Why SEO agencies need to focus on expertise, not execution.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, brands have ‘bought’ SEO in the same way that they spend mon­ey on oth­er adver­tis­ing chan­nels, with month­ly meet­ings, bud­gets and tar­gets. But things are chang­ing, and I think that we need to recon­sid­er how that rela­tion­ship works, before it’s...

Jono Alderson By Jono Alderson from Distilled. Join the discussion » 20 comments

I recent­ly dipped my toe into a dis­cus­sion on Twit­ter by @CodrutTurcanu around what brands should con­sid­er when out­sourcing SEO to agen­cies, and what to avoid.

I wrote a quick respon­se sug­gest­ing that brands should con­sid­er why they’re out­sourcing, rather than what. When Codrut asked me to expand on this sen­ti­ment, it got me think­ing and forced me to crys­tallise some grow­ing con­cerns I’ve had about the SEO agen­cy mod­el for some time…


You see, I’m not sure what the role of the SEO agen­cy is any­more – now, or in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-agen­cy. As a mod­el, it cre­ates exact­ly the kinds of the skills, expe­ri­ence, and on-demand exper­tise which most organ­i­sa­tions can’t (and, eco­nom­i­cal­ly, prob­a­bly shouldn’t) breed inter­nal­ly, and as such, pro­vides a lot of val­ue.

How­ev­er as brands’ SEO needs change, I think that SEO agen­cies need to change too. I’m just not sure what they need to change into, yet.

Here’s my think­ing…

The maturing SEO industry

There’s a long estab­lished assump­tion in the indus­try that in-house mar­keters should “out­source their SEO” to an agen­cy, who’ll then exe­cute on strate­gies and deploy tac­tics to deliv­er increased vis­i­bil­i­ty, traf­fic, and val­ue.

For the most part, this worked, because in-house teams tend to be short of exe­cu­tion­al resource, and the agen­cy mod­el is designed to sup­port the­se teams in a way which has worked well, for a long time. Brands ‘buy’ SEO in the same way that they spend mon­ey on oth­er adver­tis­ing chan­nels, with month­ly meet­ings, bud­gets and tar­gets.

How­ev­er, things have changed, and I think that we need to recon­sid­er how that rela­tion­ship works.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, out­sourcing your SEO gen­er­al­ly meant sub­scrib­ing to com­modi­tised link build­ing ser­vices from your agen­cy (with vary­ing degrees of trans­paren­cy, as well as tech­ni­cal and con­tent sup­port). For a long time, mon­ey spent cor­re­lat­ed pret­ty strong­ly with suc­cess dri­ven. How­ev­er, as the effec­tive­ness and via­bil­i­ty of that kind of scaleable, tac­ti­cal link build­ing dimin­ished, the mod­el began to change from quan­ti­ty to qual­i­ty.

Clients became more edu­cat­ed, and more dis­cern­ing, about the kinds of links they want­ed. Rather than raw vol­umes, KPIs and month­ly reports start­ed to fea­ture met­rics like Moz’s domain author­i­ty, or Majestic’s trust­flow – but it was still a num­bers game, and the focus was still on tac­ti­cal ini­tia­tives.

More recent­ly, the bal­ance has shift­ed towards agen­cies pro­duc­ing cam­paigns and more PR-dri­ven activ­i­ties (the pro­duc­tion of stand­alone con­tent assets, designed to attract and earn links and social equi­ty, is cur­rent­ly in vogue).

Microsites, inter­ac­tive games, and par­al­lax-scrolling fact­sheets fuel much of the per­for­mance of some of the world’s largest brands, by attract­ing ‘organ­ic’ links and social equi­ty which they might oth­er­wise strug­gle to acquire on their own, based on their prod­ucts or propo­si­tion. As it becomes hard­er to ‘get links’, agen­cies cre­ate or dis­cov­er new, scaleable ways of dri­ving results, and deploy the­se across their clients.

Now the mar­ket is sat­u­rat­ed with info­graph­ics, inter­ac­tive data visu­al­i­sa­tions, and brand­ed games, and the ROI on the­se kinds of activ­i­ties – unless you’re pro­duc­ing excep­tion­al and unique­ly valu­able pieces – is start­ing to dimin­ish.

