I’ve gone through pretty much every SEO role there is over the past 10 years or so.
From intern at a start-up through to SEO Manager at various agencies, and now a freelance SEO Consultant, I’ve seen SEO from every possible angle; and that means I’ve seen the best and very worst.
I like to think I’m pretty well placed, therefore, to comment on a dilemma that many business owners are faced with – is it better to hire a freelance SEO consultant or an SEO agency for your business?
In true SEO style, the most honest answer really is ‘it depends’. It depends on so many factors, and there is no simple answer. It’s all dependent on what kind of business you have, what you are looking to achieve from SEO, and how patient you are willing to be to see results.
Let’s explore some of those factors in more detail.
First of all – Does Your Business actually need SEO (right now)?
This is the first assessment I will always make when I get an enquiry about SEO services. Many business owners or marketing managers are aware of the benefits that SEO could bring to their business and put budget towards it.
This is probably a wise idea, but first I’ll always think about whether SEO is the best channel to be putting money into right now, for your specific business.
Some businesses are just so niche, it doesn’t make sense to commit too much to SEO. Some businesses in the start-up phase might want to focus more on paid social media advertising to gain some instant traction, before slowly easing into SEO over time.
Only when you’ve considered these questions should you be considering whether it’s best to hire an SEO Consultant or an SEO Agency.
Importance of Choosing the Right SEO Provider
Choosing the right SEO provider is critical, particularly if this is the first time you’ve invested in SEO services. Taking the time to properly consider what kind of SEO provider to work with can save you time, energy and money in the long run, and of course it will have a bearing on the overall success of your SEO campaign.
How To Choose The Right SEO Provider
The first question to ask yourself is – what do I need the SEO provider to do for me?
Maybe you’re a one-man-band business owner who simply doesn’t have the time to commit to improving their website, so you need someone who can do everything for you; strategy, keyword research, content writing, technical improvements and linkbuilding. In this case you’re probably better off hiring an SEO agency.
On the other hand, you might be the Marketing Manager of an in-house team with good all-round digital marketing knowledge and skills, but no real SEO specialism. You can produce content and make on-page improvements, but you need guidance on what tasks to prioritise for maximum impact, what kind of content to write and how to optimise it for search. Here you’d benefit most from working with an SEO consultant who can utilise your internal resource.
Let’s get a bit deeper into the pros and cons of SEO Consultants and SEO Agencies.
Hiring a Freelance SEO Consultant
What is a freelance SEO consultant?
A freelance SEO consultant is specialised in Search Engine Optimisation and provides one-to-one SEO services to businesses in order to increase their organic visibility for relevant keywords. They are self-employed and do not work for an agency or in-house for a business.
Advantages of Hiring an SEO Consultant
A high level of SEO expertise
The majority of freelance SEO consultants are highly experienced and have worked in SEO for many years, across a range of different industries, budgets and niches.
While the basic concepts and skills required to work in SEO can be learnt and picked up relatively quickly, it takes many years of actually putting them into practice to truly understand how to get the tangible results using SEO.
An SEO consultant is able to deliver bespoke strategies based on their many years of experience by applying techniques and methods that they know will achieve maximum impact. On the other hand, someone less experienced in SEO may not be able to identify the high-impact actions and instead use time and budget to implement techniques or changes which, while not necessarily wrong, may not be the most effective use of your SEO retainer.
SEO consultants also go beyond the theory and perceived best practice to implement strategies which they themselves have seen work time and time again. There is a lot of white noise around SEO, with countless opinions and articles on what works and what doesn’t.
SEO consultants don’t tend to follow trends for the sake of it, and they don’t take all SEO advice at face value; they constantly test and experiment to see what actually makes a real impact, and then apply that to make their own judgements on future projects.
That’s not to say that this level of expertise cannot be found at an agency, but generally speaking an SEO consultant only makes the jump to freelance once they have acquired enough knowledge and experience – so going with a freelance SEO consultant is a safer bet if you’re looking for expertise.
