How A Big, Well Respected SEO Firm Got Fired (And What You Have To Do To Avoid A Performance Like Theirs)

Owning up to the services you provide

The thing about being a professional is you’re supposed to know what you’re doing. As a professional, you should be competent enough to deliver the results your clients need in the weeks and months following their decision to hire you.

If you’re not competent enough to do that, your business won’t last much longer than a mayfly lives.

That’s the way the system is supposed to work.

SEO mayflies

Anyone who has been in business for longer than a mayfly flies around (about a day), knows there are thieves and charlatans and frauds around every corner.

  • Some companies don’t do what they promise to do
  • Some of them exaggerate
  • Very few do a really, really good job (FYI: this link goes to our “Grandma Guarantee,” which is a pretty sweet guarantee)

This couldn’t be more true in the fast-moving, often misunderstood world of digital marketing. Search engine marketing (SEM) is one of the strategies, and SEO is one of the murkiest tactics available to business owners who want to market their businesses under the SEM banner.

It’s also one of the most effective.

A Google user is by definition looking for something. If he’s looking for something to buy, all it takes is some solid SEO to put your product in front of him. That’s the idea, anyway. It’s a fact of life that SEO clients are more concerned with results than they are with how SEOs go about getting those results.

That needs to change.

The situation I’m about to describe could happen to anyone in the SEM/digital business, including us if we’re not careful.

Out comes the Tuesday morning quarterback…

Would you believe it if I told you a major SEO agency with a sterling reputation managed to earn one of its (ex-)clients a manual penalty? If you’ve been around SEO longer than the average intern, you don’t just believe it, you live it. If it seems like every new client has a story about their last agency, it’s because they often do.

SEO being what it is, every client that hires your agency will have had previous SEO work done. More often than not, your agency will be the 3rd or 4th agency your now-jaded client has hired to help them improve their rankings. Consider yourself lucky if you get to start from scratch, mostly because the grass always looks greener. Starting from scratch comes with its own set of problems we could talk about in another post. For now we’re talking about what happens when big, well respected SEO agencies don’t manage transitioning clients as well as they probably should have.

When you’re Agency #2, it behooves you to have a good look at what Agency #1 did for your new client. Otherwise your client might end up looking for Agency #3 after Agency #1’s work earns them a manual penalty on your watch.

Makes sense, right?

Again: your client can, and often will, fire you if you happen to be working with them when a previous SEO agency’s work gets their site penalized. “But it’s not our fault” is not a valid excuse. If you can convince your client otherwise, you go with your bad self.

My point is don’t be like Agency #2.

Even if you happen to be one of the biggest agencies in the business, don’t be like Agency #2.

Especially if you happen to be one of the most well-respected agencies in the business, don’t be like Agency #2.  

Always, always, always check the previous agency’s work. You should do just that before you ever even try to convert them from a prospect into a client. Reviewing previous work needs to be a part of your sales process.

We had the opportunity to do just that a couple months back with a huge, well-respected SEO agency after their client fired them and started looking at us. Although we won’t name names, this huge, well-respected agency is kind of like a big deal when it comes to search marketing.  And we were hired to clean up their mess. Most of their mess was actually created by the SEO agency before them.

It’s like playing hot potato. All that matters is who has the potato, not who held the potato 10 minutes ago.

What did we find?

The client had a lot of SEO work done, both by the agency they fired, and by the agency they worked with before that. The big, hairy mistake the big, well-respected agency made was not reviewing their client’s previous SEO work.

We weren’t going to make the same mistake.  

The big, well-respected agency used a lot of the same techniques to promote this particular client as the rest of us do. Surprise surprise. The big players in the business don’t have any secrets, or ninja-tactics, they use to do a better job than the rest of us.

They do basically the same things the rest of us do.

They did some initial keyword research. They mapped keywords and created landing pages designed to rank for those keywords. They worked on the site’s H1s, H2s, and title-tags. As far as onsite work went, they did a fine job.

Offsite work was a different story

A big point I want to make is all SEO companies, no matter who they are, are facing the same challenges today.

That includes the really good ones.

When we say the struggle is real, we mean it. There are no magic SEO beans, or magic marketing beans, or anything like that. There’s just a whole lot of hard work that has to be done in order to play matchmaker between products and audiences. As search marketers, we happen to use search engines to do that.

I repeat: the magic beans, if there ever were any magic beans, are all gone.

SEO is hard work, and pretty much everyone does it the same way these days.

The previous agency may or may not have suggested a link clean-up or review as part of their work. Even if they did suggest a link review to the client, they didn’t actually do it. The links their predecessors built were spammy enough to earn the client’s site a manual penalty. We’ll never know if Google was looking specifically at the work of major SEO companies when the client’s site was penalized. Given the size of the SEO firm we’re talking about here, it’s highly likely Mountain View was manually auditing the client’s link profile before the penalty was leveled.

The biggest thing was over optimized anchor text on guest blog posts. It was obvious the agency had not relinquished editorial control for the vast majority of links pointing to the client’s site. Google doesn’t consider these links “earned,” so they discount them and penalize the companies that traffic in them.

Yes, even the big agencies use guest blogging

There are any number of “guest blog romance” networks SEOs use to promote their clients’ websites. We use them. You use them. Everyone else in search marketing uses them, too. If the anchor text is identical across the entire link profile, it’s pretty obvious to Google that those articles were written by someone on the client’s payroll.

Guest blogging presents a huge opportunity for SEO firms to distinguish themselves. Safe, risk-averse link building strategies rely on quality content. For a long time Google encouraged people to create content for bots, not people. Meaningful change takes real time, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find plenty of SEO agencies who still operate like communicating with bots is their #1 job. And surprise, surprise that includes the big SEO agencies, too.