There’s a risk that, in a world of tac­ti­cal SEO, agen­cies can fre­quent­ly get stuck in and per­pet­u­ate trends, where it’s a race to stay ahead of the val­ue curve. This is an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, but it demon­strates a deep­er trend.

The end of ‘tactical’ SEO?

There’s an indis­putable and con­tin­u­al decline in the val­ue of ‘tac­ti­cal’ SEO ini­tia­tives and deliv­er­ables. What was once a game of scaled resource became a game of cre­ative think­ing, which became a game of brand­ing, which is now becom­ing… Well, some­thing more com­pli­cat­ed. And whilst the agen­cy-client rela­tion­ship often relies heav­i­ly (as with oth­er chan­nels) on com­mit­ments to deliv­er units of val­ue or effort on a month­ly basis, win­ning in SEO sim­ply isn’t that sim­ple.

The increas­ing inter­con­nect­ed­ness of SEO – into brand­ing, propo­si­tion, price, rep­u­ta­tion, loca­tion, etc – makes it impos­si­ble to ‘out­source’ in its entire­ty; and to carve it up into pieces and to hand out those respon­si­bil­i­ties, is to rad­i­cal­ly dimin­ish your chances of suc­cess.

The truth, in my opin­ion, is that SEO is now an entire­ly strate­gic dis­ci­pline. Whilst indi­vid­u­al tac­tics can dri­ve speci­fic met­rics, and con­tribute towards improved vis­i­bil­i­ty and per­for­mance, only a broad, cohe­sive, and organ­i­sa­tion­al­ly-con­nect­ed SEO strat­e­gy can deliv­er sig­nif­i­cant, scal­able growth and per­for­mance. When mov­ing the needle relies on your SEO “mak­ing peo­ple like our brand more”, or “get­ting peo­ple talk­ing about us”, you’re well beyond the remit of what blog posts, linkbait, microsites can, and ought, to be deliv­er­ing.

So, as the land­scape con­tin­ues to shift and mature, I think it’s impor­tant that brands real­ly con­sid­er what it is that they want from their agen­cies – oth­er­wise brands will become increas­ing­ly dis­en­fran­chised as the mon­ey they’re pay­ing fails to deliv­er the results they expect, and agen­cies will strug­gle to retain and grow clients. It’ll become a tox­ic rela­tion­ship for both sides.

What’s more, the onus is on the agen­cies to make this change hap­pen. They, in the large, own the exper­tise, the expe­ri­ence, the val­ue. They’re the ones who can see how it should be done. They can define the terms of their rela­tion­ships, and the bound­aries of the deliv­er­ables and respon­si­bil­i­ties, and deliv­er more impact­ful work as a result – if they’re will­ing to dig their heels in, and risk los­ing a few (bad?) clients and pitch­es in the process.

Synergy (and glass ceilings)

Some SEO agen­cies have already made this change. They’re work­ing hand-in-hand with their clients, and that syn­er­gy is ampli­fy­ing their out­puts and per­for­mance. Their day jobs involve shep­herd­ing teams with­in organ­i­sa­tions, edu­cat­ing peo­ple on process­es, and steer­ing deci­sion-mak­ing. They’re not pro­duc­ing cam­paign microsites; they’re empow­er­ing their clients to be bet­ter busi­ness­es, and to win in the mar­ket.

But there’s a glass ceil­ing. If ‘win­ning’ SEO is increas­ing­ly about hav­ing the best brand, at the best time and place (lit­er­al­ly, and metaphor­i­cal­ly), for any given con­sumer — is that some­thing that can be out­sourced effec­tive­ly, beyond pro­vid­ing edu­ca­tion and sup­port? Can an exter­nal team (even if work­ing inter­nal­ly, with­in a client’s organ­i­sa­tion, teams and offices) impact con­cepts like rel­e­vance and rep­u­ta­tion in a mean­ing­ful, mea­sur­able way?

And, for exam­ple, if a brand strug­gles to gain vis­i­bil­i­ty because their propo­si­tion is weak­er than a competitor’s, is an agen­cy the right tool for the job, when it’s hard enough to solve for that with­in a busi­ness – nev­er mind as an exter­nal con­trac­tor?

A note on other channels and perspectives

I should take a moment to acknowl­edge that this isn’t a chal­lenge unique to SEO. The age of the con­sumer, of dis­rup­tive busi­ness mod­els, and of the decreas­ing effec­tive­ness of inter­rup­tion adver­tis­ing (yay!) puts all chan­nels to the test; the brand, its val­ues and its val­ue, and how those man­i­fest to impact or con­strain per­for­mance, affect the whole mar­ket­ing spec­trum.

Per­for­mance-based chan­nels, how­ev­er, such as paid search or affil­i­ate mar­ket­ing, can mit­i­gate some­what again­st the­se pres­sures by alter­ing their tac­tics and com­mer­cial levers – if a brand has a weak asso­ci­a­tion with a term which they wish to be dis­cov­ered for and engaged with, the­se teams can increase the amount they’re will­ing to bid at a key­word or audi­ence lev­el.

They can fre­quent­ly side­step around the­se con­straints to find new oppor­tu­ni­ties. They can solve (or at least dimin­ish) the­se chal­lenges direct­ly, by spend­ing more mon­ey. The SEO team are con­front­ed head-on with a brick wall, where the only option is to over­come it is to “do more SEO”.

I should also point out that my thoughts and opin­ions on the top­ic are lim­it­ed and like­ly biased by my per­spec­tive; one heav­i­ly influ­enced agen­cy and con­sul­ta­tive expe­ri­ence, but lim­it­ed in-house expo­sure. Please call me out on any incor­rect assump­tions or omis­sions.

Do we need a shift in responsibilities?

One approach which might tack­le some of the­se chal­lenges is to con­sid­er a shift in where the resource sits. If the val­ue of the agen­cy mod­el is to provide exper­tise, that needn’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly sad­dle them with the ‘doing’, too – espe­cial­ly not the busy-work or day-to-day activ­i­ties.

Where there’s an increas­ing trend for brands to fire their agen­cies in build in-house teams, I won­der if they might be going too far, and solv­ing the wrong prob­lem; per­haps it’s their rela­tion­ship (com­mer­cial, per­son­al, pro­fes­sion­al) with their agen­cies and their expec­ta­tions of them which results in bad blood and poor per­for­mance, rather than the agen­cies them­selves?

By hold­ing their agen­cies account­able to cycli­cal deliv­ery pat­terns and tan­gi­ble out­puts, they’ve forced them to invest in the wrong resources and behav­iours – account man­age­ment and report­ing over doing (there’s a sep­a­rate but worth­while dis­cus­sion here, I sus­pect, explor­ing how agen­cies can break out of this trap) – and already poi­soned the rela­tion­ship. React­ing to that rela­tion­ship fail­ing by bring­ing your teams in-house avoids this prob­lem by chang­ing the resourcing and deliv­er­ables mod­el, but at the cost of the loss of agen­cy exper­tise.

So what’s the alter­na­tive? What if we pared back the agen­cy respon­si­bil­i­ties, to one of exper­tise, rather than exe­cu­tion?

Expertise or execution?

If brands invest­ed more in build­ing out their own teams for day-to-day tasks like con­tent ideation and cre­ation, pro­mo­tion, report­ing and analy­sis, then the role of the agen­cy could change for the bet­ter, too. It could become more strong­ly geared towards defin­ing and steer­ing the strat­e­gy, iden­ti­fy­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties and under­stand­ing what ‘next’ and ‘best’ look like, edu­cat­ing and mit­i­gat­ing risk, and pro­vid­ing expert resource where need­ed.

Rather than being a sweat­shop for tac­ti­cal out­reach and cam­paign cre­ation, the agen­cy could be a strate­gic part­ner, equal­ly invest­ed in the brand it ser­vices. This requires both sides to change only a lit­tle and to meet in the mid­dle.

Com­mer­cial­ly, this makes sense for both sides, too. Brands can begin to invest in their own suc­cess and capa­bil­i­ties, which will gen­er­ate returns over the long-term. Agen­cies can re-tool and re-mod­el – often with much more flex­i­bil­i­ty than brands – to ser­vice the needs of those brands, on-demand. Both par­ties are doing what they do best, and max­imis­ing their impact on the bot­tom line.

