With the digital world growing every day, we are seeing SEO become a more familiar phrase.
Small and large businesses alike are recognising the importance of SEO and are looking to invest in it.
It is easy to see why, when the industry is set to grow to an estimated £52b by the end of 2018 and a staggering £57b by 2020 (Search Engine Land, 2017).
Gone are the days of quick fixes and “cheats” – the intelligence of the internet now demands more complex strategies in order to compete and business owners are doing their research to ensure their SEO is done properly, with a big focus on return of investment (ROI).
SEO is the powerhouse that is the difference between just existing online and actively being found. In more complex terms, these techniques allow search engines like Google to weigh up whether your website is functional and genuine, in order to make sure the site is put in front of the right kind of online users.
But getting SEO that promises a return on your investment can be difficult and there are a variety of routes you can go down to optimise your website.
Choosing the right direction for you and your business can be difficult, which is why I have decided to sum up the pros and cons of each avenue.
Anyone that has set up a website or even just started to look at the process will know that there’s a lot more to website success than you first think.
Setting up a website is not as simple as A B C and with a huge gap in many business owner’s knowledge on the digital industry, it is common that we find less tech savvy business owners feeling a little naïve about the processes you have to go through to get online.
This initial stress of learning about the new world of websites can lead business owners straight into the hands of an agency.
But why is that?
Outsource to SEO Agency – Too Good To Be True?
Picture this: you think you can go online to somewhere like Go Daddy, buy a domain name for £1, pick a template and be done with it.
Alas, it’s nowhere near that easy; there is a lot more involved, especially if you’re going for a professional approach.
Suddenly overwhelmed with digital jargon about domain names, theme templates, hosting and SEO, all coming at an extra cost, the small business owner can be thrown into a panic and they will often seek out help in the form of the easiest, most streamline package.
SEO agencies usually boast the capabilities to provide a complete service, with all of these elements in one place.
But can it really be that simple?
Offering to provide everything in one go, with minimal effort and with an access to an entire team of experts, sounds like a perfect situation. Surely a whole team working on your website must be better than one person, right?
Well, not necessarily. Digital Marketing agencies have been growing in numbers over recent years, with 25,000 agencies now at your disposal in the UK alone.
With that, and as with all industries, we are also seeing exponential growth of the “pirate” digital agency.
Supported by a clever website and a large social media following, it can look like these agencies know what they’re doing but the reality is that their techniques can often be outdated, aggressive and what the professionals might refer to as “black hat.”
With a potentially cheaper initial cost, the agency’s focus will be solely on profit. That could mean cutting corners in order to make more on the already slim profit margins, or it could mean getting the job done as quickly as possible (even if they pretend it takes longer) and making sure their team are completing multiple projects under tight deadlines.
With 42% of agencies admitting that increasing profitability is a key concern for the year ahead (The WOW Company, 2016), this leaves us with one concern – how are they going to use you to make more money?
The likelihood is, the staff in agencies are either overqualified, overworked and underpaid or underqualified and under supported/developed.
It will also be the sheer size of the staff’s workload paired with the fact there is no guarantee over who will work on your particular project that can result in a poor quality project.
Whether it is providing you with an SEO strategy that doesn’t provide you with any ROI, or one that negatively impacts your customer’s experience, the agency will insist on additional costs just to fix it.
This isn’t to say every agency is filled with incompetent workers – in fact some amazing talent resides in agencies, but whilst you might get the senior consultant working on your site, you might also get the unpaid intern – and they won’t tell you that even though they will charge you the same rate.
Just as commonly there have been accounts where agencies outsource the SEO package to cheap, untrustworthy sources abroad.
My key concern with agencies is the idea of “renting” talent. With ROI the key driver for most purchases, why should you be putting money into the pocket of someone else who will reap the full benefits of any investment you make.
The capital you put into this project will have a short term benefit of improving your site’s SEO, sure.
However, the long-term benefit of developing somebody’s skill set, goes straight back into the agency, meaning your investment is actually going in two directions.
But is “owning” the talent actually an option?
Feasibility of In-House SEO Teams
Having an in-house team or “owning” the talent has enormous benefits. However, depending on the company’s size this might not be an option.
So what are the benefits?
Well, as mentioned above, if you are investing in a person and not just a product, the long term benefit is there.
These individuals can then help maintain the site’s SEO, meanwhile, if you return to the same agency for further work, due to high turnover rates, you will be unlikely to have the same person work on your site.
