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

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x