Small & Nimble Trumps Big & Slow In SEO

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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength


About The Author: is the Chief Knowledge Officer at RKG, where he blogs regularly. You'll find him speaking at conferences around the world when he's not riding down mountains on something fast. Follow Adam on Twitter as @audette.

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  • Maggie@losasso

    Great post! I definitely agree that a fast & nimble SEO team is vital to a company’s online success. The internet is always evolving and the agencies that can evolve with it will provide better service than those that cannot adapt quickly.

  • Stupidscript

    From the article: “…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.”

    Your example notes a department that is dedicated to a specialty within the big company, and you claim that the department is incapable of achieving “deep focus” on that specialty simply because the company around it is too large?

    The fact that such a specialty department exists at all in the large firm is an indicator that they have the resources to encourage “deep focus” for specialties. To assume as you have that those people who are providing the “deep focus” for the large firms are less capable than those who do it for small firms is not supported.

    Most of your article makes the claim that small shops cannot do the whole job, but rather act as specialized talent pools for nimble large companies to bring on as projects warrant. You actually say that small shops should not try to act as a one-stop … as that is a “bad thing” that those wimpy large companies do.

    You claim that large companies hire small ones for their expertise, but seem to be unable to manage their own departments successfully. That’s really not an argument, or even close to my own, lengthy experience, at all. Either the large companies have their own, in-house experts in departments that provide “deep focus” to specialties with the accompanying resources only a large firm can provide, or they use those resources to bring in small companies to fill in the gaps as needed.

    In the first case, you have not provided anything resembling a compelling argument against large firms’ ability to manage their expert resources, and in the second, the large firms aren’t even trying to do the SEO … they are hiring the small firms to do it! What’s the issue, again?

    The client doesn’t care if small-shop specialists are brought in, as long as the work gets done well.

    Any company that cannot be as nimble as its market demands is doomed, regardless of the size of the company. Any company can be nimble, if it makes the effort to do so.

    I would say that with the same or greater resources drawing from the same or greater pool of talent, a large shop actually has a greater chance of providing a more in-depth, higher quality service to its clients than a small shop, as long as the large company remains dedicated to service in the interests of furthering its own fortunes.

    Can a small shop hire someone JUST for Google? And someone JUST for mobile? And someone JUST for social media? And someone JUST for Bing? And someone JUST for building marketing campaigns? That’s 5 employees in a small shop, just for a few specialties. For most small shops I have worked with, that’s more employees than the rest of the operation, combined!

    I guess if it’s a “bad thing” to be a one-stop, then that’s fine, because according to this article, all a small shop really needs are one or two specialists … and connections to some large companies to contract them.

    “Small & nimble” may trump “big & slow” in terms of escaping the onrushing flow of tar gushing from the primordial swamps, but you couldn’t prove it using this article. You might as well argue that independent authors write better articles than writers who are under contract to a large publishing house … just because they don’t work for a large publishing house full time. Sorry. The article didn’t convince me.

  • Adam Audette

    @Stupidscript Lengthy response – I guess I hit a nerve. Sounds like we’d be better off debating over a beer sometime.

    If the article didn’t convince you, I doubt any comment I can provide here will. All I’ll say is – this is the truth as I see it, from my experience.

  • LightningLew

    Hi Adam,
    As soon as I saw the ‘small & nimble’ in your headline I knew it was a great post – and here’s a different angle on it. Nate and myself started Hidden Equity with a premise of remaining small, nimble AND being particularly helpful to the small(er) business world that doesn’t have the resources that the big guys do. Both Nate & I have been involved in entrepreneurial efforts for our entire careers, so it was a key vision that we look to help the people & businesses who are ‘Main Street USA’ versus the corporate giants who generally are faceless and have no true desire to help anyone but themselves (ie their stockholders). Small Business has been the backbone of America, fueling jobs & innovation. My experience with ‘Big Business’ has been the opposite; lots of BS like, “how high can you jump?” and “guess what we are really doing” (because we’ll never share that). Here’s to independent, entrepreneurial business people working hard and sharing with their communities.
    Thanks Adam.

  • johnsantangelo

    There’s also such a thing as too small as well… when an entire operation shuts down for a big conference or string of conferences. Working with established shops with more than a handful of folks can avoid those downtimes.


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