“61% of marketers say improving SEO and growing their organic presence is their top inbound marketing priority” – Hubspot
But which is best, and why?
If these questions are on your mind, then this guide is for you.
SEO Services, Explained. What’s in the guide:
- Benefits of SEO and when to use alternative options like AdWords
- Why finding the right SEO provider can be tricky
- Client education and getting results – you need both
- The four pillars of SEO
- SEO activities to expect when working with an agency
- Client responsibilities when working with an agency
- SEO price vs. cost
- SEO agency pricing
- Agency vs. inhouse
- Timeframes for results with SEO
- 5 useful questions to assess SEO providers
- 2 additional video resources for choosing an SEO agency
Why this guide exists:
SEO services are offered in two ways: the right way and the wrong way.
The right way is the high road. It’s where both the agency and client commit to making the website an outstanding and popular resource online. A resource that deserves to be ranked by search engines.
The wrong way is the low road. It’s where the agency uses tricks and software systems to fool Google – for a while. Then everything comes tumbling down.
If you are new to buying SEO, you need to know how to navigate your options.
Benefits of SEO and when to use alternative options like AdWords (top)
The Search marketing channel provides a strong value proposition for marketers:
- Connect with people who are actively searching for your products and services – great!
- At the precise moment they are most interested – great!
- In an always on, 24/7 way – great!
And because the only person who can see a search result is someone who triggered it, search cuts-through. People who search want info from you. They have dropped everything else they could be doing to search.
If your website can serve these people well and convert browsers into buyers, that’s a powerful competitive advantage.
But, please keep this in mind:
You do not need to do SEO to be in search results.
You can be in search results, right now, for the keywords you choose by using Google’s advertising platform, AdWords.
AdWords is exceptionally powerful and can deliver outstanding ROI and profit margin when correctly configured. Many marketers just use AdWords, not really caring about SEO, and have great success.
Versus SEO, AdWords is probably right for you if:
- You have never done search marketing before and want to test the channel for feasibility
- You want fast results that start in days, not months
- You want something you can switch on and off, or up and down, as required
- You don’t want to make big changes to your website
You might be thinking: “AdWords sounds good, so why do people still choose to do SEO?”
Here is why SEO is still worth it:
- Unlimited keyword targeting. AdWords ads use a cost-per-click model with an associated daily budget for clicks. If that budget for clicks exhausts, ads stop showing until the budget refreshes the next day. AdWords advertisers must therefore make careful decisions about the keywords they want to target and which ones they are willing to sacrifice by not targeting. SEO allows you target all the keywords you want, as much as you want. The potential with SEO is unlimited.
- Not time-bound. AdWords advertisers with a limited budget often have to settle for only showing ads part of the time to avoid their budget exhausting quickly, whether between certain hours of the day or for 1 in every 3, 5, 10 (etc.) searches. Organic search results, which are influenced by SEO, show all the time. For every click ad click on Google, there are 20 clicks to an organic result.
- Ad blocker proof. AdWords ads get blocked by ad blockers. Ad blockers only allow the organic results to show. As ad blockers rise in popularity, organic click-through-rates increase. 1 in 4 Australians use ad blockers (IAB)
- More credible to people searching. Searchers understand the difference between an ad and the organic results. Because the organic results are selected by Google, they carry an implied endorsement effect of being the best result for the search. There is no user scepticism that “this is just an ad”.
- Builds in value over time and not easy to duplicate. Any of your competitors can create an AdWords account and start showing ads. Few competitors can do what it takes to succeed with SEO, which builds in value over time as the site ranks for more and more keywords. For these reasons, SEO is a competitive barrier of entry and multiplies the value of a business. Strong SEO ultimately provides the ability to generate new customers at a lower cost than competitors, at scale. Two clients Reef has provided SEO agency services for, Menulog and OrderIn, have successfully sold their businesses and their SEO visibility would have been of major appeal to the purchasers.
Why finding the right SEO provider is trickier than expected (top)
Here’s an exaggerated but common scenario. Imagine you are talking to two SEO providers.
The first provider says “SEO is complex, will require a lot of effort from you as the client and us as the agency, and will take time to show results.” The right way.
The second provider says “Guaranteed rankings in 90 days or we work for free into perpetuity until you start ranking. You don’t need to do anything other than sign this contract. You can then sit back, relax and enjoy dominating the top of Google while your website skyrockets to the top of search results. You don’t need to do anything because we’ve developed a secret formula for SEO. Oh, and only whitehat techniques, of course”. The wrong way.
