How to Onboard Your Selected Search Agency – Checklist by Bruce Clay

Whether for the first time or the tenth, reducing the ramp up period when onboarding a new SEO services agency is going to save you time and money. Plus, an effective onboard process lays the path to a productive partnership.

There are two parts to effectively onboarding a selected new agency:

  1. Educating your agency about your business, and
  2. Understanding their process, workflow and digital strategy for your business.

Here you’ll find a checklist with expanded descriptions for both steps.

Search Agency Onboarding Checklist

1. Educating Your New Agency

At my agency, we use a new-client questionnaire to build a brand brief for each of our clients. Whether you or your agency compiles the brief, the end product should provide clear answers on your audience, marketplace, competitors, marketing strategy and history, unique differentiators, and success metrics.

To work well together, you and the agency need to get to know one another. You’ll want to share how you work and learn everything you can about your new agency’s processes. Even before your first meeting, put together a brand brief about your business to give to your agency.

Here’s your checklist for educating your new agency about your business:

✓ Company overview
✓ Value proposition
✓ Competition and positioning
✓ Goals and KPIs for digital marketing
✓ Analytics setup and KPI tracking
✓ Website hosting and CMS
✓ History of marketing campaign service providers
✓ Audience
✓ Brand voice and messaging
✓ Writing style and tone
✓ Types of content
✓ Any other context

Company overview: Along the way from interviewing the prospective agency to inking the deal, you’ve given the 30-second elevator pitch of your business to people at your new agency, for example, their sales team. This brief introduction is a great way to assure communication of your company’s background to your new agency’s operations team.

Value proposition: What sets you apart from anyone else in your industry selling a similar product or service? What values do your customers hold when they align themselves with your business?

Competition and positioning: Who are your main competitors that court the same audience as you do? How do you position yourself as distinct within your industry?

Goals and KPIs for your digital marketing: What concrete and defined goals would you like accomplished through your SEO and digital marketing activities? What will you use to measure project success?

Analytics setup and KPI tracking: What analytics software is in place to track the accomplishment of your goals and KPIs? What formal conversions and microconversions are being tracked in your analytics setup?

Website hosting and CMS: How and where are your website hosted and content managed? Will your SEO agency have access to the system?

History of marketing campaign service providers: Who have you worked with before — agencies and vendors — for content, SEO, SEM, web development, design and other digital marketing work? Can you summarize the projects and what worked and didn’t work about them? Be sure to explain if you’ve ever suffered a traffic loss.

Audience: Describe everything you know about your customers — demographics, what they value, what they need and want. Of course there could be a few different types of customers to talk about.

Brand and messaging: What exercises have you performed to clearly state what your brand stands for, and what voice and messaging do you use to convey it in graphics and text?

Writing style and tone: Speak to humor, authority, stories, complexity of language — what guidelines can you convey to your SEO agency that communicate the tone of the brand? Inform them of any words that are taboo.

Types of content: What do you want your agency to know about the content you’ve created in the past? What do you want them to understand about competitors’ content you’d like to either emulate or avoid?

Any other context: If there’s anything else of note to convey to your agency, this is the place to include it.

2. Understanding Process, Workflow, and Strategy

Step 2 of onboarding a new agency is finding out their process and workflow in order to create an expectation for receiving deliverables and responses for requests. You’ll need to get a concrete outline of the search strategy they will be using for your site.

Soon after selection of your agency, you want to become familiar with the inner workings and processes of the analysts and others assigned to your production team. Expand your knowledge of the selected agency beyond the salespeople you’ve been speaking to up till now.

Here’s your checklist for understanding the agency’s process, workflow and strategy that will be driving your search campaigns.

✓ What is the timeline of deliverables?
✓ How often is the project plan updated?
✓ How often will they be in communication?
✓ What processes do they have for editing your website?
✓ What schedules and forms do they have for reviewing new content and design changes?
✓ How do their capabilities for implementing recommendations align with your needs?
✓ What commitment to service do they make?
✓ Is your SEO a senior or a junior analyst?

