I’ve been working in digital for more years than I care to mention, witnessing a huge amount of change in that time, especially where SEO is concerned. 

Clearly SEO is no longer the ‘stand-alone’ technically-led discipline that it once was back in the day. 

There remains a technical aspect to it of course, but the role of great content, PR and social media is significant in contemporary SEO.

As such, expertise across a multitude of disciplines and skill sets is necessary (and the reason why three years ago I claimed that it was unrealistic for a freelancer to be able to deliver a highly effective SEO strategy on their own).

As SEO has evolved, along with a growing trend towards in-sourcing, it has been interesting to observe how the needs of clients where their agency is concerned, have shifted (certainly in my experience anyway).

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

But before all those working agency-side press the panic button and start looking for alternative employment, I’m confident we still have a vital role to play. But I do believe that role is changing, which in turn has an impact on the traits and skills required of today’s search agencies if they are to add true value. 

Let’s look at the three key components I mentioned above in a bit more detail to illustrate how.

It’s worth adding our agency works mostly with retailers so my experiences are specific to that sector.

Content strategy

For me, there are just certain things that the client is better placed to ‘own’ day-to-day. Social media (see below) is certainly one of those and content creation arguably another. 

However when analysing team structure and skill sets we often find that content, along with its natural allies: social media and PR, is being managed disparately. In other words, by different teams with no overriding strategy, structure or shared objectives in place.

A lot of great stuff is happening but the impact on SEO is negligible or, at best, opportunities are being missed because teams are working in isolation of one another.

This siloed structure is the enemy to effective SEO. As a result, many companies I speak to need advice at a more strategic level, to help facilitate change and empower in-house staff to work in a more integrated way.

More specifically, the role of the agency might include: auditing existing content assets and editorial plans, assessing in-house resource and expertise, running creative workshops involving key stakeholders and putting in place executional plans, processes, objectives and KPIs.

I’m certainly not saying this is always the case but the role of ‘facilitator’ is becoming much more common where the agency and content strategy is concerned.

Online PR

It’s no secret that the lines between SEO and PR have blurred considerably in recent years. 

Search agencies have realised that PR skills, such as how to tell a great story, nurture a relationship with an influencer and organise outreach campaigns, are essential to their strategies. Conversely, PR agencies have realised the importance of understanding (at the very least) the basic principles of SEO.

Some have even gone as far as evolving into fully fledged digital agencies. Some are still very much stuck in the dark ages. 

The role we play, where online PR is concerned, will therefore depend on whether the client has a PR agency in place and their respective expertise (or that of the in-house communication team).

Some clients will need us to run campaigns in full, from coming up with the creative idea through to managing bloggers, journalists and other influencers. But often we find our role is to work alongside other stakeholders, ensuring that if the PR agency has been tasked to look after bloggers, we work with them to maximise these relationships from an SEO perspective.

Again, this might involve putting in place processes or delivering training to ensure their activity is aligned to the search strategy. 

In other instances, we might split ‘ownership’ of media lists so that each stakeholder manages the relationships they are best placed to own. 

Each of the instances above reflects the need of the search agency to flex according to the situation. What works for one client may not work for another.

Social media

Whilst Facebook ‘Likes’ or Tweets, for example, are said to have no direct impact on search engine rankings, social media does play a key role in owning brand search results, distributing content and garnering links.

Clearly, there are instances where outsourcing the day-to-day management of social media to an agency does work. However, I am a big advocate of the client owning social media whenever it is possible to do so.

The vast majority of companies I speak to agree and the need to be ‘on brand’ and immediate in their communication with fans and followers were cited as key reasons.

This means the emphasis is on empowering the client to use social media more effectively, not just in terms of the role it plays in SEO but more broadly how it can support other business functions and processes (customer service, for example).

More specifically, the agency’s role might involve helping the client to better understand their customers from the social networks they use, the blogs and forums they visit, the conversations they are having and the people who influence their purchasing decisions. 

Furthermore, it might involve creating social media policies, delivering training and providing ongoing support to the in-house team, ensuring they have the structure and processes in place to execute the strategy with confidence.

So what hasn’t changed?

So if the above examples highlight a more consultative role, where can the agency still ‘get their hands dirty’?

From experience, in the vast majority of cases, clients still require hands-on support where four key areas are concerned: creating the overarching strategy in the first place (namely all of the analysis and planning that goes into it), technical optimisation, ongoing analysis and reporting, and identifying new opportunities in line with algorithmic updates, trends and so on.

The latter two are fairly self-explanatory, but taking insight, strategy and planning, any agency worth their salt will have well-honed processes in place to analyse commercial objectives (and establish the role that search can play in meeting them), customer insight, market data, the competitive landscape, other channels to market, broader marketing plans, internal resource, analytics, keyword data and trends.

The ability to make sense of it all, identify and prioritise opportunities, construct a strategy and forecast a result is far from easy. 

Furthermore, the insights and experience gained from working with other clients sharing similar challenges can be invaluable to the client, not to mention ‘a fresh pair of eyes’ willing to challenge the status quo.

Being at the forefront of the latest developments, along with access to a greater array of tools and technologies are other reasons why I believe clients look to agencies to help develop the strategy and a prioritised plan in the first place.

The technical aspects of SEO can be confusing and therefore simple mistakes are easily made potentially undermining content, PR and social activity.

For example, you could have a great content strategy with a blog as the centrepiece. But if that blog sits on a sub-domain, SEO may not be feeling the full benefit. It is these subtle nuances which are so often missed without the input of an agency.

It is therefore the one area that clients continue to look for us to take the lead. The path to that point can be challenging, especially when developers are involved. I’ve had fewer hot dinners in my 36 years than I’ve heard the line ‘our developers understand SEO and will be covering that’ only to witness a monumental cock up later on (‘no index’ tags left on the site at launch, broken redirect files, to name just two examples). 

Whilst developers and platform owners might be able to ‘tick the boxes’ when it comes to SEO, they are not always adept at maximising opportunities. For example, rarely have I come across a developer who has the skill and experience to consider search behaviour in advance of designing site architecture, navigation and product filtering.

‘Outsourcing’ is dead

Fundamentally, SEO cannot be ‘outsourced’ in the traditional sense of the word. Success comes from the agency and client seeing one another as partners.

Increasingly, the agency’s role is to help clients ‘join the dots’ where in-house activity is concerned. It demands that agencies are much more open in sharing methods, processes, even templates that clients can work to. It means agencies need to be adept at understanding digital transformation.

Perhaps the most important trait a modern agency needs to possess is flexibility. Delivering bespoke solutions aligned to objectives, internal resources and skill sets. 

A couple of years ago I said that SEO cannot be commoditised, it cannot be ‘bought off the shelf’ or neatly packaged ‘bronze’, ‘silver’ and ‘gold’. This view has only strengthened as SEO has continued to incorporate a broader range of disciplines and therefore stakeholders. 

As such, agencies need to be equipped to uncover and deliver what the client actually needs, which is often very different to what they think they want.

What do you think? 

Agencies: are you experiencing a change to how you work with your clients? What impact is this having on the agency, if any? 

Clients: do you feel your needs have changed? How adaptable are agencies to those changing needs in your experience?