Fur­ther­more, the agen­cy can build (and bill again­st) a com­mer­cial and deliv­er­able mod­el which makes sense based on the resources and val­ue it’s deliv­er­ing; rather than being tied to a mod­el which no longer makes sense as an oper­at­ing and billing frame­work. A more col­lab­o­ra­tive approach, with tai­lored agree­ments and com­mer­cials, breaks us out of the ‘ven­dor-client’ trap.

I think that this is a viable approach in some of cas­es, although it’ll take some edu­ca­tion and result in some tran­si­tion­al pain on both sides. The suc­cess of hybrid con­sul­ta­tive-and-exe­cu­tion­al agen­cies like Jay­wing are evi­dence that this mod­el can work, but they’re one exam­ple of a rare organ­i­sa­tion, and this is a new way of think­ing.

Brands which still treat SEO as an adver­tis­ing or mar­ket­ing chan­nel which they can ‘solve with mon­ey’ (which, I sus­pect, accounts for the vast major­i­ty of lega­cy organ­i­sa­tions, who’re still strug­gling to think dig­i­tal­ly), or agen­cies who are built on scaled com­mod­i­ty ser­vice mod­els – will strug­gle to make this shift. The kind of brands who work with agen­cies often do so pre­cise­ly because they strug­gle to solve the­se kinds of prob­lems inter­nal­ly.

Oversimplistic?

I sus­pect that there isn’t a sin­gle, sim­ple answer; but that, most impor­tant­ly, this is a dis­cus­sion which brands and agen­cies need to be hav­ing togeth­ernow.

The right fit will vary by organ­i­sa­tion, by size, by matu­ri­ty, by ver­ti­cal, and by oth­er fac­tors. What’s cer­tain is that get­ting caught in a trap of itemis­ing month­ly deliv­er­ables, report­ing on links gained, and expect­ing to con­tin­ue to gen­er­ate val­ue isn’t going to work for much longer – if it’s not already irrepara­bly bro­ken.

Let me know your thoughts…

Jono Alderson

Written by Jono Alderson

Principal Consultant, Distilled, Distilled

Jono joined the Distilled family as a Principal Consultant in November 2016, after many years attending and occasionally speaking at Distilled’s tri-annual SearchLove conferences. He’s a well-known and respected figure in the digital marketing industry, with over a decade of experience in SEO, brand strategy, lead generation, CRO and web development.Jono is an obsessive organiser, a techie, a gin person, a foodie, a cat person, a rabid karaoke addict, and (in his own words) a bit weird. He also founded Days Of The Year.

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20 Comments on "Why SEO agencies need to focus on expertise, not execution."

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Ziz
Member
Ziz
9 months 20 hours ago
Great post! Brands need to look to SEO as a long term propo­si­tion and com­mit to pro­tect­ing SEO’s dev allo­ca­tion – main­tain­ing the veloc­i­ty of the­se long-term SEO projects is vital. Sad­ly the lack of inter­nal resource means that clients often con­tin­ue to look at SEO as a short term propo­si­tion; a quick boost for lit­tle effort which can be achieved through sim­ply deploy­ing a few meta tags, adding some text with the right key­words in it (bleurgh….), and pro­gra­mat­i­cal­ly build­ing out a new site sec­tion based off com­mon­ly-avail­able data so we can ‘tar­get more Google search­es’, or worse still think… Read more »
Alicia Kan
Member
9 months 16 hours ago
Good piece; this dis­cus­sion is long over­due (at least here in the US). As an agen­cy per­son in an agen­cy that wants to go beyond being known as an SEO agen­cy and be full-fledged dig­i­tal, there is a real issue about see­ing SEO in a company’s big­ger pic­ture. We still do the same thing, i.e. sign on a client, dis­ap­pear to work on the SEO (which the client doesn’t get), then sur­face at month’s end with a link to a dash­board that they still can’t under­stand. We still talk about 301s and on-page opti­mi­sa­tion which just scin­til­lates the client into… Read more »
phillmidwinter
Member
9 months 1 hour ago

Real­ly good post Jono. I agree that SEO is much more about the strate­gic the­se days and I often find myself hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions about brand and broad­er dig­i­tal strat­e­gy that I think are very impor­tant. There’s a broad stag­nan­cy in agen­cies as well though that I think reflects an inde­ci­sion about their direc­tion that we talk about here: https://www.homeagency.co.uk/blog/search/progress-reform-seo/ . Again – great post.

