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Should SME owners employ an agency to carry out SEO?

Of all the questions we get asked at Econsultancy, this is the one that always jumps out at me.

We get asked by SMEs that are using an agency and not seeing great results, as well as those who haven't yet attempted anything in earnest, either in-house or with a partner.

I have had some experience (admittedly only a year) working with a search agency, as well as a dabbling in practical SEO triage myself.

Here are some points to bear in mind. If you're an agency or an SME, feel free to comment.

Do you know your business?

Remember that Google's mission is to present the most relevant results to its users.

That means the job of SEO for any company is to make its website more relevant (useful, trusted, informative, easy to access, functional).

Leaving aside some technical considerations, this is a job best suited to those that know their company, customers and industry inside out.

SME owners understand what the customer wants, what their own company offers (product and service wise), the context of purchase etc.

All this is invaluable when overseeing content creation and link building, and backed up by some simple SEO knowledge.

plumbers in farringdon

Perhaps you already do some SEO without calling it SEO?

Smaller companies may not be able to employ SEO experts, but underestimate the work they are doing already.

Creating new content, making sensible choices about page titles, website architecture and layout, promoting the website in local media or encouraging product reviews - all these things may help with search visibility.

Being more consistent with SEO efforts and adding a few more tactics/techniques may be less daunting than you think.

How much time have you got?

Time is the biggest pressure for SMEs.

Further resource may be necessary to shoulder the SEO burden. There are a few options, each with pros and cons. 

  • Hire a new marketer (may not be available, may not work out, but fairly cost effective).
  • Employ an agency (expensive and sometimes not as agile as working in-house, but reliable and with high degree of expertise).
  • Give a current member of staff additional responsibilities (cheapest option but training could take time, and there may never be adequate focus on SEO).


Do you have the basics in place?

The fact is that many modern CMS systems have most of the functionality you'll need to optimize a site for search.

As a relative layman, a business owner or marketer should be able to add code to set up Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools.

Changing or redirecting URLs, rejigging the hierarchy of pages, tweaking page titles and descriptions - all of this is par for the course.

If you aren't capable of carrying out some of the improvements you might have identified (e.g. adding schema markup or minifying website code) or perhaps you have a website that was developed for you without any CMS, it's important you can make changes.

Some SEO can be done by liaising with a developer, some with a content executive. If you have these in place, then great, perhaps you can go it alone.

If you're light on the ground, you'll probably need a trusted agency or freelancer (offering good value, transparent and white-hat methodology) who can get you set up.

Webmaster Tools

webmaster tools

Do you check your agency's work?

If you already have a search agency in place to do SEO, don't be afraid of questioning their judgment.

Change can be a scary prospect. 'What if our rankings suffer and sales drop off?'

However, if an agency is producing only reports, making few recommendations for changes and doing little quality link building, chances are you can make better use of the money.

Beware false promises

bad seo agency

SEO might be easier than it looks

The SEO fraternity is full of people who love a good discussion. Consequently, the literature around SEO can be confusing to say the least.

Improving a website and the links to it is not a single afternoon's work, but nor should it require a PhD.

Lots of improvements, such as setting up local places pages for the major search engines, are simple processes that take a few minutes.

Even if you decide to use an SEO agency for some more in-depth audits, there's no reason why you can't get started in-house.

But is SEO less important than it used to be?

As the majority of search queries have been 'not provided' by Google since 2011, there have been many who have bemoaned the reducing importance of SEO.

Google has gradually become more sophisticated and can better judge the quality of a website, making quick search gains rightly a difficult task (outside of important/major updates such as becoming mobile responsive).

Additionally, as Google's search results page changes over time, precedence has increasingly been given to PPC ads (including new formats such as product listings ads).

On mobile this means organic search results are often bumped.

All this has led many to suggest that SMEs would be better off investing in PPC (with its varied formats such as click-to-call and remarketing).

It's worth noting also that for some companies, though admittedly usually larger publishers, social media is a bigger source of traffic than search.

Google stats on PPC click-to-call ads

click to call stats

Most importantly, are you in a competitive market?

If SMEs are lucky enough to have a brand synonymous with a product, perhaps SEO isn't as much as a problem (as generic search terms might be a lower proportion of search traffic) and PR might do some of the heavy lifting.

Perhaps you're in a local niche, offering something others don't.

However, it's likelier that you provide a service or commodity that exists in a larger market, and your generic search listings are routinely on page 150 (or similar).

Here's where it's important to use a variety of tactics for incremental gain.

