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 » 24 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.


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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