Over the last 5+ years running our content-focused SEO agency, we’ve worked with dozens of brands including SaaS, B2B, and B2C. From these experiences, as well as countless conversations with other businesses about their experiences working with SEO agencies, we’ve developed a deep understanding of:
- What businesses are looking for when they hire an SEO agency
- The challenges and disappointments they have when working an SEO agency
- What real success in an engagement looks like
The more we learn from clients and leads about the work that other SEO agencies do — as well as see the direct work products of these agencies and results they have (or have not) achieved for our clients — the more we think that many SEO agencies don’t actually deliver much value to their clients in the form of attributable leads or sales from SEO.
To help businesses choose the right SEO agency for their needs, we’re going to share the 5 key factors that you should consider when evaluating SEO agencies.
- Factor #1: Is the agency’s SEO strategy optimized to generate traffic? Or is it optimized to generate conversions (i.e. measurable leads and sales)?
- Factor #2: Which facet of SEO (technical SEO, keyword strategy and content, or link building) does the agency place the most emphasis on?
- Factor #3: Do they just do keyword research and provide “content briefs”? Or do they actually create the content and pages to rank for your target keywords?
- Factor #4: Do they use the flawed “Sprinkle Method”? Or do they create unique, dedicated pages to go after each target keyword?
- Factor #5: Do they have expertise in product and service copywriting?
Below, we’ll explain what you should understand about each of these factors, and walk through how our content-focused SEO agency addresses each.
5 Factors You Can Use to Choose an SEO Agency
Factor #1: Is the Agency’s SEO Strategy Optimized to Generate Traffic or Conversions (i.e. Measurable Leads and Sales)?
This is the #1 most important factor, in our opinion, because it dictates whether or not the SEO budget allocated to an agency generates actual business ROI.
Most SEO services use traffic-focused keyword strategies with the mindset that with enough traffic, conversions (leads, sales, signups, demos) will follow. But we’ve seen time and time again that this isn’t true.
When agencies prioritize traffic, they end up prioritizing — or suggesting that you prioritize — tons of keywords that have high search volume. For example, if you sell accounting software, they may recommend targeting keywords related to general accounting advice and best practices (e.g. “best accounts payable practices,” “accounting tips for small business,” etc.).
While these keywords are loosely related to the product (accounting software), and likely have good search volumes, from our measurements, they tend to have low to zero buying intent. That means people searching for these terms are in no way indicating that they’re on the market to buy your product or service. And as a result, regardless of how much organic traffic they might drive to your site, conversion rates from these keywords tend to be very low (we’ve measured this across dozens of clients, with examples to follow).
These traffic-first SEO approaches might make sense for increasing your online presence or general brand awareness (typically goals for large incumbents who already have significant market share), but in our experience, they are a bad fit for companies who want to hit tangible revenue or business goals from their SEO investment (i.e. measurable leads and sales).
The reason is simple: People who are Googling “accounting best practices” or “accounting tips” are not likely in the market for accounting software.In other words, there is little to no buying intent.
And, in our experience, keyword buying intent matters far more than traffic when it comes to driving conversions and actual business results — and therefore should be prioritized first when developing a keyword strategy. If there is no buying intent in a keyword, no amount of conversion “hacks” (email capture forms, email drip sequences) are going to make that person all of a sudden need software. They’ll need it when they need it, and at that time, they’ll likely Google a term with buying intent to research the options.
This is neatly summarized in this analytics screenshot from our article on Pain Point SEO (our agency’s foundational SEO strategy):
The right most column shows new user signups for each of the URLs listed. The three boxed posts follow the Pain Point SEO approach and rank for keywords with high buying intent. The rest rank for something the target audience could search for, but not a high buying-intent keyword. The new user signups from the three Pain Point SEO posts are hundreds of percent higher.
We also showed this at a larger scale in an analysis of 60+ posts for our client Geekbot:
The posts targeting high buying-intent keywords (which we’ve traditionally referred to as “bottom of funnel”) didn’t just convert a bit better than the higher-volume-lower-intent posts, they converted 2400% better. In that case study, you can read about how that difference in conversion rate more than made up for any differences in search volume or traffic between the two buckets.