Consulting an agency who may have experience link building in your sector could be invaluable in moving up a page or twenty.

SEO needs commitment

Fresh content indicates a relevant website. Having someone who knows your website inside out (especially a larger website) is vital for daily tweaks; a war of attrition to deliver search gains.

Whether you employ an agency alongside a marketer, having somebody who can commit themselves to your site is the most important thing.

For some advice on practical SEO, see the articles below:

Ben Davis

Published 26 January, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (15)

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Simon Thompson

Simon Thompson, Consultant at WSI Internet Marketing

I broadly agree with your article, except for the point "As a relative layman, a business owner or marketer should be able to add code to set up Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools."

My experience is that the average SME owner is too busy running his business to aquire even this little knowledge. It comes under "too geeky for me!"

This is an age dependant thing of course but the vast majority over the age of 50 do not wish to know. THey are used to outsourcing this sort of stuff in order to focus on the job of running the company.

9 months ago

Dave Endsor

Dave Endsor, Digital Executive at Tank PR

It's completely fair to imply that SME owners should be a bit more switched on when it comes to SEO (and digital in general). After all, the MD is often a sole owner, or has only a handful of shareholders, compared to the multiple boardrooms of larger organisations.

However has Simon rightly points out, these SME owners are too busy running the whole business. In my experience they're involved in everything from new business, hiring, HR issues, marketing, quality control... the list goes on.

What's often the best scenario is to educate them to a point, ensuring they're comfortable with what you'll be doing (as an agency), whilst politely asserting you're the expert and in control.

And as for knowing the sector, any good agency will work their proverbial's off to get to know that business inside out.

Probably why a lot like to specialise in a limited number of sectors.

9 months ago

Simon Thompson

Simon Thompson, Consultant at WSI Internet Marketing

"What's often the best scenario is to educate them to a point, ensuring they're comfortable with what you'll be doing (as an agency)"


I try to do enough to ensure they are an informed buyer of my services and so do not buy on price alone. That is my biggest issue.

9 months ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

Simon, Dave, I agree. All the way through writing this, I was thinking 'it's horses for courses'.

SME is a broad definition and whilst there will be many owners doing SEO, some won't even want to know what it stands for.

However, I do see the landscape for dinky companies and organic search getting to a point where in-house is more efficient, if companies are prepared to commit to that initial outlay of cost and time.

9 months ago


Grahame Palmer, Marketing Director at All Things Ecommerce Ltd

We no longer use the term "SEO" - it's archaic and to us, represents a past era. We have been using the term WWP for some years now - Wider Web Presence...
"SEO" - or as we call it, WWP, is fundamentally a marketing function - doing what one needs to in order to attract and keep customers, and to extract value from them, make them loyal, and to ensure (above all) that the business is profitable.
There are TWO essential components to WWP:-

1. Technical
2. Intellectual

On the TECHNICAL side, one needs to have access to technical expertise to make sure that the platforms, the technical resources and the technology that supports the functions of the business, are in place and that they are "up-to-speed" - or "fit for purpose". In the online arena, this is largely programming skills coupled with having access to people who know what needs to be done to one's web presence (websites, ecommerce functionality, ease-of-use) to ensure that the basic platforms provide the means by which the company's WWP is active, functional, and effective. This requires a good understanding of contemporary trends and protocols - one example is the increasing importance of on-page, in-line meta data (Structured Data - the "semantic" web"). A technician must know how to code a website so that it has the technical capability of embedding on-page meta data into the content. (See: schema.org). That's one example... others include page-speed, mobile responsiveness, fast checkout, logical in-site hyperlink navigation. And of course, the embedding of code that provide the basis for user analysis and performance.

On the INTELLECTUAL side, are issues such as site content, site visuals (design and design quality), customer messaging, product description and the writing of contemporary content that is fed into all the WWP satellite areas, examples being Social Media, news submissions, blogs and microsites of various kinds.

Without a suitable (and usually sophisticated) TECHNICAL infrastructure (having good engines under the hood), the INTELLECTUAL elements can be not only compromised, but ineffective.

The challenges facing SME's - particularly those focusing on an online business model - is that both these Technical and Intellectual components are vital components of the business, and directly influence its commercial activity - and ultimately, the viability and success of the business.

So, they need to be a main component of the business plan, need to be budgeted for, and need to be seriously invested in.

On the technical side, much (if not all) of the work can be contracted out of the business. Someone else can be used to build and fine-tune the engines.

