With Google processing over 3.5 billion searches every day and businesses making, on average, $3 for every $1.50 they spend on Google Ads, we don’t need to tell you why search engine marketing (SEM) is important. But even once you’ve decided to hire a search engine marketing agency to grow your traffic, knowing how to choose the right agency presents its own challenge.
A quick search reveals an overwhelming number of SEM agencies, all making big promises. How do you know who’s legitimate?
In this article, we’ll be taking an extensive look at what makes a search engine marketing agency great – and what tactics are best left unclicked.
What A Search Engine Marketing Agency Does
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a marketing approach that increases traffic and visibility from search engines. The target is to appear higher on search engine results pages (SERPs), typically through the use of paid ads, at least in part.
A full-service search engine marketing agency will not only run paid ad campaigns, but will also ensure your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is doing the most for your inbound strategies, too. When researching potential agencies, here are some skills you should be looking out for.
Technical SEO/On-Site SEO
Search engine crawlers analyze your web pages, and then rank them in an index. Technical SEO refers to website and server optimizations that help these bots ‘understand’ your site – thus improving your organic rankings. Your potential SEM agency should be referencing backlinks/link building, H1 tags, meta descriptions, load speeds, and more. For more information on what SEO knowledge potential agencies need, read our breakdown here.
PPC campaigns provide a wealth of information for an agency to analyze and use in future campaigns. One of the keys to successful marketing is experimenting with small, cheap campaigns and determining what works for your audience. These messages can then be used to boost inbound and outbound efforts.
Social Media Marketing
LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and more – what are the agency’s strategies for social media channels? For most industries, you’re unlikely to find success using social media marketing alone, but the fact remains that it’s where billions of people gather information and interact, with both friends and businesses. Your potential agency should recognize the opportunities this presents.
PPC for SEM and Content Marketing for SEO
These two strategies should represent the twin pillars of your search engine marketing agency’s strategy. PPC is Pay-Per-Click advertising. In SEM, this is typically done through a bidding system. Marketers bid on relevant, high-ranking keywords. If they win their bid, their ad will appear at the top of SERPs when the keyword is searched. In Google Ads, this is done via a lightning-fast ad auction every time a search is done or a site is visited with ad space.
The successful company is only charged when a browser clicks on the ad.
Content marketing consists of using high-value, optimized content to pull readers to your blog – where you can then demonstrate your value. Over time, this positions your brand as a thought leader and builds trust and credibility with potential leads, converting them into sales. Besides sourcing good content, or content writers, there is no extra cost specifically associated with this approach, as it relies on using organic traffic to grow your leads.
Perhaps because the terms SEO and SEM are occasionally used interchangeably, the difference in these strategies is sometimes confusing. In our next section, we look at how they contrast and compare.
SEM and SEO: A Side-by-Side Comparison
As mentioned above, it’s worth noting that SEO is also used at times as a blanket term to cover both SEO and SEM – and any professional marketing agency will be using some SEO techniques to ensure that your website looks good and runs properly. There are definite overlaps between the terms. However, there are also key differences, which we’ve laid out below:
So which is better? To us, that’s the same as asking whether it’s better to build your brand to be a well-respected name in your industry, or to fill your sales pipeline – obviously, the answer is both. It depends entirely on what your company needs at that moment in time.
PPC ads and Content Marketing represent two highly effective strategies with different strengths and weaknesses. Luckily for us, they also really complement one another. In fact, most often the best strategy is to combine methods.
Creating value-rich content that utilizes great SEO can supercharge your brand awareness, and continue to draw in new leads long after it’s paid for. But it takes time – at least six to nine months. PPC can get to the top of the first page of Google immediately – but you pay per click, not per conversion – so you still need to compel all your newfound traffic to stick around.
Most successful search engine marketing agencies use SEM as a tool to augment SEO and fill the brand awareness gap while you wait on SEO to grow.
This is why we’d advise you to steer clear of any marketing agency that shows a deep bias against either marketing method. Your agency of choice should be realistic with you about how long SEO takes and the limits of PPC. If they’re not, they may be trying to undervalue an area they don’t feel very confident in, or simply lack understanding of the industry – both genuine red flags.
Speaking of red flags, next we’ll look at what to avoid in a potential search engine marketing agency.
Six Red Flags for a Search Engine Marketing Agency
1. They Offer Guaranteed SEO Services
Be very wary of agencies that make promises like – ‘guaranteed number one ranking on your top keywords!’ – they cannot promise this as agencies do not control the algorithms driving SERPs. If they are overpromising this flagrantly, they are likely using Black Hat SEO techniques to achieve their results. Black Hat SEO refers to a range of unethical practices that go against search engine guidelines to achieve their goals. This may work in the short term, but very quickly implodes and can wreak havoc on your company’s reputation. Steer clear.
