In this post I discuss the choice of working with an affordable SEO expert Vs. working with a digital marketing agency or SEO firm, and the potential pitfalls of the middle ground.
There are a wealth of individual freelance search engine optimization experts out there, and a large number of SEO companies or “digital marketing agencies” who offer SEO among other services, and who you should work with really depends on your business, your search terms, your goals and your budget.
Affordable SEO Expert Vs. Digital Marketing Agencies or SEO firms.
When it comes to deciding on who you should work with for your SEO, there are two main choices other than D.I.Y. Hire a freelance SEO expert, or look for a search engine optimization firm or agency.
Working directly with a freelance has it’s benefits, and working with a company who hire a team of SEO professionals also has it’s benefits. It’s purely down to which benefits fit your needs the most.
Hiring an amateur can be far more costly than hiring a professional!
While you would usually expect a freelancer’s services to be more affordable than an agency, it is important to stress that as SEO is a marketing service. You will be expecting a return on your investment obviously, so the “cost” can’t quite be quantified in a linear manner, as it depends on the return. If firm A is paying double the rate of firm B, but firm B is getting zero return & firm A is getting a great return on their investment, then which is the more costly SEO service?
Plus, SEO done badly can cause adverse effects that can plague a website for quite some time. For instance if spammy backlinks are built over a period of time, it will take time and investment to remove these backlinks in order to reverse the negative impact, which is what I mean regarding hiring an amateur being more costly than hiring a pro.
So regardless of whether you decide to work with a freelancer or an agency, you should be very careful in ensuring that you are working with a professional, and remember that a cheaper service might actually cost more.
In terms of whether you would be better off thinking along the lines of an agency or a freelancer though, I’ll start off with an obvious example.
Client A is a new start up company with millions in investment, targeting very competitive national / international search terms, competing with blue chip companies, and the overall goal is to develop a nationally recognized brand with significant market share, over a period of several years.
Client B is a small Pizza delivery business with no actual marketing budget, the company owner is funding the SEO budget via his own pocket. The overall goal is to increase the number of takeaway orders within the next two to three months.
It’s quite obvious to see that these two jobs would be completely different. Client A would usually tender for pitches from digital marketing agencies, while client B would be better suited to the services of an affordable SEO expert.
The majority of bigger businesses would usually be more suited to working with an agency, although having said that there are some very successful individual consultants with strong reputations, who are sought after by large companies often more for advice / training type consulting than hands on SEO work.
Smaller businesses like the pizza delivery business in my example above, would usually get better value for money by working with a freelancer, but again this is thinking of SEO cost as a linear transaction, without taking ROI into account. Some SEO agencies have a minimum monthly retainer that would be too high for most small businesses, while many freelancers would have a smaller lower limit or none at all, and would usually take one off project work rather than purely contract work.
The Personal Touch
One of the benefits of working directly with an SEO consultant rather than via an agency, is you will develop a relationship directly with the person who is doing your SEO. If you’re using an agency, your contact often won’t be the person who is doing the work, so if you have a question it’s not usually as simple as just picking up the phone and talking directly to your SEO consultant, and getting a straight and direct answer.
When one of my clients have a question for instance, they send me an sms or a whatsapp message, or skype, or call me – and ask me the question directly. If they ever have a concern, they know they can get a direct answer straight away.
It’s difficult for agencies employing staff, to work without contracts. This will often mean that the client is tied into a 12 month contract, sometimes with a get out clause such as 30 days notice after 3 months, for example. I never have contracts, and I know this is the case with many other freelancers. My clients are free to vote with their feet, if they’re not happy with the work I’m doing, they can cancel at any time without giving me any notice, as long as I’m paid for the work I’ve done up until that point.
I also offer one off project based work, for instance I will quote for a job that needs doing, and the client can assess the return and then decide whether or not to invest in my services again on a project basis or a monthly retainer basis. Some agencies will also do one off projects, but many focus purely on dependable monthly retainer work.
Regardless of whether you decide on freelancer or agency, there are a few things that you need to keep in mind about SEO:
Getting a website fit to win in the rankings, is very similar to a person getting fit to compete in any sport. In sport you would start out competing at your current level, and then improve from there. You wouldn’t start running and expect to stroll out into the Olympics with little or no training and be able to compete against Usain Bolt! ;-).
