Tips on Hiring a Search Engine Optimization Agency

Tips on Hiring a Search Engine Optimization Agency (Podcast)

John Maher speaks with McDougall Interactive President John McDougall on hiring a search engine optimization agency, and offers tips for making the right choice.

John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher, and this is Digital Marketing Madness. This podcast is brought to you by McDougall Interactive. We’re a digital marketing agency in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Today, I’m here with our president, John McDougall, and we’re discussing tips on hiring a search engine optimization agency. Welcome, John.

John McDougall: Hey.

The Biggest Mistake You Can Make Working with an SEO Company

John Maher: So John, what do you think is the biggest mistake that you can make in working with an SEO company?

John McDougall: I think hiring an agency that says they do SEO but doesn’t really can be a really big mistake. We take over for SEO agencies all the time and we see some pretty crazy stuff. Actually, one time I was at a conference and this printing company had up a sign that says like, “We do your SEO,” and it was a whole thing about SEO. I said, “Yeah, how long have you been doing SEO?” And they said, “Oh, well, we’re a printing company. We’re just starting. We’re doing it for ourselves.” I was like, “Wow, that’s…”

John Maher: A printing company, and now they’re branching out into SEO?

John McDougall: Yeah. And it looked like they were a full-blown SEO company, but they had never even done it for a client other than just doing it on their own site. So you’ve got to be careful. I mean, some people are just getting in with the trend because they start talking about keywords. It sounds like they know what they’re doing, but-

John Maher: Pretty much every marketing agency now on their website needs to say, “Oh yeah, we do search engine optimization too.”

John McDougall: Almost everyone now is going to have that listed. So yeah, SEO is just too critical, where if you rank, even number 15, nobody’s seeing you. So even if they’re good enough to get you second page, that’s not good enough. SEO only works if you’re awesome at it, unfortunately.

Hiring a Small vs. a Large Marketing Company

John Maher: What do you think about hiring a small versus a large marketing company? Is one better than the other?

John McDougall: There are some big companies, some SEO agencies I know that have scaled and done a pretty good job with it, but I know some of these agency owners and they admit like, “Hey, the problem isn’t always getting the clients. We have a lot of clients, but man, it’s scaling our staff and making sure that when we hand it off, that the service is as good as it is when the owners were doing it.” So sometimes, a larger SEO agency is just trying to scale, and I won’t name names, but there’s some in the legal industry and some other places where they’re so big that they can charge say, a small package of $2,500 a month and really be literally doing nothing.

We’ve seen the monthly reports and talked to the people that were charging the $2,500 a month and found out that they had basically admitted that they hadn’t done anything in six months.

John Maher: We’ll go into the Google Ads campaign and we’ll look at the track changes list and the history of what’s been done on the Google Ads…

John McDougall: On the Ad side too, sure.

John Maher: …yeah, and find out it’s been months since they even changed a bid amount in Google Ads.

John McDougall: Yep. So it’s not to beat up on agencies, but this is just to make you aware, if you’re going to hire an SEO agency, larger isn’t necessarily better. They might have flashier website graphics or case studies or something. But if you’re going to end up working with their interns, then you’re screwed. So in some ways, it’s better to go smaller if you know you’re going to work with the founders or the key senior level people.

So that can go wrong too. It’s not a guarantee, but generally even if you’re working with a large agency, making sure you know who is on your team would be one way to get around that.

John Maher: Right. Is it somebody like, as you said, an intern, or is it somebody who’s had some years of experience and really knows a lot about it?

John McDougall: Yep.

Can I Do SEO Myself?

John Maher: What about doing it yourself? Can I do SEO myself, or do I really need to hire an agency?

John McDougall: I think you can do it yourself. And that’s why we started Talk Marketing Academy. We have the school, that John and I teach together. So this isn’t just a pitch for that. I think you can do it even without our school, but one thing you do have to keep in mind is there are a lot of different sides to SEO. So SEO is like a Swiss Army knife in some ways. Technical SEO is one blade, writing is another blade, designing the website to be a good user experience because Google likes that is another thing.

There are a lot of different angles and pieces to SEO and sometimes you get someone that just can do it all. That’s awesome, but usually you need a team of people. So if you’re going to do SEO yourself, just know that if your strength is writing, focus on the writing, and maybe hire out just the technical SEO side of it or something like that, or the programming side. If you’re not a writer, either do podcasting or videos and then people can more easily write for you after you have all that kind of content.