What is the timeline of deliverables? When can you expect to see the project plan, have scheduled calls, and receive audits and reports? Do they run in sprints? You want to understand their tactical scheduling.

How often is the project plan updated? As a living and evolving document, at what interval will the project plan be updated? This is strategic in nature and will be key to accomplishing your project goals and KPIs.

How often will they be in communication? What is the communication cadence of your agency team members? How often can you expect to hear from them? How quickly can you expect to get responses from them when needed? Is there a dedicated point of contact for your project?

What processes do they have for editing your website? Do they work through your staff to avoid errors? By a similar turn, what do their processes look like for evaluating links, server performance and other SEO levers?

What schedules and forms do they have for reviewing new content and design changes? In what format can you expect to receive new content or site edits? How are recommended changes tracked as the document passes hands?

How do their capabilities for implementing recommendations align with your needs? Who and what is available to provide labor and resources regarding education, mentoring, development, content and so on?

What commitment to service do they make? What assurances do they give about your dedicated staff and about meeting your KPIs?

Is your SEO a senior or a junior analyst? How many years of experience do members of your team have? As a point of context, Malcolm Gladwell famously said it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert.

Keys to a Good Partnership

It’s been said before, but the key to a lasting relationship is communication. Ensure you’re communicating with your partner and they with you, and come prepared to do the work to see the gains that you want.

Other resources:

Can we help you and your team’s success? For results-driven search marketing, let’s talk!

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay Inc., a global digital marketing firm providing search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media marketing, SEO-friendly web architecture, and SEO tools and education. Connect with him on LinkedIn or through the website.

See Bruce's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (42)
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42 Replies to “How to Onboard Your Selected Search Agency – Checklist by Bruce Clay”

Nice guide, we start now with SEO Agency and this article help us! Thank :)

I would definitely share this checklist to my colleague who is interested in SEO. I hope he will use these points when he will launch his agency. Thank you!

Thank you for this article. Now I will work on the same strategy for my clients.

it sure matters the most if both parties culturally fit! This is a good checklist for that.

A great guide. Thank you very much :)

It definitely matters the most if both parties culturally fit! This is a good checklist for that.
personally, I strongly advise anyone to review particulars of a clients business practice before even thinking about a contract.

Although this is for onboarding an agency, it was very useful for me (agency) to see how the process would go from a clients point of view. Thank you, for this checklist. Found a couple of things that I haven’t thought about and will definitely implement in my own checklist for my clients.

I hired couple of marketing agencies for promoting my cleaning business and most of the time I made a wrong decision. I believe this checklist will help me this time in hiring a right marketing agency. Thank you for sharing! It’s very helpful and informative.

Paula Allen

Deep Shah: It can be difficult to find a marketing consultant who will be a good fit, but you can definitely try to weed out those who aren’t competent to begin with.

Another article on our blog explores how to make the relationship work once you have hired someone, so you can get the best return. You might look at this, too:

Extraordinary useful post. A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing the agenda too. In some cases, it is exceptionally hard to discover SEO office when you are in charge of SEO in 17 nations. You need to pick one worldwide organization or locally per nation.

Paula Allen

Brenda – You’re welcome! Sounds like you have a wide market area. At BCI, we became an international agency by having offices in many countries (right now, the list is Dubai, India, Europe, Brazil and Japan), so it sounds like you are following a similar path.

Nice checklist before hiring any SEO agency. All these points should always be take care. Also need to keep an eye on weekly report to check the status of work.Thanks for sharing!

Hello Dear Sir, this blog post is very useful information for the new bloggers, your blog post went to get a lot of new education after I read it,
Please continue to post such an informative blog. Therefore, people like us will be motivated in real life.
I’m new in this area and I’m building my website, I’m working hard on this
Your blogs are very useful here and especially to this blog, which provide this point information, I have received lots of help to read this blog post, please continue to share this kind of information.
Thank you.