Roy Young
Member
8 months 30 days ago
Great Post! I am strug­gling mak­ing this tran­si­tion myself. SEO was always a hard sell com­pared to web design. Web design has deliv­er­ables that they can actu­al­ly see. SEO while not a gam­ble if done cor­rect­ly has always been a bit of a black­box to clients. Clients still think of pay­ing a month­ly fee to rank for a cer­tain key­word (turn of the cen­tu­ry think­ing). They also believe that if they are any­thing less than the first five, then the SEO Agen­cy or per­son is not doing their job, regard­less of bud­get and com­pe­ti­tion. The­se days I try to pro­mote… Read more »
Ben Potter
Member
8 months 30 days ago
Hi Jono, absolute­ly spot on in your assess­ment. I have cer­tain­ly wit­nessed an increase in ‘in-sourcing’ and, quite frankly, I don’t blame brands for wish­ing to take greater own­er­ship for parts of their SEO strat­e­gy, (con­tent, PR, social, etc). I agree that this should by no means make the agen­cy redun­dant, so long as they evolve their offer­ing. At my agen­cy, we do a lot more insight and strat­e­gy work the­se days, help­ing to build­ing in-house teams and train­ing, for exam­ple, because this is what we iden­ti­fied many of our clients requir­ing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there remains a thriv­ing ‘bot­tom of the… Read more »
Ed B
Member
8 months 30 days ago
Real­ly like this post and it echoes quite a bit I’ve read recent­ly about how SEO and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agen­cies increas­ing­ly strug­gle to prove their val­ue. Per­son­al­ly I think there’s quite a big skills gap in the pro­vi­sion and imple­men­ta­tion of dig­i­tal ser­vices. Look­ing sole­ly at acqui­si­tion, a brand that’s look­ing to active­ly use web-based chan­nels to grow its busi­ness will need (at least) the fol­low­ing. Non-paid / SEO – (skills required: robust research knowl­edge, web­site devel­op­ment, web design inc. image manip­u­la­tion, copy­writ­ing, web ana­lyt­ics / analy­sis, web­site host­ing / server-admin knowl­edge) Paid – PPC / search / dis­play /… Read more »
Nick Colakovic
Member
Nick Colakovic
8 months 29 days ago

Hey Jono, I agree with you that know­ing exact­ly what you want the agen­cy to do for your brand helps both sides col­lab­o­rate bet­ter.

Mark Mitchell
Member
8 months 23 days ago

Thank you for this post, great infor­ma­tion. I provide SEO ser­vices in the small busi­ness space and scal­a­bil­i­ty in this is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult if not impos­si­ble to man­age. Great food for thought albeit a lit­tle depress­ing. For my clients, there is no meet­ing in the mid­dle unfor­tu­nate­ly because of lim­it­ed resources, both finan­cial and qual­i­fied man­pow­er. Small busi­ness­es want suc­cess in this busi­ness, but the shift from labo­ri­ous task dri­ven SEO to the brand-build­ing tac­tic might be the death knell for this cor­ner of the mar­ket.

Paul Maddock
Member
8 months 23 days ago

Great post, I real­ly enjoyed this. I think you’re absolute­ly right, I find myself talk­ing more and more about how SEO is every­thing now. As you say, you can’t real­ly rely on an out­side par­ty to deliv­er on some­thing that can impact all teams in a busi­ness – one of the rea­sons that I’ve found train­ing to be real­ly effec­tive for clients.

