In my experience, the best search engine optimization (SEO) in the world comes from small shops and freelance consultants. That statement (and the following article) is only my opinion, of course, but it’s an opinion based on about 14 years working in this industry.
Let’s get real: any agency (large or small) is primarily in business for themselves, not their clients. Their success is (naturally) built upon the success of their clients, but their clients are not their first priority. They can’t be, because agencies care about their clients only to the extent they impact or influence the interests of their own business model. This can be fine, really, and is even expected. However, it’s important to acknowledge, because that’s exactly the perspective in-house teams have of most agency relationships.
And yes, I myself am the president of a small SEO shop. Okay fine, call it an agency! In that light, the following may appear to be self-serving. Fair enough. Just know that I feel it’s the truth.
Adaptability creates advantages in search
SEO is a competitive field with a lot of money at stake. SEO is also about results: revenue, conversions, pageviews—whatever metric you live and die by. SEO drives traffic, relevant traffic, and top rankings can send lots of it.
Therefore, SEO has always been about finding and leveraging competitive advantages. Giant, slow-moving companies that take over 12 months to implement simple changes to robots.txt files and title tags (true story!) put themselves at a disadvantage to the savvy independent SEOs launching sites every week. The same is true for agencies. If Google changes the rules tomorrow, it’s a lot easier to adapt if you’re a single person (or even a 15 person shop) than if you’re a 300 person agency.
Being small also creates advantages in specialization. A small agency can focus on a single aspect of search—such as local SEO, real-time search, comparative shopping engines (CSEs) or mobile—and learn that area more deeply than departments within large agencies created for a similar purpose. Why? Primarily because large agencies seek to be a single stop for their clients, by offering services across multiple categories, rather than focusing deeply in a few select areas. They think wide, not deep.
SEO gets corporatized
As search gets more corporate, and the fluff gets squeezed out of the market, the landscape is changing. It wasn’t long ago that SEO was a fringe topic reserved for a relatively small selection of insiders. Now, the popularity of search (primarily driven by Google) has given rise to a significant industry. This has helped create a typical bell-shaped distribution curve with the majority of innovation and creativity at the far end, the mass market in the middle, and the fraudsters at the other end. The SEO industry is beginning to resemble the patterns of many other industries in this way.
Big fish sharing food with little fish
With SEO already proliferating the web ecosystem (sites that haven’t been touched by SEO are becoming rare), many large digital agencies with experience on the creative side are using small shops and consultants for SEO needs. Their clients want search marketing services, but they can’t offer it themselves, so they outsource it (relatively) cheaply and mark it up. This can and does work quite well, so long as the client has budget.
This mimics the traditional advertising world, where large agencies often use small studios for creative ideas. Large agencies provide small shops opportunities to work with platinum clients on challenging projects, while the small studios offer creative and innovative work. Unfortunately for them, the studios are usually cheapened in their role and undervalued. They work within a “black box” undisclosed to the client, who believes the large agency is providing all the work.
In my experience working with many different agencies over the last decade (both creative digital companies and large search companies), a similar pattern is emerging in the SEO field. However, where I’ve felt in the past that the creative agency world was predatorial to small studios, in the SEO industry it can be a profitable arrangement for all parties involved. It makes sense to bring in SEO specialists that excel in their specific area—just be sure to fight for transparency in the process if you’re the small shop (or ask who’s doing the work if you’re the client). And don’t let anyone undervalue your work.
SEO and the agency business model
In my opinion, the best SEO talent in the world either owns their own shop, freelances, does independent affiliate or project work or (rarely) holds an in-house position. Most agency or in-house positions can’t shell out the salaries that veteran SEO experts command, but there are exceptions.
From what I’ve seen, small elite shops and consultants time and again have done work that moved the needle further and faster than work from big agencies. The small ones are more nimble, more flexible and more open-minded and motivated. They work with fewer clients and have more riding on each of their successes. These factors lead to a more adaptable and unstructured approach to SEO.
Large agencies tend to rely on formulaic approaches, processes and systems, sometimes resulting in staff and services that are hopelessly behind. Of course many large agencies also have tremendous talent and intelligence on staff, but usually reserve these leaders for business development and marketing. The majority of agency accounts are then managed by junior-level staff, or even interns.
Specialization in the marketplace
SEO has matured a great deal since the mid to late ’90s, and it will surely continue to evolve. It’s becoming clear that sub-sets of the field are emerging, each one requiring a great deal of specialization and knowledge. The audience development work a SEO team does for the New York Times, for example, is going to be much different from the ecommerce work a SEO team does for Amazon. One is going to be focused primarily on building pageviews and the other on building sales, each requiring its own unique strategy and approach.
As specialization occurs, companies and large agencies will continue to look for independent consultants and small shops that solve problems for them. It’s not unthinkable that in five years a small company that specializes only in technical SEO audits may exist. Certainly we’ll see local SEO agencies (we already do, some very big ones), and we already see SEO boutiques doing ecommerce or focusing on specific verticals. I predict a consolidation within the next five years as acquisitions begin to take place among the many small SEO shops and large agencies in the industry.
Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure: I’m going to work hard to keep my agency small and nimble!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.