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14 Tips for Hiring a Search Engine Marketing Firm That Rocks

search engine marketing firm
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Hiring the right search engine marketing firm can become one of the keys to your business’ success. However, dealing with a bad one has a big chance of fast-tracking your downfall. In order to succeed, you must find an agency with creative and talented experts. They must be able to think outside the box and be ready to use progressive practices. They also have to be adaptable, to ensure their strategies and techniques change as fast as Google does. Your search engine marketing agency must also be honest and open about their rates, terms, methods, and plans.

If a search engine marketing firm is good and does its best for you, gaining visibility on Google is in your future. The trick is finding the ‘good people’ as there are thousands of SEM agencies claiming to be the best.



How to Go About Finding a Good Search Engine Marketing Firm

If you want to find an SEM firm that really knows what it’s doing, you must know what they need to do. Use the same principles you would when shopping for something. In that case, you’d start with researching the available options and comparing them, right?

That’s exactly what you should do when looking for a search engine marketing firm. Granted, comparing them won’t be as easy as you might think. You might need to take notes when researching different agencies so that you don’t forget anything. Better yet, compile a chart of questions/features that matter for your company. Then, fill it out when interviewing SEM agencies. This way, you’ll have a 100% trustworthy comparison in your hands.

This guide will provide some tips on what to look for in a search engine marketing firm and how to get the info you need when interviewing them.

Before you start, remember that if you meet an agency that tries to evade answering your direct questions – run the other way. You cannot trust people if they are obviously hiding something (their incompetence, most likely). Don’t put your business’ future at risk and be sure to work only with trustworthy SEM agencies.

Search Engine Marketing Firm Strategies That Work

14 Tips to Help You Hire a Reliable Search Engine Marketing Firm

1.     Study Testimonials First

The best way to learn if an SEM firm can be trusted is to find out what its clients think about it. Testimonials should always be the place to start, so you waste less time researching an agency that has a ton of negative reviews. Therefore, the first page to visit at any SEM agency website is ‘Testimonials’.

They don’t have it?

Think to yourself what that says about a business.

Some might wonder if the testimonials posted on the company’s website are true. It’s a valid concern, so there should be a second level of checking. Go to independent review pages, like Clutch or Yelp. There should be a service like that for every country/region, so look up what’s the most trusted source in your area.

Finally, you should ask the company itself for references. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already confirmed beyond all doubt that they can be trusted. If nothing else, this question will let you see how they handle information about their clients.

It’s completely natural that they won’t be willing to provide you with a full disclosure of their clients’ data. However, a trustworthy search engine marketing firm should give at least a few examples. It would be best to ask who their long-term clients are so that you can assess their dynamics.

The words ‘long-term’ must definitely factor into your discussion as using only quick fixes and shortcuts is a sign of bad marketing practices. On average, a reliable company that has been in business for a while should have several clients they’ve been working with for over a year.

2.     Take a Look at Case Studies

A good search engine marketing firm usually has a few case studies posted on its website. If not, they should be able to provide them upon your request. Not doing this should set off a red flag for you.

Case studies are like testimonials, but better. They are written by the agency’s actual experts and outline exactly what kind of result they managed to achieve and how. In essence, they give you an idea of how the agency works, and the details of the study allow you to assess their competence.

Unlike testimonials, case studies might be guarded more tightly. Therefore, the fact that you can only get them on request isn’t alarming in itself. A decent case study should include:

  • Basic info on the client
  • Study of the client’s industry (including analysis of SEM challenges)
  • Budget and outline of the project (including solutions to above mentioned challenges)
  • Project results.

3.     Talk About the Money

You need to find out how much the search engine marketing firm charges and what their payment structure is. There is no ‘golden formula’ for the best SEM agency payment so every company has their own approach.

What you need to look for here is transparency. An old but very thorough survey by Moz states that the most common payment structure is by project. This remains true today because to be good, search engine marketing must be custom-tailored to a business. Therefore, there is no way to create a ‘one-fits-all’ model and charge for it. In fact, if an agency has something like that, you might consider looking further.

In the meantime, SEM firms might have fixed rates for some services. Many also work for an hourly rate. That can get out of control very quickly, so only sign up with this agency if you are 200% sure on their reliability and honesty.

