As search engines become more sophisticated, the levers available to improve SEO performance have become more complex and more out of control of the brand and/or agency. Historically, where agencies could easily influence search results through building authority links with no dependency on the client, there are now many more factors at play, which are harder to optimize.
If the primary purpose of the SEO agency is to improve SEO performance of their client, it is important that their model or the way they engage with clients facilitate the ability to do this. An inability to deliver performance gains means they are unable to justify their fee and risk losing business.
I would argue that as an industry, we didn’t do a great job transitioning to content marketing-based strategies. If we don’t learn from the past, then ultimately, we face the same risks of disruption.
Lessons from the past
Prior to 2010, SEO was a pretty straightforward operation. Links were by far the most significant ranking signal, and agencies were pretty good at building them. Importantly, though, in most instances the agency didn’t have any dependency on the client and could operate in a silo.
This is because guidelines provided by search engines were less strict, and compliance with the guidelines was comparatively lower than it is now. Agencies were able to justify their retainers because they largely had free reign and control over the performance of their clients.
Yes, agencies were making technical changes which would accelerate performance gains, but irrespective of that, they would be able to justify their fees through the brute force of link building.
The transition to content marketing-based strategies
As the SEO industry matured, almost all brands transitioned to content-based strategies. How agencies managed this transition played a large factor in their growth or decline. Suddenly, agencies had to depend on clients to upload content that they could distribute and then build links.
Those agencies who managed the transition well were those who quickly learned the following:
- The importance of strategy. SEO content was often guilty of being too tactical and campaign-centric without fitting into wider communication strategies. The content produced by agencies was now under the microscope from various departments, including brand teams. This meant that all content had to be “on brand” in order to be approved.
- The importance of stakeholder management. Building on the above, with the increased amount of eyeballs within client organizations approving content, agencies needed to build relationships and provide education to push content through and get it approved. Only having strong relationships would enable agencies to navigate all the stakeholders and get content approved.
- The importance of business cases. Even if content was approved, putting content live required resources from teams that operated outside marketing, meaning it had to be prioritized against all other requirements. Agencies learned that commercial business cases would be critical to getting the content live on the client website.
- The need to work with PR & social. Hooray! The content is now live, and the SEO team needs to build authority links, but wait! Social and PR functions of brands own these relationships, so the SEO team is relegated to contacting mid-tier publications as a consequence of poor relationships and ways of working. SEO agencies needed to develop good ways of working with these functions to ensure their content was seen and it earned links.
In a lot of instances, the consequence of all these challenges was that content never went live — or when it did go live, it was not suitable to be used for link building because it was too branded. In either instance, agencies would find it difficult to deliver performance for the client and therefore justify their fee.
The transition to content marketing-based strategies happened because search engines became more sophisticated, and therefore the role of SEO had to become broader. History is now repeating itself.
Transitioning to a new user experience approach
Google has always valued on-site experience, but with the application of machine learning, it can be expected to grow in importance. User signals such as search sequence are a logical way search engines can evolve to better evaluate user experience.
This means that SEO must broaden yet again. Many SEO agencies are not currently responsible for leading the conversations about UX and multivariate testing, and that needs to change.
The good news is that SEO agencies should be well-placed to embrace this new challenge. That is because the challenges with multivariate testing are similar (and related) to the challenges inherent in the shift to content marketing:
- Getting budget/prioritization. It’s almost a no-brainer to conduct tests to make data-driven decisions around what your users want. Just a small conversion gain can yield significant business improvements. However, getting budget allocated to do testing can be challenging. Through the use of business cases and the stakeholder management lessons learned, SEO agencies are in an excellent position to drive change going forward.
- Getting buy-in from developers. Understandably, developers are protective of the websites they are responsible for. Enabling an agency to run tests and serve page variations requires significant cooperation and collaboration between teams. For SEO agencies to be effective, they should have strong relationships with these teams already.
- Getting changes made. Software such as Optimizely allows brands to make test variations with one snippet of code. However, the challenge for those conducting tests is getting winning variations hard-coded into the site. SEO agencies should be close to development cycles and processes in order to get technical changes made and push content live.
How agencies need to evolve
With the application of machine learning and increased importance of user signals, SEO is set to broaden out again. If SEO agencies don’t respond to this change, then the levers needed to improve SEO performance will be out of their control. As soon as that happens, they become ineffective — and the agency model is at risk.
SEO agencies should be in a strong position to respond to this change. The lessons the industry learned from the transition to content marketing-based strategies are all largely relevant to this new transition. Through adopting an owned media approach, agencies will have a stronger mandate and better capability to drive SEO performance for clients.
As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”