Why Most SEO Agencies Suck

by Peter Attia on July 10, 2012

A few years back, a man told me “80% of SEOs don’t know SEO”. He found this quote amazing and truthful: words to live by. All I could think was “But… You are part of that 80%”.

This guy ran an SEO agency and was moderately successful. However, most of his tactics were low grade and black hat. Because of this, most of his long term clients were local businesses in fairly uncompetitive niches. This brings me to my first point.

Most Agencies Don’t Know They Suck

SEO is a fairly easy service to sell, because most businesses don’t know how to do it. They just know they need it. This gives agencies a lot of leeway in the services they provide. As long as they’ve shown any improvement at all, no matter how minuscule, even just once, they feel they’ve done their job. Their clients will keep paying them, because things are better than when they started – even if things haven’t continued to improve.

This aura of ignorance is the biggest problem. No one realizes there’s an issue, and because of that, it continues to grow. That’s not how it should be. SEO isn’t a “set it and forget it” service. It’s not an Excel sheet of links and rankings sent at the beginning of the month. It should be strategized differently for every business, because every single business is different.

Most Agencies Are Run by Business Men

I know that seems obvious, but what I mean is they’re usually not run by an SEO. They’re run by someone who’s great at running a business. SEO is an afterthought. Sadly, they’re typically money hungry as well. This always reminds me of the dragon guarding his gold in The Hobbit.

dragon gaurding gold

They concentrate more on hiring sales people, and on the ROI of their staff. They rarely look at how they can improve their SEO services to handle bigger, better clients. The assumption is that if it works on their local lawyer or doctor client, it’ll work with large businesses as well.

I am by no means trying to downplay local SEO, but doing SEO for one city is nowhere near the same complexity as working on a worldwide campaign. This brings me to the next issue.

Client Quantity Over Quality

A lot of agencies have several sales people that get paid damn well. This is fine. However, this also causes them to get a vast number of “easy clients” instead of larger, authoritative clients.

This causes a lack of dedication to each client, by both the agency owner and staff. When you have a bulk amount of lower budget clients, losing one isn’t a big deal. When you have fewer, higher paying clients, every client is important and shown proper attention.

Most Agencies Don’t Understand Social Media

This is one I’m constantly still shocked by. Pretty much every agency says they provide social services, but I rarely run into any that do it right. They’ll use services like Tweet Adder to gain meaningless followers, they’ll pay for retweets, they’ll pay for followers, etc. They’ll do everything except actually be social.

social media confusion

A lot of agencies will go as far as automating tweets or Facebook posts and never actually log into the accounts. This is pointless for building up a brand’s image. You need to communicate with your followers.

Most Agencies Have Awful Blogs

Their blog content will be basic and generic content with keyword focused titles. The sad part is this is usually all it takes to win over a client that doesn’t know SEO. All they see is a blog talking about SEO.

To the eye of another search marketer, it’s very obvious. There are typically no comments, social shares, etc. Either that or there will be an astronomically high and clearly fake amount of shares. This will ruin your potential to gain clients that are “SEO savvy”, which is the most important market in which to gain trust.

Most Agencies Are Terrified of Google Updates

This is probably the biggest signal that an agency sucks. If they’re terrified of Google updates, they’re probably doing something wrong.

If you’re not using shady or black hat tactics there’s little to fear from Google updates. They’re usually for the better and allow you to gain more visibility.

Most Agencies Won’t Last

SEO is growing and people from all industries are learning it. Most marketing fields are now looking for people with knowledge of SEO. This trend isn’t slowing down. Marketing directors are looking for agencies to help fill out some of the demand. Those guys are going to know if you’re any good or not.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Iain July 10, 2012 at 10:57 am

I think much of what you say here is true. I would add the caveat that these businesses may well have talented SEOs working there who are just held down by the sheer weight of ‘easy’ clients their sales departments are dumping on them, desperate to do a great job, but not being given the tools or opportunity.

