies have been toward achieving your business goals and if any changes need to be made.
You should also talk to your agency about how you want them to report to you. Most agencies build PowerPoint or Google Sheets presentations, but you should work with them to customize the layout of those decks to highlight the most important metrics.
Additional strategy development
Once the agency can access your internal data, it can develop a more comprehensive strategy for your business.
The strategy it presents during the pitch call is usually based on the limited information you can give them before a contract and NDAs are signed. Examples of these additional strategies can include:
Conversion rate optimization
Once an agency has a deeper look into your analytics, including your conversion data, they can offer recommendations to optimize the process. This can include refreshing the content on your transaction pages, ensuring that pages have internal links pointing to them from other pages on your site, and making transaction buttons more visible and easier to access.
User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design are important components of website design and development. Again, once an SEO agency has access to your analytics, they can see which of your pages are seen the most, which should be seen the most, and offer optimizations.
These optimizations can help ensure that your website is easy to use and navigate, and that the design is visually appealing and consistent with your brand identity—ultimately, these elements work together to improve your user engagement and conversions.
The initial strategies are just to get started. Every quarter, based on data they’ve collected and your business goals, your agency should present a couple of new strategies they want to execute in addition to the successful ones they want to continue.
Everyone needs a helping hand from time to time
Hiring an SEO agency can seem daunting, but if you make sure you’re ready for their help, know what service(s) you want them to manage, verify their references, and get to know them during the discovery or pitch calls, it’ll be easier to make the right choice.
After that, it’s up to the agency to provide the strategies and execution to achieve your business goals.
Jamar Ramos - Content Marketer
Jamar Ramos is a 10-year digital marketing veteran with SEO, content marketing, and social media marketing experience. He enjoys writing, playing volleyball, and fighting back against anyone who claims that Shakespeare isn't the greatest writer to ever put pen to paper.