“Wait a sec, aren’t you guys an SEO agency as well?”
Yep. Sort of. But we don’t screw our clients, because we’re not greedy assholes 😂
And while we may be the VERY rare exception to this rule, we’ve seen far too much bullshit happening in our space over the years, and we feel like it’s well and truly time to equip business owners with the information they need to make more informed decisions.
There’s a reason SEO agency client turnover is so high! (It’s rare for an SEO client to stick around for more than 12 months, and often it’s as little as 3-6 months.)
Anyhow, we want you to have the tools to protect your business from people who don’t have your best interests at heart.
BUT, make sure you read to the very end, as agencies aren’t the only ones doing the screwing 😉
How do SEO agencies screw over their clients?
Oh let us count the many, many ways…
1. Link Building Shenanigans
If you’re having an SEO agency do link building for you, be VERY careful. It is extremely common for agencies to tout things like “white hat link building” or “outreach-based link building” or “digital PR” or whatever the latest buzzword is, and then go right out to someone like Loganix or The Hoth or similar and just straight up buy links (which is 100% a violation of Google’s guidelines, and puts your business at risk).
This is EXTREMELY common agency behavior.
How to Avoid This
- Make sure your contract stipulates NO LINK BUYING. Include a hefty penalty and legal recourse if they directly purchase links for your site without permission.
- Audit their outreach process, if they do outreach. Get login access to the email they use for outreach, and verify it’s happening as promised. Make sure the outreach is to good quality sites.
- Don’t use an agency for links. Hire a separate outreach service (Growth Gorilla for example is great if you’re B2B SaaS; no affiliation, just love what they do), or a contract link builder to do the work, and apply the same rules above.
2. High Fees / Unfair Terms
First, you should probably be aware that most agencies aim for a 50% gross margin…and usually at least a 25% net margin, if not way more. We’ve seen agencies running a 30-40% net margin, and We’ve seen SEO departments within an agency running at 75% gross margin!
How do they do this? Outsourcing, link building shenanigans, etc. etc.
Basically charging absurdly high fees for very little work, or low quality work, and taking what’s known as the “churn and burn” approach to agency work, knowing clients will churn and just constantly filling the pipe with new suckers.
To be fair, in some cases the high fees are warranted. There ARE genuinely great SEO agencies out there (Seer Interactive for one), and good SEO isn’t going to be cheap, especially if you want to go after a competitive space in a short timeframe…but in many cases the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
The two hardest things for any agency are landing good clients and keeping good clients, so agencies are incentivized to pitch the largest possible budgets, and for the longest possible contract term. Personally I’ve encountered very few agencies that wouldn’t bring their initial pitched price down by 25-33% during negotiation, so keep that in mind. (Though the best agencies often won’t negotiate their pricing, so there’s that.)
But here’s the thing…the most valuable thing the agency brings to the table is the raw expertise, the strategy and domain-specific problem solving skills that you may not have internally, NOT so much the ongoing routine execution and monitoring work. That’s what you should pay for, the expertise, not the low-level legwork that they’re probably outsourcing anyway.
As such, it’s very often worth paying for a detailed SEO audit, an SEO strategy, one-off help to solve a specific problem, or some sort of on-demand retainer should a problem arise. But it’s probably not worth having them do SEO for you end-to-end (and let’s face it, SEO is almost never done fully for you end-to-end, you usually have to have internal resources working to support it).
How to Avoid This
- For ongoing SEO work, don’t accept the first offer. Negotiate down 25-33% and you’ll probably get it. For one-off projects, you’re probably already getting the best offer (they are usually sold as loss-leaders to bring in new ongoing biz).
- Make sure your contract doesn’t auto-renew. Auto-renewing contracts, especially when the agency doesn’t give warning, are not in your best interest.
- Pick a term that makes sense. In our experience, less than 6 months is bad for everyone (SEO usually doesn’t work that fast), and more than 12 months is bad for everyone.
- We’d recommend negotiating a 12 month contract, but with an optional out at the 6 month and 9 month marks if things aren’t working. It takes time to ramp up SEO work, so you need to give the agency enough time to get traction (even if it’s just leading indicators), but you should have a penalty-free exit strategy.