People, innocently, fall for the wrong way all the time. The pitch is just too slick. You can’t blame them.
But the fact is that the wrong way of doing SEO is so damn risky. Just a few months of a bad SEO company ‘working’ on your site can ruin its reputation with Google for years, banishing it to the backwaters of search results at great cost to repair.
Why go through all this risk when AdWords is right there as an option?
Some will say “AdWords is too expensive”. What I think that means is “AdWords traffic isn’t making a sufficient return because it’s not converting well enough.” If that’s the case, focus on fixing issues with traffic quality and conversion rate. Once that’s done, then do SEO (the right way).
Client education and getting results – you need both (top)
SEO services are typically delivered in ongoing engagements, where a team of people with different skill sets important to SEO helps the client understand what to do, why, how, and then gets it done.
This is an ongoing process that takes several months, sometimes years. To make this relationship work, the agency needs to do two important things:
- Provide client education. Teach the client about SEO so they become highly competent with the channel and its requirements
- Get results. Deliver on the marketing goals of the engagement
Both items are important, but the client education one is most often overlooked.
A great agency takes clients on a learning journey with SEO. The agency is the guide, helping the client to understand and enjoy the SEO process. The savvier the client gets with SEO, the faster the agency will get sign-off on big ideas, the higher level the conversations will be, the easier it will be to get SEO workflow items processed and the more everyone will get done.
The core of the engagement. What makes the numbers line up. What keeps ‘The Board’ happy.
To get results with SEO, we need to talk, briefly, about how search engines work.
Search engines are powered by algorithms that use artificial intelligence and machine learning to:
- Figure out what you want when you search
- Get it to you, fast
(Emphasis on you because search results are becoming increasingly personalised, something to keep in mind and expect more of.)
Within these processes are ranking factors, which are the criteria search engines use to evaluate web pages.
These ranking factors have been formulated over the past 20+ years, carefully revised and iterated to make results better for the person searching.
There are excellent resources online for understanding SEO ranking factors, one by one. And if you’re an SEO professional, you’ve probably studied them.
But the fact is that, as a client, you don’t need to know every ranking factor. You just need to know what search engines value in a quality web result – the intent of what these ranking factors measure – and you’ll be doing it automatically.
We call these…
The four pillars of SEO (top)
Here are the four most important areas of work you should get in an SEO engagement:
- Technical. Does the site work well?
- Content. Does the site have appropriate content matching what people are searching for?
- Authority. Is the site credible? Can search engines measure this credibility?
- User Engagement. Do people want to click-through and stay on this website?
If you are working with an SEO agency, your need activity in each area. Miss an area and your results will suffer.
You should receive:
- Technical assistance, to flag any issues holding your site back
- Content advice and production, with guidance about how people are searching for your products, services and topic
- Authority building efforts, like developing new mentions of your brand online and incoming links to your site from reputable sources and influential people
- User engagement improvements, so that when people see your site in search results, they click-through more often, and when they land on your site for the first time, they stick around
For this reason, choose an agency offering a complete approach, and be wary of agencies who neglect a key area.
SEO activities to expect when working with an agency (top)
If you would like more detail about the types of actions within each category, they follow.
Project management matters.
Because SEO requires multiple people working together, the SEO agency you work with should have a project management system in place for streamlining workflows and getting high-value work done.
It’s all about co-creation.
It is impossible for an SEO agency to do good work without working closely with the client.
- If an agency is going to do Technical work, the agency needs to work closely with the client so everyone knows what change are being made, when, where, why and by whom, with a quality assurance and bug checking process in place
- If an agency is going to be producing Content, the agency needs to work closely with the client so that the client’s unique brand voice shines through
- If an agency is going to be building Authority with activities like link building, the agency needs to work closely with the client to ensure that link campaigns target relevant, high-quality, reputable sources
- If an agency is going to be influencing User Engagement, the agency needs to work closely with the client to make the changes necessary to improve searcher click-through-rates and first impressions
If an SEO agency is presenting themselves as able to do work on their own, without much input from the client, be concerned. This is a red flag because the types of activity an agency can do without involving the client usually involve violating Google’s guidelines (click this link and scroll half way down this page to see what not to do!)
Let’s talk about each of the 4 SEO pillars in more detail.
Technical is all about making sure your website works, really well. That is:
- Does it load fast?
- Is it secure?
- Can search engines, and users, easily discover and interpret all the pages you want indexed?