So pick your shots and know that you might not have to have an agency, but you might need some subcontractors to do the things that aren’t your natural strength.

Approving Content for SEO

John Maher: Okay. What about the approval process? How important is that in terms of…if we are writing blog posts or doing podcasts or videos, and then we’re sending those to our clients and saying, “Hey, can we get these approved?” If you’ve hired an agency and the agency’s emailing you and asking for approvals on content, how important is that approval process and getting it done quickly?

John McDougall: It’s critical because if it feels like you’re working hard on stuff, but if it’s not live on the website, Google’s not seeing it. So it’s really not doing anything. So if the agency’s writing and they’re sending stuff to you and it’s just sitting in your inbox and you don’t have time to go through the articles and get them approved or the agency says your web designer has to fix these certain things, if the agency isn’t doing that, if those things don’t get approved or executed on, just talking about them isn’t something Google can see, obviously.

So yeah, the approval process is critical. You’ll get more out of working with an agency if you get things approved, and another recommendation would be to make sure the agency has project management software of some kind, even if it’s just an Excel spreadsheet.

We like Smartsheet. It’s a great way to store, “Okay, we did the technical audit, we fixed these technical items. We did competitive analysis. We’re going to write an ebook. We’re going to do these topic clusters.” And then you go into a long list of, “We agreed to write these 12 blog posts, these six podcasts, these six videos,” things like that. You hear the monthly reports and make sure everything is getting executed on.

And if you can see it in a spreadsheet or a Smartsheet in the cloud, you’re much more likely to be able to help remind the agency, “Hey, you guys said you were going to do this.” So make sure they’re giving you recaps and letting you know that the SEO project is on track, and that’s how you can do it.

John Maher: In terms of that approval process, what do you think about being, maybe, overly precious about your website or overly critical about making sure that every single I is dotted and T is crossed? So you can maybe be a little bit overly picky to the point where nothing ends up getting changed or fixed or written for your website because everything’s not quite good enough to go on your site, that kind of thing. We see that a lot, I think.

John McDougall: Yeah. So we have some, I won’t name their names per se, but some rock-star clients where they show up for podcasts really quickly, they let us come and do video. We send them blog posts, they get approved really quickly. I’m not saying you need to just approve everything even if it’s sloppy or not great, definitely not. But man, isn’t it amazing?

We have seen it even in the banking industry — we’ve worked with maybe 20 banks and credit unions. We built the second best online-only bank in the country. And they said, “Our compliance officer is realistic.” They said, “If all we do is worry about the risks of the marketing, we’re never going to get anything out there.” So, we got the award for second best online-only bank in the country against Ally Bank, the online-only bank that had a $200 million a year ad budget or so at the time. And we had a pretty good ad budget, but nothing near that. And it was David and Goliath marketing, and the other banks and credit unions we worked with were just like, “Oh my God, the time it would take to get a blog post approved”, or we’d do a video shoot and then we’d come back and do it multiple times. “Oh, let’s hire actors because our people aren’t doing it just right.” Sometimes it is frustrating.

The internet is full of imperfect stuff. It’s fine if it’s slightly imperfect. The key is, is it authentic? Is it reasonable? Decent microphone quality? Decent video quality? But it doesn’t have to be picture perfect, and are there some even… We cut out “ums” and “ahs” in podcasts and things, but you just have to sometimes let go a little bit and know that when you get into the hundreds of articles or blog posts or podcasts and videos on your site, that’s when you really pick up momentum in the hundreds or thousands of pages and they have to be pretty good quality.

Not to pick on banks, but some banks would take months to just finally get approval on a couple pieces of content. We had one lawyer we worked with who would go six months and finally [we said], “Should we just fire the client?” Because they just were not approving or reviewing the content. It’s embarrassing because we don’t want to be responsible for a failed SEO project. But if we’re writing the content and they’re not approving, that’s tough.

So you have to make sure that you’re a real team and a pretty well-oiled machine and figure out the reasons — if the writing is bad, figure it out and get a better writer. If you don’t have time to edit the articles, hire a marketer in-house to work with the SEO agency. So you’ve got to streamline it and you’ll be more successful.

John Maher: All right. That’s a great advice, John. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

John McDougall: All right, good.

John Maher: And for more information about digital marketing, visit and please subscribe, rate, and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening. I’m John Maher, and see you next time on Digital Marketing Madness.

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