This often goes along with sales and management expecting miracle results because that’s what they’ve sold, regardless of the feasibility.

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Peter Attia July 10, 2012 at 11:05 am

Iain,

I agree. I have a completely different set of issues with using sales people to get clients. They end up saying whatever it takes to get the client, wether it’s feasible or not. This can ruin a brands image if they end up getting several clients that were expecting unrealistic results.

-Peter

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Mackenzie Fogelson July 10, 2012 at 1:03 pm

“SEO is a fairly easy service to sell, because most businesses don’t know how to do it. They just know they need it.”

We spend a lot of time educating clients on the myths of SEO. Many companies don’t realize that SEO isn’t just a keyword strategy, but they continue to contract with companies that utilize this as the sole cornerstone of the campaign. Eventually,companies will get smarter about the fact that SEO means an integration of content and social media marketing, and that it truly is about building quality relationships. And, as companies become more aware of how Google works and what can bring them success, they will have no choice but to work with companies who don’t suck :)

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Peter Attia July 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Mackenzie,

I think it’s great that you guys put forth so much effort into educating your clients. I think this trend will continue to grow, because as you said, companies are becoming more aware.

Companies are continuously putting more effort not just into SEO, but learning about SEO. They’re seeing the value of bringing that knowledge in house to help guide agencies and work with them.

-Peter

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Egor July 10, 2012 at 8:12 pm

What’s the point of this article again?

According to Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of EVERYTHING sucks. 90% of businesses suck, 90% of sales people suck, 90% of content sucks.

So what? C’est la vie.

According to the network theory, stuff will figure itself out all by itself. Crap will drop out eventually.

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Peter Attia July 10, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Hey Egor,

If you read the full post, you’d notice I said it will work itself out.

If I remember correctly you also had an issue with me talking about paid links. I’m guessing you’re frustrated, because you feel this post relates to you.

Feel free to let your anger out by leaving pointless comments on my blog. Hope you feel better!

All the Best,
-Peter

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Joey April 20, 2013 at 9:56 pm

OUCH!!! lol

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Justin Chaschowy July 11, 2012 at 5:26 am

The worst part is that their failures make anyone else that may be legitimate that comes a long next, look like a snake oil salesmen.

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Tom Andrews July 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Never worked in an SEO Agency environment from personal experience so can’t comment directly. However would expect better value will be found by clients from self employed SEO’s as opposed to in house agencies with a few exceptions.

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Peter Attia July 11, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Tom,

It’s a little mixed, they both have their pros and cons. From my experience it’s not so much wether you hire a freelancer or an agency, it has more to do with what type of businesses they’re used to working with. You can get a way with a lot more stuff when you’re doing location based SEO, because it’s not as competitive.

If you hire someone that is used to that, they might try to use mediocre tactics in bulk. This can turn from subpar link building, to spammy link building very quickly.

-Peter

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John Murch July 11, 2012 at 4:30 pm

I feel your pain and it’s true the have NO idea. I have seen this over and over again and even had my own blog rant (http://www.johnmurch.com/2011/04/09/why-agencies-suck-at-seo/)

It doesn’t help with Google killing off organic results just to promote their own products or even better hiding your inbound keywords with keyword (not provided). SEO has changed a LOT in the past 2 years and the “business people” who don’t keep up with what is going on in the industry (cough cough agencies) keep pitching the same thing over and over. The problem then gets worst because the business owner looking to get traffic and sign on the dotted line with the agency is getting misinformed.

Google has changed a lot from the “dont be evil” – you know just $22.5 million fine for Safari privacy evasion and don’t forget $500 million fine for rogue pharma ads. Our industry is broken in so many ways, especially when the one who help create it is playing by it’s own rules.

