For most companies, succeeding at search engine optimization (SEO) means working with an expert. This can take the form of an in-house SEO or team, an outside consultant, or an SEO agency. But which one will be the best choice to help you reach your business goals?
Remember that the true results of excellent SEO aren’t just improved SERP rankings; rather, optimizing your business for search engines is about:
How you drive organic web traffic,
Increase brand awareness,
Connect & communicate with your target audience,
Improve conversion rates, and
Drive revenue & growth for your business.
It’s hard (and expensive!) to compete in the web marketplace without a strong SEO strategy and the right professionals to execute it.
Whether to hire an SEO consultant, agency, or in-house specialists depends on what outcomes you’d like to achieve, what tools/resources you already have in place, and how much you’re willing to spend… among other things.
PLEASE NOTE that these are general trends seen across these options; there is and will always be individual differentiation & unique value propositions for an individual contributor (freelance or in-house), or external service providers (agencies or consulting teams) that may resolve any potential concern - or create new ones for that matter!
Let’s review each of the major options and why they may or may not be the right choice for you & your business right now or in the future.
What is an SEO Consultant?
An “SEO consultant” is usually a single freelance person providing strategic search engine optimization advice, training, or services. Often, an SEO consultant may fulfill more of a “freelance SEO expert” role for your company. They are knowledgeable in their field, have experience helping businesses reach specific goals, and come to you with an understanding of the larger goals of online marketing.
Given that they are one person, however, there may be limitations as to how much time & what skills they can devote to solving a particular problem. Consultants can take several forms, and if you choose to work with an SEO consultant, it’s important to establish what they will and won’t do upfront.
For example, some consultants may perform an SEO audit to better understand your current performance (how & when & why) and deliver an improved SEO strategy, leaving it up to your team to implement the programming and SEO content marketing.
Other consultants may offer to train your staff on SEO tips & best practices, or execute technical and on-page SEO tasks on your behalf. It’s always best to establish what you need from your consultant right away and make sure you’re on the same page.
Why working with an SEO Consultant might work for you
Cost-effective ROI Consultants have very low overhead and generally work on a freelance or contract basis, meaning more of your money goes towards working hours (and less hidden fees). Hourly rates for freelance consultants are usually between $100-$150, and monthly costs could range from $2,000-$5,000 depending on your business goals. See more on SEO pricing here.
Personalized service When you hire an SEO consultant, the person you meet with will often be the person completing the actual strategic/execution work for you. While they likely have other clients, you get their full attention when they’re working for you.
Specialized Senior expertise in SEO overall, or some specific aspect of SEO If someone is making a living as an SEO consultant, then SEO is what they do best. You can feel (relatively) confident that they are staying up to date with current trends (e.g. with algorithm updates or schema requirements or backlink building), have diverse skill sets that could benefit your business, and likely have great connections within the digital marketing industry. Their outside perspective can be the exact insight you need to accomplish significant growth.
Complement your team’s skills An SEO consultant could be the perfect solution for you if you already have staff who can complete tasks related to SEO. For example, if you have a copywriter and programmer on staff, they may be able to execute an SEO strategy provided by a consultant. In this case, you would save money by hiring an outside consultant instead of an entire agency team.
Why working with an SEO Consultant might not work for you
Potential for a bad fit Just like any hire, a consultant won’t always be a good fit with your team. Since auditing and creating an SEO strategy involves building an understanding of your business, it can be time-consuming (and costly) to search for the right consultant. That’s why it’s important to ask prospective consultants about their SEO experience, working style, and if they have any case studies or past client successes they can share before beginning to work together.
Potential for lack of ownership Consultants often work with multiple clients at once, and you may only get their full attention for a small percentage of their time (depending on your budget.) This may mean they are less likely to be in tune with your wants, needs, or tone. Consider seeking a consultant that you feel takes the time to understand you, your business, and your unique growth challenges - and is excited to help take you to the next level (and be a “partner” in that path.)
