We know those first page numbers sound tempting, but they should always be taken with a whole sack of salt.
Businesses asking how to get to the top of Google is something we get on the weekly and while we wish there was a simple answer, there isn’t. The most important thing you can do however is arm yourself with some fundamental knowledge about what SEO really involves and what to avoid when seeking help to improve your website’s SEO.
The information contained in this post can significantly protect you and your business from being taken for a ride, and potentially save you from wasting thousands upon thousands of dollars and risk of permanent penalty from Google.
Why do SEO agencies have such a bad reputation?
The companies that claim to be able to get you to the top of Google, known as SEO agencies, have a notoriously poor reputation. They are often considered to be the “second-hand car salesmen of the internet”; all about quick sales, minimal accountability and extorting as much money as they possibly can before you give up and cancel your services.
Anyone who guarantees you a place on the first page of Google search results should be instantly dismissed. You cannot control Google, and you cannot control how much time and money your competitors are spending on their SEO efforts. For those reasons, no Google rank is ever guarantee-able.
Over the years, we have worked with many SEO agencies through mutual clients, and as a result, we’ve learned a lot about exactly what they do. From these experiences, combined with endless stories from clients who have previously engaged SEO agencies, we strongly believe that the reputation is (far more often than not) well-deserved.
To put it bluntly, most SEO agencies spend a great deal of effort making their job sound more complex than it is, while doing the absolute bare minimum, and most of the time – not even that. It is regular practice for them to copy and paste their reports from month to month and tell clients not to expect significant results for the first year as the default excuse as to why nothing much seems to happen. By the time the one year mark comes around, little has changed, the clients move on and new ones replace them. And so the cycle continues.
Even if semi-well intended, many SEO agencies are owned and operated by people who have very little to no experience with any of the services they sell. They simply provide the face of the business and outsource most, if not all of the non-client-facing work (usually to the cheapest possible offshore labour) with absolutely no form of quality control in place. They also frequently exploit people from nations with struggling economies who will work long hours for wages they can’t live off without needing to juggle multiple jobs. The going rate for a worker from the Philippines is anywhere between AU$250 – AU$450 per week for 40 hours of work. That’s at most AU$11.25 per hour – less than half the minimum wage in Australia.
Because these workers are paid so little, they often aren’t able to dedicate enough time and energy to their tasks, leading to mediocre results and unhappy clients. English fluency and cultural nuances can also be an issue where the work being conducted involves content writing, which the vast majority of SEO work revolves around heavily.
What SEO actually is
The fundamental act of SEO is trying to optimise your website to the suspected preferences of Google, so that you can appear higher in Google search results. We say ‘suspected’ because Google’s search algorithm is a closely guarded secret. No SEO agency knows for certain what the ultimate course of action should be. The best anyone can do is follow Google’s guidelines, study recent research from reputable industry sources, and test, test, test.
At the end of the day, Google don’t want you to attempt to manipulate them into ranking your website higher just because you have the money to do so. They want to show the best and most relevant search results based on their user’s searches. They also would prefer you to spend your marketing budget on their AdWords platform, which guarantees you instant (albeit paid) access to showing up on first page results.
It’s important to respect how much power and resources Google has. Trying to fool Google means trying to fool some of the best and brightest minds (as well as the deepest pockets) in the digital world. Over the last decade, Google has become extremely good at detecting when a website is undertaking deliberate attempts to manipulate their rankings and can respond with brutal and business-destroying consequences. The last thing you want is a careless SEO agency risking your business with penalties that you may never be able to recover from.
Google’s algorithm gets more sophisticated by the minute and most SEO agencies don’t keep up to date with Google’s ever-changing best practices. They often rely on practices that may have achieved good results in the past, but are now either redundant or potentially even damaging.
What work is involved in SEO
There are 4 main pillars of SEO work:
“Link building” is one of the primary services an SEO agency will claim to do for you. We say ‘claim’ because they often don’t actually do it, because it’s time-consuming (and thus expensive) for them to perform. If you’ve ever managed a website before and received an email from someone with questionable grammar asking if you’ll let them publish their blog post on your website, that’s a link builder at work.
SEO agencies usually outsource this task to offshore workers who will send bulk spam out to every website they can find, trying to find anyone who will agree to publish a pre-written blog post about the client’s business for a small incentive fee. That blog post will then contain a link back to your website and thus, a link is built.
The idea is that it can be very helpful for your search rank to have high quality, reputable websites linking back to yours. If you have these kinds of websites linking back to you, Google sees this as a sign that your website is likewise valuable and trustworthy.
The problem is that most of the time, the websites that agree to publishing these types of blog posts are low quality, irrelevant sites that just want to be paid the incentive fee. Very little to no benefit comes from the majority of these links in reality.
