With search, many business owners are stepping into unfamiliar territory. This can make shopping around for an SEO agency a little unnerving. After all, your business is your baby and you (hopefully) wouldn’t leave your baby with just anyone.
The discovery call you have with a prospective agency is the perfect opportunity to figure out if your business will be in safe hands. It’s important to be prepared, both for the sake of not wasting either party’s time and so you can spot any potential warning signs of a sub-par provider
What is a discovery session?
Typically, a discovery session is the first official meeting between a provider and a client after contact has been initiated elsewhere, such as through the agency’s website, via email or on social networks. Its purpose is for each party to learn more about the other’s business and explore the possibility of working together.
In other words, it’s just what it says on the tin: a chance to discover new opportunities through collaboration.
Discovery sessions are first and foremost sales calls. This means two things:
- Your potential agency will be attempting to qualify or disqualify you as a lead. Reputable SEO companies are discerning about who they work with and won’t want to take on ill-suited clients.
- They will be on their best behaviour, especially if they like you. SEO agencies are protective of their reputation - it’s one of their strongest assets in attracting clients. Whether or not the session results in an agreement to work together, a good agency will be helpful, open and educational about SEO.
The discovery session also isn’t a free assessment of your current SEO. Your prospective agency might offer some basic thoughts on your site’s on-page elements, but it's impossible to give a complete picture without an SEO audit.
What to expect from an SEO discovery call
The person leading the discovery call will be someone from the agency’s leadership team, as they are the ones doing the ‘discovering’ in question: they are here to learn more about your business and the potential project you’ll be undertaking together. Plus, they have a lot more experience leading these discovery sessions.
That doesn’t mean that the client (you) is a passive participant or that you can’t use this opportunity to be a bit discerning and figure out whether this agency is worth trusting. You can and you should, and any good agency will allow some time during the call to ask them questions. We’ll get on to how you can approach this a bit later on.
What does an SEO discovery call agenda contain?
Productive conversations need agendas for what you’re going to be talking about. Again, this is the agency’s responsibility. Ideally, the call agenda will be sent to you ahead of time, giving you enough time to prepare and make any additions for things you want to discuss, but most follow this kind of format:
GET ACQUAINTED: Introductions are mostly a formality, but help set the stage for the conversation. The agency will usually start by giving you a quick overview of their business and their specialisms, before giving you an opportunity to do the same. This shouldn’t take too long, as it’s a bit of a red flag when an agency is attempting to oversell themselves before they’ve determined whether you’re a good fit for them and they should already be pretty familiar with you, having done their research beforehand.
ESTABLISH GOALS: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Your objectives are the first major element that goes into building an eventual strategy for your website. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you know about SEO; it’s more about painting a picture of your desired end result - we’ll handle the rest.
ESTABLISH PAIN POINTS: Enter major element number two. Having a vision is swell, but what is or has been preventing you from getting there? This is a great time to discuss any negative experiences you’ve had with SEO or with previous agencies, Google penalties you’ve suffered and any knowledge gaps in your team.
TIMELINE AND BUDGET: Time to talk numbers. The best SEO agencies don’t use package pricing and definitely don’t guarantee quick results, so this part of the discovery session is often as much about managing expectations as it is about ironing out the financial details. This can make some clients nervous, but remember to always trust the two E’s: expertise and evidence.
COMMUNICATIONS AND AUTHORITY: Getting sign-off for individual pieces of work is one of the biggest hurdles agencies face during project implementation. Your agency will therefore be looking to establish the main point or points of contact within your business and either prepare for or potentially disqualify clients with unnecessarily complex approval processes.
CLIENT QUESTIONS: This is it, you're up! Your prospective agency should always open up the floor and give you a chance to quiz them a little and bring up anything that wasn’t covered in your main discussion. It’s also a great opportunity to throw in a few curveball questions to catch out a shady provider.
NEXT STEPS: “So… shall we do this again sometime?” Agencies usually close out the discovery session by setting up a potential roadmap for moving forward, if they are happy to work with you. However, you’re not under any pressure to jump into a big decision here. It’s super common for businesses to speak to a few agencies and deliberate a little before choosing. But, if it’s all systems go, the session might end with a verbal agreement to draw up a contract, put together a proposal or get the site audited.
How to prepare
It may seem silly to prepare for something as seemingly casual as a discovery call, but it’s in your best interest as a potential client. Not only does it enable a productive conversation where the agency is able to give feedback on your goals, pain points and expectations, but it also puts you in a position of power when it comes to weeding out bad actors.
You don’t need to go nuts with this, but before your session, it’s a good idea to:
- Research the agency. You’ll have probably learned quite a bit about them before making an inquiry, but it doesn’t hurt to dig a bit deeper. Case studies and blogs tell you a lot about the agency’s level of expertise, while social networks and any interviews or thought leadership they’ve done can give you an idea of their personality, reputation and company culture.