On the intellectual side, most of the work (in an SME tends to happen "in-house", because the CONTENT side of the business requires the initiator (or the person composing the material) to have a very good understanding of what the business does, the market in which it operates, and the expectations of both the company's existing and intended customers. Competent and knowledgeable outside consultants in this area of WWP are rare - and where they exist, they are usually very expensive.

But, SME's should sub-contract technically skilled programmers who know their stuff - who understand what needs to be programmed into the WWP, in order for the subsequent intellectual activity to happen - and deliver desired results.

9 months ago


Sophie Moule, Search Marketing Manager at Clarks

I totally agree that SEO is best run by those who know their business. In my experience, in-house teams can focus their work to support specific business objectives far more effectively than agencies.

We brought our SEO in-house after having a string of terrible agencies who were not transparent at all with their work or results. I also think in many cases they purposely overcomplicated issues to make SEO seem far more difficult that it needed to be.

Since running SEO in-house, we were surprised at how many of our successes came from getting the basics right. We didn't need to spend money on an agency who were pointing out opportunities that we could already recognise as a team.

We do need a tool to support our work (we use Pi Datametrics), which offers us the data we need, clarity on our rankings, and we can use to it pinpoint key opportunities. This offers us far more transparency in our results than previous agencies have provided us with.

Since getting rid of our agency, taking on this tool and 'clueing up' in house, we have seen vast improvements in our results.

9 months ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

Grahame - absolutely, I love your acronym, WWP.

That's why an SEO agency can never be 'light touch', and indeed the good ones aren't, they contribute on a whole range of fronts.

9 months ago


Neil Palmer, Managing Director at SEOWorks.co.uk

I think 'SME' is misleading. Many of our clients at The SEO Works have no time to sit down and begin to think about local SEO. An SME with 5 staff who travel and are not often office based are very different to an SME with 50 staff and a marketing department.

There is very much as case for larger SME's or technically minded smaller SME's to have a good crack at getting local optimisation sorted.

But there is still a large number of SME's who simply cannot get into SEO and don't get it, plus those who don't want to.

The issue of an agency not performing is nothing to do with whether an SME should tackle local SEO themselves. It's an issue of choosing the wrong agency!

As for putting budget into PPC instead, I think it's important to remember that people click on both local listings, the organic results and paid ads. So we would recommend a split between all 3 being crucial.

9 months ago

Tom Parnell

Tom Parnell, Head of eCommerce at Oliver Spencer

Interesting post, and I agree with the broad points. One thing I think many SMEs struggle with is the monthly, retainer-based model operated by the vast majority of SEO agencies. If one's brand is not hugely tilted towards generics (eg. higher-end fashion, my sector), a more practical/feasible route would be occasional 'defensive' on-page SEO audits and remedial work if required. Relatively few agencies (and even fewer good ones) are geared to provide for this kind of requirement -- which is, I guess, essentially pay-as-you-go SEO.

9 months ago


Jim Hunter, Consultant at VersionUX

The question presupposes that some sort of SEO is needed at all by all SMEs. Knowing the distribution strategy of the business is where you need to start and then work out whether it's worth even considering investing the money in a specialist, letting your agency offer some support, or getting some in-house expertise.

9 months ago

Jack Willis

Jack Willis, Director at Marketing Grin

There are some good points in this article but I feel it is somewhat out of date and applies to traditional SEO methods which are vary much being phased out now.

While the basic principle of modifying a site to make it search friendly and then building links stands true, to be really effective online you need to be integrating digital channels together - creating an online buying cycle, expanding reach through search marketing, social and biddable media etc. Once onsite, utilising a carefully planned user journey to get users to enter into the buying cycle and then using effective content and email marketing aligned with sales to nurture prospects and convert them into customers.

I agree a typical SME owner can make a few site changes using their CMS system and probably can build links but can they run an effective digital campaign without the help of an agency? Probably not.

From an agencies point of view, the question is not whether an SME needs an agency, it is about when is the right time to get an agency. There are quite a lot of things that need to be in place first in order to make full use of an agency. An agency can help you put these things in place of course but they are unlikely to be able to deliver a good ROI until the foundations are right and most SME are looking for immediate returns and believe companies that promise them and end up getting their fingers burnt.

9 months ago


John Chablo, Consultant at Critical Mass Marketing

I believe that all business owners with a web site should have some basic SEO knowledge, if only to check that their web designer is doing the right things when creating their new site!
There are a number of simple items that I see missing on site architecture and set up time and time again, such as poor page titles, meta descriptions and alt tags not completed. These simple things can make a big difference when combined with good, readable content to your organic rankings.
I would also advise all business owners to run Google Webmaster, a free tool, which actually tells you how your site can be improved for SEO!

