Search Engine Marketing: Don’t Hire One, Get a Coach

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When you look at a search engine marketing agency it can be tempting to think they are all same. The vast majority want a one-year commitment. They moderate expectations and tell you that you need to wait six to nine months to see an ROI. And they overwhelm with lists of busy work that aren’t tied to ROI and results. 


Put simply, I would suggest you get an SEO coach instead of an SEO agency. This way you can keep skills in house and improve your team, instead of handing the keys off to an agency. In this article, I’ll give you some advice on what to look for in an agency if you choose to go down that route.  

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What A Search Engine Marketing Agency Does

Let’s start with what an agency does for you. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a marketing approach that increases traffic and visibility from search engines. The target is to appear higher on search engine results pages (SERPs). This is usually done through the use of paid ads and optimization of content.

A full-service search engine marketing agency will not only run should manage a healthy marketing mix of paid ads and content marketing. To learn more about this mix, you can read my article PPC vs Content Marketing: What’s The Best Strategy. 

The best agencies will ensure your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is doing the most for your inbound strategy, too. Put simply, it shouldn’t be PPC or Inbound with two different teams, it should be PPC and inbound working together. When researching potential agencies, here are some skills you should look for. 

What the Best Search Engine Coaches Do

Technical SEO

Search engine crawlers analyze your web pages, and then rank them in an index. These search engines are constantly updating those crawlers so you need to pay attention. 

 Technical SEO refers to website and server optimizations that help these bots to read your site. The goal is to improve your organic rankings based on performance. Your potential SEM coach should help your team to examine: backlinks/link building, H1 tags, meta descriptions, load speeds, and more. 


Ad Analytics

PPC campaigns provide a wealth of information for an agency to analyze and use in future campaigns. Experimenting with small, cheap campaigns can help to determine what works for your audience. These messages can then be used to boost inbound and outbound efforts. 


Social Media Marketing 

Key platforms include LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and more. Social media can help distribute your content but some, like LinkedIn, actually penalize posts that link away from their platform. It’s best to think of social media as a place to build a community. Not a great place to drive traffic to your website. 


Content Marketing Strategy

Content marketing consists of using high-value, optimized content to pull readers to your blog. It’s not about pushing a sales pitch, it’s about showing your value through expertise (not just saying “buy my tool”).

Over time, this positions your brand as a thought leader and builds trust and credibility with potential leads. Besides sourcing good content, or content writers, there is no extra cost specifically associated with this approach. Content marketing relies on using organic traffic to grow your leads. 

SEM vs. SEO: A Jargon Buster

It’s worth noting that SEO is also used at times as a blanket term to cover both SEO and SEM.  Any professional marketing agency will be using some SEO techniques to ensure that your website looks good and runs properly. There are definite overlaps between the terms. However, there are also key differences, which we’ve laid out below:

search engine marketing agency

SEO Company: What B2B Should Look For

So which is better? To us, that’s the same as asking whether it’s better to build your brand to be a well-respected name in your industry, or to fill your sales pipeline.  Obviously, the answer is both. It depends entirely on what your company needs at that moment in time. 

Many agencies segregate paid ads from SEO and SEM with different teams managing each offer. That isn’t the best approach. Ideally, your paid and inbound marketing should complement one another

"Many agencies segregate paid ads from SEO and SEM with different teams managing each offer. That isn't the best approach. Ideally, your paid and inbound marketing should complement one another."

Paid Ads ROI Is Down

However, while ads are still an important strategy for any search engine marketing agency, in the current market, ads are seeing a reduced ROAS. If you’d like to learn more about PPC and content marketing, I wrote an article on PPC vs Content earlier in the year


At a high level, it’s so important to bolster your marketing with a variety of approaches to test and learn what resonates with your audience. 


Creating value-rich content that utilizes great SEO can supercharge your brand awareness, and continue to draw in new leads long after it’s paid for. But it takes time – at least six to nine months. 


Most successful search engine marketing agencies use SEM as a tool to augment SEO and fill the brand awareness gap while you wait on SEO to grow.


The Best SEO Agencies Use a Mix of Paid & Content

SEO Google Algorithm Update

This is why I’d advise you to steer clear of any marketing agency that shows a deep bias against any one marketing method. Your agency of choice should be realistic with you about how long SEO takes and the limits of PPC. If they’re not, they may be trying to undervalue an area they don’t feel very confident in, or simply lack understanding of the industry.  Both are genuine red flags.

Six Red Flags for a SEO Marketing Agency

1. They Offer Guaranteed SEO Ranking

Be very wary of agencies that make promises like. ‘guaranteed number one ranking on your top keywords!’  They cannot promise this as agencies do not control the algorithms driving SERPs. If they are overpromising this flagrantly, they are likely using Black Hat SEO techniques to achieve their results. Black Hat SEO refers to a range of unethical practices that go against search engine guidelines to achieve their goals. This may work in the short term, but very quickly causes problems for your company’s reputation (and ranking).

SEO guide

2. They Have No Flexibility On Their Packages

Similarly, another sign of Black Hat SEO practices in play is agencies that offer little transparency about their SEM and SEO strategies. Instead, they sell generic ‘bundles’ of work. An agency should be willing to work with you to personalize its offerings according to what your business needs.