- Learn about SEO. A lot of companies just want to rank higher or want someone to ‘SEO’ their website, without having a firm grasp on what that means. You don’t need to be an expert by any means - that’s why you’re hiring an agency, after all - but there are some excellent and highly accessible online resources that can give you an introduction.
- Think about your goals and pain points. This will form a major part of the discovery session. Look at your website, pull up any relevant information such as rankings and traffic, take stock of any past experiences with digital marketing and try to imagine what the best possible outcome of working with an SEO agency would look like.
- Know what you will be asked. Most SEO agencies will ask a variation on a similar set of questions during a discovery call. This can make for a handy checklist to work through as you’re gearing up for your session. We’ve got a list of questions SEO agencies ask their prospects below!
- Have some questions at the ready. Unfortunately, lots of companies still get caught out by agencies who either don’t know what they’re doing or are actively deceiving clients (or both!). Asking incisive questions and knowing what the right answer should be will tell you a lot about a company’s ethics, approach and level of expertise.
What questions will an SEO agency ask prospective clients?
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS
- Could you describe your target customer?
- Do you have a list of publications and websites in your sector?
- Which publications or websites would your target customer read?
- Do you have any branding documents and guidelines we can see?
- Do you have a preferred tone of voice?
- Which CMS is your website built on (WordPress, Wix, Shopify, custom CMS)?
- Do you have the technical resources to implement changes?
- What previous experience have you had with SEO? Are there any relevant documents we can see?
- Has your website ever received a Google Penalty?
OBJECTIVES AND PAIN POINTS
- What are your digital marketing priorities?
- What are your SEO goals?
- What KPIs do you have in mind?
- Which countries and regions are you targeting?
- What are your most important keywords and topics?
- Are there any plans for a site redesign?
QUESTIONS RELATING TO PROJECT IMPLEMENTATION
- What is the approval process? How many people will be involved?
- What is your budget for SEO?
- Could we have access to: your CMS, Google Search Console and Google Analytics?
- What is your existing in-house marketing resource and capacity?
- Do you have an in-house developer?
- Are you working with a traditional PR agency?
What questions should you ask an agency on a discovery call?
Ever been asked: “Do you have any questions?” and your mind just goes blank? Then, you walk away from the call and think of ten different things you wish you’d asked.
The client questions section of an SEO discovery call is pretty crucial, as it gives you the chance to catch an agency off guard and test their trustworthiness a little. The most unethical agency out there can make themselves look good with enough preparation, but when they’re put on the spot, the truth comes out.
Your SEO provider will be looking after a part of your business that is growing in importance every year. It’s worth getting to know as much as possible about them so you can avoid becoming one of the 65% of companies who are cycling through SEO providers, at great cost to their bottom line.
To make sure you’ve got something to say when it’s your time to shine, we’ve put together a list of 25 questions to ask your SEO agency during a discovery call.
The SEO Discovery Call Flag System
Finally, let’s be clear about what you’re looking for. It’s all well and good knowing what to expect, but how do you spot an agency worth your time and money? Answer: you look for the red flags, and notice the green ones.
? They haven’t researched your business or industry. It’s okay if they miss the mark, but if they are asking basic questions that are answered on your site… amateur operation alert.
? They oversell themselves. Everyone talks up their agency a little, but they shouldn’t need to rattle on. Expertise and results speak for themselves.
? They don’t ask enough questions. This means one of two things: they’re either not interested in your business or they’re unprepared. Both are big no-nos.
? They make grandiose guarantees. Think of SEO as a battle plan for SERPs: we formulate an intelligent plan of attack and make sure everyone understands their orders, but both the battlefield and our opponent’s strategy are unpredictable. Nothing is 100% certain, so if they’re pretending it is, they’re lying to you.
? They talk in numbers rather than strategy. Search intent > keyword volume. Backlink quality > number of backlinks. Google is designed to meet the needs of human beings, so don’t work with someone who thinks like a machine.
? They use jargon without explaining themselves. This is a sure sign of someone who is intentionally trying to confuse you to make themselves look smart. If you don’t understand the strategy, how can you trust that it’s working?
? They set realistic expectations with a clear vision for fulfilling them. Realism may not be the grooviest concept in the book, but it’s the one that’s going to stress you out the least and satisfy you the most.
? They are educational in their approach to discussing SEO with you. To paraphrase Albert Einstein a little, if they can’t explain search engine algorithms to a novice, they don’t understand them.
? They can evidence the long-term efficacy of their strategies with previous client work. Trust. The. Results. Every suggestion that comes out of their mouth should be backed up either by their own projects or by third-party evidence.
? They are friendly and professional. No one wants to work with an ar– sorry, we mean a pri– uh… we’re looking for an appropriate word. A mean person?
? They prioritise understanding your business and target users. Again, it’s not about them. It’s about you. A great SEO strategy is built around your unique goals, proposition and customer needs.
? They are well-prepared and organised for the call. This is a sure sign of someone who’s done this a lot and is confident in their operations.
So, before your next SEO company (or digital PR company) call, make sure you note down some key questions to ask and things to consider. You will end up hiring a much better provider if you do.