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Why firms are most likely to fire their SEO agency

22nd Aug 2016
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Search engine optimisation (SEO) isn't cheap. In fact, experts estimate that if you're looking for a high-quality SEO firm to handle your search marketing, you should be prepared to pay around $3,000 to $5,000 per month, at a minimum.

With so much money at stake, it's little wonder that brands demand measurable results. And if they don't receive them, they'll take their business elsewhere. 

But new research indicates that while failure to hit targets is indeed the biggest reason for businesses dropping their SEO agency, it in fact only accounts for 29% of all terminations. So what else is responsible for agency attrition - and what should businesses be aware of to ensure that their agency's standards aren't slipping?

Research results

London-based artificial intelligence search analytics agency, Artios, has surveyed more than 500 business from around the world, who have worked with an external SEO supplier in the past three years. The study found that the top reasons businesses part ways with their SEO agencies are: 

  • Failure to hit long-term targets are the biggest cause of businesses dropping their agency, accounting for 29% of all terminations.
  • Secrecy and lack of transparency are the second biggest cause of terminations, accounting for 25% of terminations and the leading cause of termination within the first six months.
  • Smaller businesses are most likely to terminate a supplier due to secrecy and lack of transparency.
  • After 3 or more years, ‘friendly terminations’ are the most common parting of ways.
  • Almost 1 in 10 businesses ended a relationship with an agency over a manual penalty.

Top reasons for terminations


Traditional complaints such as unethical SEO techniques and failure to meet targets still factor prominently among the top reasons for terminations, but agencies are getting dropped in increasing numbers - and sooner - due to supplier-side secrecy.

In fact, a lack of transparency account for more early (first six months) terminations than any other factor.

Andreas Voniatis, chief data scientist at Artios who conducted the study, believes Google’s headline-making algorithm updates have put in-house marketing departments on edge.

“We’d always expect to see complaints like unethical link-building and unrecovered drops in ranking leading to terminations, but our research suggests that clients are now demanding transparency from their agencies from day one.

“Given the damage a badly executed SEO campaign can do to a business and the waste it can lead to, it’s understandable that businesses are now keen to understand how their agencies are working. Too many agencies treat their approach as a ‘secret recipe’ that must not be revealed. This just leads to a lack of trust."

Terminations by time in-contract

SEO timeline

Impact of client size

The research also reveals that client size has an impact on cause of termination. Smaller clients appear to be less tolerant of secrecy and more likely to terminate early.

The larger a client, the more likely they are to rely on longer term targets. Larger clients are also less likely to terminate a supplier earlier on in the contract for lack of transparency.

Unethical practice is most likely to get you dropped during the 7-12 month period, suggesting less scrupulous agencies are taking advantage of the ‘honeymoon period’ of their new contract to earn ‘quick wins’.

It’s not all about bad-blood though. ‘Friendly terminations’ such as personnel changes on the client’s side, budget reallocation and agencies delivering on a specific brief account for 16% of all agency-client partings of ways, but are most common among companies with 100 or more employees.


The research demonstrates that businesses looking for a new SEO agency should not only be clear about what targets and metrics will be used by the agency to demonstrate performance, but that there should also be clarity about the search methods being utilised. Any lack of transparency is particularly sensitive the smaller the organisation, but all brands should press the agency about how they will practice their methods before committing to a long-term contract. 

Any agency that is evasive about its methods or is unwilling to provide absolute clarity, should be avoided. 

Voniatis adds: “SEO operates in a very data-rich environment. With the increasing availability of cloud computing and AI, there is no excuse for SEOs to engage in secrecy and instead they should embrace the opportunities of AI in communicating their knowledge to their clients. The SEO industry should be prepared to have their recommendations and practices open to transparency and justified by statistics, moving away from quick wins and tricks that merely give the impression of progress.”

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