To get genuine backlinks means talking to other relevant websites/influencers in relation to yours. It takes time, mutual respect, strong rapport and often the exchange of free products or services. It may take months to build a relationship and come to an agreement for even a single link of actual value. It’s something that we would simply never recommend outsourcing and really needs to be done by the business owner or other internal representative.
“Technical SEO” is all about optimising your website to load quickly, having clean and concise coding, optimising your website’s structured data (a technical term for a certain form of coding which helps Google recognise and categorise your page content), optimising the meta data on all posts/pages/products and about a dozen or so other items.
SEO agencies will always tell you there’s a million and one things wrong with your website, no matter what your website is really like. They usually aren’t particularly technically savvy either, and approach technical optimisation as a generic list of boxes to check and settings to set, regardless of whether those settings are the best possible settings for the individual site, or whether they have any positive impact on performance whatsoever. We’ve seen many clients engage SEO agencies who come in and decimate carefully considered optimisations with their generic templates, ultimately doubling the website’s load time – all while telling the client that all of the “problems” have now been fixed.
As a company who has a large focus on development, we are hugely passionate about site performance and have extensive experience at the highest technical levels of website hosting and development. SEO agencies simply do not have this focus. They rarely do anything more than implement a generic set of configurations that were recommended whenever they first entered the industry. None of these optimisations are designed to take an individual site’s elements or software into consideration.
Any Silvercode-built website already has significantly more advanced technical optimisations that any typical SEO agency would perform, and many more that they likely wouldn’t even know they should be doing.
This is where things can actually make a huge difference, but the truth is, you don’t need an SEO agency to achieve it. You just need great content writers who know how to optimise the content they write for your desired audience. There are 2 main things to cover:
- Optimising the main/static pages of your website for your top keyword/phrase targets.
- Publishing regular, ongoing blogs on a range of topics to support your main keywords/phrases. This can include answering common questions, providing guides/tutorials or anything else that people in the market for your products or services may search for.
Going straight to a content writing agency (as in, an agency that performs the content writing in-house) will get you the same result as an SEO agency would achieve, without paying the 70% markup they would add on to the cost.
Or, for those willing to put in the time and effort, you can simply write your own optimised content with the help of a tool that is designed to guide you. One such tool is Surfer SEO. This well-regarded tool helps writers to produce content that is easy to read, answers commonly searched-for questions and finds niche, low-competition topics, as well as many more simple optimisation factors such as hitting optimal word counts, title and sentence lengths, keyword density and so on. The vast majority of SEO agencies are doing nothing more than using a tool like this, so if you are happy to roll up your sleeves, there’s nothing stopping you from achieving a good result by yourself.
Google likes businesses that pay for ads on their advertising platform, Google AdWords. It’s long been rumoured that having an active AdWords account helps over time to build trust with Google and improve your website’s organic rankings. It also helps from the perspective that it increases your traffic, which is always good for SEO. Once again, you won’t get much out of having an SEO agency managing your Google AdWords for you. They rarely do anything more than copy and paste monthly reports and say that everything is going great. You can have this without paying them a monthly fee for it.
The main thing we’d recommend doing for this part of your SEO strategy is paying for a once-off Google AdWords account build. That is where an AdWords expert will write up a few hundred advert variations for you and configure your account and campaigns. Then every quarter or so, you can pay for a once-off tune-up where they review how your ads are going. They’ll then remove any ads that aren’t doing well, and allocate more budget to the ads that are doing well.
You’ll have to decide what you want to spend on a monthly basis on your ad clicks. Clicks can be quite expensive these days depending on your industry, but if you’re not burning money on an SEO agency who will probably do very little for you, you can at least use that budget on actual ad clicks instead.
In summary of the above:
There are a few other smaller parts to SEO that we haven’t listed, such as optimising your Google My Business listing. These extra items may not have a huge impact on your SEO individually, but when they are all done, it can really start to add up.
It’s also important to learn how to monitor and analyse the effects of your SEO efforts. For these items, experienced developers and marketing agencies can help, or you can research them in your own time.
How to get reliable and cost-effective help with your SEO
It is still possible to get trustworthy and high quality assistance. Best of all, you can get it without spending anywhere near the amount of money an SEO agency would charge.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and want some help, or have already been burned by an SEO agency, Silvercode offers a range of white-hat, evidence-based and completely transparent SEO work that is broken up into specific services. This ensures that you can request help with only the specific parts of SEO that you truly need at a fraction of the cost of a monthly “SEO mystery bundle” from a typical SEO agency.
What's the next step?
If you need assistance to research and analyse your present search engine ranks, and figure out what steps you need to take to improve, we’re here to help.