This is a topic which I feel agencies and brands alike are perhaps never the biggest fan of, but it can play an important role, especially for larger enterprises, in order to select the best partner to help support your objectives.
What is an SEO RFP?
Firstly, an SEO RFP (request for proposal) or RFQ (request for quotation) is typically issued by a company to a number of shortlisted agencies, in order to bid for providing SEO services.
The RFP is the first step in gauging interest from the agencies, and then this is likely whittled down to a smaller number (e.g. 2-3 agencies) who will pitch for the business via a presentation.
For this article, I’m going to try to look at this from both sides, but written from the perspective of how brands can get the most of the agencies during a selection process.
What should be included in the RFP?
At a basic level, this is key:
Where are we now?
Topline company information on how the business is performing. How those key goals link into strategic marketing objectives, and what the current performance looks from an SEO perspective. Where possible the 3x of these should be tied together, so that you can understand the business impact, and the role SEO plays towards the wider marketing plan / goals.
Where are we going?
What does success look like? What are your top performance metrics, and what are your growth targets against this? Again, this should be closely tied to the overall business goals.
How are we going to get there?
This is a discussion you need to work on together as client + agency. I actually prefer briefs that aren’t too detailed on how to solve the problem, it should be the challenge to the agency to figure this out, and then they have clear ownership and accountability over results. But what is helpful is knowing the internal resource of an in-house team and how you’d expect to work together. In addition to this, it’s useful to share any key projects and timelines in your roadmap (e.g. upcoming product launches, CMS migration, website re-design etc.. and any known bottlenecks / restrictions, or potential issues that you foresee which could hold back from achieving your objective.
This should help to give you a guide on the overall structure. And then there’s more specific information which can help to populate each section.
I asked my social media network for their opinions on what the best RFPs include. A big thanks to everyone who replied on Twitter and LinkedIn. I’ve organised this into the above theme, so that you can see what type of information the best RFPs / briefs include.
Where are we now?
- Top-line company information/background: this is useful to give context on the brand, its purpose, mission, and vision. The values of which the company stands for, how it operates and makes decisions. What the forward facing plans are for the company, and where they see themselves heading. Any background on key competitors, the market, customer personas, are always useful. This doesn’t have to be in-depth, and the agency should do its homework to find out more, but it’s a very helpful starting point to a conversation.
- How the company makes money: understanding the business model is crucial. I remember receiving a brief a few years ago, and it had 2 objectives – 1) to increase organic revenue, 2) to increase organic traffic. This sounds quite standard, and it should in theory go hand-in-hand, but my response to them was to ask them to pick which is most important, because otherwise we might end up chasing two rabbits. If you understand how the business makes money, you can prioritise your effort by value. A 100% increase in traffic might not equal a 100% increase in revenue, and equally, what if there’s a smarter way to get there? I always like to think there’s an 80/20 rule to everything, that’s where you can find the gold!
- Current performance: if you’re an eCommerce brand, for example, this is where it would be very useful to show organic revenue data. Quite often, I still see too many brands who have inaccurate data when it comes to business measurement, in which case I would suggest improving this as the first step before you invest heavily in marketing. If it’s not so easy to do this, I would strongly recommend finding a way to at least estimate business value. E.g. average order value = £100, conversion rate = 5%, monthly organic visits = 500,000 works out as an estimated £2.5m revenue per month. Similarly if it’s lead gen based, working out the average order value and conversion rates at each stage of the funnel to get to a pipeline + estimated conversion value.
- Who do you consider to be your biggest direct competitors? How are they performing? This doesn’t need to go into full detail, the agency should do its own analysis, but giving a steer over what’s valued internally is really helpful market context to make sure the requested response is answering the correct exam question.
- Channel performance mix: how much does organic search account for your revenue as a percentage of marketing vs growth expectations? What’s the ROI on each channel currently? This feels like a difficult question for a lot of brands, but it’s an important one to at least try to tackle.
- Why are you changing? This could be a switch of agency, or an additional investment into growth. But context here helps. If you’re changing agency, why? Making it clear what didn’t work last time can help to feed into a new engagement. Equally I’m sure there were parts you did like that you’d like to retain.
- Access to performance + measurement data (e.g. analytics + Google Search Console data): this gives the agency a chance to see for itself how well the site is performing, and the context of how this relates to other marketing channels.
