The Real Challenge for SEO Agencies

With all the turbulence in the SEO industry at the minute it can be easy to assume that the challenges SEO agencies face revolve around building natural links, understanding users, hiring the right people or producing genuinely interesting content. Whilst all of these areas could be a challenge given the new landscape, there is a much bigger challenge to consider, however, let me first start by revisiting how SEO agencies have previously worked.

Driving Results

When I first started this blog I wanted to ensure that I stuck to what worked; back in 2009 there were wild theories about social, Chrome’s browser share and AdWords being a ranking factor. However, after working in SEO for 5 years at this point, I was a little tired that the advice being offered up was never going to rank a website. So whenever I wrote a new article it focused on the reality, rather than speculating about the future.

This is how a lot of SEO agencies developed their focus, they only invested in what worked, which was primarily link spam and paid links. It drove rankings, it helped clients grow revenue significantly and best of all it was easy to execute, which in turn meant it was cheap to supply.

Why would you change this business model? It focused on what worked and gave clients the results they wanted.

The Focus was Wrong

The problem with focusing on what worked was that Google were focusing on something entirely different. It was easy to manipulate Google search rankings up to 2011/12, for the last 10 years SEO’s had been focusing on the algorithm trying to take advantage of any signal that had a close correlation to rankings; in the meantime Google’s sole focus was on generating the most useful, targeted results possible. They wanted to provide the right answers to the right people at the right time; this made for a great user experience and also drove ad revenue.

So in 2011 when Google launched Panda it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to most SEO agencies, but it did. Then in 2012 Google launched Penguin which should have come as even less of a surprise yet the whole industry were up in arms about it.

All the time SEO agencies had been focussing on Google, and at the same time Google had been focussing on the user and delivering a better quality search result.

A New Landscape

There is nothing any agency can do about it now, Google have dropped multiple bombs to clean up manipulation and spam results, there are no shortcuts to top rankings and greater visibility on Google, not if you’re trying to build a genuine brand at least.

So back to my opening paragraph, what are the challenges?

Yes, this change in landscape means a need for genuinely engaging content, a user focus and link acquisition based on ‘being worth talking about‘, however doing these things isn’t the challenge, in fact it’s relatively straight forward.

The Real Challenge

When SEO agencies focused on manipulation they very much worked in a silo, they may have met with the client once a month to deliver visibility reports and updates on rankings. There was no need for them to be involved in the wider business because the work could be done perfectly well in silos, plus, the wider business would have probably had a panic attack if they’d have seen the work being produced.

However, fast-forward to 2014 and manipulation is dead, to deliver SEO results you have to have buy-in from different areas of the business; IT, PR, Content, Product and Marketing just to name a few. You have to be able to work with them, collaborate on projects, educate and help the WHOLE business understand the opportunity that lies within increased visibility on Google.

Very often clients with a good brand, or who at least are trying to build one, are already engaging in PR, advertising, content and creative; the role of SEO is now very much about infusing knowledge into a business to make all that activity significantly more visible.

This is the real challenge, selling SEO into the wider business, building relationships with in house teams and ultimately getting buy-in so that the work you want to do can be prioritised.

Despite being well into the ‘digital age’ some companies still have processes that make them incapable of reacting to market changes quickly, unable to update the website without a formal release, unable to publish content without 10 levels of sign off etc. SEO agencies need to work hard to find a way to get buy-in for their ideas, to get a place on the big table and ultimately manoeuvre into a position that allows them to execute the work needed.

This is the real challenge, to be taken seriously at the top level and to be able to work within businesses, not in an external silo.


Tim Grice is the CEO of Branded3, a search marketing agency in the UK. Tim has over a decade of experience in search and regularly speaks at key events and conferences.

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