Most agencies, including those you might find on lists of the “best SEO companies,” don’t approach SEO this way. The vast majority of them prioritize high volume keywords that barely convert (or, as we’ll discuss in the next section, prioritize technical SEO and link building over developing a good keyword strategy in the first place). So, if you’re going to hire an SEO agency and you want to see actual ROI, make sure you choose one that uses an intent-first (not traffic-first) SEO strategy.
Factor #2: Which Facet of SEO (Technical SEO, Keyword Strategy and Content, or Link Building) Do They Place the Most Emphasis On?
Through conversations with clients about their experiences working with other SEO agencies, we’ve learned that many agencies and SEO experts focus the majority of their efforts on on-page search engine optimization, technical SEO, and link building. They tend to spend much less time and effort on what we’ve found to be the most important parts of SEO — identifying high-value keywords (discussed above), and creating pages designed to rank for those keywords (discussed next).
We think this is backwards.
In our view, technical SEO practices and link building should only be done in the service of ranking for your highest value keywords. They can help increase domain authority and improve your chances of ranking well in search engine results pages (SERPs), but they cannot generate any actual revenue for your business on their own.
Ranking for valuable keywords is where revenue from SEO comes from. So, without (1) identifying what your highest value keywords are and (2) strategically creating pages on your site to rank for those keywords, having a technically healthy site with several white hat backlinks does very little for your business.
We see this flawed prioritization in SEO all the time. Agencies and in-house teams spend a ton of time and effort on “cleaning up the site” and maintaining technical SEO, a lot less effort and time on identifying keywords with actual business value, and even less effort spent creating content aimed specifically at ranking for those terms in organic search. Inevitably, companies in these situations become frustrated when their budget and time spent on SEO fails to produce any measurable increases in leads (phone calls, free trials, demos, etc.), sales, or business.
So, when talking to and considering SEO marketing services, make sure you get to the bottom of this. Ask them questions like:
- How much weight do they place on technical SEO vs. link building vs. keyword strategy and content?
- What portion of their time and effort do they spend on each?
If they seem to emphasize technical SEO and link building heavily or as being equally important, this is a red flag and you should think twice about working with them. You’ll be better off working with an agency that uses these to support the main goal of a) identifying your highest value keywords and b) ranking for them with unique, dedicated pages.
Factor #3: Do They Just Do Keyword Research and Provide “Content Briefs”? Or Do They Actually Create the Content and Pages to Rank for Your Target Keywords?
A common practice among SEO agencies is to do keyword research, hand over giant lists of keyword recommendations and “content briefs,” and then put the onus of actually creating the pages to rank for those keywords onto the client (or charge enormous fees to do this as an add-on service).
There are a number of issues with this.
First, the keyword lists are often just massive lists of hundreds of keywords that companies could get themselves from any SEO tool. Very few agencies categorize or prioritize these keywords by buying intent. And the SEO tools that most agencies use to get these keywords almost always suggest tons of low buying-intent, high search volume terms — which only feeds into the keyword strategy problems discussed above.
Second, by only providing “content briefs,” and not actually creating and publishing pages to tackle their suggested keywords, these agencies leave their clients wondering how they can possibly produce 200 or 500 articles that are crafted well enough to actually have a shot at ranking. This type of deliverable makes agencies appear to be delivering a lot of value, but it leaves the client overwhelmed, unsure of where to begin, and wondering how their in-house team can possibly create all of that content.
The end result is that most of the information and suggestions companies receive about which keywords to go after and what content to create never gets implemented, rendering all of it basically useless.
So, if you don’t want to end up in this situation, make sure that the SEO firm you hire actually handles implementation as a part of their service — that they not only do the keyword research, but they create and publish the pages needed to rank for those keywords.
Factor #4: Do They Use the Flawed “Sprinkle Method”? Or Do They Create Unique, Dedicated Pages to Go After Each Target Keyword?
For SEO marketing agencies that actually do create pages and content for their clients, another common practice we’ve seen is an SEO tactic we’ve started calling “The Sprinkle Method.” Instead of producing a unique blog post or landing page for each target keyword, agencies will simply give blog writers the keyword list and ask them to sprinkle the keywords in their articles, thinking this is sufficient to rank for these keywords.
This doesn’t work.
As we explained in detail in this article, Google’s algorithm can differentiate between content that loosely relates to the topic and content that specifically addresses the search query. Basically, if others are creating dedicated pages for specific keywords, and you’re just “sprinkling” keywords into pages, you have a slim shot at ranking.
