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Know your agency: Where most SEO agencies go wrong

Where most SEO agencies go wrong

There’s a scene in season four of Breaking Badspinoff Better Call Saul that always comes to mind when we think of the delicate dance that is choosing the right partner for a job. 

Here, Mike—the fixer for a drug cartel—gets two quotes for building a new, secret basement into an existing building that will ultimately be used as a meth lab.

With a distinct swagger, the first engineer has a quick look around the site and declares he can install the new basement within six months, and with minimal disruption.

The second engineer is much quieter. He takes his time looking around the facility and provides a thorough breakdown of the work needed. He’s much more cautious in his recommendations, outlining that the job will be long, dangerous and expensive, but not impossible.

Impressed by the second engineer’s thoroughness and his more realistic expectations, the drug cartel gives him the job.

Forgetting that the second engineer ultimately meets an incredibly gruesome demise, this scenario has a lot in common with SEO agencies and how they compete for clients – many will ooze bravado, confidently declaring they can achieve X, Y and Z for your business within a short span of time. But ultimately often what you get with this is minimal results, lost time and wasted money.

But how can you avoid getting into business with this kind of SEO agency? By learning how to spot the ones with the wrong approaches.

SEO agencies might be among the specialists in what is otherwise a pretty complicated industry, but that doesn’t mean they’re beyond scrutiny. Choosing one for your business needs to be a carefully considered decision. That’s why we’re shifting focus toward understanding how SEO agencies operate with our new Know Your Agency series – in it, we’ll debate common practices among SEO agencies to show you how to get the absolute most out of yours or find the right fit for your business.

And while there are quite literally thousands and thousands of SEO agencies out there, all with their own unique approaches and teams, we can say with certainty that the bad ones have a lot in common. In this first blog in our series, we highlight the top offenders so you can make sure you pick the best agency for the job the first time around.

 1. Just doing what they’re told

Don’t let this first point put you off – there is merit in your SEO agency doing what they’re told and they should, of course, do this. You’re paying them, after all.

But the real priority of any SEO agency worth their salt should be to not only do what’s in the brief but to go beyond it. You’ve hired an SEO agency because they’re specialists in their field and have knowledge you don’t – so use this.

An SEO agency should look at the brief they’re given and drum up ideas for how they can build off these tasks and come up with new angles you might not have considered before. They should also not be afraid to make calculated risks if they’re confident they can make a real positive impact when this work is done correctly.

This also means you need to be willing to trust your SEO agency to do what might be beyond the brief and ultimately your comfort zone, which brings us to our next point.

It’s also an SEO agency’s job to challenge your business, to a degree. If they sense that the brief they’ve been given won’t be successful or make much of a difference, it’s their job to flag this and make suggestions even though it’s in your instructions. And it’s your job to, at the very least, hear them out.

2. Not understanding the business at a high enough level

We can’t stress this concept enough – if an SEO agency doesn’t understand your business sector fundamentally, there’s a very good chance they won’t be able to execute the strategy best suited to your company.

Think about this on a more basic level – SaaS companies are going to have different SEO requirements than healthcare providers, who won’t have the same needs as an international law firm, and so on.

For instance, eCommerce businesses require a particular set of specialist knowledge. These businesses have unique target audiences with particular needs and often complicated sites with hundreds or thousands of products to consider – and that’s only the beginning.

This means that as an eCommerce business, you’ll want your SEO agency to have an in-depth understanding of what exactly your company needs.

They’ll need to ask a lot of questions, and from there, their focus should shift to:

  • Reviewing market research
  • Assessing positioning and value propositions 
  • Developing user personas and mapping out buyer journeys
  • Understanding customer pain points 

Without this level of insight, standard SEO processes such as content strategies and keyword research just aren’t going to be effective. If your agency isn’t asking for these resources and are instead just diving into the tasks you’ve given them, it should be a pretty strong red flag.

3. Not understanding what SEO actually is

In our experience, the vast majority of services most SEO agencies offer aren’t actually what make a difference.

SEO is a complicated industry that’s evolving on an almost constant basis, and this is particularly true for eCommerce.

The principles, however, are simple. Great SEO is built on solid marketing foundations. It’s not just keyword lists, on-page optimisation and link-building. It’s about understanding your audience and giving them the content they need to solve whatever problem they may have, as well as showing them why you’re the best option available. 

This means that an SEO strategy can cover a wide range of disciplines, from branding and content strategy to user experience and web development. While your agency might not be responsible for all these tasks, they need to at least be able to see the big picture and how everything fits together. 

Of course, there are some obvious outdated tactics to look out for, too. Take a look at paid guest posting, for instance. 

In the digital PR webinar we held last month, our host Tabby Farrar touched upon why paid guest posting is not only an outdated practice, but one that can cost far more than it’s worth.

Years ago, paid guest posting was a fairly standard practice. In fact, many agencies still include this in their strategies, and even in 2021 we’re having to carry out link cleanups and disavows.

