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SEO Consultant, Agency, or In-House Specialists: Which to Hire & What to Consider When Hiring

Published on: 
July 27, 2021
Updated on: 
August 25, 2021
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray

Most businesses that invest in SEO stand to gain from the help of experts. The challenge for those looking for such help is in determining what kind of experts to work with: an SEO consultant, agency, or in-house specialist.

Like most forms of marketing, good SEO is never a one-size-fits-all program. Success is often achieved with custom-tailored strategies that align with your business’s unique strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.

In turn, the decision to hire an SEO consultant, agency, or in-house marketer depends on several key considerations, including:

  • the SEO objectives and targeted outcomes you wish to achieve
  • your existing SEO strategies and how well you're currently performing
  • the tools and resources you already have in place
  • your marketing budget and how much you're willing to invest
  • the potential ROI you could gain
  • the general size, stage, and nature of your business

You have several options when seeking the help of an SEO expert, and each offers unique levels of differentiation and value propositions. Having a better understanding of these parties’ roles and relationship dynamics will bring greater clarity as to the type of help that best suits your company and its marketing goals.

What is an SEO consultant?

SEO consultants are most commonly individual contractors or small teams of specialists who provide strategic SEO guidance, training, and services. These experts usually have well over a decade of digital marketing experience and offer substantial depth and understanding in the art and science of SEO.

Unlike some agencies that assign an employed SEO specialist or account manager to a given client, professional SEO consultants often have more integrated roles with the companies they serve. They are some of the most experienced and knowledgeable experts in their craft, and they also typically come with strong backgrounds in either agency environments or in-house ones.

SEO consultants provide a high level of research, planning, and actionable guidance. But when it comes to execution and implementation, the role of SEO consultants is often more limited compared to that of agencies and in-house professionals.

What does an SEO consultant do?

SEO consultants are masters of auditing performance and pinpointing the major weaknesses and opportunities that ultimately move the needle. For example, most consultants perform technical audits, content audits, or both, to better understand your current performance and deliver a detailed SEO action plan, leaving it up to your team to implement the programming and content creation.

Other consultants may specialize in training your staff on SEO best practices, such as how to execute technical SEO, on-page SEO, and content marketing strategies you may need to succeed. Consultants provide subject matter expertise that meets you where your team is, and they can also help you track and measure the performance of your SEO investment.

It’s always best to establish what you need from your consultant right away and make sure you’re on the same page. Some SEO consultants position themselves as experts in algorithm recovery or link building, while others are more proficient in technical SEO and website optimization. Working with a consultant who can hone your weaknesses while playing to your strengths will provide the best ROI long term.

Female SEO consultant works from home on a laptop while sitting on the floor by her couch

The pros of hiring an SEO consultant:

Cost-effective ROI

Unlike SEO agencies who staff several employees who often work from an office or central location, consultants often have very low overhead and generally work on a freelance or contract basis. This usually means that more of your money goes towards working hours and less toward agency overhead. Hourly rates for SEO consultants vary widely depending on their experience and the quality of work they deliver, but they’re typically priced between $100-$350 per hour, and monthly costs could range from $2,000-$8,000 (or more) depending on your engagement. Learn more about average SEO pricing.

Personalized service

When you hire an SEO consultant, the person you meet with will often be the same individual delivering the actual work. The same goes when working with a small team of SEO consultants; seldomly are communications channeled through project managers and account managers. Rather, your point of contact is typically the person who is rolling up their sleeves for your company. While they likely have other clients, you get concentrated attention and more personalized service compared to working with an SEO agency.

Specialized, senior-level expertise

If someone is making a living as an SEO consultant, then SEO is what they do best. If you’ve done your diligence in recruiting the right consultant, you can feel confident that they are staying up to date with current trends, offer diverse skill sets that could benefit your business, and likely have valuable connections within the internet marketing industry. Their outside perspective can be the exact insight you need to achieve significant growth.

