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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.
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.
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
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
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: