Let’s face it—SEO is pretty intimidating, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. But you know how damn popular Google is, and you know all your competitors have already jumped on the bandwagon. It’s practically a necessity to have some kind of search-related online marketing strategy, so you’ve either sought out or you’ve considered enlisting the services of an SEO agency.
Now, there are a ton of high-quality SEO agencies out there, and firms (like ours) that offer SEO services as part of a package deal, to varying degrees. But “SEO” has this kind of mystique about it, especially to newcomers. SEO agencies are sometimes seen as working a modern magic to get results, and to a casual observer, this may ring as true. But the reality is, SEO is much more grounded in manual tasks, and much less supernatural than it seems.
In fact, there are some unpleasant truths about the SEO industry that your agency probably doesn’t want you to know—or at least won’t tell you upfront:
- They don’t really know what they’re doing. Guess what? Google doesn’t publish much information about how its ranking algorithm actually works. Really. We have access to the search quality raters guidelines (which is an important recommended read), and occasionally some information about new updates, but for the most part, all of our collective knowledge is based on experiments and information from other experts. If that weren’t enough, we have to factor in the fact that every business is going to operate differently, and what works for one business may not work for another. We know enough to tinker and inch our way closer to results, but for the most part, we have a lot less information than we’d like to pretend.
- You can learn to do SEO yourself. Your SEO agency will probably tell you that SEO is very technically complicated and that there’s no way you can do it all yourself. Guess why? They want your business. The truth is, SEO actually is complex, and it takes a long time to learn all the interrelated puzzle pieces that go into a successful strategy (not to mention some of the more technical components that come into play when developing your site or troubleshooting). But that doesn’t mean it’s unlearnable—you just have to invest the time necessary to educate yourself (and Google can even help you along the way).
- SEO hasn’t changed that much since Panda. Most SEO journalists like to hop on every micro-Google update or shakeup in rankings like it’s a revolution in search. But the truth is, Google’s core algorithm hasn’t changed that much since Panda or Penguin. Hummingbird and RankBrain have helped develop semantic search, the Knowledge Graph and local results have shifted SERP appearances dramatically, and dozens of other small updates have provided additional considerations for optimizers, but the fundamentals are still the same. Good content, user-friendly site structures, and natural inbound links will get you ranked higher.
- They’re probably using cheap labor. This is probably the shadiest item on this list, but it isn’t as shady as it might seem on the surface. Your SEO agency is probably charging you something on the order of $3,000 to $10,000 a month (unless they’re really cheaping out on your service packages, in which case I would recommend researching an alternative provider), but they’re probably relying on cheaper workers, such as content specialists or social media marketers, who can assist the campaign for cheaper. It’s possible to forgo the agency and work with these niche specialists (often independent contractors) directly, but remember—the agency is doing the job of coordinating all those interlocking pieces, which you may find is worth more than the extra money you pay for them.
- Viral content is super hard. Good God, it’s hard to make a piece of content go viral. You can have a perfect piece in theory—original, well-researched, sufficiently detailed, interesting, targeted, etc.—but if it isn’t timed perfectly, and if the right people don’t catch onto it in the right way at the right time, it can fizzle. You can increase your chances of getting viral content, which is perfect for long-term campaigns, but even the best content agencies don’t have full control over how content popularity develops.
- Your results depend a bit on luck. Along those same lines, it’s a little frightening, but some of your results depend on luck. SEO agencies don’t like to talk about this, but it’s true. Countless uncontrollable variables—including moves from the competition, changes in search volume and user behavior, algorithm updates, index refreshes, and dozens of other factors—can influence your rank on any given day. The same is true for specific SEO strategies like content marketing and social media marketing. SEO agencies can lead you toward “good” results—but they can’t guarantee them in any capacity. Remember that.
Should You Hire an SEO Agency?
All of this might make it seem like SEO agencies are deceitful firms, intentionally trying to mask their intentions or lead you astray. But this characterization isn’t accurate; SEO agencies may avoid going out of their way to disclose the least pleasant truths of their industry, but the same can be said for any business in any industry. Apple doesn’t go out of its way to promote its Chinese factories, and McDonald’s doesn’t show you the behind-the-scenes of how chicken nuggets are made. These examples may raise ethical objections, but try to take them at face value, understanding that the realities of any industry are less glamorous than the final, consumer-facing products and results would have you believe.
All this is to say that some agencies are good, some agencies are bad, and most agencies are less pretty than they look on the surface—but this doesn’t affect their effectiveness or value. On the whole, SEO agencies are worth the money you put into them—as long as you’ve done your homework.
If you’re looking for an SEO partner that isn’t afraid to tell you the dirty behind-the-scenes details and give you the full scoop of the services you’re getting—have a conversation with us. Talk to me (Derek) or Sarah directly, and we’ll help you understand the full scope and full value of what we offer.