You have to keep in mind that there are already other websites in the positions that you want your website to appear, and getting your website there means overtaking that website. Overtaking a website for page ranking is very similar to overtaking another runner during a race. Your website’s “competition fitness” needs raising to the level that it is capable of overtaking a website which is already in that position.
Competition fitness isn’t necessarily an SEO term, I’m just using this term to make it easier to relate to, we tend to use terms such as trust flow and domain authority.
This doesn’t in any way mean that a small business with a modest budget can’t utilize SEO. It simply means picking races that you can win.
Managing your Expectations
SEO isn’t something that brings results overnight. It is still by far the most effective form of online marketing, as the bulk of all web traffic is still via the organic search results, but it takes time and investment. The bigger the difference in terms of the search terms you’re hoping to rank highly for in relation to the current “competition fitness” of your website, the more it will cost & the longer it will take.
One of the reasons you will find so many negative reviews online for SEO companies is that the sales team / accounts manager didn’t do a good enough job of managing the clients expectations from the outset with regard to the results over a given period with the available budget.
What you can do however, is focus on lower hanging fruit, search terms that your website stands a chance of beginning to rank for within a smaller time frame, and then gradually raise your sights to more fruitful search terms as your website develops. This is the most realistic approach for small businesses with small budgets – but “realistic” doesn’t sell all that well, pipe dreams sell better, just remember that if you’re on the other end of the phone to an SEO telesales person ;-).
Mind the Gap!
There are freelance SEO experts who tend to offer more affordable services for small businesses, and then there are SEO firms and agencies who tend to be more well suited for larger firms with bigger budgets. In between, there is a gap which is occupied at least in part by something which would appear to be SEO firms offering services at very affordable rates, bargain rates in some cases that seem like unbelievable deals.
These are often the kinds of companies who focus mainly on cold calling, and who promise the earth for rates that would seem too good to be true. The old saying “if it seems to good to be true, it probably is” is worth keeping in mind. I can’t honestly say that all of the firms who would appear to be of this nature actually are, there may be some that are actually decent firms offering a great service and incredible value for money, but I’m yet to encounter one.
When I have looked into these kinds of firms in the past in order to see what they have actually done with clients websites who were using their services before coming to me, I’ve found a variety of things.
Monthly payment being charged for putting the website into an automated “blaster” type software, which if anything probably did more harm than good.
Monthly fee being taken for putting the website into some directories, most of which were “NoFollow” and which only had to be done once, and didn’t have much chance of resulting in improved rankings.
One was claiming great success from the fact that the website in question was found top of Google for the name of the business, which incidentally was the only actual relevant result on Google for that search…
I recall a conversation with one potential client who was considering taking up the amazing deal an agency had phoned him and offered, which was to rank “number one” on Google, for a staggeringly low cost (It was several years ago and I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was around 100 per month). I advised the client to phone this agency and ask them to confirm which search term(s) they were guaranteeing to rank no1 on Google for this crazy low price, to which they replied that they would just rank number one, full stop. Hmm, Bizarre! ;-). Of course there is no “number one on Google full stop”, Google isn’t a list of websites, it’s a search engine, there is only number one for a particular search term.
There was even one instance where the client had been sold SEO services, and it was actually pay per click. Roughly half the clients monthly fee was being put into a Google Adwords campaign targeting the search terms that had been discussed, and the client was initially impressed at the speed at which they appeared to be gaining results. It was only when the result vanished (monthly budget had been used) that the client became upset and began to investigate. This company it would appear, were actually doing very well with this strategy, and had convinced many small businesses to pay them a monthly fee for SEO services – roughly half of which (as far as I could tell) was taken as profit, and the other half put into the ad campaign. When questioned, this firm stated that pay per click was a form of SEO, so they weren’t lying to customers. Interesting…
The fact that companies like this tend to mainly use telesales and spam as their main marketing strategies is usually a sign that things may not be all that they seem. Why would a firm who claim to be SEO experts not be using mainly SEO to promote their own business?
The quality of the SEO work being done, and the level of expertise of the person or people that will be working on it, is far more important than the question of whether to go for an individual freelance SEO Expert like me, or an SEO firm / agency. Being affordable though, doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to be costly – a very cheap SEO service can work out very costly if it results in issues that take time and money to correct further down the line, and any marketing service that doesn’t provide ROI is an expensive service.