Therefore, this is another key thing to ask about when talking to SEO service providers. You should explicitly ask them:
- What is your approach to getting pages to rank for specific keywords?
- Can you show us examples of pages you’ve created that are ranking highly in Google Search for their target keyword?
If it looks like they use the “Sprinkle Method,” or you can tell they don’t go after individual target keywords with strategic, dedicated pages, then it’s unlikely they’ll produce great results for you based on what we’ve seen.
Factor #5: Do They Have Expertise in Product and Service Copywriting?
If you agree with our argument above — that you should work with agencies which prioritize buying intent keywords and getting conversions — then a final thing to consider is whether or not the agency has expertise in product and service copywriting. Ranking for buying intent keywords requires you to talk about products and services in depth, describing key features, use cases, and what differentiates your product from competitors.
For example, look at the SERP for “accounting software”, an example term we mentioned above. This isn’t filled with just general discussions of accounting, it’s filled with lists and comparisons of products — meaning that, in order to rank, you’ll also need to discuss products and compare features in depth.
In order to do this well, the agency you work with needs to have a process for getting this knowledge out of the heads of the experts at your company — your product managers, sales team, customer success team, etc. — and onto the pages they create for you. This is what makes compelling content that’s capable of converting high-intent readers into customers.
But from what we’ve learned, most agencies don’t have a strong process for doing this. Most agencies create content by handing over “content briefs” to freelancers, which mostly just dictate the subheaders based on what the existing ranked pages are already saying, and then expect the freelancer to self-research and figure out the rest on their own.
You can skate by with this when targeting higher volume, lower intent keywords. But this process doesn’t cut it when you need to deeply understand and communicate the nuanced features and differentiators of your product or service.
Producing conversion-focused SEO content requires an understanding of how to:
- Discuss your unique features and benefits and how they solve your customers’ biggest pain points
- Communicate your competitive advantages and differentiators without being too aggressive or trashing competitors
- Sell without being too “salesy”
We can say from experience that this is a unique skill set that isn’t easy to come by. Even great writers often lack these key abilities that are required for selling products and services through content.
When speaking with SEO agencies, try to get a sense of whether or not they have a process for expressing your product features and differentiators through content. Ask them about this. Have them show you examples. If their answers and/or examples aren’t compelling, they probably aren’t the right SEO company to work with.
Now, let’s walk through how our agency has addressed each of these factors.
How We’ve Addressed Each of These Factors to Produce Better Results Than Traditional SEO Agencies
By far, the majority of our focus — what we spend 90% of our time focusing and working on — are the first two points below:
- Prioritizing keywords with high buying intent.
- Producing unique pieces of content to go after each keyword.
In our experience, both of these are equally important. If you lack either, you don’t succeed. If you pick the right keywords but don’t target them with unique and dedicated pages, it’s unlikely you’ll rank for those keywords. And if you create dedicated pages but do so for keywords that don’t have buying intent, then any keyword rankings you do achieve will generate very little actual business value. So these two things are crucial.
Technical SEO and link building, as we’ll explain, are done in service of these two main priorities.
1. Our First Priority Is Finding and Ranking for Your Highest Value Buying Intent Keywords
Unlike traditional SEO firms that launch headfirst into technical SEO or link building without a keyword strategy in place, our focus starts with identifying our clients’ highest value buying intent keywords.
We locate as many keywords as possible in the following categories:
- Product or Service Category Keywords: The top terms that most businesses are bidding on through PPC ads (search and social media), and the most obvious keywords that any business would want their website to rank for. For example, “Shopify development services” for a Shopify dev agency; “marketing analytics software” for a marketing reporting and analytics SaaS company; “executive assistant service” for a remote executive assistant staffing company.
- Competitor Comparison Keywords: Terms that indicate people are on the market for what you sell, trying to understand differences between you and/or your competitors. For example, “competitor vs. your brand,” “competitor brand vs. other competitor brand,” or “competitor alternatives.”
- Pain Point Keywords: Keyword phrases that indicate the person searching has a problem that our client’s product or service solves.
We then target as many of these high-intent keywords as possible before moving “up the funnel” to lower intent keywords.
