The Bleak Future Of Commoditized, Outsourced SEO

SEO tasks vary wildly in complexity: some of them are best done by a seasoned expert, some of them require creative flair, and many are fairly rote—directory submissions, some kinds of copywriting, and some varieties of link-building. For those simple, repetitive tasks, it’s tempting to turn to outsourcing.

In fact, some SEO consulting firms act as a high value-added “interface” between clients and a largely outsourced workforce. The agency knows what firms are worthwhile and what to look for, the outsourcer gets steady work, and the client gets their campaign done at a low cost.

But while this strategy has its perks and its champions, it’s very much a creature of its time. Outsourced SEO relies on:

  1. A big labor price differential
  2. Comparatively cookie-cutter campaigns
  3. Flexibility to allow slow turnaround

Over time, all of these advantages are disappearing.

It Works (Mostly, for Now)

Overseas outsourcing is still a big part of SEO. Most major SEO agencies can easily divide their work into high value-added parts (e.g. complex technical edits, crafty linkbait campaigns) and more mundane parts (e.g. writing product descriptions, submitting to directories). And it makes plenty of sense from the agency’s perspective to outsource this more routine work.

When I worked at an agency, clients sometimes balked at this. My usual response was to ask why anyone would pay Madison Avenue overhead for something that could be done in Mumbai. (As it turns out, Mumbai’s cost of living is quite high. Thanks, in part, to the rise of outsourcing.)

The reason it works is that there are plenty of countries where a large portion of the population speaks English, local opportunities are limited, and there is Internet access available.

But that’s part of the problem. If everyone has Internet access, information flows easily. That makes pricing transparent, so people are able to raise their rates to whatever the market will bear.

The ease of outsourcing is its own undoing, in a way: that high cost of living in Mumbai is in part due to the fact that people in Mumbai are competing against people in London and New York, and earning compensation to match.

Easy To Spec = Easy To Spot

Even if price differences don’t persist, differences in specialization still do: different locations have tended to create clusters based on skill set. New York, for example, is full of agencies with great client relations (and great client lists), but not a lot of people willing to do grunt work.

In other places, it’s harder to find great clients, but easier to find people willing to do some of the more repetitive aspects of implementing SEO campaigns.

For example, many SEO campaigns will outsource tasks like:

  • Article writing and submissions
  • Directory submissions
  • “Stub”-page copywriting (i.e. writing 200 words each about black socks, gray socks, and navy blue socks)

What do these tasks all have in common? They’re easy to spec — one of the most common pitfalls of outsourced work is insufficiently detailed specifications for exactly what the buyer is looking for. Conversely, the strongest case studies in favor of outsourcing involve a product that was rigorously specced in one place, and then faithfully implemented elsewhere.

This leads to an increasing problem in the post-Panda age. Google is paying increasingly close attention to highly templated content and links. And anything that can be specced and scaled is likely to fit that criterion.

Which task is more likely to get outsourced: “Contact our hundred lowest-priority link outreach targets with a form email,” or “Build a relationship with our five most valued link outreach targets”?

Turnaround Matters

One of the disadvantages of outsourcing any project is the extra lead time added by having different working hours. In some projects, that’s actually an advantage: one team is ready to start work just as the other team leaves, so there’s progress at almost all times.

In an SEO campaign, it’s a factor both sides can work with: usually, an outsourced team will work on a longer-term piece of the project, so day-to-day feedback isn’t as important.

Increasingly, search engines are weighting rankings towards timeliness, and timely activity. The speed at which a piece of content gets retweeted or Facebook-shared affects how widely it will disperse (since each act of social sharing has a small viral coefficient).

If this trend continues, minute-to-minute communication and reaction time will matter more and more compared to day-to-day cost-effectiveness.

This, of course, serves search engines’ interests, too: the more their results can reflect the immediate interests of users, the more they’ll be the default start for more Internet browsing sessions, leading to ultimately higher ad revenue.

The Future Of Outsourced SEO

Outsourcing will never die. There’s talent everywhere, and sometimes the right person (at the right price) is offshore. But multiple unrelated factors have converged to chip away at outsourcing’s long-term advantages.

It’s still the right decision for many campaigns, and a drop in “outsourcing” may just mean a shift towards doing more business locally, wherever “locally” might be.

Stock image from Shutterstock, used under license.

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

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is Co-Founder and CEO of Digital Due Diligence, a research firm that helps investors and acquirers understand the business models of SEO-, PPC-, and social media-dependent companies.

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  • Takeshi

    What a pointless article.

  • willspencer

    This article isn’t worthy of an original comment, so I’ll just +1 what Takeshi said.

  • Scot Small

    Agree. How wrong could someone be. Of course dynamics of all business models change over time and must evolve. With the right “onshore” management and leadership, outsourcing will always be a strong business model for those who wish to pursue it.

    This is just crazy talk.

  • David Phillips

    The thing that gets me is that everybody in India thinks they’re an SEO expert. I’ve reached out to people personally who claim to be “experts” and they are all absolute beginners with no real knowledge of SEO. It’s like they find a site full of buzz words related to SEO and base their entire resumes around them. They follow SEOmoz and just regurgitate ideas they’ve read on blogs with no idea of how to implement or the strategy behind initiatives. Not only does it make it difficult to find a good SEO, but they are devaluing the industry and actual seasoned SEO professionals.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    This article is crazy ( I agree with the first 3 comments here).

    SEO has and is evolving and yes has its share of repetitive tasks but does require a great amount of knowledge, real experience and marketing ability these days. As we know social media along with social factors are becoming rapidly much bigger factors within SEO.

  • Clark Mackey

    This article is wrong. Or pointless. Which makes it wrong again.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi all-

    At first I thought this article didn’t have much merit (the headline grabbed me), but Byrne raised a good point: outsourcing to India.

    Personally, I know only of 1 person who resides in India who has a clear understanding of SEO. And he used to work for Yahoo (he developed Site Explorer). That is it.

    In terms of search usability, it is a very bad decision to outsource copywriting to India (or another non-US country) when the target audience is US Americans. If I wanted to write content for India? Then I’ll hire someone from India.

  • George Michie

    Byrne, apparently you struck a nerve with some who rely on outsourcing.

    At RKG, we’ve never outsourced any type of work for a variety of reasons: 1) we like creating jobs in our country; 2) the quality of work outsourced is unlikely to be up to our standards, and we tend to be control freaks; and 3) even routine, repetitive work needs to be done well.

    The trick is to figure out how to get sharp people to do these mundane tasks well and not jump off a bridge. Our approach to that problem is to use this type of work as part of the training process: learn how to do this ‘scut work’ well and quickly, then move on to the next level of learning. After some time folks have hands on experience in many different facets of the game and can lead teams, train others and serve as well-rounded analysts. This works as long as the firm is growing and there is a constant need for new trainees. If we stop growing we’d have to figure out a different solution, and for the solo practitioner this obviously wouldn’t work.

  • Lee Gientke

    With the Panda updates, outsourcing SEO is dead or is morbid. Panda is all about sustainable marketing efforts versus quick easy wins like directory submissions, low quality content from the second world. if you are doing any of that crap, prepare to find another career.

  • Michael


    This article might be a miss but I just wanted to support you by stating that every article can’t be home runs no matter how much time and love we put into them. Keep on trucking man. But in this place where real experts abound just a few degrees left of center triggers nerve pinches :). Trollbait is still bait keep on writing .

  • Effective Site

     a cost of living study just out today by expatistan showed the cost of living in London as 222% more expensive than Mumbai they are ridiculously far from earning “compensation to match”. I know it’s a link bait article but still, don’t be an idiot…


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