Complement your team’s capabilities

An SEO consultant could be the perfect solution for your business if you already have members on your team who can execute SEO-related tasks. For example, if you have both a copywriter and programmer on staff, these professionals may be able to implement much of the SEO recommendations provided by a consultant. In this common scenario, your business would save time and money by hiring an outside SEO consultant versus an entire agency that staffs overlapping professionals.

The cons of hiring an SEO consultant:

Potential for a bad fit

Just like any hire, a consultant won’t always be a perfect fit with your team. Since auditing and creating an SEO strategy involves a thorough understanding of your business, it can be time-consuming (and costly) to partner with the right long-term consultant. That’s why it’s important to discuss a prospective consultant’s SEO experience, core competencies, working dynamics, and if they have any case studies or past client successes they can share before kicking off the relationship.

Communication bottlenecks

Consultants often work with multiple clients at once, and depending on your engagement, you may only get their full attention during certain periods of the day, or in some cases, the entire week.  This could result in communication bottlenecks, such as getting timely answers to your questions or undergoing projects that drag out for much longer than desired. In turn, it's crucial to find an SEO consultant who takes the time to understand your team, the business, its unique challenges - and is fully transparent about their availability.

Less control over how things get done

With any outside partner, you compromise some level of 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 and your team prefer to work. Without the frequent check-ins you’d receive from an in-house SEO, or agency account manager, projects may not always go the way you expected.

Variable service offerings

As stated above, each consultant or team will have their own parameters for what SEO services they offer. If you need broader services that include creating, monitoring, and assessing a complete digital marketing strategy, a single SEO consultant may not be the single-handed solution. In that case, hiring an agency or building an in-house team may be the better path to take.

Working with an "SEO consulting firm” (like The Gray Dot Company, e.g., a team vs. an individual) can bring you the strategic support you need, with greater availability of both skillsets and 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 a team of full-time professionals with the capacity to evaluate, monitor, and execute a comprehensive SEO strategy for your business. They differ from consultants in that they will almost always be involved in implementing SEO for you, instead of providing a detailed action plan or content brief for your team to execute.

Hiring an SEO agency is a great option if you do not have the resources, staff, or experience to handle SEO integration yourself. SEO agencies may focus solely on search engine optimization, but often larger agencies can also provide a greater breadth of services, including PPC advertising, social media marketing,  web design, and more. Alternatively, some SEO agencies have specific departments or specialists on staff to help with backlink building, content creation, technical SEO, and other more granular aspects that organizations value.

If you like the idea of a group of experts taking over the SEO (or entire digital marketing) side of your business, an agency may be a great option for you.

SEO Agency team sits in a meeting and collaborates over their laptops

The pros of hiring an SEO agency:

Holistic approach

As alluded to above, most SEO companies employ the personnel and expertise to handle a broader range of digital marketing services compared to individual SEO consultants. Additionally, agencies can oftentimes deliver wider capabilities in the ongoing maintenance and reporting of your overarching marketing program. Not only do some SEO agencies staff dedicated analytics specialists, but they also employ project managers who help keep things organized and moving forward.

Multi-faceted expertise

With an entire SEO team on your side, you’ll receive the benefits of each individual’s specific skill set as well as their executional capacity. In a profession where perspectives can vary widely, the old “two heads are better than one” saying can play to your advantage as team members’ diverse outlooks, toolkits, and experiences work together toward your goals.

Perhaps most advantageous, full-service marketing firms offer additional offline and online marketing services that you can leverage. In the online realm, this might include paid advertising, link building, social media marketing, and reputation management.  For offline opportunities, some marketing firms provide capabilities in brand building, photography and videography, print media, and TV ads.

Handing over the reins

For businesses engaged in many different digital marketing channels, it can be difficult to manage the myriad campaigns, personnel, and strategic decision-making involved. In such cases, an SEO agency can be a huge weight lifted.

Most agencies can tailor their services to include everything from omnichannel planning to channel-specific execution. With a trusted  SEO agency executing your program, you can focus on other important issues and opportunities.

The cons of working with an SEO agency:

High financial investment & locked-in contracts

SEO agencies usually come at a much higher price tag than consultants, and possibly even more than in-house specialists. You’re paying for multiple employees’ working hours, tools and software platforms, and the agency’s overhead costs. When you weigh the comprehensive nature of agency services with the potential outcomes you’ll achieve, the price will likely come at a premium. And even with a higher cost, SEO results can never be guaranteed.

