Is My SEO Agency Ripping Me Off (And Much More) - Inbound Answered #3 [Video]

I got 3 great questions by viewers 1) Is my SEO agency ripping me off? 2) What tone should I use in my workflows? and 3) How do I do SEO in 2017? - All answered

Written by Rikki Lear
SEO |   14 minute read

For the third episode of Inbound Answered, I answer 3 insightful viewer questions in the video (and transcript) below. The questions I tackled this week are:

  1. Is my SEO agency ripping me off?
  2. What tone should I use in my workflows?
  3. How do I do SEO in 2017?


Video Transcript & Questions Answered

Hey guys! Rikki from Digital 22 here. Welcome to another episode of Inbound Answered. I've got three question from viewers today to go through so first things first, and - this is one I get asked a lot, especially from new prospects...

How can I tell if my current SEO agency is ripping me off?

Now, I'm not one to put other agencies down. I think a new, incoming agency talking about the outgoing agency is a really easy target. I think it's quite a low thing to put them down, particularly when it's unwarranted just to try and win the business.

However, having said that, some agencies really do take the mick. So I think it's important to educate yourself and be able to know the key indicators of whether they're actually working for you or they're just taking your money.

So there's a few things you can do without really learning SEO just to check if they're doing the basics right.

Title tags

The first thing I always check is the title tags. So a title tag is one of the most important elements of on-page SEO; it's also one of the most basic. So if they're not doing that, it means they're probably not doing anything else either. So an easy way to check this is go in your browser, hover to the top of your webpage where you'll have a tab for the page you're on. If you hover over that, it will tell you what the title tag is.

(Below is an example of our current homepage title tag)

Screenshot 2017-04-26 at 09.19.33 - Display 1.png

Now your title tag should say a couple of key words, and it should be a sentence, and it should describe what you're targeting, but in a good way, in a way that's attractive to a new user and not spammy.

The quickest way to tell if anyone's done any SEO on a website at all is to go on your homepage, and see if the homepage title tag still says homepage. And you'll be amazed at how many prospects have come to me, paying for SEO, where this is still the case. To me, that just says they're doing nothing because they haven't even done the very basics.

So as we've learned about title tags, check them on your site and see if anyone's done any work on those.

Off-site SEO

The next thing you wanna do is have a look at the off-site part of SEO. So SEO is still very heavily revolves around links: that's the quantity of links, the quality of links, and the relevancy of links pointing to your website is still huge for SEO. So if the company you're employing on an ongoing basis to do SEO isn't trying to attract things to your website, then for me, they're not doing a great job.

So that's quite a hard thing for a person who's not involved in SEO or knows very little about it to check. But the one thing I'd recommend doing is going to a website called Open Site Explorer. It's by a company called Moz, who are one of the biggest software providers in the SEO industry. What you can do in there is put your URL in. It will come back and tell you what links point to your website.

They've got a little tab on there that says "fresh," so it'll tell you what links have gone in in the last 30 days. And what you wanna do is try to get a sense for in the last 30 days is there anything going on?  And try and check this a couple of times regularly, see is there anything going on, are we getting new links in, what are these new links? Are they new links that you've built yourself just by being in business, which does happen a lot, or are they links that your SEO company have done on your behalf?

(Below is an example of fresh links from Open Site Explorer, some these are links we have earned in the last 30 days)


Google Analytics

One of the easiest ways to check if your SEO company is actually doing anything [is by checking Google Analytics]. This can be a little bit misleading, but it's certainly a good indicator and something worth checking is to go into your Google Analytics.

So Google Analytics is a programme by Google, which will tell you what sort of traffic's coming to your website, who they are, what sources they come from, what they're doing on your website.

And on the left hand side, there's an acquisitions tab. Acquisitions means, 'show me how people got to our website.' If you click on that, then click channels, and there'll be a channel called 'organic traffic.'

This is what your SEO company should be building. So go in there and have a look. See what the general trends are since we hired this SEO company, is this increasing, is it going up?

(Below is an example from our Google Analytics showing our recent organic traffic - it's up 341% year on year so I know our SEO team is doing an amazing job - thanks guys!)


And look at it with a sensible pair of glasses on, so look at it as in, "is it going up?" but is it only going up due to seasonality, or is it only going down due to seasonality? You know your business, so have a look at that.

