Do SEOs Really Need Direct Industry Experience To Be Effective?

Have you ever heard this before? “We like everything you have said so far, and your proposal looks great, but the only concern we have is your lack of direct experience working in our industry.”

Perhaps a better question would be, “Is direct industry experience really necessary to be an effective SEO?

Lee Odden, CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, discusses this topic in his article, How to Hire a SEO Firm – According to Google:

What’s your experience in my industry? – Experience in a particular industry may be important on one level, but a company that specializes in a particular vertical warrants questions about conflict of interest. How can a company specialize in “real estate” for example, without working for competing firms? The biggest advantages that come industry specific experience is the ability to quickly ramp up on client key messaging and audience needs as well as connections made online for content promotion, online public relations and link building.

I agree completely with all of the above!

Overall though, I am a believer that a good SEO agency, or search professional, can be highly successful for a client without having prior experience in that client’s industry.

Here are some thoughts on both sides of the issue.

Why industry experience is not critical

Conflict of interest issues. An SEO agency should not work with more than one client in a given keyword space. If there were a way to ensure that a large agency would be able to keep its professionals from sharing information, perhaps this is feasible. If not, then how can you possibly decide which client you work harder for? Who gets the best, unique content? Who gets the coveted link placements? Would a client even be comfortable with such an arrangement?

Technical SEO is technical SEO. In many cases a large part of the opportunity for improvement in search engine results comes from technical issues related to URL structure, domain management, solid website architecture, pulling content out from behind a search function, dissemination of data feeds and so on. This requires absolutely no prior experience in a given industry.

Unbiased keyword research. On this side of the argument, I would say that it is the job of any good SEO professional to help a client uncover the most-valuable keywords through extensive research. In fact, lack of prior experience in an industry could have a positive effect by pushing the client to think about how they position their products & services as the agency moves up the learning curve and discovers for themselves how people search in that space.

The process in itself is often extremely eye-opening for the client. “Sure, that’s the CEO’s favorite search term. But, what we see in our research is that these 20 phrases have high search volumes, are much better qualifiers of buying intent, and this is how people in the trade are talking about what you offer.”

Not to mention that when you are digging deep into keyword research, you will use as many data sources as possible—keyword tools, trade publications, blog content, social media conversations, analysis of competitors’ websites (be careful here—they may not be as smart as you think!), internal site search data, any existing PPC data, web analytics data, review of materials written by the client (hopefully materials that are a bit more “organic” than marketing collateral, such as articles & opinion pieces), etc.

Content generation can be outsourced. I suspect that, in general, an SEO firm is not going to have staff members that have actually worked in the client’s industry (i.e. on the “client side”).

If you are lucky enough to find an SEO firm where someone there was in charge of marketing or product management at a competing firm, partner, vendor, etc., then you should strongly consider working with them (assuming that they also have strong technical skills and a track record).

If not, then producing great content typically takes the form of either using the client’s internal resources, finding an expert in the field to write content/consult on content generation, or working with a content writer that has successfully shown in the past that they can adapt to new industries quickly.

Link building is link building. As with keyword research, it is the job of an SEO professional to find high-quality link/promotional opportunities. And, just like keyword research, there are specific techniques for finding those opportunities:

  • Find the right bloggers, trade publications, trade associations, niche social communities, etc.
  • Leverage client relationships with partners, vendors, associations, educational institutions, etc.
  • Check out competitors’ in-bound links (e.g. use of SEO tools, basic search commands such as, or using Yahoo! Site Explorer)
  • Monitor broader social networks for opportunities (Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Delicious, etc.)

Why industry experience is beneficial

Industry experience counts for something. If you have no conflict of interest issues with working in the same keyword space (not just direct competition), and it is a situation where prior industry experience comes from working in a related area (partner, vendor, etc.), then there isn’t much of an argument against working together. At least I can’t think of anything at the moment.

Knowledge-based keyword research. There probably is something to be said about the benefits of already knowing which keywords resonate with searchers and produce results. If someone were to deposit 12 months of PPC history on your doorstep, with conversion metrics, you’d probably take it (unless you knew that it was stolen, broke confidentiality agreements, etc.).

But there’s that old, prickly “conflict of interest” thing again. If you are looking for an SEO firm with prior experience in your industry, and they agree to work with you, let’s hope they are both willing and able to keep your information confidential.

Content expertise. Prior experience could absolutely help in the area of creating great content. If you happen to find that agency that has a staffer who used to work in/and around your industry, then there could be a great fit. Just hope that if you choose that firm that they are putting as much energy into creating unique, valuable content for you as they are for any other clients in your space. Or that they are not the type of firm that will break confidentiality agreements to leverage their experiences with content that worked for someone else in the past. You could be next.

Insider link building contacts. It would be ideal if you could find someone with a database of contacts that could be mined to quickly start disseminating your message. Instant link outreach. It’s quite possible that there is an argument in favor of finding a link specialist who has done this in your industry before.

I’m having a hard time finding the negative to this—unless that link specialist had to make decisions about “either/or.” Having a great network is likely one of the strongest selling points that experts such as Jim Boykin, Eric Ward and others have (but they are smart and creative as well).

Link building is one of those areas where you can make decisions about staying with your SEO partner for the overall optimization program, but then either supplementing link building with a 3rd party and/or having your SEO partner source the appropriate link acquisition talent (I am not talking about paid links in any way, shape, or form here).

What are your thoughts on whether or not prior industry experience is a must have for a successful SEO program? Please share your thoughts in the comments area below.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features: Analysis | SEM Industry: Outsourcing


About The Author: is the founder and former president of KoMarketing Associates, LLC, a search engine marketing firm based in Waltham, MA. You can learn more about what he does at and can follow him on Twitter at @akomack.

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  • semlady

    All other things being equal, it can be helpful to have experience in the specific industry you are working on for the client.

    That being said, it’s not strictly necessary to have direct experience working in an industry you are marketing for. If you have a solid relationship with the client, you are working in partnership, and the client can offer their insights into the campaign.

    Most of the time, it’s fairly easy to pick out the key players in the market pretty quickly, and make a plan for the client. At the same time however, I’ve also found that as an SEO, after a while you learn about topics in great detail that you never even knew existed, which is all part of the fun. ;)

  • jayacrsonian

    I believe my clients find comfort in my promise of not working with their direct competition.

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