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 […]

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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.

In House OutsourceEasy 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.

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About the author

Byrne Hobart
Contributor

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