For me, it's best to look year on year. Are we further ahead than we were at this time last year, or are we further behind? That's normally a good indicator.

And obviously give the SEO company credit and kind of a fair chance. If it's only been two months, don't expect that organic traffic to be going up, at least not sharply. You kind of want a relationship with an SEO company for the long term or at least the medium term. So if it's got six months in, nine months in, and you still not seeing that organic traffic going up, [it's] probably an indication there's something wrong.

Avoid hiring bad SEO agencies

To avoid getting into the situation in the first place, there's a couple of questions you can ask your SEO agency or the SEO agencies you're considering to use.

Ask them what their process is. So most good SEO agencies should have a process that they follow for every client based on their experience, based on their knowledge of what works. If they sound like they're kinda making the process up on the spot, they don't have a solid written down process, that to me is a bad indication. You want someone who knows exactly what they're gonna do as soon as your account signs on.

Second thing to do is ask them about project management systems. So, quite early on, when I launched an SEO agency, I realised most prospects don't know exactly what SEO is: how it works, how to track it. [There are] millions of people asking these sorts of questions every month on Google.

So what we did is we set up an open project management system. And what that means is there's a place where all of our team go and talk about the client, what's coming next, what we've been doing, how the results have been, and we open that to the client so the client can go in and see exactly what we're working on, exactly what we're saying.

For me, I think it's quite essential today because if you don't understand SEO, at the very minimum you want to understand that there's real human being working in a real office situation doing real work on your website. And that's the minimum that you should expect.

(Want to double check your SEO advice? Download our FREE SEO myths guide to make sure you don't fall foul to bad advice)

SEO Myths Download


What tone should I take in my workflows (marketing automation)?

The next question I got asked is from Simon, and he asked, "What tone should I take in my workflows?" or another term for that is marketing automation emails.

Well really there's no simple one answer to this question. It's gonna depend on what type of company you are, what sort of industry you're in, and who your target personas are. And that third one's a big one really. If you understand the people you are talking to, it's gonna make it a hell of a lot easier to come up with the right copy and the right tone.

So put as much time and effort you can into persona research, so you can really understand the person you're writing for. That's gonna be the biggest tip I can give you about tone on workflows.

Apart from that, what I can give you is my experience on what's worked for us, and what's worked for clients. And believe me, we've been doing this a lot of years, so we've tried every way.

We've tried just setting up automation that just gives value, so just constantly gives value to the user with absolutely no question or expectation of any sort of sale literature. The big positives of that is should build up quite a good affinity for your brand. People should enjoy reading your stuff. And you shouldn't get many unsubscribers. What you might not get is a lot of leads if you're just leaving them to naturally come in and happen over time.

I've also tried the exact opposite way. So I've tried just going for the hard sell. And the hard sell on email to people who are quite new to your brand if they've just downloaded something coming to your first workflow, isn't the right way to approach it. If you think of it like, it's like asking for marriage on the first date. You just wouldn't do it. So the first thing you send them can't be buy our stuff or even have that tone.

So what we've done over the years of trying to use different approaches is find a way that works for us.

  1. And what that way is is if you download a resource, we'll send you the first three or four emails value based around that resource. So if you download a book about what is inbound marketing, we'll send you some inbound marketing templates, a guide to getting started quickly with inbound marketing. We'll send you these three or four value adding pieces.
  2. What we'll do next is we'll look at who the persona is. So who is the person that's downloading this? And we'll talk about what the typical pains and challenges are for them and how to overcome them. So if it's a marketing manager for example that's downloaded that piece of content, we might talk about how to overcome issues with hiring agencies versus hiring staff internally, how to deal with being spread to thin, which is a common challenge for marketing managers. And we'll discuss those sorts of issues and again, just trying to add value and help them through those common challenges.
  3. After that, the third stage they go into is where we start talking about us a little bit more. Firstly, we actually go really personal and we start talking about me. So we start saying why I started this agency, what were my goals and drivers. Why I'm writing these emails to you, and we'll take the real personal touch. And that to be honest, is where we get our best reaction. When you tell someone your story and you're honest with it, people tend to tell their stories back. So we found the really personal approach works.
  4. If somebody engages with all three of those stages, we think that warrants moving onto a slightly salesy tone. For us, a slightly salesy tone is really not salesy at all; it's talking about the company: what we do, what our services are, what results we got for clients. It never says "buy from us," but these are the sort of indicators that someone's at the bottom of the buyer's journey. They're getting close to deciding to go with an agency. These might be the things that make them choose us over another agency.