- Make sure you have the ability to end the contract early for cause (failure to deliver as promised, engaging in unethical activities, etc.).
- If your agency is quoting you a fee above $10,000-$15,000/mo, and you don’t have an in-house SEO person already, hire for the in-house role instead. You should be able to find a decently skilled SEO for ~$120k/yr base + benefits, and you’ll get 2-4x as many hours from them as you will from the agency, AND they’ll be better plugged in internally and thus more likely to get needed changes implemented.
One person 100% focused on your business is better than someone context-switching between half a dozen or more clients.
3. Bait and Switch
It is VERY common for you to be introduced to someone super senior on your sales call, the SEO Director, or the most technical SEO person who sounds super smart and authoritative, and then after you sign on you get handed to the junior SEO who just got hired and who doesn’t even know the agency processes yet. We’ve seen this happen a LOT.
Sure, if things go sideways on the account that senior person may jump in, and they will probably at least have eyeballs on your account for high level strategy, at least occasionally, but overall you’re sold the big beautiful burger in the picture, and get the shitty floppy burger in the bag 😭
How to Avoid This
- Determine who on the agency staff is the best fit for you skill-wise, and have them contractually attached to your account. If that person leaves the agency for any reason, include a clause that gives you an out if they can’t get someone else on the account you’re happy with. But also have a clause that lets you request someone else if the assigned person isn’t working for you. Your agency will probably HATE this, but it’s in your best interest.
4. Selling You Services You Don’t Need
This is shockingly common. The most common angle is selling people on link building if their link profile is already strong, or selling them on content production if their content game is already strong. If you’re already solid internally at something, don’t farm it out to an agency.
But often it’s just selling someone on SEO, when SEO isn’t actually the right channel for the business at that time. Or at all. We’ve seen MANY clients sold on SEO over the years at other agencies where the SEO funnel economics made absolutely zero sense, and when the SEO team called BS on the sales team for it, they were told to shut up and make it work. This happens all the damn time.
But let’s say you’re sold on SEO, and it is a good fit. Lucky you! But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re free and clear.
And as we said earlier, the hardest thing for an agency is landing and retaining good clients, and they’ve learned that it’s far easier to upsell/cross-sell an existing client than to find a new one. At the same time, when all they have is a hammer, every problem is a nail, so if the agency offers just 2 or 3 services, OF COURSE they’ll try to convince you that you need more of the limited services they offer.
Now, you may actually need those other services, so don’t immediately say no, but very, very carefully examine the actual need there. If you really needed those things so much, why didn’t they sell you on them from the get go?
How to Avoid This
- Make the agency show you the keyword pool and funnel economics forecast for your business space, including competitive difficulty. Agencies like to show you average monthly search volume, often for a big pool of keywords, but keep in mind that you are unlikely to ever actually capture more than 5% of that overall traffic pool (maybe 10% if you dominate your space), so 100,000 searches a month from a pool of keywords is only maybe 5,000-10,000 a month at best in actual opportunity (and that’s if you capture the whole pool perfectly). Factor in your conversion funnel after someone hits your site, and see if it actually makes sense. If you have a $20,000 ACV and a well oiled conversion funnel, maybe small traffic pools don’t matter much, but that’s not most businesses.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses as a business. You should outsource weaknesses (if you aren’t ready to hire internally for that), but don’t outsource strengths.
- Don’t take things at face value, especially if they offer some sort of free audit for that other service line (because they’re incentivized to find problems, the audit won’t be unbiased).
- Hire an independent 3rd party who doesn’t do ongoing services to evaluate the need, so you get a second opinion.
5. Reporting Shenanigans
When it comes time to report on SEO efforts, successes and failures, SEO agencies are absolute spin masters 😂 If things are going well, it’s all their doing. If things aren’t going well, it’s your fault, Google’s fault, a competitor’s fault…anyone but the SEO agency of course.
Agencies often cherry pick metrics or views month-to-month to show the rosiest possible picture, or gloss over dips and emphasize whatever metric they can find that’s in the green.
