Cort Davies has been in the digital marketing industry for about 6 years. Transitioning from real estate, he began his career in the personal development realm of digital marketing by helping an author develop his business through different types of marketing strategies. He then went on to become vice president of Internet Marketing Inc in San Diego; while he was there the company grew significantly, expanding from 12 employees to 70. Today, Davies is a marketing consultant for mid to large market companies who are in need of a quality SEO agency. He has, on average, been responsible for two million dollars per year in revenue for SEO and PPC campaigns, as well as 3 million dollars per year in consulting. In the upcoming year, the entrepreneur plans to create a company to expand his consulting business.
1. Vetting and Choosing the best SEO company (the basics to finding the best search engine optimization company)
- What filters do you use to identify the difference between a great SEO company and one that is not?
“The most important thing to me is looking at their track record, which is going to gage how good that SEO company is. A track record is going to tell me, for instance, about their client communication, which is by far the most important thing. If you’re communicating properly with your client and your client feels like they’re getting all of their needs met, then you’re going to have a happy customer. Marketing is not an exact science, especially SEO; there are a lot of situations in which SEO strategy could be wrong and it’s not necessarily the agency’s fault. It could potentially be that the product is not good for SEO; furthermore, changes in search engines and algorithms, as well as the competitive landscape, could really make a negative impact. I would say track record is the biggest filter; check how long they keep their clients for. If I see a company that has SEO clients come and go, year after year, they’re probably more concentrated on the sales side; getting clients in and then really losing it on the operations side. Whereas a company that has clients for 5+ years, they would really stand out as a good SEO company.”
- What are the commonalities between great SEO agencies?
“Communication, keeping clients for a long time-- I was going to say technology but that might not necessarily be true. There are a lot of SEO companies that don't use technology, they use a lot of manpower, which could be effective. Then there are companies that have good technology that don't use as much manpower, which could be just as effective. Therefore, I would say the commonalities are communication, customer service, and reporting; you want to use that documented growth along with the communication to keep clients happy.”
- What methods do you recommend to others when trying to vet or choose an SEO agency?
“I would say the best thing to do is ask about track record, ask about how long SEO clients stick around and ask them to be honest about their strengths and flaws. It says a lot about a company who admits, ‘we're good at on-page but we might not be as good at off-page’. Look at their legacy of clients, how long they've been there, how happy they are, what kind of testimonials they give, and what kind of case studies they provide. If everything's out in the open, everything looks good and if they’re being forthright about everything, then those are really good signs to vet an SEO company.”
- What are common things you’ve seen shady SEO companies do that someone should watch out for when vetting a new firm?
“The shady stuff is definitely going to be an SEO company that's not keeping up with changes and how Google is finding certain aspects of SEO important or not important. For instance, there are still SEO companies out there that say meta keywords make a difference. If there are meta keywords in a website, and the website was just built, it’s typically either a web company that doesn't know what they’re doing or an SEO agency that’s still using old school tactics. There’s a lot of old school stuff that could have potentially been good but is now looked at as spam from Google perspective. Secondarily, link building has definitely become sketchy; it has to be done the right way, offsite SEO is a lot different than it used to be. I personally think offsite SEO is a lot more dangerous than doing a good onsite SEO job. Even guest blog posts, in some cases, could be seen as spammy offsite SEO stuff; “organic” doesn't exist. Yes, it may be done through social channels and guest blog posts but I see a lot of companies doing a lot of link removal right now because they had a shady SEO company that did a lot of link building for them; they ended up being bad links and Google is now penalizing their website. If an agency is in tune with what Google is saying and constantly keeping up to date with that, it’s definitely the biggest first step; they at least understand SEO, see what they do next.”
- How can someone assess value when getting a bid from an SEO agency to know if they are getting a fair deal?
“Some companies price based on their name, legacy and history; some agencies price custom. I tend to really like agencies that are custom about their pricing, meaning, they show you exactly the kind of deliverables you’re getting. Here's the interesting twist, you could be paying as much for a company that puts 2 people on your SEO campaign as a company that puts 5 or 6 on and you might actually get similar results. The company with 2 people on your campaign might have a technology that’s doing their SEO and then the company that has 5 or 6 people on your account could be doing it manually. Is the company with 2 people on your account ripping you off? No, not necessarily, because you might get as good, if not better, results. This really a difficult question because it’s hard to find out if you’re getting a fair deal as standard pricing and SEO is changing everyday. The best thing to do is get all the information you can on the deliverables, what they’re doing on a day to day basis, how many people are working on the campaign and what kind of seniority level is working on the campaign, as well. This is going to build a more specific picture for the client in seeing what exactly their ‘SEO money’ is going towards. The real factor is going to be the return on investment.”
- What are the tough questions to ask an SEO company when interviewing them?