I know I have been trying to educate as many agencies as possible, but I am surprised more SEOers don’t put together more sites like http://www.seofailblog.com and rank for brand terms ;) Use your skills to fight back :)

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Peter Attia July 11, 2012 at 4:50 pm

John,

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said:

“SEO has changed a LOT in the past 2 years and the “business people” who don’t keep up with what is going on in the industry (cough cough agencies) keep pitching the same thing over and over.”

I know very few agency owners that are adamant about keeping up with the industry. This is so backwards and grows ignorance among their own employees.

I have mixed feelings about (not provided). On one hand, I absolutely love data. On the other, I kinda like that it’s pushing people away from putting so much focus on keywords.

Don’t get me wrong… I would much rather the data be available than not.

-Peter

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Jonathan July 11, 2012 at 5:19 pm

So true, I think the fact that so many companies are just looking for the initial payout is sad and is ruining a good thing. It forces SEOers to work fast and show inconclusive results.

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The Hanging Hyena July 11, 2012 at 11:28 pm

SEO suffers from the same fundamental issues that I see in my day job as a marketing analytics leader. My team spends a lot of time digging into product / customer / channel dynamics – mining for insights and building up an understanding of what is working, how things are changing, and what we need to make money from these trends.

One does not simply (sorry, loving that meme right now) “build a marketing analytics program”. It takes a couple of years for the lead members of the team to learn the business and accumulate enough insights to generate meaningful value.

Can we parachute in over night, do some parlor tricks to impress the great unwashed, and look like rockstar ninjas? Of course.

But that won’t make you much money. To get to our version of the “top of Google”, you need to pound away at a cluster of related problems (everything is linked, everything) for several months, creating hypotheses about how the world works and ruthlessly sacrificing them at the altar of the marketplace and reading the entrails for clues about where to go next.

Most SEO agencies are similar to the analytics consulting firms I run into on a regular basis. Quick, impressive projects – looks good when you do a board pitch, but none of the deep, long term, brand and reputation building work it takes to create a major site.

And their clientele is similar – too cheap to invest in hiring a real marketing person who understands SEO, lead generation, and how to leverage offline media. Sort of like people who confuse statistical analysts with programmers and think we all work for coolie wages.

That just makes a good analyst want to go start their own program, using their own money. And in SEO, that’s *really* easy….

Which in a way is fine – because if you business guys don’t want to give me a living wage for doing SEO work, I’m *delighted* to sell you highly targeted PPC affiliate referrals for $5 a pop!

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Peter Attia July 12, 2012 at 10:29 am

You made some great points. It’s easy to show some quick results to a new client that hasn’t previously invested into SEO. However, as you said, it only goes so far. It takes a large investment of time and effort to “make shit happen”.

However a lot of agencies will sell SEO as a magic bullet that will solve all their problems in 6 months. Because of this, clients expect massive and quick improvements. Meaning constant parlor tricks and no real work.

-Peter

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The Hanging Hyena July 16, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Yes…curses upon the anonymous sales weasels who created these absurd expectations – while they were fired long ago, the damage remains. For most analytics jobs, I start by setting expectations – what my people can do and what I need the client to do for us to actually make money. A surprisingly high fraction of the conversations end at this point (good riddance – these have the potential to turn into extended trips to the house of pain).

It is very dangerous when senior management doesn’t understand what is easy vs. what is hard. This is unfortunately often compounded with the “my pet nerd” syndrome:

Them: “You code? Great! Organize these reports!”
Me: “Huh? Before we started coding, my people ran product p&l’s that were larger than yours….we are as good at the business stuff as you are. Tread carefully here, skippy….”

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Alessio July 12, 2012 at 3:43 am

The thing I’m seeing the most is that most agencies don’t even know how to really DEAL with clients. They are always in a kind of hurry and they don’t seem to care about you, your philosophy, your needing, your way of doing things.
That’s the bad part: you have to dip into your client’s mind if you want to really do a great job. And , looking around, I’m seeing this part missing a lot.

Great post Peter, and thanks for sharing!