James Gurd
Member
8 months 23 days ago
Hi Jono, thanks for writ­ing an inter­est­ing thought piece. I think the move towards pro­vid­ing strate­gic exper­tise vs. tac­ti­cal exe­cu­tion makes sense for big­ger busi­ness­es that have the resource to han­dle the doing. But small­er busi­ness­es, includ­ing many star­tups, can’t afford an in-house SEO and it’s incred­i­bly rare to find a small busi­ness with a tech SEO skill set.  So i think the ser­vice mod­el depends on busi­ness size, matu­ri­ty and invest­ment reach. Big­ger brands have def­i­nite­ly stepped up invest­ment in SEO teams (both strate­gic and tac­ti­cal) but still have a need to out­source speci­fic activ­i­ties, for exam­ple using a social/PR… Read more »
SedonaSEO
Member
8 months 21 days ago
Great post that artic­u­lat­ed many thoughts I too have had rum­bling about in my mind.  There are a num­ber of sce­nar­ios and poten­tial solu­tions that could apply as sug­gest­ed and depen­dent on com­pa­ny size, bud­get and open mind­ed­ness. There are also a num­ber of gaps in the sys­tem- as you point­ed out. Small busi­ness­es want every dol­lar of mar­ket­ing spent to be returned imme­di­ate­ly- even if the job of the agen­cy is to first repair their old bro­ken non opti­mized web­site, set up social accounts and put them on the radar. By the time you’ve accom­plished this they are ques­tion­ing your… Read more »
Scott Jacob
Member
Scott Jacob
8 months 19 days ago

I echo every­one above’s grat­i­tude, Jono. A great read for com­pa­ny mar­ket­ing man­agers and small­er agen­cies both. 

I’d like to add anoth­er opti­mistic point for the pro­fes­sion­al SEO’s and cau­tion to CMO’s with the shift toward exper­tise. Search rank­ings can still be destroyed quick­ly – much quick­er than they are earned. We have seen lots of tech­ni­cal mis­takes made by client inter­nal staff that would have been avoid­ed by adding exper­tise at the begin­ning of projects. A full site rewrite, chas­ing the lat­est black-hat the­o­ry and sev­er­al oth­er short-cuts can destroy organ­ic traf­fic and sales vol­ume.

AV Solutions Central
Member
7 months 9 days ago

Inter­est­ing post – well writ­ten. I believe clients nowa­days need to be edu­cat­ed prop­er­ly on what SEO actu­al­ly is as a lot of clients think that their web­sites will land on page 1 after a mon­th which is unre­al­is­tic. May­be it was pos­si­ble a few years ago but nowa­days it’s almost impos­si­ble as rank­ing time­frames have slowed down con­sid­er­ably. Hav­ing the right expec­ta­tions and being hon­est with clients is a must in my opin­ion.

Ben McDavid
Member
5 months 19 days ago

I agree that the loss of exper­tise is a big deal for com­pa­nies dis­sat­is­fied with their SEO agen­cy. I see this with the soft­ware devel­op­ment space as well, where the lack of true part­ner­ship between enti­ties cre­ates fric­tion and results in more in-house work on the books.

It’s not enough for the agen­cy to be trans­par­ent about activ­i­ty, the com­pa­ny needs to be trans­par­ent with their expec­ta­tions so that both can align and achieve the end goal. For the agen­cy, this means dig­ging in, seek­ing to under­stand the busi­ness, and reach­ing out for feed­back reg­u­lar­ly.

Peter
Member
5 months 11 days ago

Nice to read such arti­cles! As a client of Askan­ny Agen­cy I thought first I would do every­thing by myself, but I real­ized that You may already be imple­ment­ing some search engine opti­miza­tion (SEO) mea­sures as part of your dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy, but ulti­mate­ly, you want an expert to help solid­i­fy a pos­i­tive stand­ing for your orga­ni­za­tion through search. I saw how they worked, how they exper­tise. So I am glad that good agen­cies work direct­ly with their clients…

Ed Armitage
Member
4 months 11 days ago

Late to the con­ver­sa­tion here, but com­plete­ly agree. My best out­comes have always involved using an SEO agen­cy for strat­e­gy, research, and mea­sure­ment, but in-house or oth­er third par­ties for exe­cu­tion (e.g. PR team for out­reach, Dev team for tech­ni­cal)

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