- Is the site error free? i.e. no broken links, broken pages (404s), or server problems?
Fixing technical problems is foundational to SEO success. There’s little point doing other activities if the site isn’t working correctly, which is why technical items should be addressed as one of the first orders of business in an SEO engagement, then monitored on an ongoing basis.
Technical SEO involves using specialty SEO tools to check for items like:
- HTML coding mistakes. HTML code provides a structure where important elements of your website such as your headline, paragraphs, lists, etc. are labelled. For example, your headings should use the heading tag. Your paragraphs should use the paragraph tag. Your lists should use one of the list tags, and so on.
- If the labelling isn’t done correctly, the search engine can misunderstand the contents on your website. Making sure your website is correctly labelled makes it much easier for the search engine, improving the chances your website will be properly classified in the index.
- Something to be aware of is that page elements can look fine because they are styled correctly, but lack the proper labelling behind the scenes.
- Broken links and pages. Broken links and pages impact the search engine as well as visitors, so understanding what’s broken now, identifying the cause and creating a plan to fix makes for better SEO and user experience.
- Duplicate content. If you have a website that uses a content management system (CMS), sometimes you’ll find that the same content can appear on multiple URLs across the site. Search engines don’t know which version of the content is the right one to rank, and if there’s lots and lots of duplicate content, search engines can abandon their crawl of the site.
- Page speed items. Everyone loves a fast loading site, especially on mobile. Recommendations around compressing large images, tidying up large blocks of code, examining server speeds and browser caching all contribute to speeding up your site.
- Security issues. It’s becoming more and more important to upgrade to secure protocols, which is why you see a lot of sites moving from HTTP to HTTPS (the S stands for Secure). That aside, the internet is like the wild west sometimes and as such, we’ve found all sorts of exploits and problems on client websites, which impacts the trustworthiness of the site.
- Page descriptions. Search engines examine certain parts of your website to develop an understanding of what the page is about. Critically, this includes your Page Title, Meta Description and URL, all of which should follow established formats and include priority keywords.
- Sitemaps. Sitemaps list out all the URLs you want the search engine to crawl. Sometimes, these sitemaps aren’t up to date or are incomplete. Other times, they are missing entirely.
- And more…
Technical items should be prioritised by importance, then added into developer workflows. The SEO consultant should guide and assist the development team throughout.
The SEO agency should also be able to draw a line between what’s really valuable to do and what’s not. The worst SEOs keep the dev team busy with low value items in the name of best practices, wasting time and money.
People search to find answers, to find content. Every second, Google processes about 40,000 searches. That’s a lot of demand for content.
The people doing this searching want content that is:
- Relevant to what they are searching for
- Useful for helping them accomplish the task at hand
- Credible, so they trust it
Your website should have a content strategy to serve your users and offer new content for search engines to rank. The more substance your website has, the more ranking opportunity.
Broadly speaking, content has two main roles:
- To educate, engage, persuade and entertain your audience, moving them through the buying and customer journeys
- To make your website relevant to keywords people are searching for
In order to produce effective content that matches the needs of audiences, search engines and the business, the SEO agency should:
- Talk to you about the audiences who are most important to your business and marketing objectives
- Organise these audiences into personas if appropriate, which are fictional representations of each main audience segment
- Get into the mindset of each persona to understand what they are trying to achieve when they search and the types of information they are likely to be looking for
- Conduct keyword research using the Google AdWords Keyword Tool and the range of other keyword research tools to see which keywords are the most important and valuable to target
- Work with you to improve your content, whether that be through optimising your current content or co-creating new content entirely, to target these keywords effectively
Because of how important content is to modern SEO, many agencies hire people with backgrounds in journalism.
Authority is a metric that sums up how credible your website is as a source of information online. It is an umbrella metric that factors in items like:
- How long your website has been around and who it’s owned by
- How many reputable websites link to your content, and with what frequency
- How many influential people actively share your content on social networks, and with what frequency
Search engine algorithms collect this data during their crawl of the web, computing your authority on an ongoing basis.
A site that’s been around for 10 years, owned by a major brand, has regularly been publishing about a topic, has links from all the most influential sites in the space and is regularly shared by opinion leaders, is going to have more authority than a brand new site, owned by John Smith, on a brand new domain, with one page of content, no incoming links and no social shares.
