A Cautionary Tale: Why You Shouldn’t Let An Agency Define Your SEO Success Metrics

Picture this. You’re a SaaS brand that’s just signed on with a digital marketing agency based on a successful sales meeting and initial handover. They’re pitched some hefty traffic projections, content and a high volume of links for a reasonable budget and you can’t wait for them to get started.

The end of month one rolls around and you get that first report. Fantastic, look at all the green on those spreadsheets! They’ve written a few pages of content, built a lot of backlinks and your traffic is already improving. Month 2 looks much the same. A bit less content now but still, lots of backlinks and another great boost in traffic. You can’t believe you almost paid quadruple for another agency when this team is crushing it.

You’re happy with your decision, the investors are pleased with the influence you’re having with this initiative and you continue on.

Cut to 4 months in and you’ve gone from just 500 organic visitors per month to over 10,000. Thousands of backlinks and a few new pages on your website. Who knew marketing could be so simple. . .

Hmm. Maybe not so fast. Let’s take a look at what you should be doing in this scenario, then we’ll get to the rest of that story.

Note: This is a real series of events that happened to a brand we recently worked with. For obvious reasons, specifics will be kept anonymous and metrics vague.

Define your SEO success metrics on day zero

There’s a lot happening at the beginning of any marketing campaign. A lot of analysis, moving parts, acronyms and spreadsheets. Oh, so many spreadsheets.

Before you get bogged down in any of that, get clear on what you’re trying to achieve with this campaign. The most common examples:

  • Brand awareness
  • Website traffic
  • Increased sign-ups
  • eCommerce sales (if so, define your priority products)
  • Lifetime Value (LTV)
  • World domination

Whatever it is you care about most—and it can be a combination of several—you need to define and communicate these before anything else begins. For example, if you’re a SaaS, boosting your monthly subs is probably the most important thing you can achieve long term.

Communicate and collaborate on this with your agency

For your marketing agency to be as effective as possible, it’s important that everyone’s on the same page and understands these priorities. Naturally, to achieve your version of ‘success’, they need to know what that looks like. While they can probably make a fair assumption, clarity leaves nobody in the dark.

Whatever this key metric(s) is, stick to it. Other precursor metrics can and often should be added but outside brands should not be given the ability to move the goalposts.

For example, if increasing product subscriptions is your primary SEO success metric, that key indicator stays, no matter what. In most cases, increasing subs means improving a few precursors first. In order:

  • Website quality
  • Search engine rankings
  • Website traffic
  • Website conversions
  • Subscriptions

There are exceptions to every rule but if you’re a subscription based SaaS, this is probably what the flow of a successful campaign will look like. Measuring each of these elements from the start is also helpful but never lose sight of what you’re really trying to achieve.

“We’ve doubled your organic traffic, we’re on the right track to more subscriptions” is a great start. “We’ve doubled traffic, what a successful campaign” is smoke and mirrors that I’m helping you see straight through.

Make sure your success metric(s) is part of every meeting and report

Be relentless on this factor to keep it at the top of everyone’s minds. All the traffic in the world doesn’t make your brand money if it’s not converting. If you’re seeking an ROI through improved subs, this should be at the forefront of all decision making and reports, not just something that’s glossed over by month 2.

You actively want them to be thinking “I better prepare the conversion metrics for this meeting, I know he/she will always ask about them”. You’re not being annoying, you’re being refreshingly clear and persistent.

If you ever feel sheepish about being so persistent, just remember one thing. Your investors won’t feel sheepish in questioning your lack of ROI.

Back to story time. When the wheels fall off, it happens fast and always too late.

So, you’re 4 months into an SEO campaign and traffic has improved 20x. That’s huge!

Feeling confident, you head into the next big internal meeting, excited to show off that phenomenal growth. . . until someone asks why you have 9,500 more monthly visitors but 0 gain in monthly subs. Your conversion rate, they point out, has plummeted from 2% to just 0.1%.

Oh no. From on top of the world to looking for a hole to crawl into, all with that one realization. How could this happen when everything looked so great!?

What happened and the mistakes that allowed it

When unsavory agencies are allowed to define your success, they’re given the ability to manipulate reports to look outstanding every month. In this case, that’s exactly what was happening.

Right from the sales meeting, they put all the focus and expectations around two primary things: Increases in backlinks and organic traffic. While neither of those are inherently incorrect (long term, you will need both to improve revenue), they should never be the only metrics you focus on.

Unfortunately, these are two of the easiest metrics to manipulate. They set up a network of either fake sites or brands they pay to list your website so they can show a high volume of (utterly worthless) new links every month.

As for faking traffic, there are countless paid services out there that will send organic clicks to your website. They’re not real users that will ever actually buy anything, they’re just there to show monthly improvement on those reports. Now you have fake backlinks and fake traffic. Tick and tick. Great success.

The insidious aftereffects of this type of scam

As is often the case with this type of scam, the client wasn’t even aware they’d been scammed. They severed the business relationship due to the lack of ROI but had no way of knowing what had actually happened to them.

To them, 10,000 visitors per month was easy to achieve. It can be done in just 4 months, they saw it happen! Their new normal was 10,000 monthly visitors in just a matter of months or the campaign is a failure. Learning from their previous mistakes, they also wanted to put a focus on conversions from the start since that was the problem last time.

In their niche, 5,000 monthly visitors would be an extreme success and focussing on conversions before building real traffic is putting the horse before the cart. Through no fault of their own, they had now been set up for failure, insisting on the impossible and knowing no better.

How to know if you’re getting scammed like this

In most cases, you can’t know for sure. That’s exactly how they get away with it. Remember, this client genuinely had no idea they’d been scammed until I did a deeeep dive into their Analytics and Ahrefs to make sense of the numbers I was seeing. Until then, even I couldn’t have known for sure.

The canary on this one was the location that a lot of their traffic started coming from (let’s call it Antarctica, to keep it anonymous). They don’t offer services in Antarctica so it struck me as weird that the bulk of their traffic started coming from there, then faded when they ended the contract. I cross-referenced that against the zero Google rankings they had in Antarctica  and we had our answer.

If you don’t rank for any search terms in a given country, there’s no way to get organic traffic from there. Unless, of course, it’s fake traffic.

As for detecting fake backlinks, you can see your link profile through tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush. You can also see some of the links through Google Search Console. Take a look at some of the sites and see if they look legitimate.

Another clear sign is if you suddenly start losing a lot of links immediately after ending the contract. This is an indication that they had linked to your site from a network that they control and you’ve now been removed. Real backlinks don’t just start magically disappearing at the end of a contract.

What you can learn from this unfortunate series of events

This situation has already played out and we all hate to see it. At the very least, it acts as a cautionary tale of just how easy it is to get ripped off and not even know it.

The positive is that avoiding it is just a matter of defining your own version of success, then having everyone work toward that. So long as you maintain that same target the whole way through and never let a new definition of ‘success’ creep in, you’re safe.

My only caution there is to stay realistic and listen to what they have to say about timeframes. “My biggest focus is on improving those subscriber numbers” is a healthy, reasonable and attainable goal that everyone can work toward. “I want to 10x my subscriber count in 5 months” is generally unattainable and unreasonable, unless you’re aggressive, high-budget campaigns across multiple platforms.