One of the biggest things you can do as an SEO firm is establish quality standards for the content you produce for your clients. If you review a new client’s old work and find things you wouldn’t want your company to be associated with, it’s a good idea to disavow all of the links you don’t like before you start building any of your own. Ask yourself all of the usual questions.

  • Are the links on relevant sites?
  • Do they add value to the web?
  • Would anyone actually want to read the articles they appear in?

A link review is the very least you can do to help your client avoid a penalty. We found a bunch of links on semi-relevant blogs. The kind of blogs you have to be careful about letting post your content. When you see them, words like sketchy come to mind because having them link to your site seems risky. Trust your gut and find a better place to post your content, even if you found the blog on one of the popular networks. Just because you find the blog on one of the guest blog networks does not means it’s 100% safe.

Lots and lots of work…flushed down the toilet

To make a long story even longer, we had to disavow every last bit of offsite SEO work the client had done. We went after work done by the big, well-respected agency. We went after work done by the agency before them. We went in with a machete, not a scalpel.

When we say we disavowed everything, we mean it. That’s what we had to do to give the site half a chance of ranking anywhere near the top for their best keywords going forward. They are effectively starting from scratch with us, after blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars on SEO services with others over the years.

At this point, our client has already had bad experiences with 2 different SEO agencies, one of them among the “very best” in the business. As the 3rd or 4th agency they hired, we had to go back and clean up everyone else’s BS. Then we had to send reconsideration request after reconsideration request on the off chance that Google will let them rank for anything after throwing years and years’ worth of “work” in the trash.

The jury is still out on whether or not Google will ever let their site rank for anything. We’ve had a couple of early wins, but nothing that makes us want to tell our client they’re out of the woods completely.

Unsolicited advice animals

There are 2 pieces of actionable advice I want you to take from this article.

The first thing is always, always, always review and clean up everything done by the previous SEO agency, or else risk being held accountable for their work later.

The second thing is realize everyone and their mom uses guest blogging to promote their clients’ sites. If you’re going to do low-quality guest blogging to promote your clients, don’t use 100% matching anchor text across all of the articles you produce for them.

And let’s not beat around the bush. Articles that take a decent writer about an hour to research and write are by their very definition low quality. If you want to know the true cost of killer content, check out the rates freelance writers get when they write for popular magazines. It’s not cheap. If you think paying $30 for a 500 word article is too much, my bet is you’ll be priced out of the industry completely in the next couple of years as the focus shifts more and more toward actual quality and away from the SEO business’s bastardized version of quality.

If you’re going to make the anchor text the same across all of your articles, you might as well hire a sky writer and a courier. You can have the sky writer write “I’M CHEATING” over Google HQ while the courier hands Matt Cutts a note on your company’s letterhead saying “That’s us.” Besides, that would be way more fun than writing hundreds of articles with the same anchor text.

In the future, I hope sky writing is more of an SEO thing than paying someone who took a creative writing class to write articles as fast as he possibly can. That idea speaks to Wil Reynolds’ thoughts on Real Company Stuff (RCS). Unfortunately, selling RCS to clients is a challenge when their #1 focus is better rankings and they don’t particularly care about how you win them. As SEOs, we have to educate our clients and show them how RCS is the only safe way to improve their rankings in the future.

RCS is a great idea and something we’re moving forward with aggressively here at Clicks and Clients. Sometimes I feel more like an art director at an ad agency and less like an SEO. That’s a good thing, even if some of our clients reply in a less-than-enthusiastic manner when we pitch them ideas that don’t sound much at first like SEO.

Watch what we do, not what we say

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re buying something special when you hire a big, well-respected SEO agency. Like I said before, pretty much all SEO agencies do the same stuff. SEO work comes down to onsite optimization and guest blogging. The difference is in how the tactics are executed, not the tactics themselves. The big agencies do a lot of the same things craigslist SEOs do. They just do it on a much, much bigger scale.

Even though content is supposed to be king, many SEO agencies don’t act like it. You will occasionally catch SEOs talking about content or content marketing or the importance of quality content, but when the rubber hits the road most of us are still producing crap content and posting it for the links, not for the readers. Our landing pages had better appeal to readers if we want them to convert, but the tactics we use to put those pages in front of readers appeal mostly to Google’s bots.

The reason SEO agencies don’t put more emphasis on quality content is because they’re used to getting brilliant results without the additional expense of having to create quality content.

How to spot a good one

What you need to look for is an SEM agency that pulls expertise from as many different fields as possible. It takes more than just an Internet geek who knows how to interpret analytics data and outsource work using oDesk to put together an effective SEM campaign in 2014.

You should be kind of scared if the SEO you want to hire hasn’t done anything other than SEO for the past 10 years. Most SEOs have backgrounds in creative or technical fields, not SEO by itself. SEO is little more than using different tactics and skillsets to win clients favorable positions on the SERPs that are important to their businesses. In 2014, how the agency you hire goes about doing that is more important than ever. Your rankings will suffer if you hire the wrong agency. And the odds of getting the wrong agency, even if you hire a really big, well-respected one are just as slim as they’ve always been.

Unless you hire Clicks and Clients, derp. You saw that coming, didn’t you?

The 2 takeways

If you’re an SEO agency, you need to be just as concerned with all of your new client’s previous work as you are with your own.

If you’re an SEO client, you need to be just as concerned with the how (link building, guest blogging) as you are with the what (improved rankings). You can’t just hire an SEO agency and avert thine eyes and expect passable results. Those days are gone. It’s a lot more complicated now.

If your SEO agency pitches you sky writing, there’s a good chance they’re doing it right even if their idea sounds completely bonkers to you at first. 😉