What Your SEO Agency Isn’t Telling You

By Madison Taylor
October 29, 2020
Chat boxes, graphs, people icons around hand typing on computer

Lots of companies hire dedicated SEO agencies. SEO is crucially important to any marketing strategy, especially in today’s digital-first, always-connected world, and it’s complicated enough that it makes sense to ask the experts rather than trying to do it yourself.

But not every SEO company is the same, and there will always be a few bad apples who will massage the numbers a bit to make it look like they’re helping more than they actually are. The problem is, SEO reporting can be complex, and it’s hard for the average person to know what they’re looking at. If you’re worried that you’re not getting the best bang for your buck from your SEO agency, here’s what to look for.

Outdated Metrics and Tactics

Back in the 90s, website creators were using any trick they could find to get themselves to the top of search results, often to the detriment of the actual customer experience. Thankfully, search engines have gotten smarter. They’ve started to not just ignore, but punish websites for outdated tactics. If your agency is still using these strategies from a bygone era, it’s time to jump ship:

  • Keyword stuffing: in the very early days, if you searched for “website design,” the top result would simply be the one that used the phrase most often. This led websites to cram their sites with key phrases over and over, often in white text on a white background or hidden behind an image. Thankfully, Google has gotten wise to this strategy and it doesn’t work anymore.
  • Keyword density: hand-in-hand with keyword stuffing went keyword density, a measure of how often the keyword appears in a given block of text. Keyword density is all but irrelevant these days, so if your agency is reporting on it, they might not be your best choice.
  • Paraphrasing: in the early 2000s, it was popular to find a well-ranked article, run it through some software that swapped out every third word for a synonym, and publish it to avoid being flagged for duplicate content. Not only can modern search engines see through that strategy, but they pay more attention to how your users interact with your content. If all your synonyms have made the content unreadable, your visitors will leave and your rankings will suffer.
  • Obsessing over length: there have been hundreds of articles written about the “perfect” length for a given page, all of them born from trial and error. The problem comes when SEO agencies start taking those word counts as gospel and writing long, meaningless copy on pages that just don’t need it.

Google updates its algorithms constantly. Some of them are simply behind-the-scenes tweaks, while others have major implications for web content. In the last few years alone, Google has altered the way “nofollow” links behave, the way Chrome blocks ads, the way mobile websites are prioritized, and more. If your SEO agency isn’t keeping up, you’re missing out on your best results.

Bad Link Building

Another semi-outdated practice, link building is the process of getting other websites to link back to your content. The thinking goes that if a lot of people are linking to your content, it must be good. In the early days of the internet, any link was a good link, so whole businesses were set up to create dummy websites that linked back to your site over and over.

Another approach was creating dozens or hundreds of pages on your own domain that all linked to each other in a tangled web of backlinks. These days, Google can see right through these strategies. They’ll give you a lot more credit for a backlink from a reputable site in your industry than for a backlink from yourself.

Another strategy that’s almost entirely gone by the wayside is comment linking. People used to visit every relevant blog they could find and comment “Great blog! Check out my blog at yourdomainname.com!” or something similar.

That practice has been killed off by “nofollow” links, a specific type of link that instructs Google to ignore it for backlinking purposes. Since almost every comment section on the web converts links to nofollow links by default, comment linking doesn’t work anymore.

Vanity Metrics

As we’ve said before, just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s a KPI (key performance indicator). There’s so much data that you can collect from various dashboards and analytics tools that you can basically assign a three-letter acronym to anything that’s trending upward and claim success.

But there are some stats out there that, while they might make for some pretty graphs, don’t actually indicate significant progress in your SEO efforts. Be wary of SEO agencies that brag about stats like:

Conversions: if you’re running an e-commerce site, conversions are a direct link to money in your bank account. If you run any other kind of website, conversions don’t tell the whole story.

Chances are, a conversion simply means that someone filled out a form on your website and became a possible lead, but it can’t tell you whether that lead is a good one or whether they’ll actually make a purchase. Don’t be too impressed with high conversion numbers until you get some context around them.

Traffic: traffic used to be the end-all, be-all of website statistics. The more traffic you had, the better. But just because someone came to your site doesn’t mean they spent any money, read anything, or even have an interest in your company. Attracting the wrong people isn’t any better than attracting no one at all.

Total links: in the old days, any link was a good one since Google couldn’t do much better than count them. If more people link to your content, it must be good, right? Not anymore. These days, Google takes into account the quality of the links to your content as well as the quantity. Racking up a huge number of backlinks from sketchy directory sites might even hurt your credibility more than it helps.

Bounce rates: bounce rate is the rate at which people arrive at your site then leave without clicking through to another page. The common wisdom is that lower bounce rates are better, but that can be misleading.

If you build an amazing landing page or pillar, someone might read it for 20 minutes, sign up for your newsletter at the bottom, and then “bounce,” but they’ve still had a productive visit. Conversely, someone might click several links on your poorly-designed website trying to find what they want, only to leave frustrated. They didn’t “bounce,” but they’re no fans of yours either.

Bounce rates are highly variable, too. The bounce rate for landing pages and blogs tends to be high because people read them and leave — but that’s what they’re there for. As a result, setting reasonable targets for bounce rates is nearly impossible.

Instead of fixating on whether a given metric went up or down, make sure your SEO agency can explain everything they’re telling you. If they say that bounce rates went down, ask them why they went down and why that’s a good thing. If they say conversions are up, ask them what a conversion actually entails. Without context, data doesn’t do you much good.

Realistic Expectations

SEO isn’t a magic bullet. You can’t start a business or launch a website from scratch and expect to be in the top of search results a week later, and any SEO agency that tells you they can get you there is simply lying to you.

The bad news is that there really aren’t any quick-and-dirty tricks to rocket your site and your content up the listings anymore, so you’re going to have to put in the work, write the blogs, create the ads and the social calendar, and prop yourself up with paid traffic until your SEO starts to kick in.

The good news is that good content will always carry the day. Want people to link to your blog pages? Write good blog pages that people want to share. Want people to stay on your site and click through more pages? Build a good website and visitors will be engaged. Want to drive more conversions and better sales? You guessed it — write good content. The smarter our search engines get, the more your SEO rankings will be based on genuinely helping and delighting your visitors, and that’s the way it should be.