Why SEO agencies need to focus on expertise, not execution

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.

Originally published for Linkdex on 25th July, 2017

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