2. They Have No Flexibility On Their Packages
Relatedly, another sign of Black Hat SEO practices in play is agencies that offer little transparency about their SEM and SEO strategies while selling generic ‘bundles’ of work. An agency should be willing to work with you to personalize its offerings for what your business needs.
3. They Offer Dubiously Cheap Pricing
Good, optimized content and strategic PPC advertising take time to get right. And time means money. Suspiciously affordable pricing almost always means bad news. At best, you’ll be looking at only the most superficial analytics and mediocre, under-researched content.
4. They Rely On Gimmicks In Their Own Marketing
Every agency is going to have a personal philosophy, strategy, and USP – and they should!
But become wary if they start claiming to have found a brand-new method that throws out the rulebook – ultimately search engine marketing is a science, not an art. While not every hypothesis pays off, some key strategies will always remain best practices.
If an agency seems overly reliant on buzzwords and hype, go with your gut – the agency for you won’t condescend to you.
5. They Don’t Prioritize Research
Competitor analysis. Keyword research. Understanding your buyer personas. These things underpin successful SEM marketing. For a search engine marketing agency to not make them the first step in any content strategy – and throughout their campaigns – is a huge red flag.
6. They Aren’t Entirely Transparent With You
Don’t let your marketing agency just tell you what you want to hear. While outsourcing to experts is often a smart move, maintain a level of supervision. You should have access to the analytics for your paid campaigns for example, and be able to trust your agency to tell you the good, bad, and ugly of how things are going. At the end of the day, your business will always matter to you most of all, and you deserve an all-access pass to its drive for success.
So now we’ve looked at what promises to take with a pinch of salt – what are some signs of a truly great search engine marketing agency?
Six Green Flags for a Search Engine Marketing Agency
1. They Use the Right Tools - and Have the Certifications to Back It Up
As well as the SEO knowledge we discussed earlier, look for agencies with Hubspot, SEMrush, and Google Analytics certifications – proof they’ve taken the time to learn about their field.
2. They Have Proof Of Their Success
Look for customer testimonials, positive reviews on social media, and a portfolio of concrete success stories with relevant clientele. It’s worth seeing what kind of businesses your agency has worked with before, to see if there’s any alignment.
3. They Communicate Well
A good agency will take time to understand your buyer persona, run a competitive analysis, and more. During an initial meeting, you want a spark of engagement with your brand and a keenness to personalize their strategy to your company and needs. Pay attention as well to their response times – swift, poised emails sent within business hours are always a positive sign.
4. They Invest In Their Employees
Some agencies manage to offer lower prices via hiring and cycling through interns and short-term employees, or outsourcing to freelancers in countries with a lower pay rate. Not only can this result in low or wildly inconsistent quality to the service you receive, but it also places a ceiling on their team ever getting better.
A good agency will be investing in their team to upskill them year on year, which means your partnership with the agency can grow alongside your business.
But every company is going to say they have a great company culture, so you’re going to need to sleuth around. Linkedin has a function that lets you see previous employees at companies, and GlassDoor is specifically designed to give firsthand insight into working environments.
5. They Take Their Own Advice
The agency you choose should demonstrate great SEM strategy and SEO for their own company as well. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to become railroaded by dazzling descriptions of what an agency can offer you. Understand the basics of SEO techniques so you don’t get hoodwinked, and choose an agency that practices what they preach.
6. They Know Your Industry
You need an agency that understands the ins and outs of your industry and can advise accordingly. This is especially important if you are in B2B, as the best strategies vary significantly from those used in B2C marketing, and industry familiarity is key.
Attention to detail on the small scale and ambition to scope on the large scale are the yin and yang of a good search engine marketing agency. If you find a search engine marketing agency that understands your industry, is skilled in a combination of marketing tools, is willing to experiment, and is honest with you about timeframes – then congratulations – sounds like you’ve got a winner!
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, this gives you an idea of what to look for in a search engine marketing agency.
There’s no doubt that search engine marketing can grow your leads and increase your traffic, when it’s combined with great SEO, you can also expect increased brand awareness, improved reputation, more organic searches, and over time, to establish your company as a thought leader.
At Nituno, our past experiences founding a B2B start-up put us in exactly this position. We needed to find an agency that catered to the unique, disruptive B2B market.
Our goal was to find an agency that understood our industry, had ample expertise and accreditations, and was continually working to stay agile. An agency that turbocharged the benefits of different kinds of marketing by using them in tandem. One that upskilled its workers, practiced what it preached, and would be completely open with us, even if things went awry.
Ultimately, this journey led us to found Nituno, a full-service search engine marketing agency here to disrupt the B2B marketing space. If you are looking for an agency that can scale its services to fit your needs and drive your growth via a variety of techniques, get in touch today.