The primary method for increasing Authority is promotional activity, specifically:
- Generating new incoming links to the website (link building)
- Generating social shares (e.g. likes, tweets) from influential people
- Earning brand mentions in reputable sources
This activity is often described as ‘Digital PR’. When done well, it should boost the brand, send new visitors via referral clicks and provide search engines with positive signals of authority.
Link building is the strongest way to influence SEO rankings, so the SEO services provider you work with should have a process for earning high-quality new links online.
- Bring your offline relationships online. Talk to the people you already do business with and ask for a link. For example, give your accountant a testimonial they can place on their website, with the testimonial linking to you.
- Give the web something great that it doesn’t yet have. From new content to a tool to a cause, creating and promoting something of value to the web that people want will earn you links at scale.
- Get listed in trusted, popular directories. Make sure your Yellow Pages listings and other directories are up-to-date and accurate, which allow you to link to your website.
- Get involved with charities, not-for-profits, universities and so on, who often link to supporters.
- Find text mentions of your brand online and turn those mentions into links.
- Contribute an article to a popular publication in your space and ask to be credited with a link in the author bio box.
- Research where your competitors are getting links from to find opportunities for your business.
Before we move on, a word of caution:
An SEO provider who builds links from low-quality sites, using disingenuous tactics like link schemes, puts your site at risk of getting penalised. You should have full visibility on new links, which you can keep track of that yourself using Google Search Console.
4. User Engagement
User Engagement describes how people interact with your site in search results, and how they interact with your site once they click-through.
User Engagement seeks to measure:
- Click-through rate: are people more likely or less likely to click on your search result vs. competitors? If more likely, that’s a positive signal. If less likely, negative signal.
- First impression: when people click-through, do they stay on your site or do they immediately go back to search results? If they stay on your site, positive signal. If they go back, negative signal.
- Personalisation: is your site a good match based on the searcher’s location, previous searches, browsing history, and social connections?
Search engines use this feedback to move listings up and down.
- Lifting click-through-rate in search results. This is done by:
- Updating page titles and meta descriptions to better appeal to searchers.
- Using schema markup to trigger additional information to show, e.g. star ratings
- Capturing new opportunities within the search layout and devices people use to search:
- Addressing pages people land on, but bounce off of quickly (i.e. pogo sticking):
- Identifying high bounce rate and exit rate pages that are ranking well, and improving the user experience these pages provide to keep people on-site
- Understanding how personalised searches for your keywords are
- Finding out to what extent things like location, previous searches, browser history and social connections have on the results the users see, and planning accordingly (e.g. If you are connected to someone on Twitter, you might see a recent relevant tweet from them in your search results)
Client responsibilities when working with an agency (top)
SEO requires a lot of input and time from the client.
For a standard engagement, I would suggest 1 to 2 work days per month of client time will be required to work with the agency.
- Attending meetings
- Providing guidance, feedback and internal company insight
- Signing off on work
- Helping to get SEO priorities through the development stack (if dealing with inhouse developers)
- Educating their company about the SEO process, as they learn more by working with the agency
If the client does not have this time available because they are too stretched as is, SEO is not a fit. Instead, it’s better to look at AdWords. There is no point selling SEO to a client who is not ready for the new responsibilities that come with it.
SEO price vs. cost (top)
SEO engagements with the highest price tags often cost the least. SEO engagements with the lowest price tags often cost the most. Let me explain.
- Price is the amount the client pays for SEO services
- Cost is the amount these SEO services cost the client
A client hires a highly competent SEO team. The price of the SEO engagement is $10k a month.
After 6 months working together, the SEO team makes a massive gain in visibility that produces $20k per month of new profit for the client, ongoing.
Now, the client is spending $10k to make $20k. This means:
- The price of the engagement is $10k
- The cost of the engagement, moving forward, is free, or more accurately, the engagement is giving the client $10K of new profit after costs, so the cost of the engagement is -$10k
The agency is paying for itself and producing an extra $10k for the client. This is exactly what a good agency should do because ultimately, SEO is an investment.
Compare this to a low price SEO vendor. The vendor does not charge enough to do legitimate work so must rely on blackhat trickery. The site gets penalised and the client suffers opportunity cost and a lengthy recovery. Low price, high cost.
SEO agency pricing (top)
SEO engagements are typically delivered on a monthly retainer basis.
Occasionally there are one-off deliverables, but the more common situation is a client wanting to work with an agency for an extended period of time. The reason for a monthly retainer is because organic search results generally require a pattern of activity over several months to start moving.
