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9 Red Flags to Look Out for When Hiring an Enterprise SEO Agency

October 14, 2019

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Everybody knows SEO is important nowadays, and everybody wants to make sure they have SEO professionals working to optimize their search engine performance. However, anyone can call themselves an SEO pro or claim their agency has the right expertise to help any potential SEO client.

There are a lot of well-known best practices that can be applied to help SMBs, but enterprise SEO is more complex and shouldn’t be approached with the same playbook that most SEO agencies are accustomed to using for their clients.

We’re not just talking about “adding keywords” to our pages anymore, and most enterprise-level marketers know that already. But how DO you identify the right enterprise SEO agency partner? Beyond the basics you would look at for any strategic partner like referrals and case studies, we’ve put together a helpful list of 9 red flags to avoid.

Do NOT partner with an enterprise SEO agency that does any of the 9 following:

1. Present themselves as an SEO-specific agency

We all know this pitch. “We focus on SEO, specifically, and that specialized focus makes us better at SEO than agencies that provide other marketing services”. It sounds good, right? Here’s the problem. SEO isn’t really something you simply add-on to the rest of your digital marketing anymore. SEO is the final outcome after you’ve done everything else right.

Specialization is good, but these agencies are putting a positive spin on what is really a severe limitation. Technical on-page optimizations and keyword strategies are important, but those should be assumed in the SEO space. If an agency can’t design and develop web properties, if they don’t understand messaging, if they have no experience managing what happens after a user from organic search fills out a form on your website, then their myopic focus lowers the ceiling of what they can achieve. If they don’t have deep understanding of paid search, and the interplay between paid and organic search, there’s no reason to continue the conversation.

If an agency tries to spin what they can’t do as evidence of what they can do, they don’t have the right personnel to deliver results for enterprise-level clients.

2. Promise specific results

There is a lot of competition between SEO agencies, and many will try to guarantee outcomes to set themselves apart. At the enterprise level, they’ll often point to the overall search presence a client website already has as an indicator that they can ensure a “Page 1” ranking for specific keywords. They might guarantee a lift in local map results in specific areas because they see an opportunity for improvement.

However, enterprise SEO is complex. Google algorithm updates happen regularly and there are a lot of factors that SEO agencies can influence but cannot control. The best enterprise SEO agencies will walk you through their approach and the opportunities that exist. They will be able to share examples of what they’ve done previously, and how that will inform the strategy they develop for you.

If an agency is promising specific keyword ranking or organic traffic results, they either don’t know enough about enterprise SEO to know they’re lying, or they’re lying. Neither option is a good way to start.

3. Focus on link building as the core SEO strategy

Backlinks are an important factor in search engine rankings and SEO agencies have accordingly offered this as a service for years. There’s nothing wrong with link-building itself if it is done the “right” way, and we offer this service for our ongoing enterprise SEO clients.

The right way really intersects with PR and overall content strategy, and it helps to have an extensive set of existing backlinks and relationships to get started. Earned media means earned links. Writing great content that people are inclined to link to, or guest posting on industry-relevant websites is a great way to earn links and leveraging industry relationships and connections builds quality backlinks.

If link building is at the forefront of the strategy, however, that’s a red flag. “Black Hat” SEO techniques involve paying for backlinks or offering quid-pro-quo links to “link farms’ that don’t serve any valuable purpose beyond manipulating rankings. Google and other search engines can manually penalize sites for this, and enterprise-level sites that have lots of visitors and keyword rankings are at especially high-risk for penalty due to their larger presence in search engine results.

4. SEO copywriting

If the agency calls this a service, run away. SEO requires content and new content presents opportunities for optimization. However, there should be an overarching content strategy for the brand that incorporates a complementary keyword strategy.

Content for the sake of content is the new spam, and it doesn’t work. Don’t create content for search engines. Create content for your users and apply best SEO practices and keyword strategies that support the overall content plan – both on and offsite.

Working with an agency that understands both content strategy and SEO is a great idea. Working with an agency that offers “SEO copywriting” is not.

5. Present their SEO tools as their value proposition:

All SEO agencies have access to research and tracking tools that help them drive results for their clients, as well as tools that help manage specific aspects of SEO like local business listings. All enterprise SEO agencies have enterprise-level tools. If an agency signs a new client with a unique need, for which a particular tool would be helpful, they can use it.

The agencies that really know what they’re doing for enterprise clients are tool-agnostic, in that they will use the tools that make sense for the project. If an agency tells you their tools set them apart, it’s because their people do not. If they say they have their own special tools that nobody else has, they have likely slapped their own brand name on a reporting software that anybody can access.

6. They have a “Secret” sauce

SEO is a complex and ever-changing space, but there is no secret sauce. Seasoned SEO professionals know the same tactics and read the same industry blogs. Like with any service, if someone says they have a special methodology that nobody else knows, but they can’t really tell you about it, that’s a red flag.

What sets an agency apart as an enterprise SEO agency partner for your brand is really their business acumen and their understanding of your space. We can all optimize a page, but we don’t all really “get it” when it comes to how SEO connects to your overall business or the industry you compete in.

7. They don’t talk about branded search

In general, you’re looking for an agency that can help you perform better in a competitive, non-branded search, right? The assumption is that you are always going to get people who are looking for you, and it’s all about capturing people who are looking for your category and not explicitly for you.

Not so fast. At the enterprise level, optimizing branded search is critical. It’s not just about whether users find your brand, you want to make sure they find the specific piece of content that sets them on the right user journey based on their search queries. People don’t just search for your brand, they search for your brand in many ways and with different intent behind those iterations.

Additionally, your competitors may well be running paid search ads against your branded terms. Shouldn’t you be thinking about the whole search results page for the brand you’ve built?

8. They don’t start with a comprehensive SEO audit

Many SEO agencies will provide some initial findings about your website, your search engine results presence, and possibly even the competitive landscape during the proposal phase. That’s great, they really should be doing that. But that doesn’t mean they’ve done a comprehensive audit yet. This is critical – especially for enterprise-level SEO. A comprehensive audit ought to take way too many hours to be doing before you engage. If it isn’t, then it wasn’t comprehensive. This suggests they are going to take an SMB SEO approach to your enterprise SEO challenge.

9. They are an industry-specific agency

This is very common in the SEO space, and even the digital marketing space in general. The story goes, “we’ve done this in your industry dozens of times, we know what works best”. They may not be wrong about that claim, but this means they are not ready to handle enterprise SEO (even within that industry).

These agencies claim they are able to win clients in their focused space because they’ve already “cracked the code” for that space. They are also able to templatize their approach and use junior SEO professionals to execute that templated solution. They lack the subject matter agility to succeed when the rules change or when their templated approach falls short.

Need more help figuring out how to identify the right SEO partner for your brand? Talk to the SEO experts at 9thWonder. We’re here to help.

Matt O'Connell

Matt leads Gravity’s SEO practice and the digital marketing team in Gravity's Denver office responsible for lead/demand generation, SEM, SEO, PPC, analytics, social advertising, content development, and shaping digital strategy to drive conversions.

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