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.

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.

Originally published for Linkdex on 25th July, 2017

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