We have talked about SEO pillars already. Assuming that you are receiving pitches that contain good work in each of area (technical, content, authority, user engagement), I would anticipate the following pricing:
- Small engagements to range from $3k to $5k per month
- Medium engagements to range from $5k to $10k per month
- Large engagements to go from $10k per month
With respect to your specific situation, the SEO agency should show you exactly how they have arrived at any pricing put forward.
SEO pricing should be custom to your needs and requirements. The agency should develop a thorough understanding of:
- Your marketing goals and what you want from SEO
- Time frames and key dates in your marketing calendar
- Your budgets for SEO and other channels
- Your marketing team’s skill-sets and their availability to work on SEO items
- Your constraints that may impact SEO progress
- Your competitive environment and the amount of SEO work required to overtake the competition
Then, the SEO agency should put forward:
- What they intend to do
- Pricing with rationale
Now, you may be wondering: “should I ask for an ROI projection?”
You could, but don’t put too much stock in it. Every SEO ROI projection requires:
- Assumptions about what you will do
- Assumptions about what competitors will do
- Assumptions about what Google will do
There’s a lot of ‘unknown unknowns’ here. Any projection is a guess, at best.
Agency vs. Inhouse (top)
For the price of a medium engagement ($5k to $10k per month), hiring inhouse starts to look appealing. And you should consider it, providing that you are aware that your inhouse employee will need:
- To have multiple skill-sets across each pillar area, which is very rare to find in one person. Two or more people is the norm.
- The tools of the trade. Budget $500 to $1000 per month in SEO software subscriptions, and $10,000 a year for training.
- Management, coaching, a space in your office with a computer and two monitors, annual leave and other entitlements.
Agencies can offer you:
- A team of specialists with the necessary skill-sets
- Experience, processes, tools, systems and methodologies that are tested, productive and reliable
- A contract break clause that’s easier for you to exit than letting an employee go, if things aren’t working out or you need flexibility
What many clients do, very successfully, is hire an internal marketing person who manages all agencies. This one person guides and coordinates everyone, and are critical because they:
- Set the vision for marketing as a whole, working with internal stakeholders to do so
- Evaluate agencies, make selection decisions, coordinate activities, prioritise workflows, manage budgets, enforce deadlines and sign-off work
- Provide the agencies with guidance, internal company insight, feedback and expertise
This person will usually have a broader understanding of the marketing mix than a specialist would. As part of the team, this individual is a key player who greatly multiplies the productivity of external vendors.
Timeframes for results with SEO (top)
SEO campaigns generally take at least 6 months to start showing meaningful results. Here’s why:
- It takes time to get technical problems fixed
- It takes time to create and upgrade content
- It take time to earn authority
- It takes time to optimise client and agency workflows
- All changes need to be re-indexed by Google, re-processing rankings
You may have gains sooner than 6 months, usually for less prominent (but nevertheless important) keywords. But to break into the higher volume terms is more difficult. Google is less willing to adjust those rankings without great cause.
After 6 months of activity, SEO results tend to be much more ‘movable’. The site has developed a pattern of positive activity that sends all the right signals to search engines, and Google is ready to respond more quickly. It is during this time that the value of SEO work begins to magnify, i.e.
- Newly published content starts ranking quickly, whereas it wouldn’t have before
- New incoming links and social shares produce a noticeable, immediate boosting impact
5 useful questions to assess SEO providers (top)
These questions should reveal 95% of what you need to know.
What is your methodology and process for delivering SEO to clients? Talk me through by month.
“If you can’t describe something as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing” – W Edwards Deming
Avoid any agency who wants to make things up as they go along, as it shows a lack of planning and will create confusion and slow down workflows.
See what you get, in each pillar category. Find out if a particular category is missing. If so, why?
What level of transparency do you provide?
You want full transparency around what’s being done, by when, and by who.
Can you show me examples of work?
Have a look at the content the agency produces and the links they build for themselves and their clients. You can see the links pointing a website by signing up for a free trial with a tool like Moz Link Explorer.
Can I speak with a client you’ve been working with for over a year?
Consider asking about roadblocks, account manager changes, senior leadership involvement on the account, workflows, reporting frequency and quality, effort, and anything else.
Will any of this work be done offshore? If so, what?
See if you like the answer.
2 additional video resources for evaluating SEO agencies (top)
- How to Hire an SEO video from Google on YouTube
- How to Choose an SEO Company: Whiteboard Friday Video from Moz
I hope you found this SEO services guide helpful for sorting the wheat from the chaff. All the best with your SEO and agency selection process!