In the nebulous world of semantic search and capricious updates to Google’s algorithms, it can be tempting to put your head in the sand and find someone else to worry about it.
Generally that someone else comes in the form of an outside firm, but the reality is that firms who specialize in search engine optimization are not a replacement for consistent, focused digital marketing strategies.
They can help determine whether your site is meeting Google’s basic best practices, but they will work best as a supplement for existing content marketing efforts by building backlinks.
And even then, stellar content marketing will usually trump all but the best backlink profile.
So if you’re looking at that monthly cost and wondering if it’s really worth it, review this guide to find out whether or not outsourced SEO is for you, or if it’s time to bring it back in house.
In-House SEO Strategy For Established Marketing Departments
If you’re confident that your site has solid metadata, good load times, and a reputable backlink profile, then reinvest your SEO budget elsewhere.
Keep following Google’s Webmaster guidelines, and spend your money on an agile marketing team instead.
Marketers with an agile skill set will be able to help implement website improvements, content marketing initiatives, data analysis, and more that will improve your bottom line far more than a single-minded focus on getting better search engine rankings.
With that said, there are still some circumstances in which bringing in an outside SEO company can actually be beneficial.
Outside Companies Can Help Establish Initial SEO Strategy
If you have a new website or one that hasn’t gotten a lot of technical attention in over 9 months, then an SEO company can help you out. They’ll review your site for basic best practices like metadata, site speed, and backlinks to identify any problems.
Every single page on your site should have unique and custom meta data (title and description) that lets real live visitors as well as Google know what that page is about.
Most marketers know this, but some haven’t taken the time to do a thorough site audit.
Meta data should include keywords but also convey a coherent message in a very, very short space. SEO companies often employ copywriters who are quite good at this specialized type of content.
They also have access to tools that will identify technical shortcomings, like site load time, that you might not be able to accurately assess or address on your own. Of course the SEO company most likely won’t have complete access to your site’s servers, so beyond making suggestions there may be only so much they can actually do in this area.
Finally, backlinks are a still a vital piece of the SEO puzzle, but regular marketers are often at a loss to know what to do about them.
A good SEO firm will be able to give you an in-depth picture of your current backlink profile, how it stacks up against your competitors, and what you could do to improve it.
Done properly, cultivating backlinks can be a terrifically time-consuming undertaking, so this is really the biggest value-add for outsourced SEO.
Backlinks: The Best Use of Your SEO Dollar
Like it or not, Google still uses backlinks (links from other sites back to yours) as a strong indicator of your site’s value. Establishing these links could once be automated, but recent Google updates have strictly penalized sites using such inauthentic links.
Now link building, or link earning as it is coming to be known, is a laborious process that involves contacting actual website owners (gasp!) and trying to establish a link on their site.
SearchEngineWatch has a fabulous guide on how to safely manage this process. It’s a mammoth 2,268 word document that reminded me how overwhelming this part of SEO is, and why it can be so very tempting to get someone else to manage it.
If they’re willing and able to do it like this guide suggests, in a natural, personal, organic (and time consuming) way, then I’d suggest having an SEO company work on creating backlinks on your behalf while keeping the rest of your SEO strategy in house.
As long as they understand your business on a relatively high level, then they can find sites where backlinks would be valuable and start the process of establishing a connection.
I’d recommend maintaining a regular line of communication to make sure they’re not inadvertently reaching out to a competitor or making some other industry faux pas, but for the most part you don’t need to hold their hands.
The final caveat here is that SEO companies can’t help you establish links to content that doesn’t exist. They need to be a supplement to your ongoing in-house content marketing efforts.
High Quality Content is a Prerequisite for SEO Outsourcing
The best-connected link builders in the world won’t do you any good unless you have a reasonable flow of content for them to work with.
Without solid content search engine optimization is practically impossible.
There are two common kinds of content barriers, so make sure you don’t fall into one of these categories before you even consider hiring an SEO company.
Barrier 1: Hypervigilant Legal Department
During my time as an SEO project manager I worked with a couple of financial firms, and their legal departments were a nightmare.
We couldn’t create any off-site content that linked directly back to their corporate websites, because they needed to be completely in control of that content at all times. One company finally agreed to let us link content to their social media profiles, but not to their owned and branded corporate domains.
Another finally decided, after months of minimal search engine rankings improvements, that we could produce non-branded content for them, but that their legal department would need final approval on it.
This resulted in the longest release cycle I’ve ever seen, so we could only produce extremely evergreen pieces (because it would literally take months for them to go live) that were utterly non-offensive.
Basically, the exact opposite of anything that anybody would ever want to link to or share.
Both companies hired SEO strategy specialists because they wanted better rankings, but in both cases their internal cultures were deeply prohibitive of the kinds of practices (content marketing and organic backlink creation) that would produce the best results.
They would have been better off spending their money on more traditional marketing strategies until their internal systems could align themselves with the realities of modern search engine marketing.
Barrier 2: Overly Cautious C-Suite or Marketing Department
At its lowest viable velocity a good content marketing program will produce one piece of highly valuable, sharable content per week. At its optimum pace it will be one piece per day.
If you have executives or marketing personnel who need to be in control of everything that your company says online, even the minimum level of content marketing will become impossible.
This often becomes a problem with small companies that started out with just a handful of employees and then grew rapidly. The original owner or marketer is accustomed to being the only source of messaging, and just can’t even handle someone else speaking up.
What then happens is that every tweet, Facebook post, LinkedIn update, blog post, white paper, and SlideShare presentation have to get across that person’s desk before they can be distributed.
For several clients I would have to note in their monthly report that no new backlinks were created, no new content was distributed, and no new social media presence could be measured because Person A hadn’t approved anything.
Again, these clients were not ready for outside SEO help. They needed to establish their own internal review and distribution practices before others could help them.
Conclusion: Consider Moving to an In-House SEO Strategy
In truth, very few companies need outside help with their SEO.
Those with an established web presence, a good content marketing strategy, and sufficient time to devote to digital marketing are better off investing their budget elsewhere.
On the other hand, companies that haven’t evolved to the point where they can actively and effectively participate in the online marketplace won’t get benefits from just throwing money at their rankings.
But if you’re unsure about your site’s general SEO health, or need some help establishing legitimate backlinks, then reach out to someone local and see what they can offer you.
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