On top of having access to the same individuals, another benefit to in-house teams can be the ease of access and communications.
Whether you arrange monthly reviews and meetings or whether you decide to cross the office and have informal daily chats, talking to your team couldn’t be easier.
Agencies are renowned for being difficult to communicate with, unanswered telephone calls and emails and lengthy waits for meetings.
If you have someone in your office dealing with our SEO, you get to speak directly to that person working on your site, potentially every day.
By being completely submerged in your business this way, the team or individuals also have time to get to know and understand your business, tailoring the optimisation far beyond what an agency is capable of.
However, there is an obvious downside to this option and that is the cost. According to research completed by Payscale.com, SEO manager salaries can average £31k per annum, with the higher end of that scale reaching £44k.
Having the budget to hire an individual or team to work solely for your business is reserved for large businesses with a high turnover and profit, leaving SMEs without access to this option.
There are also further risks, that you may lose your investment, if the individual chooses to move on.
In order to compete and retain your resources and therefore your investment, it will be vital that you provide a good salary and benefits.
Hiring a Freelance SEO: Best of Both Worlds
With in-house staff potentially driving up extortionate costs for a small business and agencies not producing quality work or enjoyable customer experiences, is there another option?
This is where we turn to SEO freelancers. These individuals represent themselves. Similar to in-house teams, they are able to provide a personalised approach and get to know you and your business.
They will also do their best to be available to you when you need it and communicate far more frequently than agencies, as they are not as likely as agencies are to oversubscribe and commit to clients.
The average freelancer is going to allot a determined amount of time to you and your project that you will both agree on.
They will provide you with their own insights as well as listen to your expertise in your industry and combine that information to draw up a well-planned proposal.
Freelancers also rely on testimonials and an outstanding portfolio in order to gain future clients.
Whilst agencies take part in expos and pump money into online advertising, freelancers require word of mouth and happy clients in order to succeed.
This means their key focus, will be to make sure you are happy with your investment and strive to provide you with the best possible customer care.
If a better quality job isn’t benefit enough, there is another benefit to paying an individual to do your SEO, as the cost goes straight to them rather than being spread out to cover their own salary, staff’s salary, equipment, building rental costs, employer tax rates and more.
SEO freelancers will be open to discuss options and plans in order to work with both your budget and existing situation, rather than trying to upsell you and convince you to buy into other services.
Meanwhile, digital marketing agencies might want to sell you an email marketing campaign, or Facebook ads, or even try to convince you that you need a whole new website.
That doesn’t mean an SEO freelance consultant cannot help in other ways. If there are further services you require, a freelance SEO consultant may not be able to offer you a ‘complete solution,’ but from their years in the industry it is likely they will have a list of reliable and trustworthy connections that can ensure you get a good deal via a recommendation.
On the whole, I am not discouraging the use of other avenues.
With in-house teams, I am aware that the sheer cost will not suit the majority of smaller businesses and for start-ups in particular, the business just might not have the capital injection there yet.
Meanwhile, SEO freelancers will give you time to put your own money and focus on priorities elsewhere in the early and vital stages of your business. This can be the difference between a business making it or breaking it.
Similarly, I am not damning all agencies. However, due to the nature of agency work in general, if you do decide to look into agencies, I must stress you should do your research first.
Basic tips when it comes to vetting an agency consist of checking their website – do they practice what they preach? Do they have a blog? Read through any content you can come across, check for spelling mistakes and take in the quality of their written word.
If their site or blog articles are clunky and incomprehensible, the likelihood is, any work they do for you will be of a similar standard.
You can also use tools like twitteraudit.com to verify if their social following is littered with fake followers, another helpful indicator that can raise some red flags.
Making an Educated Decision
Overall, there are benefits to all three options discussed but freelancers harness the capability to do what both the agency world and in-house world can offer.
Picking a freelancer is simpler than picking an agency as you are guaranteed to meet the precise person who will be working for you from the get go.
This means you get to cherry pick a qualified individual that suits both your business and your personality, almost like interviewing for the in-house team.
Most freelancers will be happy to meet for a free consultation too, in which you can gage whether the individual is someone you will be happy working with; compatibility in business approach is just as important as cost and return of investment.
The most important thing when it comes to your SEO investment is checking you pick somebody who suits your needs and is qualified to provide you with the standard of care you deserve.
So take your time, familiarise yourself and source out different options. An educated decision could save you a lot of time and money.