It’s like Mark Twain said: Reports of the death of the SEO company have been greatly exaggerated.

You may have recently heard rumblings that more brands were taking their search engine optimization needs in-house, but assuming that’s true, will those efforts pay off?

Most marketers – 63%, in fact – think the trend of managing SEO internally is just a passing fad. There’s still something to be said for having a dedicated partner handle all of your SEO needs.

Perhaps the reason the in-house craze started in the first place is that brands have been working with the wrong SEO companies. The key is to choose an SEO vendor that will deliver tangible results that directly influence your business’s revenue, sales and profitability.

Need help finding the best vendor out there? Our guide covers all the major factors to consider when choosing the right SEO company for your business.

What exactly does an SEO agency do?

Broadly speaking, the goal of any SEO agency is to help businesses improve their visibility on search engines and net them higher search rankings.

SEO agencies take a highly technical view of search visibility, focusing on factors like site performance, website structure and architecture, keyword practices, etc. They may dabble in other areas like content creation, marketing strategy and campaign planning, but they’re not core competencies.

You’ll have to run some cost-benefit analysis to determine if it’s better to take a best-of-breed approach, working with a variety of specialized vendors, or go with an all-in-one vendor that does a little bit of everything with varying degrees of expertise.

What services does an SEO company offer?

SEO services can be separated into three camps: off-site, technical and on-page SEO. Each one focuses on a different aspect of a robust SEO strategy and its ramifications on search ranking.

Off-site SEO

Off-site (or off-page) SEO is the process of building your site’s reputation.

Customers’ perceptions of brands are shaped by a lot of external forces outside of a company’s website or the content they produce, especially now that every former customer has numerous easy outlets to share their experience (social media, review sites, etc.). With that in mind, reputation management is a big part of off-page SEO, attempting to influence how your brand is reflected on third-party sites as much possible.

Another major focus of your SEO agency will be link-building.

outbound links

They may reach out to industry influencers and thought leaders to promote your site and link back to your landing pages. Generating in-bound links from reputable websites is a huge factor for increasing your domain authority.

Off-page SEO also extends to areas like social media marketing and guest blogging to boost your brand’s reach.

Technical SEO

With technical SEO services, your SEO vendor will look for opportunities to shore up components of your company’s website that influence search ranking.

For instance, site speed is an important factor that Google’s algorithms consider when producing search engine results. Google wouldn’t want to send users to a slow, difficult-to-navigate site, after all.

Technical SEO really digs into the nuts and bolts of your site structure to make it easier for Google to crawl your site – and, as a result, increase your visibility on SERPs.

On-page SEO

As the name suggests, on-page SEO services tackle those search ranking factors that appear on your site’s web pages.

A classic example of on-page SEO is keyword optimization, which may include a fair amount of research on the vendor’s side. The SEO company may also offer content creation services to help your company’s website adhere to on-page SEO best practices.

Some vendors will focus on particular areas of SEO, offering highly specialized services rather than an all-in-one package. An SEO firm may stick with one of these subset categories (off-page SEO, technical SEO or on-page optimization) or go even more granular: exclusively providing site performance consulting services, for instance.

content optimization strategy

Others operate as a full-service digital marketing agency. Even those SEO agencies likely have specific areas they excel at.

It’s rare to find a vendor that’s great at everything, so the goal is to select the one you’ll be able to work best with. Before you hire an SEO firm, be sure it has the experience and knowledge needed to support your particular SEO strategy.

What’s the benefit of hiring an SEO company?

Plenty of marketing teams out there have thought they could manage all of their SEO needs in house. At first glance, it certainly seems more cost-effective to use existing resources and personnel to manage your SEO strategies rather than pay someone else for that service.

Consider all the different skills and competencies a team would need to excel at good SEO:

  • Technical skills to improve site performance and rework site architecture as needed.
  • Digital media promotional outreach experience to build your reputation.
  • Creative content production to generate compelling site material that authoritative third parties will actually want to link to.
  • Up-to-date understanding of SEO best practices and how to implement them at the ground level.