They *might* tell it to you straight, once, but if things look bad multiple months in a row the odds are good you’re going to get the spin doctor.
To be fair, not every agency does this, but in our experience most do, at least in part. It’s in their best interest to retain existing clients, and if things aren’t going well the best way to do that is to spin and punt (we’re just warming up, it’s a temporary dip, it’s seasonal, etc.) They might even be telling the truth, sometimes things are just in the dumps through no fault (Google updates, current events, changes in searcher intent), but if things aren’t going well for a while it’s worth digging deeper.
How to Avoid This
- Agree in advance, preferably in the contract, on what metrics/KPIs will be tracked, and how you will measure success.
- Work together to build a report template that gives you the data you need, and make sure they stick to that format consistently month-to-month. Make sure this includes competitive benchmarking, so you can monitor for industry trends.
- Make sure they show you both MoM and YoY views, so you can see how things are really trending.
- If your SEO agency does any sort of revenue forecasting, MAKE SURE they account for your existing trajectory. Don’t let them take credit for your previous work and trendline. Only let them project the upside above and beyond where you were trending. Also, we highly recommend that you have them forecast using at least 3 years of historical data, and projecting at least 3 years forward. The projections won’t ever be totally accurate, but they’ll be closer to accurate if you do them this way.
6. Taking the Easy Path
Doing excellent SEO can be very, very hard. It requires deep understanding of the competitive space and the customer journey, as well as deep understanding of the business structure and funnel economics to plan and integrate it properly.
It is VERY hard for an agency to build up this sort of understanding quickly, especially when the people on your account are spending at most 5-10 hours per week on you, and are constantly context switching through their many other clients.
Because of this, agencies usually take the easy path; tracking basic KPIs like keyword rankings, just building more inane content to cover head terms, doing low-impact outreach, etc. Agencies are incentivized to focus on tasks that are easy to train, scalable, and consistent.
But greatness is none of those things, and if you want your business to be great, the mediocrity you usually find at an agency won’t get you that.
How to Avoid This
- DO NOT permit your agency to prescribe before they’ve done the work to properly diagnose. Remember the hammer/nail metaphor. If at the contract level they sell you on X pieces of content and Y links and Z meetings and reports, RUN the fuck away.
- Even if the agency has done some sort of cursory opportunity audit at the sales stage, they likely haven’t done enough to know precisely what you need yet, because it’s not cost effective for them to do that pre-sale, especially if their close rate is poor.
- If you really want to work with an agency, and you think you’ve found a good one, we recommend a two-stage process: One, you hire them for a 2-3 month engagement to go DEEP on your business, your customers, your competitors, and the market, to run a full SEO audit (including technical), a full content audit, a full competitive analysis, and then to pull that all together into a strategy and roadmap tailored to your specific business needs, goals, and resources. Two, now that you have that mapped out, get a quote to have them execute if that’s what you need, and be VERY specific about what they will do, and what you need to do internally (dev resources, project management, etc.)
- Hire an in-house SEO instead of an agency. In many cases this is a better choice anyway, especially for bigger businesses. If your site is over 10,000 pages, and/or organic traffic drives over $1,000,000/yr in revenue, you should really have an in-house SEO overseeing that channel anyway.
The VAST majority of SEO companies are just middle-men for at least some portion of the work you’re paying them for. In some cases agencies are outsourcing 100% of the work and do nothing but sell the work, project manage, and handle the client relationship (which can be a valuable service, but not always).
While subcontracting is nothing new, and there are certainly valid (and valuable) reasons to do so (sometimes agencies need to pull in senior SMEs for particular projects, or dev talent for a tricky task), and there is certainly an element of oversight involved in most cases, I’ve just seen a ton of issues crop up here.
Its not automatically a red flag, but definitely a yellow flag.
When an agency is charging you $125-$250+ per hour, and farming much of the work out to the Philippines for $2-3/hr or a low-tier local contractors for $20-$30/hr, you ARE getting screwed.
It’s reasonable for you to expect a level of expertise on your account commensurate with the high hourly rate you’re probably being charged. Management consulting firms and law firms have varying hourly rates for exactly this reason.
