Search engine traffic is extremely valuable to businesses that benefit from a presence on the web. Search engine optimization promises to grow search traffic and optimize its potential for business value, but does this mean you should hire an SEO company, and if so, what is the best way to go about it?
Should I Hire An SEO Company?
As professionals who work in the SEO industry, we could be accused of being myopic if we say there are very few businesses that wouldn't benefit from improving their SEO. That said, a sober look at most business situations will reveal that an improvement in SEO would be helpful.
Consider the conversion rates of traffic sources for ecommerce sites in 2019:
As you can see, paid search, organic search, and referrals are in a virtual tie for first place against all of the alternative traffic sources. Social media, in particular, receives a disproportionate amount of attention from marketers given it's conversion rate of only 1 percent versus organic search traffic's 2.8 percent.
While paid search has a slight edge in conversion rate of 2.9 percent, it is a transient traffic source that vanishes as soon as you stop paying for it. Organic search traffic, from the non-advertised search listings in Google and other search engines, is more cumulative in nature. That is, spending the same amount of money each month on paid search will yield roughly the same results each month, while investing the same amount of resources in SEO each month will, on average, grow your results each month.
That said, we don't want to paint an unrealistic picture of how SEO works. There are some circumstances where the value of hiring an SEO company is limited:
- When very short term results are needed, SEO alone is rarely adequate
- Very small businesses may benefit more from investing in educating themselves about some basic SEO ideas and investing in some inexpensive tools than from hiring an SEO company, since the barrier to entry costs for a worthwhile SEO company can be too high
- Hiring internal SEO staff can be a better option if hiring staff with diverse experience in all aspects of SEO is feasible
In other words, for businesses that benefit at all from an internet presence, it is less a question of whether your business will benefit from investing in SEO, and more a question of how, when, and to what extent you should, and whether hiring an SEO company is the ideal way to do that at any given time.
Benefits Of Hiring An SEO Company
Consider these benefits and how well they fit into your current business situation when you are deciding if you should hire an SEO company, and if so, where to specialize.
Technical SEO Knowledge
Short of hiring internal staff, there is no way to become intimately familiar on a technical level with the ins and outs of how search engine algorithms work, how best to structure sites on the back end and front end, how best to implement code, how to perform good keyword research, and how to run SEO tests and interpret the results without investing years in hands on research and experimentation.
Working with an SEO company gives you instant access to professions with this knowledge, rooted in experience with a wide variety of clients who have seen how search engines react to site changes in many different contexts.
Hands on knowledge of this variety can't be obtained from SEO blogs and literature because SEO is not a step-by-step process with repeatable instructions you can follow to obtain identical results. Every SEO situation is different and judgement calls can only be made by experienced professionals.
Diverse Staff Focused Exclusively On SEO Results
SEO is a very broad discipline, and there is a limited extent to which it is possible to hire a single individual "to do SEO" for your company. If you already employ content creators, web designers, and developers who have enough time freed up to take direction from an SEO analyst with a decent mixture of technical, marketing, and managerial skill, then you may be able to make it work. In most circumstances, however, hiring an SEO company means hiring a diverse staff including people with experience in:
- Managing an SEO project
- Analyzing SEO-related conversion and marketing metrics
- Reaching out to online publications
- Managing social media campaigns
- Writing content
- Marking up code for search engines
- Restructuring websites
- Some degree of development and design
- Keyword research
- Conversion rate optimization
Holding this much talent in house and keeping it accountable to showing results with SEO projects specifically is very difficult for most companies to handle.
How Much Does It Cost To Hire An SEO Company?
We have written an extensive post about SEO pricing, but we will summarize some of the key points from that post here. To start, you should know that SEO costs vary wildly and there really isn't a specific price point that we can recommend as ideal in any broad sense.
That said, SEO is a full time job, and if you are spending anything less than the equivalent of a professional salary on an SEO company, it is very dangerous to think of the company as "doing SEO" for your business. Our experience tells us that anything less than $4,000 a month should be thought of as, at best, hiring a company to do some SEO tasks for you, in which case you should be the one in the driver's seat in terms of strategy.
Monthly retainers are the most popular pricing model because of the reliable amount of spending. The downside of monthly retainers is a lack of accountability in terms of what work gets done. The most common pricing range is between $2,500 and $5,000. Figures below $1,000 per month likely rely on spammy tactics that will inevitably backfire. As we said, figures below $4,000 should be thought of as outsourcing some SEO tasks, not as hiring a company to manage your SEO.
Hourly pricing is especially popular with freelancers. The most common figure is between $100 and $150 per hour. The main pitfall of hourly pricing is that it can reward inefficiency. Generally we don't recommend working with SEO companies that charge by the hour, unless you can get a commitment to some specific tasks that will be completed, or if you are hiring somebody for a consultation who has a strong track record.
