February 27, 2009 - Comments Off on Why shouldn't SEO agencies exist, and why are their days are numbered?

Why shouldn't SEO agencies exist, and why are their days are numbered?

Controversial I know.. but before all you SEO’s out there leap down my throat, please bear in mind I have said shouldn’t implied in this is the acknowledgement that you do and indeed I run my own SEO agency so I’m well aware of the fact that they do, so bear with me I think I’ve got a point here.. you be the judge..

This starts with a question of meaning, of purpose.. what is SEO? I don’t mean appropriate use of H1 tags or carefully crafted link juice etc I mean, what is it..? is SEO development, marketing, media what?

When you look around at which agencies provide SEO it would seem that this question is being answered in different ways and it seems everyone is taking a bite at the cherry.

For instance you can see from the New Media Age top 100 interactive agencies that most are providing some degree of SEO service, however looking at the top 100 digital media agencies you can see that equally most of these are also providing SEO services. This points clearly to the split personality of the task between the key phrase strategy which follows a process akin to media planning and the implementation side of things which often requires development skills.

So which is it? And where does it sit best?
To me the answer is obvious, SEO sits best with development agencies! However I think it is the failing of the design and build agencies that has allowed the SEO agency community to exist at all, and from this the media agencies are simply responding to client demand for their sites to rank higher.

Back in 2002 we launched a new brand www.jumphigher.co.uk purely to allow other new media agencies to resell our services under a “non competitive” logo but from day 1 this has always been part of our integrated service offering.

It is easy to see why a media agency that plans and buys millions of impressions, clicks and offline coverage might be asked if they can help their client to access the 93% of clicks that don’t happen on the PPC adverts. It’s also easy to see how an SEO budget of low thousands of ££’s would barely feature against a PPC budget of tens or even hundreds of thousands of ££’s per month.

Ironically the opposite of this happens to development agencies.. asking a client for £5k/month for SEO against a design and build budget of say £100k does stand out and is often hard to get approval for.

So we end up with Media agencies with no historical technical or design ability taking on SEO staff and projects, equally we find SEO agencies springing up because digital design agencies have shied away from offering SEO leaving their clients with no alternative but to look elsewhere, if they don’t have a relationship with a media agency then looking for an SEO specialist is really the only option.

However finally it would seem that the digital design & development agencies are finally getting on the ball with SEO, meaning that the SEO agency community faces a two pronged assault on its territory.

There is of course one final twist in this and that is that design and build agencies and SEO agencies more often than not offer PPC campaign management and increasingly affiliate and other online media.. encroaching on the territory of the media agencies.

The reason I see SEO as a best fit for development agencies (or at least agencies that have avery strong skill set in development amonst other skills) is driven by my experience of several key points of pain when optimising an existing website, the main ones being;

  • Home page doesn’t mention the main target phrase – design doesn’t lend itself easily to facilitating this
  • Content isn’t structured to benefit SEO key phrase strategy and hierarchy of target phrases
  • Site navigation is poor at controlling ‘link juice’ flow around the site and makes the SEO job more difficult than it needs to be
  • No obvious content area/page to target certain phrases – requires new content/architecture
  • No content management system (CMS) – means even minor SEO changes take an age and cost the client to implement
  • Poor CMS – the CMS actually hinders SEO (dynamic URL’s, poor code standards, no workflow etc)
  • Most obvious pages to target/rank for certain phrases are poor landing pages and conversions suffer

It is often a slow process to work though these recommendations when we take on a new SEO client, and the solutions often require ‘creative’ thinking as to how to ‘bend’ the existing site to meet the needs of the SEO team.

The best projects are ones where the SEO process runs consecutively with the development process of a new website, and on occasion where two agencies work well/get on together it is possible to run this process smoothly across the two organisations. However it often falls to the client to coordinate the effort and given that the client doesn’t have the same level of expertise as their agencies it is easy for opportunities to do things in the best way possible to fall between the gaps.

I think the solution lies in an agency seeing itself as a digital marketing/advertising agency (which we do) not as a development, or SEO agency and recognising it must take responsibility for the success of the project on behalf of its client. It shouldn’t be acceptable to just build a site that the client likes the look of. It is our responsibility to look at the digital strategy and ensure the planned tactical implementation delivers on all elements of this strategy.

So what does this look like? I have provided a quick check list of what I believe the perfect digital project looks like below:

  • 1. The big idea – the objective must be clear, the creative and technical ideas must be aligned, KPI’s agreed
  • 2. Stakeholder engagement – all stakeholders in the project must be considered and prioritised
  • 3. User profiling – the site users must be identified, understood and prioritised, their routes to the site must be understood within the context of their entire customer journey
  • 4. User Centred Design (UCD) – Ego should be removed as far as possible from the process (client & agency) and the target audience used to guide the development
  • 5. Information Architecture(IA) –
    • a. following the UCD process the IA should meet the needs of the user whilst providing ‘persuasional funnelling‘ of users the desired goals of the client
    • b. The IA should give the SEO’s the content they need where they need it, ideas for link bait should be considered
    • c. Entry points to the site should be considered and the pages understood in the context of the customer journey not just their hierarchy in the site
  • 6. The CMS should empower all the relevant stakeholders – editors, product managers, PPC agencies, SEO team etc. within a managed workflow
  • 7. Design – the site design should obviously show the creative flair required to make the client stand out but must also drive conversion and provide the correct on page tools for the SEO team, link juice flow, content so similar it could be considered a duplicate of another page etc, should be considered throughout the creative process
  • 8. Technology – the CMS and other bespoke functions should meet best practice standards and the project scope approved by the SEO team
  • 9. Launch – existing rankings must be understood, an effective 301 redirect strategy should be executed to manage the transition from old site to new with minimum disruption to rankings
  • 10. Measurement – KPI’s have been agreed at the beginning of the project and the performance of the new strategy should be measured against these
  • 11. Refinement – Nothing goes exactly as expected, some areas may underperform some may over perform, measurement of performance allows the ongoing strategy to take account of this and new opportunities as they arise

My point is that delivering the best user experience whilst meeting the requirements of the SEO team is a skill in itself and in my experience the best solutions are found within a digital agency that understands and has responsibility for best practice design and SEO for their client