We’ve written at length about this approach. Read the following articles to learn more about how we approach this:
- Pain-Point SEO: How to Produce SEO Content That Drives Conversions
- SaaS Content Marketing: Why You Should Focus on Bottom of the Funnel First to Drive Signups
- SEO Keyword Strategy: How to Prioritize Based on Buying Intent to Drive More Conversions
2. We Create Unique, Dedicated Pieces of Content to Rank for Each High-Value Keyword
In contrast to many agencies that do keyword research and then pass off a series of “content briefs” for their client to do the hard work of actually creating the pages and content themselves (or charge extra for this), we include content creation as a part of our service.
We use a one-page-per-keyword strategy, targeting individual high-intent keywords with unique, dedicated pages. And in doing so, we’re able to meet search intent more thoroughly than competing content, and achieve more page one rankings (specifically positions 1-3 rankings where the majority of traffic comes from) for our clients.
Most of the time, these unique pages are articles we write, but if we feel like an existing page on the site (e.g., the homepage, a landing page, etc.) is best suited for a keyword, we may use that page to go after a keyword instead.
3. We Emphasize and Explain Your Unique Differentiators to Convert Readers Into Customers
Because our focus is on ranking for high buying-intent keywords (“best accounting software,” for example), we sell our client’s products and services in every piece of content we produce. We get into the details of features, explain how they solve customer pain points, weave in testimonials and case studies, and differentiate our client’s products from those of their competitors.
We do this by basing our articles on extensive interviews with people at our clients’ companies — product teams, sales teams, customer support teams, etc. We have been doing this for years and have an extensive writer training process that has helped us build a tight-knit team of product copywriters.
Read the following past articles to learn more about how we approach this:
- How to do B2B Content Marketing without Domain Expertise
- SaaS Content Writing: How to Write Content That Gets Leads and Signups
4. Technical SEO and Link Building Are Done as Secondary Elements to Support the Primary Goal of Ranking for Your Highest Value Keywords
We start every client engagement with an SEO audit to check for technical issues with the site that may hurt our ability to rank. Then, we either fix or suggest fixing the technical issues before we get started publishing. But for us, it’s just something to get out of the way so that our content (#2) can rank for our high value target keywords (#1), not something to extend for as long as possible to keep charging the client.
Then, throughout the engagement, we’ll do as much link building as necessary to get our content ranking for the high value keywords we’re targeting.
How We Hold Ourselves Accountable (As Any Good SEO Company Should)
Conversions are the key performance indicator that we measure and report on (tracked in Google Analytics), in addition to keyword rankings and organic traffic metrics.
For every one of our clients, we create an ROI graph like this one (a live graph from a B2B SaaS client we’ve been working with for over 2 years):
The horizontal lines represent the number of leads this client needs per month to break even on their monthly spend with us. Each month, we plot the number of leads from our articles on this graph. Then, we report on our progress in relation to that break even number so clients can see when they begin to have positive ROI.
We’ve written extensively about how we do this here and here, including more case studies and client data. Before we started our agency, this is the type of thing we were looking for but could never find. And we feel being upfront about this is another core differentiator of our agency.
SEO Campaign Results: Detailed Case Studies to Demonstrate the Effectiveness of Our SEO Strategy
Here are 5 case studies you can read to see how we’ve executed our SEO strategy and met SEO needs for real businesses:
- How We Scaled Leadfeeder’s Signups to Over 200/month
- Scaling Content: Expanding From Bottom of Funnel Content to Top of Funnel (Geekbot Case Study)
- Scaling SEO Traffic from 920 to 14,577 Sessions in 6 months: Circuit Case Study
- How to Do B2B Content Marketing without Domain Expertise (Rainforest QA Case Study)
- How to Create a Keyword Strategy for a New, Innovative Product (Case Study of a video editing software client)
How to Work With Us or Learn More
- Our Agency: If you want to hire us to execute a content-focused SEO strategy, you can learn more about working with us here.
- Join Our Team: If you’re a content marketer or writer and would love to do content marketing in this way, we’d love to have you apply to join our team.
- Our Content Marketing Course: Individuals looking to learn our agency’s content strategy and become better marketers, consultants, or business owners can join our private course and community, taught via case studies, and presented in both written and video content formats. We include several details and examples not found on this blog. Our course is also built into a community, so people ask questions, start discussions, and share their work in the lesson pages themselves, and we, along with other members, give feedback. Learn more here.