- Historical SEO results + activity: sharing the performance figures over the last 3-5 years (or more) to give context, also showing real numbers (revenue, traffic), not just percentage increases. Any examples of the history of SEO within the company and previous strategy + activity is useful to be able to learn from it and hit the ground running. Were there any key projects (e.g. CMS migrations), or algorithmic updates that hit or benefitted you?
Where are we going?
- What does success look like? I heard this as a sales technique a while back, normally I’m not a fan of anything overly salesy, but I liked this one. Ask a prospect, “Imagine it’s 12 months into the future. We’re sat having coffee. You’re really happy, because everything has gone really well. Describe to me what happened?”. Visualising success is really important, otherwise you might be focusing on the wrong things to get you there. Or put another way, if you don’t know where you’re going, don’t complain about where you end up!
- Clear hierarchy of KPIs: building upon the above, what does that look like so that the agency has a clear target to aim towards, and both sides know if it’s on track or not. You may want to set a performance bonus model around achieving this too, which aligns the interests of both sides and gives the agency skin in the game. I’d always advocate a hierarchy of KPIs, where at the top you focus on business value (ideally organic revenue) as the main goal, and then you can work your way down in terms of micro-goals and lead/lag indicators (conversions, email sign-ups, downloads, etc) and SEO KPIs (organic visibility vs key competitors, traffic, rankings, etc).
- Roadblocks – what might stop you from achieving success? How can we see any potential issues that might be coming, ahead of time. Whether this is stakeholder approval, legal compliance, development backlog / technical debt, CMS optimisation / content upload restrictions, or any other future plans or factors that may cause distribution. It’s best to know this early, so that a workaround can be found. Try revisiting the success visualisation technique I mentioned above, now look at it as “it’s 12 months into the future, things didn’t work as well as we’d hoped. Why not? What went wrong?” Then try to fix it before it happens!
- Stakeholder expectations: hopefully we’ve moved beyond the days of SEO being a leap of faith or dark art, and equally it’s also not always as easy as just finding the quick win or low-hanging fruit… Now we’ve got all the overused clichés out of the way, how can you show what you would expect to achieve (client side) or show what you can expect to achieve (agency side) within a short, medium and long-term timeframe. For the purposes of this, and because I knew you’d ask, I’d class short-term as 3-6 months, medium-term as 12 months and long-term as 2 years. One of our values at Re:signal is realistic optimism, it definitely helps with this!
- What is needed from an agency to add value? Are there any specific skill sets, tools, or approaches that would help to add value to your team. For example, agencies are required to present a QBR to senior stakeholders each quarter. Clarity on what the agencies role should be, “think for us” vs “do for us” or both “think and do for us”. Often clients know what needs doing but don’t have the time / scale of resource required, so being clear on ownership of roles is crucial. Learnings from past experience and other agencies (not strictly SEO) that have worked well is helpful too, in addition to what hasn’t worked and should be avoided. Sometimes the value-add can be in bringing experience from different clients, or knowledge of industry trends to the table.
How are we going to get there?
- What problem are we looking to solve? If it’s a specific project – e.g. a site migration, or perhaps you’ve been hit by a Google algorithm update, this is very useful context to provide. Especially if they’ve attempted to fix already and can share what has been tried + aligned with the goal of where you want to get back to. If it’s more of a growth target, I would advise on keeping this top-level and open minded on the approach agencies may suggest taking. Give some pointers, but I wouldn’t try to go too deep on diagnosing the issue. At this stage, it’s the desired outcome which is most important, rather than the approach taken. E.g. “We’ve tried link building in the past, but have found that our best results come from on-site content and technical SEO. Therefore we’d like to focus on ensuring our technical SEO is as strong as possible vs key competitors, and that we have the right content strategy + execution to rank/attract potential customers from.”
- Budget: at least sharing a range helps here, so that the agency can sense-check that it’s in the right ballpark. I would normally say you need at least; 1) a clear business objective, or 2) a budget. If you have a business objective, you can estimate what it cost take you there, and if you have a budget you can say what you can achieve for it. Without either, you’re playing blind…
- Timelines: when’s the targeted start date, how long is the engagement for?
- Internal resourcing + support available to the agency: What is your marketing team structure? Do you have developers? How much time do they have available? Do they work in sprints? When? Etc… Do you have copywriters? How many? What type of content do they write? Which languages? Do you have a PR team? What type of coverage do they get for you? Etc, etc… The more you can share here, the more an agency can integrate itself alongside your team to combine leading + supporting in the right areas.