9 months ago


Grahame Palmer, Marketing Director at All Things Ecommerce Ltd

Jack Willis: I agree... Some of the posts on this discussion so far show a certain degree of ignorance as to what really matters in the quest any business has to be "discoverable" on the WWW - and once discovered, how to turn a visit into cash. And... that the cash results in PROFITS.

The issue (as I say in my initial posting) is not really about "SEO"... We abandoned "SEO" as a relevant process/procedure/objective (whatever you want to call it) - many years ago. Today, the important search engines (and in the UK/EU that's Google) evaluate the relevancy of a web page (according to a given search term) on many factors, few of which relate to the "traditional" elements of "SEO", such as meta headers (including the meta-description tag), <H1> tags, meta keywords, headings in "bold" and all that other old-fashioned stuff. For the most part, much of this stuff is redundant and has long since been irrelevant to how a search result is ranked, based on any given search term or phrase.

Search engines (read "Google") have become far more intuitive in establishing the nature of a web page's content, and then they start looking for factors that help establish REVELANCY to the search term being used. This is the concerted moves towards the "semantic" web... not a new concept by any means... Tim Berners-Lee was talking about web semantics back in 1995, and it's only in the last 4 or 5 years that the algorithms (and other factors) have become "clever" enough to be more intuitive to a web-page's content for this quest for a "semantic" approach to web design to really take root.

Google has one objective... To return the BEST and MOST RELEVANT links to all their indexed content, based on the search term being used. And Google tells you (in many help areas of the Google Universe) just what it is that they are after these days, and how webmasters and marketers can achieve it.

It's very complex, and very detailed - far too much to articulate specifics in an article of this nature, or in the subsequent comments for people like us. But anyone now intent on establishing a commercial venture online would do well to research this, and spend many hours going through what Search Engines (Google) now expect from a website (or better, the Wider Web Presence) and to work towards putting in place all the components that are essential in meeting Google's standards and expectations.

My advice to any SME - established or aspiring - is to get as good a grasp on these issues, by reading Google's "help" material, and making sure that they understand what (in a headline sense) is all about.

Only then can they look for specialists to hire to get all these bits cobbled together. And by having a comprehensive overview of just what it is that Google wants, and how it evaluates a web presence, the SME owners can be more aware of when a so-called "SEO Expert" is talking rubbish (which is most of the time, sadly) or whether they know what is required and can do the work.

9 months ago


Grahame Palmer, Marketing Director at All Things Ecommerce Ltd

To illustrate this, see what turns up with this "semantic" search phrase on Google...
"Enamel Pet Tag for £5.95".

One site dominates ALL organic search results - ours.

Our Google Analytics and Search Term evaluation, shows this style of semantic searching to be very common in our industry - so we build the content (and the technical coding) to render in ways that meet Google's requirements.

Analysis of our source code will show that we embed inline meta-data and product categorisation according to Google rules. And a lot more of course - which I won't divulge our secrets of !

9 months ago

Ben Potter

Ben Potter, Director at Ben Potter - new business mentor

I have certainly seen the needs of clients change in recent years in relation to what they need from their SEO agency (if indeed they decide to outsource at all). In fact, I wrote a post on the topic for this very blog last year - https://econsultancy.com/blog/66533-what-do-clients-really-need-from-their-seo-agency/.

Often clients have people internally creating content, running social media and executing PR campaigns, all key aspects of contemporary SEO. Therefore they do not necessarily need an agency partner to execute much of the day-to-day SEO strategy.

I don't think this necessarily negates the need for an agency partner all together but to your point @Tom Parnell, agencies have to be far more flexible in their commercial models. We support our clients in many weird and wonderful ways, determined mainly by in-house resource and expertise. Project work makes up an increasingly large part of our revenue mix, specifically in research, analysis and strategy before 'handing over the keys' to the client to execute.

One sentence did jump out at me a little...

"Leaving aside some technical considerations, this is a job best suited to those that know their company, customers and industry inside out.

SME owners understand what the customer wants, what their own company offers (product and service wise), the context of purchase etc."

In my experience, it would be wrong to assume that SME's understand their customers and competitive landscape, particularly online. In fact, in my experience many larger businesses do not even understand their customers, certainly not in terms of the more granular insight which can be so useful in informing key aspects of SEO strategy, such as content.

9 months ago

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