In 2017, a strong web presence can be the difference between a business succeeding or failing.
For most marketers, search traffic plays a significant role in creating a strong web presence — and search traffic in turn hinges upon good, relevant links to targeted pages.
Links improve rankings and visibility in Google’s search results. As your audience searches for terms related to your business, they find your website which creates a favorable brand impression, a stronger web presence, and more traffic.
If you plan to hire an SEO agency to build links to your site in 2017, you’ll need to vet multiple SEO agencies.
This is no small task. Let me explain:
- As much as it pains me to say, low-quality link building agencies are still very prevalent in the current SEO market.
- Worse, low-quality link building services often offer guarantees which appeal directly to those who aren’t savvy in SEO.
- And finally, lower quality services typically offer a better price point than higher quality services.
This creates a trap for legitimate businesses who want to build a stronger online presence.
When budget is an issue — and let’s be honest, budget is always an issue — marketers and business owners who don’t know better are apt to fall for link packages that offer higher guaranteed numbers at low prices.
After all, how different is one link versus another? Are better links really worth $500 more? Why? Can that be quantified? Are five low quality links equivalent to one good link? And why pay for a service that won’t offer guarantees versus one that will?
These are logical questions for a marketer and business owner to ask, but they can lead to the wrong answers. Purchasing bad links can lead to worse than no results; bad links can actually have a net negative impact on your website. You’d be better off purchasing links from fiverr; at least that way, you’ll save a bit of money for the same result.
Today, I want to help you make an informed decision. As the owner of a link agency, my goal in this post is to help you distinguish between a reputable link building firm and low-quality services.
The following are questions you should ask during the process of vetting a link agency.
Question the Link Building Process (Customization is Key)
Quality link building requires customization across the entire process: onboarding, strategy development, execution, reportage. Every aspect has to be customized for your business in order to be effective.
There simply aren’t cookie cutter solutions an SEO agency can apply ad hoc to new clients to build real links that achieve results.
As SEOs, we have to understand our client’s marketplace, niche, industry, and product/service in order to secure the type of links that make a difference.
If you’re considering hiring an agency, expect them to explain how their work will be customized for you. If they don’t, ask them questions:
- What is your experience in the SEO/link building industry?
- What tactics do you use to secure links?
- Who dictates strategy during a campaign?
- Which tactics will work best for my situation? Why?
- Who will be doing the actual work to secure links for my project?
- What is your process for outreach?
- What tools do you use to help you secure links?
- How do you monitor and report results?
- When should I expect to see results from my project?
- How do your tactics align with Google’s webmaster guidelines?
- How will you represent my brand online?
- How do you find link opportunities?
- How do you evaluate potential linking sites?
- How do you define a successful project?
The simplest advice I can give is to ask questions about the “how.” Anything that may affect your goals, question. Be thorough. Before you sign a contract or spend a dime, you should know exactly what your purchase means and feel comfortable in the relationship.
This is big picture work on your website and brand — you need to trust your SEO agency. You should have a clear understanding of how your links will be secured before engaging in a partnership with any link vendor.
Expect Honest, Candid Conversation
Search is often responsible for a majority of a website’s traffic.
It can be tempting to think of SEO as an analytical, technical task. The truth is, you’re hiring a company to ensure a primary source of your audience (and potential customers) have a good experience and build affinity for your brand.
You shouldn’t focus only on short term gains. SEO and particularly link building is about trending growth.
Only contract a firm you trust, who you believe will represent you well and achieve your goals in the long term. Although a certain amount of SEO savviness will help you vet prospects, you should also expect earnest, human conversation.
Demystify the conversation. Don’t trust the SEO who speaks only in jargon.
Ask questions to help you connect on a personal level:
- How long have you been with [agency name]?
- Have you always been a [company title]?
- How did you get into SEO?
- What’s your experience in SEO?
- Has your agency worked in my industry before?
- What other brands have you worked with?
- What brought you into link building? Why?
Expect earnest conversations with your contact, and break it out beyond SEO. Think about whether you respect and trust the person you’re speaking to. You want to be sure this is a partnership, not just a sale for them to close.
Be aware as well that the vetting should be a two-way street. The agency should only work with businesses they believe they can benefit. They should seek to understand your business, and ask questions about your operations, marketplace, customers, audience, and competition.
You should expect questions from your contact that demonstrates care and understanding. Questions such as:
- What is your current market position?
- What are your most important keywords?
- Do you track your keyword rankings currently? What has your variation been?
- Where do you expect to rank in a year?
- Who are your main competitors? Who are your main search competitors? How do they differ from your business?
- What is your history with SEO and link building? Have you hired any vendors in the past?
- What role do expect organic search to achieve in your overarching business goals?
- Do you have existing partnerships, sponsorships, associations?
- Are you implementing any other initiatives that may impact search performance or opportunity?
These are the detailed questions your link service provider SHOULD ask to be sure they can drive the results you expect. They should ask about your business as much as you ask about their service — the goal is a mutually beneficial business partnership.
Make sure the agency is working to understand your business and earn your trust. If you don’t trust your contact, or can’t speak to the type of person they are, be sure to consider that in the vetting process.
You’ll want to trust the people you’re dealing with as much as the service they offer.
Discuss Results, Metrics, and KPIs
Results in SEO don’t happen overnight. Unless you have glaring technical issues that are easily solved, it can take months of execution and data to demonstrate a trend in growth.
Link building is the same. If you’re in a competitive industry, the agency will need to set (and report) KPIs to show positive indicators of growth and success.