- Communication – how are we going to work together: structured calls, workshop sessions / working from the office, quarter business reviews, collaborating together on shared docs, etc…
- Internal sign-off processes: how are decisions made? Who is the decision maker? Do you need to build a business case to push through requested changes?
- What is your methodology for approaching SEO? I’d often say from an agency perspective you probably won’t win a pitch because of your methodology, but you might lose it if you don’t have one! Be clear on how you’ll approach working together, and show that you have a proven model / framework for achieving success.
- What are your best case studies for a brand similar to us? If you’re a fast paced eCommerce scale-up, it’s probably not as relevant to show what you’ve done to train an enterprise financial services brand. They want to see hands-on action + results for similar companies, so that they can visualise what you can do for them and take the risk out of the decision, because you’ve got a proven track record.
How to get the best out of an agency?
There’s probably a whole different article in here somewhere, but I think it’s important to mention that if you want to find the right fit agency – here’s some information to consider – and how you can preempt some of the questions that might start coming back to you.
At Re:signal, we have a pre-qualification scorecard to help qualify leads that we decide to pursue, then we can decide if we want to either go all in to win, or pass the opportunity as it doesn’t feel like a right fit for us.
We are different to some agencies, in the sense that we exclusively work with only 12 clients at any point in time, so we are very selective in who we pitch for. However, I think that’s useful to know on the client side, as you want to make sure your brief is written in a way that appeals to the agency who is likely to be the best fit for you, and based on experience, there might be some red flags which can potentially put agencies off bidding for the work.
Example questions you’d expect an agency to ask would be:
- Is this competitive + how many agencies are you inviting to the RFP/brief/pitch? This is important from the agency side. No-one likes to be making up the numbers, so if it’s a large competitive pitch, you might find some agencies deciding that they have other opportunities which have a higher probability of winning, and they either pull out, or bring their B team (possibly worse outcome for both sides). If it’s 10x agencies, it can look like a long-shot. If you’ve shortlisted 3x then it feels like it’s more carefully thought through to get to that stage.
- Is the incumbent pitching? This is always a tricky one. If procurement is involved, you certainly don’t want to be involved just so that they can benchmark and negotiate pricing with an agency they’re already happy with. Equally you want this to be a level playing field, an incumbent will have inherent knowledge about a client, and potentially more access to historical data. So if the answer to this is yes, you really want to get to the bottom of why they are changing.
- How did you hear about us? This gives the agency an indication of why you were shortlisted + what it is about them that makes them want to work with you. If it’s a strong answer, “you worked with X and we loved your case study + thought leadership article about Y…” Rather than “I’m not really sure, someone’s aunties, neighbours, cat recommend you…” then you know how seriously to take it. The above helps too, if it’s a short shortlist you’re being more carefully selected, if it’s a longlist, the odds are longer…
- Will you have an initial call / meeting? I’d suggest this is important for both sides to ensure you’re not wasting your time. Also, even a well written brief will have gaps that are just easier to discuss and get a feel for what people value and prioritise. If the client is unwilling to have a conversation at this stage, that could lead to drop-outs from agencies. I’ve also been on an RFP before where to be efficient they just ran a call with all 12x shortlisted agencies together at the same time. Don’t do that! It’s fairly standard practice to ask agencies to email questions and then anonymise this to share all questions and answers with agencies. I think this is a useful stage, but a call / meeting is certainly much more personal, and if you have done your homework to create a more targeted shortlist shouldn’t be a huge amount of effort.
- What’s the decision process? If you haven’t laid out in the RFP clear timelines, the stages involved (e.g. RFP, proposal due, decision, start date). Who’s making the decision? Will they be on the pitch?
- What’s your scoring criteria? Certainly when procurement is involved this is important to know and make sure you don’t miss the mark. It helps an agency to understand the priorities and where to focus your efforts.
SEO RFP template
Hopefully that helps to give you a guide on how to get the best from an agency when writing your RFP / brief.
Obviously you’ll tailor this to your own requirements, but to give you a starting point I’ve created an SEO RFP template, which you’re welcome to make a copy of an adapt + use for yourself.
You can also download the blank SEO RFP Template as a PDF.
Good luck, and would love to hear any good / bad RFP experiences to keep the conversation going.
P.S. a big thank you to everyone who replied on social media, there were some really useful points from Danny Denhard, Lidia Infante, Sophie Brannon, Khushal Khan, Charlie Williams, Dan White, to name a few!