According to a HubSpot report, search engine optimization agencies monthly retainer rates vary quite a bit:

  • $500-$1000 – 17%
  • $1001-$2500 – 21%
  • $2500-$5000 – 28%
  • $5000-$10000 – 17%.

Of course, there are more expensive and cheaper services, so it’s quite feasible for any business to find something within their budget.

Search Engine Marketing Strategic Approach
Search Engine Marketing Strategic Approach

4.     Find Out What Tools the Agency Uses

Search engine optimization and marketing can be very tricky, especially considering how stringent Google’s guidelines are today. However, not all SEO tools are bad. A reliable search engine marketing firm will know exactly what the best applications and techniques are and which of them are to be avoided.

Be sure to look up the basic definition of blackhat SEO so that you know what to look out for.

The ‘good’ SEO tools are mostly apps that allow the processing of large amounts of data for more efficient analysis. A professional search engine marketing firm will most likely use:

  • Reporting tools to provide you with detailed reports on your chosen metrics.
  • Technical SEO apps that help the agency to find what is wrong with a website. Screaming Frog is a good example of this.
  • Prospect gathering tools, such as BuzzStream. They help your SEM experts gather info on lots of potential leads.

Tools that must set off alarms in your head are SE Nuke, Xrumer, Bookmarking Demon, and any others that fall into the same category as you look them up. These are BAD link building tools that can get you banned from Google, as they go against their policies.

5.     Determine the Firm’s Position in the Market

Is the search engine marketing firm you want to hire a leader in its industry?

Naturally, they might claim they are, but it’s up to you to verify that information. Like with testimonials, you should look for independent sources. Check out conferences relevant for the industry. Are they on the list of attendees/speakers?

You can also look up industry rankings, but be sure to find the right one. The way to go here is to search by location, as there is no point of hiring a leading firm in London if you need marketing in New Zealand.

Please bear in mind that this method of determining the reliability of a search engine marketing firm is flawed. There is no standard ranking for these companies, and many good firms might not  make the top 10 list in your area. Therefore, you should use it as a part of your agency assessment, but not as the deciding factor. Being a proven industry leader is definitely a huge plus, but independent testimonials and quality case studies matter more.

6.     Ask About Other Services

Be sure to find out exactly what kinds of services the search engine marketing firm offers. This will help you determine their specialization and see whether they actually fit your needs.

Ask for details when discussing this as simply saying ‘SEO’ or ‘comprehensive marketing package’ doesn’t explain what they do. Be wary of agencies that cannot even define their own services. Most firms will have them plainly listed on the website.

You should also keep in mind that a good firm will provide ‘technical’ services along with actual marketing. For example, they will evaluate website navigation, search for crawler errors, ‘missing’ pages (404), etc.

Overall, you should look for a search engine marketing firm that deals with technical, on-site (content optimization + keywords), and off-site (links) services. If they specialize in one aspect only, you might need to find a different company so as to not hire several.

7.     Inquire About Qualifications

Surprisingly, many people overlook this particular question when dealing with search engine marketers. However, their professional education is as important as your doctor’s. Therefore, be sure to ask where they gained their accreditations.

You can look up the names of courses and schools later when deliberating on your decision. An accomplished search engine marketing firm won’t hide information about the proficiency and training of their staff. They should also share their business accomplishments, such as winning awards, etc.

8.     Ask the ‘Tricky’ Questions

‘Tricky’ questions are supposed to provide you with information on the reliability of the company. You should focus on three particular matters during this part of your interview:

  • Do you follow Google’s guidelines?
    Take a look at Google Webmaster Guidelines to know what they entail. A search engine marketing firm must adhere to these rules, lest their clients are banned by Google. This search engine is the leader among them and has over 100 billion searches a month. Therefore, your main focus with search engine optimization must lie with it.
    Studying the success rate of the agency through their case studies will also allow you to understand whether they are adapting to Google’s changes. The company issues several hundred protocol updates a year. An SEM firm must follow them and change their methods to work under the new rules.
  • Will you make changes to my website?
    Any search engine marketing service worth its salt must change your website in some way to enhance its optimization. What you need to know is the procedure they are going to follow. The right way to do this is to discuss any proposed changes and ask for permission first. Their changes must integrate smoothly into the website, so make sure they have a person qualified to perform this task.
  • Do you provide guarantees?
    If a search engine marketing firm tells you hiring them will give your website the #1 ranking, leave immediately. SEO is a highly unpredictable field. It’s true that a consistent targeted effort can increase your website’s ranking on Google. However, no one can guarantee that you’ll be #1 in the search results. Professionals know that and won’t try to scam their clients with empty promises.
Digital Marketing Strategies That Grow Your Business
Digital Marketing Strategies That Grow Your Business

