Choosing an SEO Agency vs SEO Consultant vs In House SEO

I’ve heard more SEO agency horror stories in 2023 than any other year of my career.

Sometimes it feels like I spend just as much time as a “post agency trauma therapist” as I do on actual SEO work.

I think some of this comes from post pandemic brain fry.

A lot of people got thrown into new career tracks and new ways of working. That they’re still getting the hang of, or that may turn out to not be a good fit for them in the long run. I’ve been working remotely my whole life, and there’s definitely an art to it that you develop over time.

When you’re talking about working with an agency, you’re essentially talking about two separate teams working together. So all of the above wildcard factors can definitely make that harder.

But in my “post agency therapy sessions” I’ve also observed a mismatch in expectations vs. reality when it comes to working with agencies.

When you invest in SEO, it’s really important that you’re clear on the type of expertise, resources, and support you need to make your project a success. In some cases, agencies might be the best fit. But in other cases, you might be much better off working with a consultant or hiring an in house SEO person.

To help you navigate these murky waters, and avoid finding yourself in an “agency therapy session” in the future, I thought I’d make a short list of pros and cons for each option.

The Agency aka The Chain Restaurant

choosing an seo agency

You can think of SEO agencies like chain restaurants. You have a standard menu of options to choose from, a set playbook for the staff to follow, and generally speaking lower skilled workers to execute on that playbook. Because everything is systemized, an agency can scale to work with hundreds or even thousands of clients at a time.

Pros of working with an agency

  • You get access to a playbook that generally works well for the narrow set of use cases the agency optimizes its work around. Think of McDonalds optimizing french fries that the average person loves, and being able to consistently deliver that experience.

  • You get “done for you” services without needing to build and manage an in-house team, or assemble a team of contractors for implementation.

  • You can take your time shopping around for an agency, because there’s typically no limit on their bandwidth or schedule. You can also quickly scale up additional resources from their team whenever you want, although this will usually involve a long term contract.

Cons of working with an agency

  • Because of their scale, there’s also an anonymity to working with an agency. You are just another number in their system.

  • The lower skilled workers handling your account won’t have the capability to understand the nuances of your business, and the narrow playbook they’re following won’t account for sometimes critical differences in your business, product, and market.

  • Agencies optimize for the average client. Because of this, they typically trail behind emerging opportunities that could represent some of the biggest potential gains for your business.

  • Agencies struggle with complexity. If any aspect of your business is complex, or the opportunity you’re pursuing is complex, often times the narrow use cases agencies optimize for will fail to fit your situation.

The Consultant aka The Omakase Restaurant

seo consultant

The Japanese word “omakase” translates as “I leave it up to you.” In an omakase restaurant, rather than ordering off a standardized menu, diners let the chef select and serve seasonal specialties. In the same way as an omakase chef, consultants have spent many years (sometime decades) honing their craft. And they tap this deep well of expertise to craft a strategy and corresponding deliverables that are custom tailored to your unique situation.

Pros of working with a consultant

  • You get to work one-on-one with someone who has deep experience and expertise, rather than a junior account executive following the playbook they just got trained on six months ago. You’ll also get a “white glove” experience, since consultants tend to work with only a small handful of clients at a time.

  • A consultant will use their deep expertise to understand all the subtle nuances of your business, product, and market – in order to identify the highest value opportunities for you to pursue together, and the best strategy for your unique situation.

  • A consultant will be better equipped to help you navigate complex strategy and implementation scenarios, since they have the ability to leave the playbook behind and lean on their real world experience to navigate new and nuanced situations.

  • A consultant will always be pushing the boundaries of their craft, and will be aware of emerging opportunities that aren’t on the radar of most people yet. This can give your business a big edge by tapping into blue ocean opportunities ahead of your competition.

Cons of working with a consultant

  • Because you are dealing with a single person, consultants will have much tighter limits on their schedule and availability. Like an exclusive restaurant, they’ll likely have a waiting list. And you’ll need to take decisive action when you get a chance to work with a good one, or you may miss out to the next person in their queue.