Less control over how things get done With any outside partner, you’ll be giving up some control over how and when things get done. Consultants often work longer or unconventional hours, which can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on how you prefer to work. Without the constant check-ins you’d receive from an in-house employee, projects may not always go the way you expected.
Variable service offerings As we said above, each consultant or team will have their own parameters for what SEO services they offer. If you need a broader service that includes creating, monitoring, and assessing a complete digital marketing strategy, a single SEO consultant may not be able to provide everything you need. In that case, hiring an agency or building an in-house team may be the right solution.
Working with an “SEO Consulting Firm” or "SEO Consultancy" (like The Gray Dot Company - eg a team vs. an individual) can bring you the strategic support you need, with greater availability of skill sets & time. That means we partner with you to craft custom solutions to your strategic opportunities, and either work with your team on execution OR own execution on your behalf.
What is an SEO Agency?
An SEO agency is typically a full-service team of people that will evaluate, monitor, and execute a comprehensive SEO strategy for your business. They differ from consultants in that these marketing firms will almost always be involved in implementing SEO for you. This is a great option if you do not have the resources, staff, or experience to complete SEO yourself. SEO agencies may focus solely on SEO, but often they exist within larger agencies that can also provide digital ad campaign strategy, content creation, web design, and more. If you’d like a group of experts to take over the digital marketing (and all the many digital marketing channels) side of running your business, an agency may be a great option for you.
Why working with an SEO Agency might work for you
Holistic approach As stated above, SEO agencies often have the personnel and expertise to consider a broader marketing strategy when they work for you. They can suggest or incorporate additional tools into your services to make sure you get the most out of your investment, such as copywriting, development, social media marketing and ad monitoring.
Multi-faceted expertise With (often) an entire team of SEO experts on your side, you’ll receive the benefits of each individual’s specific skill set. The old “two heads are better than one” theory can play to your advantage as team members’ diverse perspectives, tools, and experiences work together toward your goals.
Handing over the reins As a business owner, you’re often juggling multiple tasks at once and time is a precious commodity. Most agencies can offer packages that include everything from planning to execution to the analysis of your SEO strategy, meaning you can hand off the work and focus on other issues & opportunities.
Why working with an SEO agency might not work for you
Potential for high financial investment & locked-in contracts SEO agencies come with a higher price tag than consultants and possibly even an in-house specialist. You’re paying for working hours from multiple employees, digital tools and software, and the agency’s overhead costs. When you consider the comprehensive nature of the service you’re receiving and the outcomes you’ll achieve, the price adds up. The usual range of $5,000-$20,000/month for a minimum of 6-12+ months may, however, be out of your business’s budget.
Potential for lack of strategy & senior marketing services Most (but not all!) agencies staff mid-level employees in the highest level roles; other times, the A-team that sells you the contract may not be the (potentially B-team staff) that services your account. If you want truly senior expertise and/or strategy work vs. “all execution all the time,” you’ll likely need to work with a large agency vs. a small one - and vet that experience level.
Potential for high turnover Digital marketing agencies see a high turnover in lower-level positions, meaning there’s less of a chance the people working on your project will have in-depth knowledge of your business.
Potential for slower communication & less control While releasing some control can be great for your daily schedule, you are putting yourself at risk of losing touch with the status of your project and where you are on the path to reaching your goals. There’s a longer communication process between you, your account manager, and the SEO team, meaning problems might not get solved as quickly or in the way you’d like. Depending on the agency, you may need to be diligent about asking for the updates you need.
What is an in-house SEO?
To accomplish SEO goals in-house, there are two approaches you can take: hire one full-time SEO specialist who has experience performing many aspects of SEO strategy, or build out an entire SEO team. Which is right for you will largely depend on your budget, business stage and interest in managing a larger staff over the long haul. Consider things like: Who will the SEO team/specialist report to? Who will monitor their performance and by what metrics? Is there someone already on staff who could contribute expertise? Growing an in-house team can be a great long-term investment in successful marketing, but it’s not the right solution for everyone.