9.     Define and Measure Success

How will you understand that your SEM efforts succeeded? How can you measure the agency’s performance?

Get answers to these questions before you sign the contract. Next, make sure these terms are included in the contract so that you can hold the firm legally accountable.

Discuss which metrics the firm is going to track for your website and set the bar for a monthly increase in each. For example, to boost organic website traffic by 10% in 2 months. The most common SEM metrics are:

  • Keyword organic rankings
  • Bounce rates
  • Time spent on site
  • Search traffic
  • CTR
  • Social media signals
  • Unique site visits
  • Conversion rates

A good search engine marketing firm should be able to advise you which metrics are most relevant to your business and why.

The most reliable agencies should be open to accepting the obligation of boosting your conversion rate and ROI.

10.  Set the Terms for Reports

A trustworthy search engine marketing firm must provide regular reports of their progress. The terms about their format and frequency must also be included in the contract. The report should include two types of information:

  • KPI SEO/SEM Activity.
    A summary of things the firm did during the months. The level of details can vary, so be sure to ask for a sample report beforehand. Ask any questions you need to ensure you understand it.
  • Business Goals/Results as discussed at the start of the engagement.
    You’ll use this to see if the agency reached your monthly goals in rankings, keywords, etc.

11.  Set Up Communication Routes

How are you going to contact the firm if you have any questions? How and when will they contact you?

Discuss your future communication routes in case of emergencies. Define an ‘emergency’ if necessary. These usually include a hacker attack, website going down, etc. At this time, you can also discuss how you’ll be getting your regular reports.

One of the purposes of these questions is to determine whether the agency has an actual physical office or if it’s operating completely online. Both options can be good, but in the second case, you have to make sure their employees are committed. If they are a sham firm outsourcing their work to small contractors, you might end up in trouble if one of those contractors bails.

12.  Find Out If the Agency Can Adapt

Of course, your search engine marketing firm must adapt to Google protocol changes and other shifts in marketing trends. However, they also must ensure their methods fall in line with your overall marketing strategy.

If the company will be handling all the aspects of your digital marketing campaigns, such as SEO, PPC, emails, etc., you won’t have to worry. However, if you are running some of those yourself or have a different agency working on them, the strategies must work closely with each other.

13.  Ask About Their Plans

In order to succeed, your search engine marketing firm must have a sound and effective strategy. They also have to present you with the outline of it so that you can understand whether they will be able to help you.

Please understand that this doesn’t mean that the company’s representative must explain every tiny step in their process. However, they must list the methods they will use and the purposes behind them. They also should tell you how these particular techniques will achieve your overall marketing goals.

14.  Find Out What Happens If You Break the Contract

Discuss contract termination terms and penalties. You must understand exactly what obligations both parties have in this partnership.

Termination terms should outline your behavior in case of emergencies, like a sudden crisis in your own company or the agency. They also need to outline the situation when you can drop the firm because they don’t fulfill their obligations. Read that as not reaching the marketing goals defined by the same contract.

Check for early termination fees and other penalties and never sign up with a SEM firm that makes unreasonable demands.

Hiring a search engine marketing firm is a challenge and requires you to do a lot of work and research. However, considering its effect on your business, you must do everything possible to find the best SEM agency.

Study testimonials from independent sources and always double-check any information you have. You have to ensure that the firm is indeed highly professional and skilled. They also must be completely open about their practices, so ask for references and case studies.

A good firm will outline its plans for your campaign and help you understand and set reasonable marketing goals. They will be open about their pricing policies and their contract will have no ‘hidden’ fees and terms. Send us a message here at Algocentric Digital Consultancy and we can discuss your business goals today.


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