“It’s definitely safe to ask, ‘where have you screwed up an SEO campaign before? What happened and what did you do about it?’ For instance, I know there were a lot of agencies on the link building train for way too long and they got penalized for it. The clients got penalized for it as well and it hurt their revenues; I'm sure there were a few unhappy Vice Presidents of Marketing who found out about it. This is probably the fault of the agency for not keeping up with technology and what's going on in the news about search engine optimization. If they’re forthright about it, it’s a good sign because it means they learn, they adjust, and they adapt. Now, again, SEO is not an exact science, it's not like paid search where you pay a dollar and you see it clearly, therefore, another good question to ask is whether or not an agency outsources outside of the United States. Typically it puts a bad taste in clients’ mouth if their stuff is outsourced to the Philippines, India, and places along those lines because there could be some black hat stuff going on. Interestingly, there is also a lot of good SEO done in the Philippines and India; it's just making the SEO campaign more cost effective. If they do say that they’re outsourced, ask them about the quality of work that’s coming out of that place because it might not necessarily be bad, it might be more cost effective. Definitely ask about what they did if they screwed up any SEO campaigns, if they outsource any of their work, and if they have ever had any websites penalized.”
2. Vetting and Selecting the best PPC company (the basics to finding the best pay per click management company)
- What things separate an exceptional PPC company from an average one?
“Strategy is huge in paid search; a lot of companies take on a paid search campaign and plug it into some kind of automated business management tool that runs everything for them. Strategy is going to come with a lot of different areas: the way they structure their keywords, the way they breakout campaigns, the way that they do their ad copies, switch up their ad copies and it comes all the way down to the landing page conversion optimization. There are definitely companies out there that just run page search ads and they don't connect all the dots together; some of them don't even realize the strength of retargeting, if retargeting is not being done in a paid search campaign, its most likely a big mistake. Therefore, I would say strategy is the biggest difference.”
- At what point in a campaign does it make sense to have an outside firm manage the adwords campaign instead of doing it yourself?
“This is going to have to do with the difficulty of the market that you’re in and the amount of keywords. For example, say you’re spending $50,000 a month on paid search; there might be such broad keywords that it may take 3 or 4 people to run it as the campaign needs to be touched on a daily basis. The amount of revenue that you’re going to generate from that has to make up for those people’s salary and then some. You also have to look at it from a strategic standpoint, is hiring an agency going to increase your return on investment? A lot of times, internal health at an SEO agency is going to be low level; if you’re not used to hiring a paid search expert, you might not know what to look for. Agencies hire and let go of employees quickly, therefore they know the best ones and they know the ones that aren't working out well, which is a big deal. Therefore, I wouldn't say there's a dollar amount or a specific market, but it’s definitely going to be a combination of those two aspects. To be honest, I wouldn't do my paid search in house because, the fact of the matter is, agencies touch all different types of campaigns, get great ideas from them, and then incorporate them into your campaign. I also know when they’re dropping the ball, if my ROI falls below 5 or 10, in certain cases, I’m either going to a different agency or finding a new alternative but I say that's a general rule of thumb.”
- What are some common issues to watch out for, that you’ve seen, with PPC companies when managing adwords campaigns?
“Strategy, technology, reporting, and things along those lines. First and foremost, ask them about their track record; see how much money and how many adwords they are currently managing. Typically, from that standpoint you could find out, for instance, if they’re a Google preferred agency; that’s a big deal. However, a lot of clients aren't going to be able to work with a Google preferred agency because they’re potentially really high end, spending millions of dollars a month in paid search and managing those accounts. Some other common issues that you should look for are whether or not SEO agencies are using business management tools when they shouldn't be. Do they have the ability to allow you to access reporting at all times? I hear, constantly, that paid search companies are not sending reports at all or just every few months; if you’re spending thousands of dollars on paid search you should know how it's performing everyday or, at least, every week. Make sure they’re doing something strategic to make changes, you have to continuously be strategic; there’s the campaign build out, there’s getting all the information and then there’s constantly being strategic about that. A lot of companies just build the campaign, enter in the information and then just click play and let it go; you really have to look for that.”
- What are the tough questions to ask a PPC company when interviewing them?
“Have they screwed up any campaigns? How long do they keep their paid search clients? Do they have any case studies? Do they have any clients that you can talk to about how the agency is managing their paid search campaigns? Why companies don't ask these types of questions is beyond me; you get sold by a company but you should check the referrals. If a company allows you to speak to someone about what they do, it’s a good thing, but make sure you speak to 2 or 3 people because some companies might just have one of their friends that they’re able to call for a referral. You want to hear about their experience and the communication that goes on between the account manager and the company. Furthermore, I would even go as far to say that the account manager should be on the phone call or on the pitch because you want to hear that person, you want to know how they react and communicate. A lot of times the salesperson is liked by a company, then the campaign is transferred over to the account manager and account strategist where there's no communication whatsoever; they might not even get along and that causes issues. You have to nip that in the bud, in the beginning, and those are definitely really good questions to ask.”
3. Knowing what to hold your PPC or SEO company accountable to is the key to getting what you pay for and creating a positive return on investment.