How to Avoid This
- Read your contracts carefully. Make edits to the contract as you see fit and send it back to the agency for review.
- Consider including a clause that either forbids outsourcing or sub-contracting of the work, or at the very least gives you direct access and approval/refusal rights, and perhaps tiered rates based on seniority. You could also include a clause that permits outsourcing and sub-contracting, but you as the client cover those costs directly, and pay the agency a management fee for project management but that doesn’t permit massive markups on inexpensive contractor hours.
- Hire an agency solely for an SEO audit + strategy/roadmap, then go find individual contractors with specialization in each area to execute on the strategy. You could even pay the agency to help you source good contractors. This is often MUCH cheaper than having an agency do the same thing and charge you extra for it, though the burden of project management then falls on your team.
- Pro Tip: Find senior folks at reputable agencies, and reach out via LinkedIn. Most agency folks do consulting on the side, and you can often get the same skills without having to fund the agency overhead 😉
Those are the main things that we’ve found agencies doing that screw over their clients, and if you account for these 7 things, you’ll be MUCH better off. Just keep in mind that an agency’s priorities are first and foremost themselves (usually first and foremost the owner, then the employees, and the the clients dead last.)
If you follow the above advice, you’ll better align the incentives all around, and should get better results.
But wait, there’s more!
Turning the Tables
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to write this out and just rib on the agency side. In our experience, many of the problems SEO agencies run into are client-based. Clients are very often their own worst enemy, and they are the real reason why SEO isn’t working for them
Harsh, but often true.
We think you’d be well served with a list of the things that make great clients, and that improve your odds of SEO success, so here you go:
- A Single Point of Contact – One of the biggest problems agencies encounter is too many cooks in the kitchen. With multiple POCs come competing goals, and extra meetings, and it usually ends up pulling time away from more important work. One person internally should be assigned as the POC and project manager, and all agency comms should run through that person.
- Internal Buy-In – Because SEO work impacts multiple departments and the company as a whole, it is best if you have buy-in all the way to the C-suite and board if possible. If SEO is a priority, and in many businesses it should be, that should be reflected in internal priorities and budgets.
- Budget/Resourcing – Doing great SEO isn’t cheap, because it requires efforts across multiple departments. It usually requires some amount of dev effort, content effort, social effort, PR effort, paid efforts, and may even impact sales and product. You need to make sure you have the resources in place to execute on the roadmap, because SEO recommendations that aren’t implemented are a waste of money. If you have big goals and strict timelines, make sure your budget matches.
- Speed / Accountability – SEO focused changes only start working once implemented, so if it takes months to get any changes made to the site or new content written and turned live, your SEO results will lag at least that far behind. Failure to implement, or at least to implement quickly, is often the biggest client-side pain point for agencies.
- Reasonable Expectations / Timelines – SEO is usually not fast (with rare exceptions), and tends to ramp up slowly, so if you need big wins and short-term ROI, SEO is the wrong channel. SEO efforts are akin to long-term value investing…you know it won’t be fast, but you understand the value of compounding, and you’re making long-term bets. If you expect to see impressive results in 3-6 months, you need to adjust your expectations.
- Transparency – The more your agency knows about the business, the goals, and the funnel economics, the better equipped they are to make strategic recommendations. If you can’t be fully transparent with your agency, you shouldn’t be using an agency. A general can’t effectively direct an army without quality intelligence.
- Kindness – Even if you are under pressure internally, don’t be an asshole. Mean clients DO NOT elicit good work from agency employees. If you treat your agency contact like shit, don’t be surprised if they “Quiet Quit” on you and only do the bare minimum required by the contract. On the flipside, if you treat your POC well, they will usually go above and beyond for you, and you’ll make their life much less stressful than it probably is (agencies are always stressful).
If you can fix/account for both the agency-side and the client-side issues we’ve covered, you’ll get incentives aligned all around.
While there are more things that come up, these are probably 90-95% of the issues encountered agency-side. If you keep these things in mind, your agency experience will likely improve dramatically!
Have questions? Want to hire someone to help you audit a potential agency, review your contract, or to audit an existing agency’s work?