Why working with an in-house SEO might work for you
Interest and dedication to achieving business goals Staff working directly for you are more likely to attach value to the work they do, understand your company’s mission, and invest energy in meeting company outcomes. They may take more ownership of completing projects on time and to your satisfaction, leading to a higher likelihood of SEO success AND overall business success.
Easier collaboration & more control Communication and implementation can happen fast when your team is seeing each other face-to-face each day. Instead of playing phone tag or sending e-mails to a consultant or agency, you’ll be able to answer questions, set tasks, and solve problems swiftly and in person.
Dedicated attention, in-depth, over time In-house teams learn your business in-depth, and - over time - dig deeper and deeper into specific problems, often crafting creative individual solutions to scalable opportunities for growth.
Your business is the top priority An in-house team or specialist has no other clients; you are their top priority. When they don’t have to split their time between multiple projects and customers, more working hours are spent working toward boosting traffic, generating leads, or realizing similar goals. You can ensure laser-focus on growing your business by bringing SEO and marketing in-house.
Why working with an in-house SEO might not work for you
Hiring & HR risks With salaried positions or contracts, it’s harder to end a partnership if it just isn’t working. You risk tying yourself to an SEO who won’t perform in the ways you need or who don’t fit with your company. For early-stage startups or businesses, this is especially troublesome, as you work to prove the value of the business itself AND that particular hire AND that channel - all at the same time. Consultants and agencies will often agree to shorter or more flexible contracts that allow for adjustments based on feedback.
Potential for high costs Can your budget, office, and company resources support additional staff members? An in-house SEO specialist’s salary generally starts at around $60,000, and that increases with expertise. If you want someone with extensive experience that can make a major impact on your business goals, you’ll likely be looking at a salary of over $100,000. With a limited budget, you may not be able to afford the high-level service you need to make a difference. Additionally, senior team members may require help with execution from still more staff members, or staff members with different skills sets like link building or LinkedIn community building.
Hard-skills growth isn’t a focus In-house staff can focus on business expertise vs. channel expertise, meaning that, over time, their “hard” SEO skills can become outdated in a quickly evolving field. You can work to reduce this worry by supporting your staff with ongoing educational opportunities, or complement your team with consultants or agencies that are known for their senior-level skills.
So, what is the difference between a digital marketing agency, a consultant/freelancer, a consulting team, and in-house SEOs?
What it comes down to is:
The existing skillsets and seniority of your embedded teams and/or existing trusted freelancers/agencies
The seniority of expertise you want to complement your existing marketers (or lack thereof)
The business stage you are currently at (startup vs. mature business - from small businesses to enterprise)
The depth & degree of attention you want on the problems/opportunities
Your risk tolerance
The level of control you want at each stage of a project/channel implementation
If you want an expert to guide you and your team towards higher conversions, increased traffic & search engine rankings, and improved brand awareness, then working with consultants may be your answer. If you want to outsource control of SEO and internet marketing to a specialized team, then hiring an agency might be best for you. If you can support new staff members and want SEO specialists to collaborate with your staff easily, then hiring in-house may serve you well.
What should you consider when hiring an SEO professional?
How much strategy support you need (& have) vs. execution support
Your current SEO roadblocks & the skills/tools needed to overcome them
Your working style, and that of your team
How you want to scale SEO results
Your budget & timeline to success
Your business objectives (think end-goals like lead generation, sales conversions, or brand reputation management)
“Fit” with your specific choice of solution(s)
If industry/vertical specialization is important to you & your industry
Don't forget that these options aren't mutually exclusive - Agencies and Consultants/Consulting Teams can and do work with embedded teams when that's desirable for the business. Also keep in mind that documenting goals and milestones will keep ALL parties better aligned and on track for success.
The Gray Dot Company offers senior, strategic SEO consulting services that focus on achieving your business goals. Our specialized team can conduct a Discovery and provide an expert strategy & roadmap for overcoming challenges and getting you on track to achieving key outcomes. Our approach offers flexibility and an emphasis on building strong partnerships for our mutual success.