The price range for agency services is vast, spanning from $5,000 to $20,000/month. Although some agencies can tailor lower-cost monthly programs, you often get what you pay for. Additionally, some agencies lock you into a program for at least 6 months, which can also come at a disadvantage if things go awry, or there are culture “fit” issues.

Potential for lack of strategy & senior expertise

Agencies typically come with several layers of command. And not all agency politics are treated equally. For instance, many SEO agencies will staff mid-level employees to occupy senior-level positions. Similarly, the A-team that sells you the contract may not be the members spearheading the work. But rather, it’s the B-team that actually services your account.

Some agencies spend more time crafting their pitch & presentation for the work than actually executing the work, which creates challenges when it comes to hitting your KPIs.

To mitigate the risks of investing in a sub-par SEO provider, it’s critical to thoroughly vet the experience level of the team you’ll work with. Some small SEO agencies with ten or fewer employees often put you, as the client, closer to the talent; larger agencies may have a broader reach to bring you highly specialized expertise.

High agency turnover

Digital marketing agencies see a high turnover in lower-level positions, which can result in instability over who’s overseeing your account and who’s doing the work. High turnover also means the individuals working on your project may not have quite the in-depth knowledge about your business. In other words, if you’re being introduced to a new point of contact every few months, it could be a red flag that there’s an internal conflict in the agency.

Less control and slower communication

While releasing some control can free up your daily schedule, you can also lose touch with the status of your project. While, for some managers and business owners, it can be a good thing to detach from the day-to-day minutiae, such detachment can also waver the company’s focus on its target SEO objectives.

In some cases with agencies that may be spread thin, there’s the risk of prolonged communication 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 updates, or at the very least, knowing who your point of contact is within the agency.

What is an in-house SEO?

As more and more businesses see the marketing value of SEO, the trends toward acquiring in-house talent continue to rise. In most cases, in-house SEOs will have proficiencies in keyword research and strategy planning, content creation, identifying and fixing problems, tracking and analytics, and/or technical SEO and website optimization.  

In-house roles take many shapes, from employing part-time, contractor-like SEOs to staffing a complete digital marketing team. The best option for you and your business will largely depend on your size, industry, target audience, and marketing budget. While most brands are moving toward in-house teams, medium to small businesses might find a hybrid approach most effective and cost-efficient.

When entertaining the idea of taking your SEO in-house, keep in mind considerations like

  • what projects will they work on
  • who they'll report to
  • how performance will be measured
  • how they fit into the company's culture and long-term growth

Building an in-house team can be a great long-term investment in growing a successful business, but it’s not the right solution for everyone.

Diverse in-house SEO team collaborates at a meeting of the minds

The pros of hiring an in-house SEO:

Devotion to achieving business goals

Compared to vendor relationships, in-house team members are more likely to attach meaning and value to the work they do. They’ll also be more attuned to the company’s mission and values, and invest passionate energy in growing the company.

Often viewed as a cross between an SEO consultant and an agency, in-house teams bring the perfect combination of strategic vision and executional capabilities. Because they’re typically more devoted than any vendor, in-house SEOs take greater ownership in delivering high-quality work and being able to show its impact.

Easier collaboration and communication

The period between collaboration and decision making to the point of creation and implementation can happen much faster when your team is integrated and communicating with each other regularly. Staffing an in-house team can also foster greater unification and an overall common wavelength among professionals who see eye-to-eye.

With agencies, you’re often working through several layers of personnel, starting with an account manager or primary point of contact. Any technical or strategic questions will usually be relayed to the most qualified specialists in the agency, and later circled back to the account manager and eventually the client. In short, it can sometimes be an inefficient and costly relationship.

Breadth of channel ownership

Unless you operate a brand that staffs a complete digital marketing team, your in-house SEO hire will probably wear many different hats for the company. For instance, it's not uncommon for in-house roles to involve managing a business's social media presence (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.), blog, email newsletter, or paid ad campaigns.