In-house teams – even those stacked with marketing talent – may not have the experience or specialized knowledge that a dedicated SEO company brings to the table. To get a similarly knowledgeable and skilled in-house team, you need to shell out a lot of money on talent acquisition, onboarding and retention.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that SEO best practices are never set in stone.

The digital landscape (not to mention Google’s search algorithms) is constantly changing. Do you really have the time and energy to keep tabs on all the latest developments when you have other marketing tasks to attend to?

Granted, we may be a little biased here, given we’re a content marketing agency and all. But don’t just take our word for it. SEO expert Bruce Clay is similarly skeptical that an in-house team can really find the time to keep pace with the rapid rate of change in the SEO world.

“It’s crucial to stay current with the latest SEO methodology – that’s very time-consuming, though,” Clay stated. “It requires several hours a day that a solo in-house SEO probably doesn’t have. A consultant can be a powerful ally, filling in the gaps by mentoring and guiding an in-house SEO.”

SEO work is highly specialized, so it’s best to stick with the dedicated professionals than burden your marketing team with jobs they’re just not suited for.

How do you determine if an SEO company is good?

It goes without saying that cost is going to be a major consideration when choosing an SEO agency.

Past customer experiences are a good indicator of what you can expect from your own vendor relationship, so look for as many customer reviews as you can find.

If you know other companies in your industry that have worked with certain SEO agencies, ask them about their experience.

Better yet, conduct some research of your own to see if those businesses have actually benefited from their SEO providers.

Every SEO firm you speak with is going to tell you that they can boost your search rankings, site visibility, organic traffic, etc., but be sure to actually see some evidence that they can deliver on those promises. If you’re presented with too-good-to-be-true case study numbers, insist on breaking down exactly what the vendor did and how it led to those results.

If you can, set up a consultation session where the vendor runs a site analysis and pitches a plan to improve your search ranking figures.

You’re looking for an expert partner; there’s no reason qualified candidates shouldn’t be able to give you a data-driven roadmap to increase your brand’s digital visibility.

What are some red flags to watch out for when looking for an SEO agency?

Time and time again, the same warning signs creep up during the vetting process. If you don’t know what to look out for, though, you may miss them, and wind up saddled with a bad contract with an even worse SEO firm.

Keep an eye out for these red flags:

  • They overpromise: SEO agencies aren’t miracle workers. If a company continually makes bold claims, like guaranteeing a page 1 (or better) ranking for specific search terms, they’re likely making promises they can’t deliver on.
  • They can’t (or won’t) explain their methodology: Knowledgeable SEO experts can show their work; they’ll be able to explain how they produced positive results for past customers and give you a reasonable plan of action of how they’d tackle your own project. It’s not asking too much to get that info during the vetting process.
  • They use black hat SEO tactics: There are a lot of nefarious SEO strategies out there – buying links, keyword stuffing, engaging in negative SEO against the competition. Believe it or not, but some vendors will use these methods. Black hat SEO isn’t just unethical; it could get you removed from Google’s search index. While some business owners may be enticed by the promise of getting a few quick wins, it’s better to stick with white hat SEO tactics that can produce results that are just as good.
  • They can’t tie SEO to your business goals: All the metrics SEO companies chase (organic traffic, search engine ranking, click-through rates, etc.) are just a means to an end. Taken by themselves, they don’t mean a whole lot to your company’s bottom line. Be sure that your vendor can show you how their SEO strategies will result in better sales, more revenue and benefits that actually help grow your business.

It can take a fair amount of research to find the right SEO consultant or agency for your business, but it’s absolutely worth the effort. A good SEO company can deliver fantastic results at a fraction of the cost of an in-house team – and with fewer headaches, to boot. Before you sign an SEO contract, do your homework, vet each candidate thoroughly and scrutinize every outlandish claim you hear, and you’ll do just fine.

Jeff Keleher is a writer and editor at Brafton. A man of simple tastes, he enjoys playing guitar, playing video games and playing with his dog - sometimes all at once. He still hasn't gotten over Illinois' loss in the 2005 NCAA National Championship game, and he probably never will.