Clutch spoke with John Lincoln, co-owner and president of Ignite Visibility as part of a series of interviews on how to hire an SEO company.
Please begin by introducing your company and your role there.
Sure. First, thanks for having me. Our company is Ignite Visibility. The company is two and a half years old. We currently have about 40 clients, and we’ve been growing very fast due to our organized and unique approach to client service and innovative strategies. We’ve won numerous awards which we are very proud of.
We focus on mid- to large-size websites, and we focus mostly on SEO as our core competency, but we also do quite a bit of social media, conversion rate optimization, and paid search.
We also teach two courses at the University of California-San Diego – the search engine optimization course and the web analytics course. In the past, we’ve also taught the social media course.
My name is John Lincoln, and I’m co-owner and president. Prior to Ignite Visibility, I was a director at three other companies, and I’ve been in this space for a long time and love it!
What goals should a business define before looking to hire a SEO partner?
Great question. I don’t want to deter anyone from doing SEO, because everyone should have some form of an SEO strategy, but I do think that there is one thing that is important for any online business. If you are looking for just the SEO component of a digital marketing campaign, you should have a very, very clear idea of what your product or service is, what your business model looks like, what growth numbers you need to achieve in order to be successful, and what your basic plan looks like. Then, when you’re approaching an SEO company, you present that information to them, and they can give you realistic expectations on what they can achieve. To be a successful online business, you really need to know your numbers and model. If you have this down, SEO, and other forms of online marketing, will help you fuel that model.
In your opinion, which factors should be weighted most heavily when hiring a SEO company?
Recent case studies are really critical. That should be one of the most important things. You want to see a very recent track record of success.
Ratio of staff to clients
Another really important item is the employee-to-client ratio. One of the reasons that we started Ignite Visibility was that in the past, at some of the other agencies I worked at and some of the other agencies we had seen, they would really overload the employees with a lot of clients, which wouldn’t allow them to be successful.
What you should be looking for is an SEO strategist who’s only working on a handful of accounts and can do a very, very good job with those accounts. If they have too many clients, there’s no way that they’ll be able to deliver the resources. One of the main things that we do here at Ignite is we make sure that we set up teams, and we’re always overstaffed in order to make sure that we’re growing into the clients’ business. That’s really, really important.
Next, you have to be able to speak with their current clients, and don’t just ask to speak with any current client. Ask to speak with a couple clients that are in either a similar space as you, or they have some similarities to their business, and ask those people specific questions about the process, about the campaign, and how the entire thing has worked. That’s going to allow you to have the right expectations and for you to understand what the process has been like while working with that company.
Organized, strategic plan
Another thing that I find is really, really important is organization, and I don’t see that a lot. Many of the SEO companies out there are just flying by the seat of their pants, and that can be a major issue. There has to be a proven strategy behind the entire campaign, and there has to be a series of strategic initiatives that are rolled out over time. “These are all the things that we’re going after for the year, these are the things we’re going after Q1, these are the things we’re going after Q2 and Q3, and here are the results that we could expect for each one of these items.” Then based off of that, you can prioritize your workflow list and work that out into the website development process.
Finally, I really recommend people take the time to meet the team beforehand. That can really be important. Ask if you can sit down and meet the people who are going to be working on your account, make sure the company has a project management system, ask about their organizational processes, ask if they hold weekly meetings, things like that.
What are some red flags to watch out for when evaluating a SEO company?
Large number of negative online reviews
First off, do they have negative reviews? Generally, you’ll be able to find negative reviews about a poor SEO company online. You’ve got to always take those with a grain of salt because you never know what happened with somebody’s business. We all know somebody who’s had a negative review written about them at some point or another. So, make sure if you do see a negative review that you really read it, and you take the time to think about it objectively, because sometimes there’s some stuff out there that’s just not true, but if you’re seeing an overwhelming amount of negative reviews about a company, then you’re going to know something’s wrong.
In a lot of cases, poor SEO companies have even rebranded to become a new company because they had so many negative reviews about the old company. You need to watch out for that type of thing, and that’s definitely happened in the space.
The other thing I would say is to beware of really sales-focused SEO companies. They’ve got all the marketing, they’ve got all the hot lingo, they’ve got a deck that has been done by a professional graphic designer, everything looks shiny and great. However, a lot of SEO companies are just looking to get the deal in, and they’re a little bit of a machine, where they’re trying to increase revenue. They don’t really care about the results.
You need to vet that company not just on the flashiness of their proposal, but what the numbers actually look like and how that relates specifically to SEO. A good SEO company should be telling you the exact keywords that they’ll be going after, the amount of traffic associated with those keywords, the projected conversion rates, and how all that is going to play into a strategic plan in order to build out the website.
Similarly, make sure the leader of the SEO or digital marketing company is not just a sales-focused person, but they’re really an expert in the space. They’ve actually done the work before, they understand what it’s like to be an account manager, to be a project manager, to do SEM, and they understand the different technologies and the different strategies so that that high level of information and knowledge can filter down to the other employees through regular training.
Past penalties from Google
Another thing I would look for is, have they ever gotten any websites penalized? That happens quite a bit. It used to happen a lot more in the past, but there are still a lot of SEO companies out there who are just building links based off of things like blog networks and using black hat strategies in order to get links back to your website so that you can rank higher. I would ask to see examples of the links that they’re building, if they are doing external linking, and make sure that those are sanctioned links by Google.