3. They Offer Cheap Pricing

Good, optimized content and strategic PPC advertising take time to get right. Ultimately, time means money.  Suspiciously affordable pricing almost always means bad news. At best, you’ll be looking at only the most superficial analytics and mediocre, under-researched content. 


At worst, this could indicate tactics like keyword stuffing and bot traffic to create the appearance of success with none of the benefits.

4. They Rely On Gimmicks In Their Own Marketing

Every agency is going to have a personal philosophy, strategy, and USP.  But become wary if they start claiming to have found a brand-new method that throws out the rulebook. Ultimately search engine marketing is a science, not an art.  While not every hypothesis pays off, some key strategies will always remain best practices.

5. They Don’t Prioritize Research

Competitor analysis, keyword research, and understanding your buyer personas all underpin successful SEM marketing. For a search engine marketing agency to not make them the first step in any content strategy – and throughout their campaigns – is a huge red flag.

6. They Aren’t Entirely Transparent With You

Ensure that your marketing agency isn’t just telling you what you want to hear in order to sign on the dotted line. While outsourcing to experts is often a smart move, maintain a level of supervision. You should have access to the analytics for your paid campaigns, and be able to trust your agency to tell you the good, bad, and ugly of how things are going.

Six Green Flags for the Best SEO Firms

1. They Use the Right Tools

As well as the SEO knowledge we discussed earlier, look for agencies with Hubspot, SEMrush, and Google Analytics certifications. You want proof they’ve taken the time to learn about their field.

2. They Have Proof Of Their Success

Look for customer testimonials, positive reviews on social media, and a portfolio of concrete success stories with relevant clientele. It’s worth seeing what kind of businesses your agency has worked with before, to see if there’s any alignment.

3. They Communicate Well

A good agency will take time to understand your buyer persona. They will run a competitive analysis, and more. During an initial meeting, you want a spark of engagement with your brand and a keenness to personalize their strategy. Pay attention as well to their response times.  Look for swift, poised emails that are sent within business hours.

inbound marketing company

4. They Invest In Their Employees

Some agencies manage to offer lower prices via hiring and cycling through interns and short-term employees. Others outsource to freelancers in countries with lower pay. Not only can this result in low or wildly inconsistent quality to the service you receive, but it also places a ceiling on their team improvement.


A good agency will be investing in its team to upskill them year on year. This means your partnership with the agency can grow alongside your business.

5. They Take Their Own Advice

The agency you choose should demonstrate a great SEM strategy and SEO for their own company as well. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to become railroaded by dazzling descriptions of what an agency can offer you. Understand the basics of SEO techniques so you know what to look for, and choose an agency that practices what they preach.

6. They Know Your Industry

what is inbound marketing

You need an agency that understands the ins and outs of your industry and can advise accordingly. This is especially important if you are in B2B SaaS, as the best strategies vary significantly from those used in B2C marketing. Industry familiarity is key. 



If you find a search engine marketing agency that understands your industry, is skilled in a combination of marketing tools, is willing to experiment, and is honest with you about timeframes – then you’re on the right track.

Alternative Strategies to Look At

While finding the right SEM agency is important, it’s also worth noting that there are some limitations to an SEO strategy. Your agency should understand these limitations, and the challenges in the current market. 

Previously, SEM agencies relied on a combination of SEO and PPC. The reason for this is that SEO takes time to perform. You need good quality and consistent content to start ranking on search engines, and this can take months. Not every business can wait months to find out if their marketing is working. 

Typically, agencies would employ PPC here. However, the current ads market is a challenging one. Due to the reducing amount of data available, ads are becoming less and less targeted. Tech updates have removed the ability to track users across platforms, meaning that ads can only be as targeted as the information available on one platform. With reducing ROAS, what other strategies are available? 

SEO Alternatives: Affiliate and Partner Marketing

Affiliate marketing is the launch platform for modern B2B marketing. The approach relies on using influencers or affiliates and the relationships they have built with their audiences to widen your reach. Similar to PPC, affiliate marketing can put your content in front of your audience quickly. This allows you to test audiences, messages, and markets. However, as the audiences are targeted, the strategy provides a better opportunity to reach your designated buyers. When looking into search engine marketing agencies, consider a partner that can implement an affiliate marketing program alongside your SEO and inbound strategies. 

Conclusion: Find an Honest SEO Partner who Knows B2B SaaS

Hopefully, this gives you an idea of what to look for in a search engine marketing agency. There’s no doubt that search engine marketing can grow your leads and increase your traffic. However, when it’s combined with great SEO, you can also expect increased brand awareness, improved reputation, more organic searches, and over time, establish your company as a thought leader. 

At Nituno, my past experiences founding a B2B start-up put us in exactly this position. When I was CMO, we needed to find an agency that catered to the unique, disruptive B2B market. 

That very challenge led us to found Nituno, a full-service search engine marketing agency here to disrupt the B2B marketing space. If you are looking for an agency that can scale its services to fit your needs and drive your growth via a variety of techniques, get in touch today.

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