So that's the four stages where you go through and we think that works really well, but again, going back to the start. Understand your personas is the key to tone. And for us, a more personal approach works better.

(Want to do even better workflows? In our FREE inbound starter pack we have a workflow worksheet which will guide you through the process.)

Kick Start 2017: Free Inbound Marketing Starter Pack

How do I do SEO in 2017?

And the final question of today is how to do SEO in 2017. So Jenny asked us this [question], and what should I be focused on? I really want to try and split this answer into a couple of sections because it's a huge question.

What works in SEO right now

So firstly, what works for SEO right now, so in April 2017, what works? Well, I'll tell you this. There's a lot of hype in SEO. You'll see massive headlines like "Google Glass is gonna change SEO forever and stop doing what you're doing and focus on semantic search." So there's been these huge headlines in SEO and what a lot of people end up doing is getting carried away with what could affect SEO rather than what is affecting SEO today.

So what you should do is invest some time looking at correlation studies and data around what websites have in common that are ranking highly. Best place for me to do this is with again Moz, who's the industry leader in SEO software. They have a correlation study every two years and they also have some opinionated study now, which is well worth reading.

(It's called search engine ranking factors and you can read it here)

What you'll normally find is a huge difference between what people tell me everyday they're working on for SEO and what actually works today. And what actually works today is still the basics. And for 99% of people watching this, I can guarantee they won't have the basics done and they won't be doing the basics to a high standard.

Page authority > domain authority

So some areas where there's discrepancy here is people focus a lot on domain authority. So domain authority is the strength of your website in the eyes of a search engine, as an overall website, of an overall domain. People focus a lot on this metric to try to get their rankings up.

There's actually another metric called page authority, which is the authority of the individual page, and that's much more important, much more highly correlated with rankings than domain authority is.

So when you're out there earning links, try and earn them deeper, earn them to pages that your want to rank for. And also spend a lot of time and focus on your internal hierarchy, on your navigation. Try to make sure that the page flow is correct. And that the pages you're trying to rank for have actually got some of that homepage authority trickling down to it.

On page optimisation

The second is that good, solid key word research and on-page optimization is still key. Look at how highly correlated title tags are and the amount of times your words are used on the page and that's not old school keyword density, but actually mentioning the keyword on your page, or variants of it, still correlate very highly with rankings. And ensuring the page content itself is unique and well written. They're the basics of on-page SEO, which correlates so highly with good rankings. So if you ask yourself what you should be doing, look at that. Make sure you got that right before you move onto the next thing.

Number of links

This type of data can be misleading though. So take for example, if you look at correlation data it'll actually say, the number of links is more important than the quantity and relevancy of links. While that could strictly be true, the number of links could be more important because at its core, Google is still a link-based algorithm and people underestimate that massively. You still got to have quality and relevant links for not just to get your rankings up, to make sure you don't get negatively impacted by SEO, so any penalties.

What Google's wanting to see in terms of link signals is that good websites are linking to you. And that can be rated by this quality factor, so that's does this site, look, feel spammy? Does it have shady practises? Is the domain authority low? And is it actually relevant to your niche? Because if somebody from a completely different industry, no kind of natural seeming link to your company, what you do, what your services are is linking to you, that could look a little bit weird in Google's eyes. And if that's happening on a very, very regular basis, it could look like link manipulation.

So just take that data with a pinch of salt. Try and understand the context of what you're looking at. But it's certainly worth looking into.

Beyond the basics

Then to try and answer the other part of this question, so you might be sitting there thinking right, I've done all of this. I've done the basics. I've absolutely nailed it. What should I be focusing on today that I wouldn't have been focusing on say two, three, four years ago? And there's a couple of issues here to talk about.

Mobile friendly

So the first one is mobile friendliness. And while this is certainly not a new issue, it's still something that a lot of people haven't done yet.

So mobile friendliness basically refers to how good is your experience for mobile users and Google's term, they came up with this term 'mobile friendliness' as a way of articulating that. And so you can go on Google's mobile website friendliness test. Put your URL in, it'll give you a score, tells you if you pass or fail.