Paula Allen

Hi Nazrul – You’re welcome! Thanks for reading and letting us know how helpful our blog is to you. Good luck with your new website!

Thanks for informative Article and your description is very easy to understand.

Great informative post. Thanks for sharing the checklist also. Sometimes it is very difficult to find SEO agency when you are responsible for SEO in 17 countries. You have to choose one global agency or locally per country. I have some experiences that those two option have advantages and disadvantages. In case of global agencies, you do not have too much attention; they have always bigger and most important clients, from the other hand small agencies have different level of knowledge and are very difficult to manage. I think that good solution is internal team and limited cooperation with good quality specialist locally. What do you think?

Paula Allen

Marcin: We agree. An in-house SEO knows your site, audience and goals best, while a good SEO agency can help guide your team’s efforts for long-term growth. It’s our ideal setup.

Excellent check list points. I really appreciate them, and I will definitely take them on board hiring my next SEO agency. However, I’ve got a feeling you can see these points from the perspective of an agency.
How to secure yourself by not choosing complete losers wanting your money!!!
I always make a quick check list:
– do they have a physical office with a real registered address
– what’s their experience and expertise, [read About page]
– what are current and previous customers [find out their portfolio, they must have something to show up.]
– social media [noboy can afford to neglect at least every week fresh engagement]
– their branding [here is no room for any omissions]

very interesting article, thanks for share.

I agree with the article! I like how it was explained! If your going to onboard seo agency. Why not ask them for samples or proof of their work? I would make them sign a contract stating they must follow the companies rules. I would check the work before hiring them. That my 5 cents!

The points explained in this article are quite relevant in understanding work. I can relate to the part educating the agency since I was able to do experience being taught about my work.

Very well explained by this article, Thank You.

Hey Bruce,

I appreciate your Article, Very well explained and covered every single point in your checklist. Thanks for Sharing this Informational post with us.


Hi Bruce Clay,

Those are wonderful check-list;
RE :”educating your agency”
For me as a SEO specialist, these items help a lot to understand the client, their business process and products/services. This is helpful to find out the better keywords to target in the SEO campaign, as well as to explore more opportunities for the client via online.


Nice article, this is kind of checklist everyone should print and follow step by step during process of introducing new SEO agency.
One of the things you must avoid is to set your communication style during the pitch process.

This is really GOLD. You made things easy with Digital Agency On boarding. Thanks a lot.

Good morning Paula,

Thanks for the helpful information. Please feel free to use the e-mail address associated with my blog comment to send me more information about your services. I am seeking some kind of help on PPC campaigns and have a small budget. Let’s chat and see what we can come up with. Thanks! :-)

To talk about search agency, I am looking for someone experienced in SEM PPC to help me with PPC ad writing. Who in the U.S. would you recommend personally with that if you don’t me asking?

Paula Allen

DNN: Besides our own in-house SEM team (because Bruce Clay also offers PPC management as a service), I honestly don’t know whom to recommend. I suggest checking in your local area and online SEM communities (try Google+,, or other marketing watering holes) to find one. Good luck!

One of the things you must avoid is to set your communication style during the pitch process. Communication style extends to not just how the work is communicated but the pace as well.

It definitely matters the most if both parties culturally fit! This is a good checklist for that.

Excellent Idea. It’s not about optimizing search engines. It’s about Optimizing the Client’s Business.

I love the idea of a brand brief. Do you have issues with clients having difficulties in describing their brand to you?

Nice article, this is kind of checklist everyone should print and follow step by step during process of introducing new SEO agency.

Thanks for sharing! Perkful points mentioned!Just you have to check track record and strategies that company are following!

>>”Agreed that a smaller SEO company could sell without it”

I fail to see what the size of an agency has to do with carrying out Due Diligence on a new client’s business in order to create an all-round successful campaign.

It’s about possessing solid, broad-spectrum competence in fields beyond simple “One-Trick Pony” SEO, not about agency size. In this day and age, “Mine’s bigger than yours.” counts for little – if anything – anymore.