- What items should be agreed up front, prior to the beginning of SEO work, to hold a new SEO agency accountable to?
“Those are the KPI’s and reporting. Your key performance indicators, in some cases, will be your keywords’ ranking and in another case, it’s going to be overall traffic. Then, in terms of reporting, you want to see what’s going on from a keyword ranking and traffic standpoint. Where a lot of SEO companies miss the mark is that there also needs to be coordination with what's going on from a conversion point of view. In most cases, if there’s SEO being done, there’s some kind of action to be taken whether it’s lead generation, e-commerce, or purchasing something online. That SEO campaign has to match up with the conversion optimization, conversion data and, essentially, what the client’s goal is. Yes, getting traffic to the site and getting more keywords to rank on the first page is good but are they doing anything for you from a financial standpoint? A lot of companies miss the mark with that and I think it’s definitely something you need to really discuss up front, you need to keep that out in the open.”
- What results or metrics show that an SEO campaign is working and that you are getting fair market value for your spend?
“It’s going to be campaign dependant; a lot of the better SEO companies have good data, they maybe have some attribution tools that they use, they pull some information from Google Analytic and put it on some kind of dashboard. However, keyword ranking and organic traffic growth is obviously the key; you want to combine those aspects with the new revenue being generated in order to see if your SEO agency is worth the spend.”
- What items should be agreed up front, prior to the beginning of PPC account management, to hold a pay per click agency to?
“A lot of agencies charge an upfront cost to build and a lot don't. I personally don’t think there should be a build out cost; it leaves a bad taste in the client's’ mouth. All that initial research should be done under the management fee, depending on the size of the campaign. In a lot of cases, there’s actually data in a campaign that’s already finished and they can kind of build off that. Your metrics are going to be your return on investment, make sure you get reporting regularly; see how much money you spent in that week, see what the most effective ad copies and keywords are, see what the agency is doing to improve your campaign on a weekly basis. Secondarily, look at how retargeting is contributing to the paid search campaign, which is going to have reporting as well. Then, it’s either your return on ad spend or return on investment, whatever the company determines is the most important thing, and that’s how you really keep them continuously growing and staying on top of your campaign.”
- What results or metrics show that the PPC management fee is worth the spend?
“The fee should be a very small fraction of your return on investment. The tough thing about paid search is that, believe it or not, it doesn't really make agencies that much money. If you’re talking about bigger campaigns, such as companies spending $100,000 - $200,000 per month in paid search, yes, it’s definitely making the agency some money from the management fee perspective. Therefore, it depends on the spend; if you’re only spending $1000 per month and the management fee is 10% or 20%, you have to imagine, what’s $200 really going to get you? You need to figure that, in a lot of cases, it’s easy to justify the management fee being as high as the spend because you want them touching your campaign every single day and getting all that data for you. When they get that data, they can move your campaign along faster or they can figure out that the product or service you’re using in paid search is not working well, which is something that’s going to happen sometimes. It’s definitely going to be a case by case basis but you really should be looking at your ROI, which is the most important thing, as opposed to the management fee; you want to be in the 5-10 times range, then you know the company is doing a good job and you can justify the management fee.”
- What do you find to be the biggest pitfalls with SEO or PPC companies that do not produce an ROI?
“Definitely when companies take on clients who don’t have a good product or service. Do you blame the paid search agency? No. The agencies are hungry and they, a lot of times, think that they can take on a client and make a difference. I've seen tons of companies, that spend a lot of money, fail to generate ROI and then they move onto other agencies who can’t generate ROI there, either. We have to be honest here, not every idea that you’re doing internet marketing for is going to make money online; that’s just the reality. Secondarily, the pitfalls are most likely going to be lack of strategy and/or lack of communication within an SEO agency. Lack of strategy, meaning, the company knows how to start something but they don't know how to grow it. Furthermore, the account manager or project manager’s communication with the company is important; for example, being in tune with changes in the company, as well as the goals of the organization. A lot of times there’s miscommunication and if you notice it, you really need to hash that out immediately. If your SEO goals are not properly set and/or if the direction they’re going in with your campaign is kind of ambiguous, it's going to be much more difficult for the agency to give you a return on investment. The fact of the matter is, marketing is not guaranteed, that’s why we do marketing, to grow a business, but its not guaranteed.”
- What do you find to be the biggest strengths of SEO or PPC agencies that create exceptional performance and ROI?
“It’s communication, strategy, and, potentially, use of technology. An agency is not only running your campaign but also learning about the changes in the market; they’re going to classes, they’re doing case studies on the changes in all of the search engines, and they’re looking for new display networks. It’s really going to be the agency that is staying on top of it and being strategic; the biggest tell-tale sign is if they've had a client for 5+ years in SEO and paid search. In this case, you know they’re doing a great job because there has been so many changes that have happened in the last 5 years and that company has, most likely, weathered the storm and really kept up.”