4. Just acting as a resource gap, not a creative partner

This goes back to what we were saying about an SEO agency simply doing what they’re told.

Yes, an agency is there to perform designated SEO maintenance and run the bulk of a company’s campaigns, but that shouldn’t be their only purpose.

We’d argue that a good SEO agency is not just there to fill a resource gap, but to act as a creative partner. They should be a collaborator that helps your business explore new revenue opportunities, map out new potential target audiences and help you consider avenues not yet on your radar.

Over the years, we’ve led the idea generation for new ranges, carried out customer interviews, launched new businesses for existing partners and even advised on mergers and sales for our clients. Having this kind of relationship means that you can go so much further than ticking boxes and sending reports.

5. Bad company culture

It might seem counterintuitive to think that an agency’s  culture would impact client work, but it can actually make a huge difference.

Think about it this way – a company’s culture influences how its employees act, their general happiness and motivation at work, and above all, how long they stay in that particular role.

So, if an SEO agency has a bad company culture in which employees feel stifled or unhappy, it’s going to impact their output. They may not have the freedom to take creative risks or share their ideas. They may be expected to work far over their hours, or work for a company in which there’s no flexibility.

All this can result not only a poorer quality of work, but a higher rate of employee turnover. We’re finding this is especially so in light of COVID-19, in which flexibility has become more or less the norm. 

This isn’t to say agencies should let staff run amok with client accounts and show up whenever it suits them. They should still emphasise accountability.

Rather, we’d argue a good SEO agency offers:

  • Flexible working
  • Creative freedom
  • Career development and learning opportunities
  • Mental health support

Because it’s these offerings that help improve staff wellbeing not just in the workplace, but beyond. It also increases employee retention – staff that are happy in the workplace are much more likely to want to stick around.

At Blink, we’ve put a lot of work into creating the best culture possible. We have a number of benefits, including:

  • 4-day working week
  • Team-wide profit share
  • Individual wellbeing budgets
  • A dedicated wellbeing officer
  • Individual training plans and budgets

However, the most important point is that we give our team the time and space to make their own decisions and trust their own judgement. This makes the biggest difference in terms of quality of work.

6. Not having the right staff

SEO agencies come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s one overarching quality that the good ones have – team members that can actually perform the work required to make a project as successful as possible.

Time and again, we’re seeing agencies whose primary staff are salespeople. Their main focus is going to be acquiring new business, not nurturing and actually doing work for the businesses that are already there which, we’d argue, is the foundation of any successful agency.

If the vast majority of an agency’s staff revolves around sales positions, this is usually a good indication that they’re more focused on sales than delivery. Another signal here is the makeup of senior management – if they’re largely from a sales background, this is going to be what they know best. 

 The type of staff that are likely to perform work on client accounts include:

  • Account managers
  • PPC and SEO specialists
  • Copywriters
  • Digital PR specialists

And don’t forget web developers – this one is huge.

SEO isn’t just theory, it’s about action and implementation too. You can write up all the recommendations you want, but until they are live on a site, there’s not going to be any real impact. 

A lot of high value work will need a web developer to implement properly. This is why it’s important an agency has a selection of developers on staff—as opposed to those that use freelancers or contractors—who will be able to get things done quicker, and usually to a higher standard.

7. Rely on awards over actual work

Let’s not lie – accolades can be great. Who doesn’t love getting recognised for their work?

But ultimately in the world of SEO, accolades are just shiny little badges agencies stick in the footers of their website. They’re not necessarily an actual indication of great work, or whether or not an agency will be the right fit for a particular client. 

First, awards are about credibility, and showing potential clients what you can do. The simple fact is that all the big name awards—Drum, UK Search Awards, RAR, etc.—are, first and foremost, moneymaking enterprises. There are entrance fees, then extra fees—that are not normally publicised—to attend the event. 

These are usually charged per person, and can be pretty hefty too. Often there are other costs as well – one agency we worked with was charged hundreds of pounds for an extra trophy to send to the client of the winning campaign on which we collaborated. In some cases, judges are even required to pay for the privilege. Administration fees are perfectly acceptable, of course, but sometimes these go far beyond what’s reasonable. 

Now, this isn’t just a moan about the price. If we thought they were worth it, then this wouldn’t be an issue. However, the problem here is credibility. 

The literature and branding of some awarding bodies give off the air of a highly-competitive pool of entrants. In fact, sometimes only a handful of applicants have applied. In terms of winning, this can be great – put in a decent submission and the odds are stacked in your favour. For potential clients though, this tells you absolutely nothing about the quality you can expect from hiring an agency that has secured an award, especially if the judge has paid to be there in the first place.

Ultimately, choosing an SEO agency that’s right for your business is going to be a unique experience, so it’s important to know what exactly you’re looking for.

No business is one-size-fits-all, and the same can be said about SEO agencies, so think carefully about your company’s needs and don’t be swayed by braggadocio. Sometimes it’s the quiet ones that produce the best work, even if they inadvertently reveal the existence of your meth lab and you have to kill them in the end.

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