(Below is an example of our page being put through the mobile friendly test (which you can use here))

Mobile friendly.png

If you pass, you'll get the mobile friendly icon in mobile search results giving you a better chance to appear in the rankings when you're on mobile.

But also it's not just for SEO sake. Being mobile friendly and having a good mobile experience, it's good for you in a lot of ways. It's gonna drive more leads when people do actually get to your site. It's gonna make people hang around, read your content, understand your business a lot more.

Site speed

And moving on from that the other factor is site speed. So again, you'll find a lot of issues that we talk about now with SEO, there's actually a really blurred line between SEO and user experience, and that's because a lot of the signals that Google's looking for is "is this a quality site?" Do people hang around when they get there, and more importantly, does the user get their query answered at this website? If not, probably shouldn't be ranking. And if they do, it should be ranking higher.

So site speed ties into that by making your site again really usable for people. If you're on mobile devices, you haven't got wifi, fibre, whatever it is, and you're looking at a website and it's taking a long time to load, Google's not going to like that. And even, I've sat on broadband or fibre on my desktop and got slow load speed. So you need to sort those issues out. I'd put two seconds as your benchmark to waiting for, so if you can push yourself, put your developers, push you hosting company, try to get your site under two seconds. It's gonna give you better SEO results, and it's gonna make a better user experience for your visitors.


The next one is HTTPS, or secured websites. So while this isn't a huge factor today in search engines, I think it will be. But it's also, again, good for user experience. People coming to your website will feel they're in a secure place, in a place they can trust, which is important.

And basically this can be done by getting an SSL certificate for your website. And anyone who's sold products online will have had an SSL certificate in the past for their checkout process. This time, Google wants your to take that a step further and apply it to every page on your website, which can be quite easily done.

There's a couple of SEO headaches to get around, but I'd suggest if you've done all of those other things, your site's super fast, it's mobile friendly, if you've nailed all the SEO basics, have a look at getting your site secured because I think all the signals are there just like for mobile friendliness and site speed, these are gonna be big - it's gonna be a big ranking factor in the future.


The last thing I wanna talk about is voice search. Now, let's get this out of the way. I don't think we're in the era of voice search right now. I can't see people walking down the street chatting to Google asking it questions. I know Google Home has come out, and Amazon Alexa. We have one here in the office. Nobody's asking it questions. No one's used it like a search engine yet. So we're not in that era, but that's not to say you shouldn't start getting prepared for it.

We might be a couple of years out doing that or certainly if you target an audience which is of the younger age and will be more comfortable doing voice search. This [feature] could be an even more critical issue to you. So it's worth getting familiar with how people are gonna search with voice.

All of the research I've read indicates they are gonna talk to it in a very conversational way. They're gonna say it as they would to a normal person, which is very different from how one types into Google. So I think to prepare for this, you can start producing a lot of content around questions.

So in our industry, this will be things like what is inbound marketing? Why is inbound marketing better than outbound marketing? Should I do inbound marketing or should I do PR? What are the considerations when hiring an inbound marketing agency? If you can have think about what all the questions your prospects ask through the buyer's journey, you're not only creating incredible inbound marketing content, putting more content out there the people are searching for (so you're gonna rank and gain traffic today from general searchers typing) but you're also gonna set yourself up for the future of voice search, which is something well worth focusing on - again, if you've done everything else.


To tie this all together what should you be doing today for great SEO success in April 2017? For me:

  1. Get the basics right. It is still important, and most people aren't doing this: focus on your on-page efforts. Make sure you get that right.
  2. Make sure you have a good link-earning strategy, and do not underestimate the power of links in search engines today.
  3. And look at user experience, and this is a very big, wide area. It'll take you a long time to get it right; it's not a check box. But look at your experience on mobile. Look at how secure you site is, and look how quick your site is. And think if a user lands here, are they gonna be happy?

If you do that, Google's probably gonna be happy, and you're gonna rank well. And that's a wrap. I'll speak to you next week on another Inbound Answered.


(Want to get even further ahead of the game? Download our free SEO cheatsheet below, you will be able to prioritise and improve your SEO)

Ranking Factors Cheatsheet