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Peter Attia July 12, 2012 at 10:36 am

I couldn’t agree more Alessio. I know a few agency owners that only speak to their clients once and that’s during their pitch. Before and after, they’re just speaking to salesman and account managers.

I’m not saying every little problem should be handled by the agency owner, but when the only time they’re seen is to sell their product, it creates a bad (and well deserved) perception of their company.

-Peter

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Matt Evans July 12, 2012 at 7:35 am

Hi Peter,

Really agree with this. As you say unfortunately the top of the ladder normally is more interested with increasing profits rather than improving the quality of the team and as a result earning another big client.

Just a case of trying to educate the top! Unfortunately I don’t believe this is an easy process and may take a long time. Hopefully the next generation of Directors/MDs/CEOs will better understand as a result of progressing surrounded by SEO rather than reading about it at a later date.

Good post! :)

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Peter Attia July 12, 2012 at 10:42 am

Hey Matt,

I have a lot of faith in future agency owners, directors, etc. While there are a lot of sub par agencies out there, all the really seedy stuff is starting to die off, albeit slowly.

I think this trend will continue to grow. It won’t ever kill off the seedy and mediocre stuff entirely, but it will at least over shadow it. Then we won’t have to use silly titles like “inbound marketers” :)

-Peter

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Matt Evans July 12, 2012 at 11:31 am

Yeah definitely agree. I personally think that the industry will get to the point where it’s bursting at the seams with “SEO Companies” and “Internet Marketers”. Then like with retail (etc.) recently, anyone who wasn’t running an efficient business with the best practices will drop off.

Reading that back I’m not sure it made sense! :)

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FP Marcil July 12, 2012 at 8:53 am

I agree with some of your observations. That’s why I think SEO belongs internally over the long term, not in an agency setting. It’s hard to nurture SEO talent in this setting and it’s even harder to keep it. (In fact, I’m starting to feel this way for all marketing activities.)

Having been through the agency grinder myself(as a SEO at the time), there’s a few realities I feel you missed.

1) Budgets. The sales person will bring you(the SEO) a preset budget. And you will look at him funny and tell him you need to spend a lot more time on this client to ever make any inroads. The sales guy will look back at you and say, bah I don’t care, it’s part of a bundle. #Facepalm

2) Agencies don’t look at SEO in a strategic way. They don’t talk to the right people in their clients corporate structure and get silo-ed to tactical work that is bound to make them easily replaceable.

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Peter Attia July 12, 2012 at 10:57 am

Marcil,

I definitely think SEO and marketing in general should be kept in house. When it comes to less creative forms of marketing like PPC, I can see both sides of the coin, but still think it should be brought in-house in the long term.

On your first point, I’m actually saving that for a post about sales people. It’s not something I’ve forgotten about :)

On the second point, that’s kind of what I meant by the company being run by businessmen instead of SEO’s. I think genuine SEO’s can be very creative and strategic thinkers. That’s not to say business owners can’t be, but it’s rare. This kind of puts a speed bump infront of SEO projects.

-Peter

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Steven Jacobs November 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm

I got to give it to you, I am a huge fan of your content on this website. You’re saying stuff that’s controversial, a bit of a twisted sense of humor and overall just truth. Although I would never send my clients this actual article, it definitely explains about 80% of these SEO companies out there.

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Prost SEO December 13, 2013 at 9:27 am

Sound right. And sounds sadly — small companies and freelancers are difficult to survive and compete.

So how about to create some open source or franchise based organization of that ‘businessmen’ who can sell and seo-specialists who love tech works.

A vision:
seo-specialists have a meeting every week to negotiate recent changes and to develope stable technology: cost/efforts, term, actions. They are paid for results. If even not working — they always has access to knowledge of safe working technology (if made input at least once).
businessmen are franchisee, who have to sell that stable product (primary on local market) and to have their commission.

Who would like to participate? which role?
Is such system already exists?

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