When A Stranger Calls: The Effect Of Agency Pitches On In-House SEO Programs

An exasperated in-house SEO recently asked colleagues on Twitter how to respond after upper management had met with an agency that had offered suboptimal, but eagerly digested, SEO advice. How indeed. Sooner or later, most in-house SEOs will face a similar situation, and how you respond may impact the budget you have to work with, the size of your team, and even your continued employment.

I should start by noting that “agency” is all-encompassing term, and that companies of any size are increasingly being approached by a wide variety of vendors offering search marketing products and services. These may include link builders, content providers and tool developers, in addition to dedicated SEO agencies or marketing agencies with a search component.

Given that you have an in-house SEO program can these proffered products and services be dismissed out of hand as either unnecessary or redundant? Absolutely not.  For any number of reasons – a lack of internal resources, perceived competitive advantage of adopting a new technology, cost savings – it may benefit an in-house SEO program to work with external vendors. And as the in-house expert, you have a responsibility to give any proposals due consideration.

For the competent SEO, fielding and responding to a vendor or agency pitch should not present significant problems. When that same pitch is made directly to your CEO, head of IT or other management stakeholder it can, however, present a significant challenge.  On one hand, an interloper might cast unfounded doubt on the focus or effectiveness of your SEO efforts. On the other, an executive might be seduced by an illusory promise of search engine domination. Both can deplete your resources and hard-won credibility, and need to be dealt with deftly.

My robot thinks your SEO sucks

“Your title is 50% relevant. … Your SEO score is 70%.”

If there is any doubt where this unsolicited email is going, it is clarified by the next paragraph, which goes on to say that “if you can stomach more bad news about what your site needs” then their sales team would be delighted to talk with you.

As absurd as this may seem to the seasoned search professional, a missive like this can raise doubts about your competency in the mind of an executive with little SEO knowledge, as evidenced by the fact that this was forwarded to an SEO from his employer. You need to nip this in the bud. Explain, caustically, that this was an automated message generated on the basis of a script with no actual insight regarding your site’s structure, business goals or the or industry space it occupies, let alone any knowledge of search marketing efforts already underway.

If it was even produced as a result of a robotic assessment… I’m 50% certain that 70% of site owners receive this exact email.

The blind pitching the blind

That same uneducated executive may also be susceptible to pitches that rely upon an antiquated, inaccurate or flat-out wrong-headed understanding of SEO best practices.  This is often the case with agencies that do not actually specialize in search marketing, but nonetheless cast themselves as SEO experts. This is as good an opportunity as any to embark on educating your CEO, as a rebuttal of suggested tactics is the prudent course.

No, the secret to our success is not six percent keyword density for a core term on every page. And yes, our link-building scheme is considerably more expensive than the proposed reciprocal link exchange that has been recommended, but it’s considerably more effective.

Magic bullet syndrome

There are many competent and enterprising search marketing agencies out there, and they well approach your boss with a very professional audit, itemized recommendations and a price tag. Perversely enough, the fact that an agency attaches a price tag to a proposal is often very attractive to marketing executives, even when that proposal mirrors the requirements that have already identified in-house. It creates the appearance that your search challenges are easy to solve:  all I need to do is write a check.

Of course, just because this advice is coming from an outsider, it does not mean the solution being offered is going to be any easier to implement than it is in-house. Indeed it is likely to take longer, be more difficult to accomplish and be more expensive. It may well be that the excited executive is unaware that you are already addressing issues that the agency has identified, but that the process requires continuing perseverance, not the wave of a magic wand.  Bring him or her up to speed, and be sure to enumerate any resource issues or lack of internal support that may be impeding your progress.

A nasty variation on this theme is the miraculous technology solution. Forget building links and content, quit spending precious time on keyword research: plug, play, and watch the search traffic pour in! I was not long ago approached by a vendor peddling a product that promised I would “never have to do on-page SEO again.” Perhaps smoke and mirrors to an SEO, but potentially tantalizing to a senior manager as a quick, cost-efficient fix. De-constructing the product in the context of a necessarily holistic SEO strategy usually a sufficient response.

The risks of a risk-free guarantee

Executives can get downright giddy when they have been offered a “risk-free” SEO guarantee. You don’t pay unless you see an increase in search traffic, or the vendor is paid in proportion to a site’s increased search traffic, either at a set rate or through revenue sharing (this is becoming increasingly popular from vendors of SEO tools and content optimization overlays.)

If you have a viable in-house SEO program that is actually rolling out optimization improvements on an ongoing basis, you should never allow an outside agency or vendor to be paid on the basis of improvements to organic search engine rankings or traffic. The reason, obviously, is that it is impossible to determine which efforts resulted in improved organic search metrics. In fact, if your in-house SEO work continues at pace, your outside SEO services provider could do nothing at all and still be rewarded under such an arrangement.

Again, this is not to say that you should not avail yourself of such services if you deem them useful and necessary, and if you have the budget to support them. This is not uncommonly the case where an SEO department is understaffed, but lacks either the funds or desire to add new hires. But pay by the hour, the link, a set contract price or some other basis that is independent of search-derived traffic.

With any luck your organization boasts a competent management team, with a good collective grasp of SEO and faith in your professional abilities. Do not be chagrined, however, if you must occasionally defend yourself in the light of vendors that cast doubts on the effectiveness or efficiency of your SEO program. The same expertise that has you guiding your company’s search marketing efforts is the key to weathering such storms.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is an SEO consultant specializing in organic search, and writes on search issues at his blog SEO Skeptic. He has worked in SEO since 2005, following ten years as a website designer.

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  • http://www.blizzardinternet.com Carrie Hill

    As an agency, we always contact the in-house seo team (if one exists) first – if we can partner or help out, great!

    If we took the approach to talk to upper mgmt and circumvent the in-house peeps, what kind of help are we going to get down the road? If we are doing linkbuilding contracted for by the big wigs on a whim -and I need some relevant content or some work done on the site – i better not hold my breath because the In-House team hates my guts.

    Stuff like this gives us good guys a bad name!

  • jnelson563

    As a current in-house internet marketer, former agency SEO, I can say that the “My robot thinks your SEO sucks” point even affects agencies, possibly more!

    We would get calls from clients who have been approached by other “SEO companies” and wow would they be MAD when we didn’t have more keywords in the meta keywords tag, or some other nonsensical piece of information. The clients would be so burning mad over non-issues!

    The VP’s of marketing should take the search marketing specialists word. If we communicate that there are snake oil salesmen, then they should take our word.

  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    Carrie – I applaud your approach, which is both ethical and – as you point out – ends up fostering a better working relationship, should a partnership be forged.

    Some agencies, of course, don’t “get” this – but I believe they are in the minority. As often as not when the in-house SEO/in-house SEO Team is circumvented, it is upper management itself that’s overlooked their internal team. More than once I’ve had the CEO or other management type return from a conference with a business card or two that takes them down this course.

    J. Nelson – Yes, robotic or other unsolicited approaches are problematic both for agencies and for in-house SEOs. I would agree with your “possibly more,” as one would hope that management has a certain degree of faith in their in-house team (or why do they have one to begin with?). The fact that so much of search marketing – especially organic SEO – isn’t black and white leads to such openings. As you say, who should management believe – a search specialist, either in-house or contracted, that already has management’s vote of confidence, or the “expertise” expressed in a random email from a person/firm whose bone fides are absolutely unknown?


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