This pricing model is based on agreeing to a specific project to be completed by the SEO agency. The most popular pricing tier for this type of work is $500 to $1000. This approach doesn't allow for testing, adaptation, feedback, and iterations and falsely views SEO as a project instead of a process. This makes it only useful for companies that want to outsource a specific SEO task that have ongoing SEO being performed in house.
This approach imagines that SEO can be a series of recurring predictable tasks performed each month bought in pre-packaged chunks. We highly advise against ever approaching SEO in this way.
We use a contribution-based pricing model that combines the benefits of per-project pricing and monthly retainers. That is, our work is divided into actionable tasks we call contributions, with a contribution quota set each month. Unlike SaaS pricing, the tasks are customized each month to adapt to changes and can be adjusted on the fly as needed. This also allows us the freedom to identify, plan, and implement novel ideas without being restricted by a pre-packaged plan, while at the same time holding our work accountable and requiring us to track and report every actionable task we have taken. For reasons that should be clear by now, we don't charge less than $4,000 and our enterprise level clients pay as much as $15,000 or more.
How To Hire An SEO Company
Hiring an SEO company is a very important decision and it should not be taken lightly. Under no circumstances should you hire an SEO company without a consultation where you speak with a strategist from the company about your business and your goals. This should be thought of much like a hiring decision, not a purchasing decision.
What To Look For When Hiring An SEO Company
- Results: The company should have case studies or reviews from companies that benefited, or be referred to you by a business partner who has seen results after working with them.
- Diverse skill set: An important benefit of an SEO company over an in-house professional is the variety of specialized labor you have access to. This includes skilled labor ranging from professional copywriting to PR and publishing to technical search engine knowledge to site structure and link building to data analysis and keyword research and more.
- Process oriented: SEO is an adaptive process, not a series of recurring tasks.
- Data driven: The company should provide monthly reporting and make data driven decisions based on a solid understanding of analytics, market and keyword research, and testing.
- No unreasonable guarantees: An SEO company cannot guarantee ranking in 1st place for a specific query or achieving a specific metric within a specific time frame aside from broad agreements that if a specific goal isn't reached the partnership will end. Any SEO company that makes guarantees like this shouldn't be trusted.
- Personalization: The company's approach to SEO should be built around your own business needs and goals rather than an existing template that they have on offer.
- Strategy: The company should be able to offer strategic insight at the level of more fundamental business decisions and how they can impact SEO directly or indirectly
Questions To Ask When Hiring An SEO Company
- Which ranking factors are most important? This is a bit of a trick question, because the reality is that this isn't how ranking factors work. Ranking factors do not add up by simple addition and there isn't a single one that is more important than the others if the others are neglected.
- How do they audit? If their audit consists of merely using an SEO tool and passing the report along to you, they aren't auditing your site's SEO. These tools are helpful, but auditing your site's SEO isn't just about identifying errors and fixing them, it's about evaluating much more nuanced weaknesses and opportunities using a variety of tools as part of a broader system.
- How do they think about strategy? Strategy is informed by business goals. If they start listing tactics and don't seem interested in your business goals or don't seem to be proposing a strategy built around them, they won't be able to give you what you need.
- Where does their SEO knowledge come from? While SEOs should devote some attention to what is happening on industry blogs, the majority of their knowledge should come from their own testing and experience. SEO blogs are subject to the same market forces as other industries, and a skilled SEO understands that they will usually be better informed by what those bloggers are doing than by what they are saying.
- How do they earn links? Link building itself is viewed as inherently suspect by search engines and must always be conducted in a way that makes sense for business purposes aside from the pure SEO implications. An SEO who is myopic about link building as an SEO tactic without considering broader marketing potential isn't making the most of the practice and is potentially putting your site's reputation and position in the search engines at risk.
- How important are links? If they either believe that SEO is all about link building or that Google doesn't care about links anymore, they are not practicing effective SEO. Links are still quite central to how search engines understand the authoritative value of a web page, but they are not the only way search engines determine authority, nor are authority metrics the only factors that matter for SEO.
- How do they approach keywords? They should understand that keyword research is still an extremely vital part of SEO while understanding that longer queries are increasingly important, and that more comprehensive pages tend to get rewarded over pages that are laser focused on a specific syntactical variation of a keyword phrase. If they mention targeting misspelled keywords, run.
Virtually every business can benefit from some investment in SEO, and most companies that can afford to spend a professional salary on it will benefit from hiring an SEO company. Unfortunately, SEO is a fairly opaque process and many SEO companies take advantage of this fact to sell less than ideal services. It's important to do some preliminary research and ask the right questions when hiring an SEO company in order to make the best decision for your needs.