It’s not about optimizing search engines. It’s about Optimizing the Client’s Business.

A successful promoter needs to have deep understanding of Marketing, Conversion Optimization, Publicity Tactics, and not a little Consumer Psychology in order to properly “Optimize” for his/her customer, regardless of whether that promoter happens to be a Solo Operator or a large agency.

Speaking from a professional perspective as a Disaster Recovery Specialist, I can safely say that I’ve spent far more time cleaning up after larger SEO Agencies than I have after “Lone Gunmen”.

Over the years I’ve theorized that this is due to the fact that as agencies increase in size, they run an ever-growing risk of “Homogenized Thinking”. Optimizing by “Rote and Manual”, rather than by true “Knowledge and Experience”, their staff get stuck in the rut of identical “Out of the Box” formulas being applied to all clients, instead of developing custom campaigns based upon the customer’s individual business needs.

So, in effect, agency size can be – and frequently is – inversely proportional to amount of business intelligence gathered from prospective and new clients.

Sasch, I do agree with this as a proper way of doing things. “Should” and “would” are the issue and I believe that one of the reasons many SEO projects fail is when an agency sells packages, or sells links, and does not sell solutions that are tailored to the client’s needs; this is not uncommon with smaller agencies. We do only custom programs, and I believe that a proper discussion during sales is key to a proper onboarding process, and must happen to lead to a successful project.

Great informative post. Thanks for sharing the checklist. Its really helpful. This will really help me a lot. I would like to know more about link building and social media marketing. Can you include those topics in your next post. I am a regular visitor of this blog. Thanks!

J. Ustpassing

@ Bruce Clay –
personally, I strongly advise anyone to review particulars of a clients business practice before even thinking about a contract.

The simple truth is that far to many simply don’t have anywhere near the budget for what they need, let alone what they want.
I know it may seem a little harsh, but it’s far easier to turn them down at the start before you start expending time/effort looking things over or spending time with them on the phone.
I also find it a fair marker of how serious people are about their business. If they have to dig out basic figures, then you know you are likely to be looking at fixing more than a little optimisation issue or two, and are instead looking at working over procedures/processes, as well as things like communications etc.

From a clients perspective – being able to show their cards, show willing and provide immediate insight into the current state of affairs can go a long way to winning a professional over.
If you are looking at an SEO who doesn’t want to know the ins-and-outs, then you may find they are suited to helping with only a focused set of problems (I think I worded that rather politely :D).

Great Check list. I always follow the each post shared by you. every time when i visit here find latest and informative things.

Keep Posted!

J. Ustpassing

Hmmmm – I see no mention of data/information preparation?
I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve been called in on a project and not needed to look at statistics, or poor over qualitative feedback etc.
(And even in those few cases, I’ve still asked for a quick “overview” of market share, audience-breakdown by type/location etc. – so even if I don’t “see” the data, someone has to know enough to give me the gist of things!)

I’d also add an additional step or preparatory phase – unburdening.
This is the point when the client has to understand and accept the following;
a) some things cannot be done,
b) some things cannot be done in the time frame asked for,
c) some things have been done wrong/improperly/incompletely previously,
d) some things are missing and need to be generated/tracked from that point forward
e) they are going to have to make changes to their perceptions and their reactions
f) they are going to have to follow the advice/instruction given
Once the emotional/egotistical baggage is out the way – you can start making headway.

If all you are doing is “hiring an SEO” for the sole purpose of “link building” and “keyword optimisation” – none of that really matters. All you need to do is prep in case G catches you and boots you down the SERPs.
But if you are hiring an agency with marketing in mind – you “should” find that they want to know, see and play with just about everything/everyone!

Very good points, J. We do most of what you mention, if not all, during our sales cycle so we can properly size the project. We already have the critical data you mention. The checklist outlined in the post is a recommended onboard process. Agreed that a smaller SEO company could sell without it, so then data is needed after a sale to see the state of the project you’ve signed on for.


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