The ONLY Question You Need to Ask Prospective SEO Vendors

Last week was particularly painful – I reviewed a $1,700 a month FindLaw site with pages carelessly duplicated. I looked at a firm paying $800 a month for SEO for a website without H1s. I analyzed a site with a $50,000 price tag (yes – four zeros) that didn’t have a robots.txt file. So, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of self-proclaimed SEO “experts” who wouldn’t know the difference between a canonical tag and a fluffernutter. But The premise of this article assumes you can do a decent job weeding out the flagrant SEO charlatans and social media marketing consultants guaranteeing Pinterest followers will catapult you to the top of the search results and instead addresses the more important question:

How do you identify an advanced agency from those that are merely competent?

I’ve written a few times about how to vet an SEO provider…

…but I think those articles may be overthinking the key point.

To answer this question, I’m looking to the tactical focus of our engagements for large firms in heavily competitive markets. Once we’ve completed the Janitorial SEO phase – cleaning up all of the pre-existing technical, content, penalty and platform disasters – we move into a maintenance phase. And during this phase roughly 70% of a client’s investment goes towards linkbuilding. So its obvious to me…the only important question you need to ask when looking for a genuinely advanced agency:

Describe your most effective linkbuilding campaign over the past three months.

Know that there is no singular right answer to this question – but thematically you are listening for a few things.

  1. Creativity – effective linkbuilding entails a creative approach to stories, facts and opportunities to generate stories for a highly interested (and online) audience. You are looking for someone who can either generate a unique perspective commenting on existing stories, or, better yet, be active in actually generating the news. Fundamentally – listen for someone taking a creative angle on a story or even a unique approach to the content medium – infographics, video or unusual content.
  2. Collaboration – without a doubt, our most successful linkbuilding campaigns involve deep cooperation with our clients. They know their issues, stories and perspectives better than we do – and we facilitate creativity through brainstorming sessions that include the client directly.
  3. Outreach – great content alone is impotent if no one reads it. “Content is King” is one of the lies lazy SEOs tell their clients – shifting the responsibility of the failure of an SEO campaign to their clients for not blogging enough. (See SEO Regicide, Content the King is Dead for more.) Find an agency who is able to identify raving fans and has an outreach plan for reaching those raving fans through social, email, phone or even traditional PR. Our most recent linkbuilding coup included a $17,000 spend with a PR agency that generated stories and links from places like the New York Times, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal’s Law Bog, as well as 40 other sites.
  4. Timeliness – in many cases, great stories are fleeting – so being able to jump on issues, turn around content and execute on outreach quickly is extremely important.
  5. Failure – note that high-end linkbuilding isn’t guaranteed. At least half of the time efforts are going to fall flat. (And just 10%-20% of the time, agencies deliver a home run.) Experienced agencies know this and should prepare clients for this possibility.
  6. Variety – a strong, organic backlink profile is built through a variety of tactics; agencies who rely on a singular approach to linkbuilding are often walking you towards a penalty.

Of course, you want to avoid like the plague, agencies who promise links, guarantee links, offer to buy links, or suggest in any way that they have a simple, scaleable solution to a complex, unscalable challenge.

Don’t expect to be able to hire someone who can engage in advanced linkbuilding at $500 a month or even $2,000 a month. This is hard, creative, uncertain work – it requires experience, brainstorming, contacts, writing panache, timing and a heavy heavy dose of luck to be successful. It’s an ongoing process

Also note that some Big Box website and SEO vendors are able to easily slot your site into a network of domains they control to generate links back to you. This is flagrantly against Google’s best practices and I’ve dealt with more sites than I care to count where the Janitorial SEO phase has lasted for months as we’ve dug a site out from a penalty. BUT…currently these networks can be effective when implemented by the more crafty Big Box providers. Law firms pay for the value of these links through exorbitant “hosting” costs that run into the hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars a month, when the actual cost should be between $5 and $29. Note that this is a risky approach – my take is that it’s a matter of when, not if, the sites get burned. Additionally, leave the vendor, and those links will slowly disappear from your backlink profile – leaving your site impotent.