You should also avoid cheap SEO services. In order to be effective and to do what Google really wants you to do nowadays, you have to have a certain dollar amount in order to be successful. They want to see really quality content, which requires a lot of time to create. A good company should have an inbound marketing strategy, they should be creating really high-quality content, and it shouldn’t be a cheap SEO service that is just primarily based off of building low-quality links.
Lack of relevant experience – especially if you’re enterprise
You want to watch out for companies that don’t have the experience that you need; in particular, if you’re going to be looking for an enterprise company to help with your SEO, you want to make sure that they actually have enterprise experience. When I say enterprise experience, I’m talking about websites that have anywhere from 10 million to 100 million visitors a month. That type of SEO is much, much different than a startup website or a local SEO campaign.
Little knowledge of online marketing as a whole
If the SEO company doesn’t have at least some understanding of social media, blogging, conversion rate optimization and analytics, and pay-per-click, and they don’t offer those services at least to some degree, or they’re not talking about them, then that shows that they don’t really have a good understanding of the integration in the space. Internet marketing is a very complex thing. SEO is a very important component of it. In most cases, you’ll see that websites get anywhere from 30% to 70% of their traffic from organic search.
The SEO company needs to have a very, very strong understanding of analytics, they need to all be Google Analytics certified, and they should also be Google AdWords certified. That’s something that we expect all of our staff to do within the first three months of being here. They need to understand these other core components of online marketing in order to offer the best possible service, and to make sure that they’re not leaving things on the table.
How much should SEO services cost?
The price of the SEO campaign is based primarily off of the goals of the website. In order to reach a certain point, there has to be a certain budget in order to get you there, and a lot of that is industry-specific. If you’re working with a major apparel designer, that’s a very competitive space. It’s much more difficult to rank for those types of terms, as opposed to ranking for an entirely new space, an entirely new set of keywords where there’s no competition.
There are SEO companies who are on the very, very cheap end, and they have a significant number of clients. You could have a project manager working on as many as 40 to 50 projects, and they’re totally overwhelmed, usually not doing a good job. That type of SEO company is generally below $1,500 a month. It could be $100, $500, up to $1,500 dollars a month, and the only way that they can ever be profitable at that level is to overload somebody, so that one person is the point of contact for a very large amount of clients.
For most people out there, you’re going to be looking at between $2,500 a month and $8,000 a month, depending on how large your website is and the goals, but there’s really no way to know that, unless the project is 100% custom-scoped. That’s another thing to look for in an SEO company. If you come in and they quickly say, “It’s going to cost $5,000. Let’s get you started,” that means they have not done any of their research, they have no idea about your website, what the builds are going to look like, and how the services are going to relate to your strategic plan and your initiatives for your specific industry. That would be another red flag.
Does Ignite Visibility have any specific requirements for a potential client, such as a minimum budget or project length?
We have clients that pay as low as $2,500 a month, and then we have clients that pay us as much as $15,000 a month just for SEO. However, in some cases it is one website, in others we are working on multiple sites. Also, some of the larger projects get millions of visitors a month and the smaller ones get thousands. So the price point is 100% custom and based on the work required.
Generally, we have at least a minimum engagement of three months, and then it goes month-to-month after that. We also have annual contracts but the client can opt-out anytime.
We hope that clients stay with us forever. We’ve had a very high client retention rate. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve grown so much. We’ve only been around for two and a half years and we have 40 clients, and we haven’t lost many of them at all. When they have left, it hasn’t been due to poor work. It might have been an internal issue or a project ending.
What unique value does Ignite Visibility provide compared to others?
We’ve got a really good team of people here. Everybody here is really smart. I have so much respect for them. First and foremost, it is the culture and team.
We do two trainings every single week on all the latest things that are happening in the industry. We’re constantly blogging, and we write for all the major publications, such as Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, and Search Engine Journal. We’re frequently mentioned on Search Engine Roundtable. We’ve been mentioned in Forbes and CIO Magazine. We really keep our ear to the ground with all of the latest things that are changing, and teaching these two courses at UCSD, both the search engine optimization course and the analytics course, has really, really helped us.
One unique thing we do for clients is create custom dashboards in Google Analytics that show them all of the most important reporting metrics to them. In addition, we also track all their most important keywords and break out their keywords by segment. We use very sophisticated third-party tracking tools. In addition, we create a custom filter in Google Analytics that tracks all the pages that we are targeting for on-site and off-site optimization.
My partner and I come from a series of large other agencies, where we saw things done in a way that we really knew could be improved. We’re making sure that we’re over-delivering for all clients. We’re growing into their business. We’re making sure that we’re giving clients more than they need to be successful, and we’re making sure that we only take on clients that we know can be successful. We’re scoping projects correctly and setting realistic expectations. By doing that, we’ve gotten a really good name in the industry. We’ve built great relationships with our clients, so that’s probably what’s done it.
Also, both my partner and I, and a lot of the people here, have enterprise experience. We’ve worked with some of the largest websites online. I’ve worked on nearly 400 websites at this point, some with just a hundred thousand visitors a month and some with tens of millions of visitors a month. That type of experience over time really helps, and bringing that knowledge and passing it down to staff has allowed us to create a business that we’re proud of here.