As an SEO, I hear two things all the time: “Sure, I know what SEO is” and “What’s SEO?”. 99% of the time, both groups are equally clueless about what SEO really is. Let’s define this once and for all, shall we?
SEO is anything that can have a positive impact on your organic search visibility and organic search traffic.
That’s it in a nutshell, the heart and soul of what SEO is…but, while that defines what SEO is, it doesn’t come close to touching what an SEO does, or all of the other factors that “SEO” work can impact.
Before we dive into this though, I think it’s important to talk a bit about what SEO was, and why perceptions are as out of whack as they are. SEO started at the dawn of the consumer web, as search engines came online in the early-to-mid 90s. At that time, it was literally as simple as using lots of keywords, and making sure you were listed in lots of directories. Nothing more complex than that.
Over the years, from the mid-90’s to the late 2000’s, some things changed (and some didn’t), but overall one element of SEO remained pretty much the same: if you had the ability to edit a website, you didn’t need any involvement or help from any other part of a company to get a site ranking well, even for REALLY competitive keywords.
SEO, from it’s dawn until the late 2000’s, more or less lived in a silo. It was it’s own little niche, and it was not only easy but reasonable to just hire someone to “do your SEO” with no need to integrate them into other parts of your business infrastructure, except perhaps for web dev.
But then, around 2010/2011, Google started to make a TON of changes, and has been on a roll ever since. These changes were aimed at manipulative tactics, and were designed to sift the wheat from the chaff so to speak.
While this changed a lot of things, in my opinion the biggest change in the last 3 years or so has been the shift in SEO from silo to Octopus. At this point, not only can SEO not live in a silo, but it can’t hope to survive at all for very much longer without deep and meaningful integration with all other aspects of design, development, marketing, advertising, PR and branding. You just can’t separate it.
As I defined earlier, SEO is anything that positively impacts your organic visibility and traffic; and at this point, practically EVERYTHING can impact your organic visibility and traffic.
This, to me, has been the most impactful change, and unfortunately too many potential clients come looking for someone who can “help them increase their rankings”. They want someone to do SEO for them, when what they really need is for someone to do SEO with them. This webinar, The Ever-Changing Art of SEO, does a great job of explaining this (you can watch the video below if you prefer).
Personally, I love this change. My job used to be manipulating the search engines into ranking whomever was willing to pay me. I loved the challenge, but I hated helping crappy ass sites and companies to rank well, when in all fairness they didn’t deserve to rank well.
Now, I have the opportunity to actually help people make their companies better. To improve their brand image, their overall online strategy, their tracking and targeting and messaging and every other factor under the sun.
For me, I got into the online marketing world because I love puzzles, I love solving complex problems in new and creative ways, so this shift is fantastic…or at least, it should be.
Alas, we still have a problem, and it’s a problem of our own making.
Potential clients are stuck on the SEO of yesteryear, where they could hire someone to get SEO off their plates entirely…so now, when you tell them that SEO is more partnership than service, they dig in their heels like CRAZY! When you tell them you need them and their team to do this or that in order for SEO to work, they’re like “Wait, what? You need me to do something? I thought I hired you to do my SEO for me? WTF?”.
When companies could pay someone $1,000-$5,000/mo to take SEO off their plates entirely, and were making 10-20x or higher returns off that investment, it was an easy decision. That was way cheaper than hiring an in-house expert. But now, most competitive spaces are pretty well optimized. Hiring an SEO company now kind of means hiring a consultant who will be creating a bunch of work for your already stretched thin marketing department…and that’s a hell of a tough sell.
In all fairness, I think at this point it makes more sense for most companies to just hire someone internally. The thing is, with all the changes that Google has made, and will continue to make, if you can’t afford to hire a full-time in-house SEO, and you’re in a remotely competitive space, you probably can’t afford an agency that could actually help you anyway.
So, with all of that said…what’s the future of SEO as a service? Will it survive? What might it look like? Or is SEO simply dead?
For starter’s, let me say this…SEO is not dead. I have no doubt that SEO as a discipline will continue to survive for years to come. Dr. Pete gave a great write-up recently that does a great job of explaining why. And of course, this slide deck from Rand Fishkin of Moz does a great job outlining the future of SEO from an implementation perspective:
All things considered, I think SEO as a standalone service business has a limited lifespan…at least as it existed previously. What I’m starting to see more of, and what I expect to see much more of going forward, is a hybrid approach to SEO services.
A company will hire an SEO internally who has some experience, but who isn’t an expert by any means. A capable technician, but not a strategist so to speak. They’ll then hire an SEO company to do an audit and provide a strategy for their in-house technician to fulfill on. Then, as needed, they’ll reach out to other individuals or companies for pieces of the puzzle: content writing here, social help here, infographics over here, high-end guest blog posts here, and so on.
I see this all the time, and my company, VUDU Marketing, is built around this very concept.
The thing is, this approach makes a ton of sense, and in many cases is a much smarter approach than using an agency. Agencies have a lot of overhead to cover, and charge a lot for things most clients could do just as effectively and for less money internally or via solo contractors.
Sure, there may always be scenarios where an agency makes more sense, but from my perspective I think the value of an agency for small to medium sized businesses has declined, drastically, and will continue to decline going forward.
What are your thoughts? Do you use an agency for SEO? Are you happy with your agency? What do they charge, and do you feel like you get your money’s worth? Let us know in the comments.