It’s not easy to set meaningful KPIs. It will take an ongoing back and forth discussion. You will need to clearly explain your business goals and question how the agency will help you achieve specific goals. You should be satisfied by the metrics set by the agency, and understand how those tie in to your own goals and metrics.
Expect the agency to ask questions such as:
- What demonstrable results will make this project a success for your business?
- What do you classify as a conversion on your site?
- Do you monitor secondary support goals?
- Are you currently tracking search rankings? Has there been growth and/or fluctuation?
- What keywords are you currently targeted? Have you done exhaustive research?
- What are your most important pages?
- How much traffic does your site currently have? Has that grown YoY? MoM? Seasonality?
- What types of increases in traffic and/or conversions do you expect?
- How many links do you expect over the course of a campaign?
KPIs need to align with your business goals. I suggest you establish these baseline metrics:
- Rankings: Although it’s impossible to guarantee #1 rankings, you should see improvement across the terms and phrases you’re targeting.
- Keyword growth/expansion: Along with ranking improvements on specific terms, you should see increased long-tail keyword rankings and more relevant terms in the top 20 spots across the board.
- Organic traffic: Over the course of a sustained link campaign, you should see increased organic traffic to targeted pages and your domain as a whole.
Measuring the impact of each of these is important as well, and dependant upon your conversion rate, average order value, revenue per visitor, etc.
Ask for Proof of Work
The process of securing links relies upon third parties (the linking websites), which then affects Google’s algorithm, which is effectively a black box.
Any SEO that tells you with certainty they can provide #1 rankings is a liar.
Good agencies will be able to make predictions based upon solid research and assessment, but there are few guarantees. Avoid any agency that make outlandish guarantees, particularly in terms of rankings.
So how do you balance this with determining whether an agency can deliver results?
Ask for proof of work.
You can gauge a prospective vendor’s capabilities by asking for:
- Case studies from past projects
- Testimonials from current and past clients
- Sample reports
- Links they’ve recently secured
- Strategy and campaign plans
- Content creation/promotion examples
- Niche/industry experience, including other clients
Legitimate SEO companies will be proud to share their client work.
Question Their Transparency
Trustworthy link agencies are transparent agencies.
Transparency should be a part of any reputable agency’s offering. You’ll want to work with a partner who will not only keep you in the loop, but actively communicate and seek your collaboration.
Ask questions that reveal a vendor’s dedication to transparency early on. Ask them questions about their structure, such as:
- Who will be managing my project?
- Will I have a dedicated point of contact? If so, how can I reach them? When?
- Who will be doing the actual link building work?
- Do you outsource work overseas or elsewhere?
- What is your agency’s team structure? Why?
- How do you report results? What will be included?
- How often can I expect to see reports?
- Is your reporting schedule flexible?
- How do I view the work being done for my campaign?
A quality link service will offer transparency at every level — from the initial sales/discovery process to the conclusion of your partnership — to ensure you always know what’s going on with your project. Test their dedication to transparency early, before you sign any contract.
Ask About Communication Policies
Open communication is essential to a successful partnership.
Transparency is important — you should see the work on your campaign — but there also needs to be communication. Transparency will show you the “how,” and communication explains the “why.”
As you discuss a potential partnership with an agency, ask them:
- What is your process for communication?
- What channels do you use for communication (phone, email, dashboards, chat programs, etc.)?
- How often will we meet to discuss the project?
- What will be covered during each meeting?
- What do you expect from me during these meetings?
- Can I contact you outside of scheduled meeting times?
- Do you provide consultation beyond link building (on-page, content, social, etc.)?
Link campaigns evolve over time, so you’ll want access to the people responsible for managing your project, in case they make changes or adjustments. Conversely, if something changes on your end (e.g. you launch a new product/initiative), you’ll want to be able to communicate that to the team working to secure you links.
Communication is essential to link acquisition — you need to fully understand how and when you can reach your contacts.
The SEO industry has greatly matured over the last five years, but not every agency has evolved with it.
If you’re planning to outsource your link building efforts, you’ll need to take time to perform due diligence and vet any SEO or link building agency.
It can be tempting to look for firm guarantees and low price points, but these are unfortunately often the signs of lower-tier services. Have long, honest conversations with your contacts at any agency you’re considering. Question their process, communication, transparency, customization, reportage.
You should look for a partner you can trust in the long term, not the firm that will promise results in the short term.
SEO isn’t an overnight channel. As one of the largest drivers of traffic online, you’ll want to be sure you’re investing into a long term strategy that will continue to provide valuable prospects, leads, and customers to your brand for years to come.
To recap, here are the key signs to look for during your early interactions with prospective link building agencies:
- Dedication to customization: You want a link service that is customized to fit your business and achieve your goals.
- Investment in your business: Look for a partner that is genuinely invested in learning about your company and unique challenges.
- Established KPIs: Your service provider should consult with you to develop custom KPIs that matter to your business, and then report on those metrics.
- Proof of process: Ensure you fully understand your vendor’s processes and how they will secure links for your website.
- Proof of work: Ask for sample reports, case studies, references, etc. Gather as much information as you can to obtain a clear understanding of how a prospective vendor will deliver the results you want.
- Commitment to transparency: Ask questions that reveal structure and processes for campaign reportage.
- Open and free communication: Use the early conversations you have with a potential service provider to assess their commitment to open communication. Ongoing communication between client and vendor is crucial to link building success, and you need to know if this will be a true partnership where communication flows freely and consistently.