It's almost impossible to run an SEO campaign by yourself - at least if you want to grow beyond the initial setup phase. However, at the same time, you may be reluctant to hire an SEO agency. After all, you know that there are a number of agencies that do shoddy work, putting you at higher risk for manual or algorithmic penalties.

Furthermore, many agencies are prohibitively expensive. But if you know what to look for, you can find an agency that's affordable, reliable, and capable of giving you an incredible return on your investment.

Why an SEO Agency?

First, let's take a look at your options. You can't do this alone, so your two main options (other than an agency) are to hire someone full-time or leverage independent contractors to handle the bulk of your work. While each of these options has merits, full-time workers tend to be more expensive than contracting with an agency, though you do get more control over how they spend their time. Quality contractors are hard to find and hard to manage, but are typically the least expensive option.

Essential Qualities

If you're looking for an SEO agency that can give you the best results and the easiest working experience, these qualities are absolute musts:

1. Knowledge of the latest trends and updates.

SEO is a field that changes constantly, so you need an SEO agency that's able to keep up with the latest trends. If you're still using tactics that were only effective 10 years ago, you aren't going to see much in the way of results, and you might even set yourself back by incurring a penalty. Pay attention to how up-to-date your chosen agency's strategies are, and don't be afraid to ask some critical questions about their procedures and tactics.

2. Experience in multiple areas.

Most SEO agencies are generalists, able to offer you services in multiple categories, such as on-site content writing, on-site optimization, and link building. However, there are also specialists, such as specialized link builders or on-site optimizers. These aren't necessarily bad; however, SEO is a complex and multifaceted strategy. If your agency only has experience in one area, they may have a hard time connecting that area to all of the other significant SEO realms. If you need a niche specialist, a contractor may be a better option.

3. Transparency.

When it comes to building trust with an agency, transparency is the most important quality to look for. Pay attention to how revealing your chosen agency is with basic information. Are they open about how they do their work? Are they honest about any risks or setbacks that might be involved? Are they focused on making steady progress toward conservative, long-term gains rather than trying to sell you on a package as fast as possible?

4. Communicativeness.

SEO requires a significant amount of back and forth communication, so look for an agency with which you're able to communicate smoothly. You need to be able to call them up to talk when you have a question or discover a problem, and they need to listen to you carefully if they're going to produce content and to optimize your site in a way that accurately characterizes (and benefits) your brand. If you can, speak with the account manager with whom you'll be working directly, and see how well they communicate with you.

5. Verifiable history.

It's also a good idea to look at an SEO agency's past clients and references. A credible history is solid proof that your agency is one worth doing business with.
Red Flags

There are also some major red flags to watch out for, so if you notice any of these qualities, you may want to keep looking:

  • Promises and guarantees. Nothing in SEO can be guaranteed. It takes research, effort, timing, and a bit of luck to see early results - and even then, further refinement and tweaking are necessary to keep that momentum going. Any promise of specific growth is probably a lie.
  • Difficulty making a connection. If you have problems getting in touch with the agency - if it takes a long time to respond to your emails, or if there's no phone number to call - walk away. You need open communication to have an effective campaign.
  • Suspicious pricing. Suspicious pricing can go either way. Too cheap, and the work is likely do more harm than good, putting you in a worse position than when you started. Too expensive, and you'll have a hard time seeing a positive return on investment.
  • Lack of references. If an agency refuses to provide references or can't name any clients, it's a red flag. See if you can find any reviews of the agency online.

Choosing an SEO agency isn't easy because there are so many options, but there are a handful of reliable, respectable options out there. If you look long enough and keep these traits in mind, you'll find a partner within your budget who can get you the results that you need. Don't think of your agency search as a product purchase; instead, think of it as seeking a relationship. You'll be with this agency for a while (presumably months or even years), so your priorities need to lie in how you'll work together.

June 20, 2016

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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Search Engine Guide > Jayson DeMers > Five Essential Qualities to Look for in an SEO Agency