  • Consultants don’t typically offer completely “done for you” services, and will need good in-house or contracted resources to successfully implement the project.

  • Consultants will sometimes have strong opinions based on their deep experience and expertise. If you have a very fixed vision and aren’t open to new perspectives, they may not be the best fit. Likewise, if you’re used to micromanaging low skill freelancers and agency account managers you’ll want to take a different tack with a high skill consultant. Giving them more flexibility in how they approach your project will likely lead to new insights and opportunities that your team would have overlooked on their own.

The In House SEO aka The Personal Chef

in-house seo

Continuing with the foodie metaphors, working with an in house SEO would have to be the equivalent of having a personal chef. You’ll have a person on your team dedicated to managing and overseeing all aspects of SEO in your organization. Like a personal chef, they’ll gain a deep understanding of your unique needs and requirements. And will work closely with you and your team on an ongoing basis.

Pros of hiring an in house SEO

  • While SEO can deliver good results on short time scales, the best outcomes are the result of sustained, long term effort. An in house SEO will be “in it for the long haul.” They’ll make sure you follow through on key initiatives, and will help your team make decisions today that will pay off in the long run.

  • An in house SEO will be the champion for SEO in your organization day in and day out. They’ll advocate for essential resources to move projects forward. And will help keep SEO in focus amid the backdrop of other strategic priorities.

  • In house SEOs will be in the trenches managing many aspects of implementation themselves. While also closely overseeing and supporting implementation needed from other departments. This can help accelerate the timeline from ideation to tangible results in your SEO projects.

Cons of hiring an in house SEO

  • Until your SEO program has gotten some traction, it can be hard to justify the investment in a full time SEO person. In many cases, in house roles will start out as multi-purpose roles i.e. SEO will be handled by a general marketing manager. Then as the organic search channel grows, a full time SEO hire may be justified.

  • Most in house hires won’t have the same breadth of experience and depth of expertise as a consultant. At best, they’ll have managed SEO in a couple previous roles. And may have only worked on SEO in those roles part time i.e. as a general marketing manager. This can’t compare to a consultant who works on multiple SEO projects each year, and is exposed to a much wider variety of strategic and tactical situations.

  • As a human resource, an in house SEO can’t be scaled up and down as fluidly as a consultant or agency. An in house SEO should be viewed as a long term hire, so requires a bigger commitment.

The Fatal Flaw of Agency Content

In addition to the pros and cons laid out above for choosing an SEO agency vs. an SEO consultant vs. an in house SEO – there is one more critical factor to consider:

While one of the biggest selling points of working with an agency is “done for you” content, it comes with a fatal flaw.

Google is increasingly focused on delivering content that is based on genuine expertise and experience, not just researched and regurgitated information.

Unfortunately, most agencies operate like “content fast food chains” – following an assembly line style process for researching and repackaging common knowledge into search optimized content. The fatal flaw in this approach is that anyone with the internet can do the same thing (research and repackage generic knowledge). Especially now that SEO has entered the age of AI.

That’s why the biggest edge you have in SEO is your ability to provide the best answer to a user’s query with your organization’s unique knowledge. This draws from the genuine experience and expertise of you and your team, and is exactly the type of information Google’s algorithm is hungry for (not to mention your audience). It’s also something that is hard for anyone outside your organization to reproduce, giving you a powerful competitive edge.

Empowering Your In House Team

In this new era of SEO, I believe the best fit for most organizations will be to combine in house knowledge and resources with the outside experience and expertise of a consultant.

Your team is your greatest source of unique knowledge, so why not empower them to share it with the world and grow your business?

This is why as an SEO consultant, my approach is to embed deep within organizations and really get to know the ins and outs of their market, product, culture, and the unique knowledge they have to offer. Then I help them lay the foundations for an effective SEO program, while filling skill and expertise gaps in the team with training and coaching.

This gives organizations the best of both worlds. And sets them up for both short term and long term success. Instead of going for a quick win by outsourcing everything to an agency, and finding out later that your SEO is really just a house of cards waiting to come tumbling down.

Interested in working with Ryan? Click to learn more about his SEO and CRO services.