Recruiting an in-house specialist that can offer a multi-channel Swiss Army skill set can provide a real asset to any business or brand. Although such talent is difficult to acquire, these skilled in-house recruits deliver an ROI that’s priceless.

Passion for growth

Parallel with in-house onboarding trends, more and more SEO professionals are finding greater meaning in their work by seeking employment with one company versus working for many clients in an agency setting. With that comes a renewed sense of passion and fulfillment growing with the business.

In-house teams learn your business inside and out. They dig deep into problems and craft creative solutions to remedy the situation, even if it’s outside the realm of their expertise. They continue to seek the “next big thing” year over year over year, when an outside provider may have run out of ideas.

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 clients, more working hours are spent growing the business

The cons of hiring an in-house SEO:

Hiring & HR risks

Recruiting salaried employees comes with greater commitment. Not only is it a long-term investment cultivating in-house talent, but the hiring process itself can be both costly and resource-intensive. Plus, if your business doesn't have an HR backbone to manage the recruiting process, it can be even more challenging to acquire and retain great SEO help in-house.

The flexibility you get with an SEO agency or consultant is a huge benefit. Typically in a matter of a couple of months, you’ll know whether or not the relationship is going to work. In cases that it’s not, it’s much easier to end the relationship and pivot to alternative solutions that might work better.

Potential for high costs

One of the biggest pitfalls to hiring in-house talent is the cost involved. Not only can the cost of an employee's salary outweigh agency fees, but the cost of recruiting and retaining quality help is a significant expense in itself.

The salary for an in-house SEO specialist generally averages around $60,000, and that increases with expertise. If you’re looking for someone with extensive experience that can make a major impact on your business, you could easily be looking at a salary of over $100,000. With a limited budget, many in-house SEO specialists may not be financially feasible.

Hard-skills growth isn’t always a focus

The quality spectrum of self-proclaimed SEO specialists is vast. There are many professionals who measure their worth by years of experience, and with the same token, rely on outdated practices and obsolete SEO techniques that fail to move the needle.

In a dynamic field like SEO, keeping up with the latest trends and best practices is a must. This is why properly vetting your prospective hires and asking the right questions is so crucial. Here are a few tips from Google on asking the right questions when hiring an SEO, as well as a video on how to hire an in-house specialist.

Is an agency, consultant, or in-house SEO right for you?

By now, you might have a better idea as to whether an agency, consultant, or in-house recruit is the best fit for your business. To bring the above points full circle, below are a few final considerations to keep in mind.

In many cases, the decision between these three central options comes down to:

  • The existing skillsets and seniority of your current teams, including vendor relationships with contractors/freelancers, consultants, or agencies.
  • The type of expertise and level of seniority you want to complement your existing team (or lack thereof).
  • The nature of your business and its target market (i.e., eCommerce, B2B vs B2C, etc.)
  • The stage of growth your business is in (i.e., startup venture vs. thriving enterprise).
  • The short- and long-term SEO goals and objectives you’ve set for the company.
  • The depth and degree of attention you want to be put towards solving problems and exploring new opportunities
  • The size of your budget and capacity to hire new talent
  • 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 capable team on the path toward greater success in the search results, then working with an SEO consultant may be a viable solution.

If you want to outsource greater control of your SEO and digital marketing efforts to a specialized team, then hiring an agency might be the best fit.

If you can support hiring new team members and want SEO more deeply rooted in the collaboration and throughput of your business, then recruiting an SEO or digital marketing specialist may serve you well long-term.

Keep in mind that many organizations choose a blended approach, pulling in the right solution at the right time.

About The Gray Dot Company, an SEO consultancy firm

These insights were provided by The Gray Dot Company, a senior SEO consultancy firm that provides custom-made, in-depth strategic guidance across all aspects of your SEO. From SEO investigations and discovery to content marketing and link-building strategy, The Gray Dot Company provides flexible services designed to build momentum at any stage of your business.

Take a look at some of our past work, learn more about our approach, or get in touch to schedule a consultation today.

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