hey james - congrats on your success here. just a question about removing crummy links. for my own website, there are hundreds of thousands of backlinks in webmaster tools pointing to my site. The site has no penalties or anything  - the traffic seems to be growing every week. would you recommend hiring someone to go through the link profile anyway to remove crummy links that just occur naturally?

In addition to giving you insight into the search volume and competition level of keywords, most keyword research tools will also give you detailed information about the average or current estimated CPC for particular keywords are. This is particularly important for businesses with smaller ad budgets and this feature allows you to predict whether certain keywords will be truly beneficial to your ad campaigns or if they’ll cost too much.

Paid search advertising focuses on investing in the right types of ads to achieve prominent positions on search engine results pages and drive traffic to the site. Well optimized search ads can sometimes achieve higher positions than organic search results, while others might be displayed on the right side of the browser page. The success of paid search campaign rests on targeting the right keywords and selecting optimal advertising channels.
Now in your reconsideration request make sure you are honest and tell Google everything that the prior agency was up too. Be sure to include all Excel information of removed links and say you are going to make an ongoing effort to remove everything negative. It is common knowledge that Google may not accept your first reconsideration request, so it may take a few times.
The piece on generating demand for branded queries rather than just product-based ones is particularly interesting here. It sounds as though it'll be more important than ever to have a strong brand in order to succeed (rather than just having a well-optimized site -- and ideally, having the strategic, technical, and creative sides all working together cohesively). Perhaps it's possible that brand exposure through things like answer boxes can still deliver some value too, even if it's difficult to measure, and CTRs are diminished?
Keyword difficulty is a number that lets you know how difficult it will be to rank for a certain keyword. The higher the number, the more difficult it will be to rank on that keyword. There are a few sites online that will tell you keyword difficulty of a word or phrase. Record these numbers in your Excel document or Google Sheet that you made earlier.
Though a long break is never suggested, there are times that money can be shifted and put towards other resources for a short time. A good example would be an online retailer. In the couple of weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays, you are unlikely to get more organic placement than you already have. Besides, the window of opportunity for shipping gifts to arrive before Christmas is ending, and you are heading into a slow season.
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