Bespoke SEO solutions; quicker delivery
The one-on-one interaction that you can expect to get from a freelance SEO consultant means that they are more easily able to understand your business needs and tailor their SEO strategy towards your goals and objectives.
Often when working with an SEO agency these goals can get lost in translation as you have to deal with many different layers of seniority and expertise; usually an Account Manager, an SEO Executive, and an SEO Manager. Each of these have their own priorities, workloads and skill sets, so communication is not always seamless and this can often delay delivery of work or negatively impact the quality.
With an SEO consultant, however, you have a direct line into the expert who is overseeing and executing your SEO campaign, which usually makes communication much easier and also ensures that the work is aligned with your business goals.
Having one person working on strategy and execution also means that it’s more likely to stay on track and bring results. Staff turnover at SEO agencies tends to be quite high, so there’s more disruption as new starters need time to onboard with their clients and pick up the previous strategies. This in turn can result in agreed work or strategies being delayed or even forgotten about, while having a new face to deal with every few months can prove frustrating and make the SEO campaign disjointed.
Freelance SEO consultants tend to have very few overheads to think about as they have no staff costs, and with the majority of them working remotely, no office rental costs.
While freelance SEO consultants do usually command a higher hourly fee or day rate than SEO agencies, you can feel assured that the majority of your budget is being put towards the work itself. When paying an agency for SEO services, on the other hand, some of your retainer will be covering their overheads.
Another thing to consider when hiring an SEO consultant in the UK is that many of them will be sole traders and will have no obligation to be VAT registered like many agencies. Most agencies will pass that additional cost on to the client, which can make hiring an SEO consultant over an SEO agency a better value proposition.
Disadvantages of Hiring an SEO Consultant
As mentioned previously, an SEO Consultant will usually charge a higher hourly or daily fee because of their experience. That can put their services beyond the budget of many smaller businesses, or it means they can only afford a small amount of the consultant’s work each month.
But as Ahref’s SEO Pricing survey points out, “there’s a clear positive correlation between experience and rates. (Surprising, right?)”
Here’s what they have to say on the difference in cost:
“However, the most common hourly rate for SEO agencies and freelancers is the same: $75–100/hour.
For SEO consultants, it’s $100–150/hour.”
We’re only human, with the same 24 hours in each day. Despite what any SEO consultant may promise you, they’re not able to do everything themselves.
Linkbuilding, technical audits, content writing; strategy, planning, execution. There’s an endless list of SEO tasks to be completed. An SEO consultant may specialise in one area or they may be more of a generalist, but there’s no way just one person can carry out all elements of a successful SEO campaign on a large site on their own.
Agencies certainly have the upper hand here as they’re able to delegate work more effectively through their ready-made team, with a mix of skills and specialisms able to take on a wider range of tasks.
On the other hand, a freelance SEO Consultant will have built a network of other reliable freelancers that they can delegate work to. Often this results in greater efficiency and higher quality output compared to agencies, who tend to have higher turnover and take on more junior employees with less experience.
In much the same vein, a freelance SEO Consultant only has a certain amount of hours to work with each month. At the beginning of their freelance journey they will most probably have a good amount of capacity, but very soon they’ll start to get booked up for work months in advance.
For an agency, however, taking on more clients once at capacity is relatively easy – they just employ more people to handle the additional work.
SEO Consultants also tend to be a lot more picky about the type of client they work with, and usually have the luxury of turning down work that they don’t feel is a good fit. Agencies are generally not quite so particular about who they work with unless they specialise in a certain industry or niche.
Hiring an SEO Agency
What is an SEO Agency?
An SEO agency is a business, organisation or collection of individuals providing Search Engine Optimisation services to other businesses. Agencies vary hugely in size, ranging from just 2 or 3 people in a team to hundreds of employees.
There are some agencies which only offer SEO services, but more often than not you’ll find Digital Marketing agencies which offer SEO alongside services such as PPC, web development, web design and social media.
Advantages of Hiring an SEO Agency
Comprehensive SEO Services
Most SEO agencies in the UK are able to offer full-service SEO, with a team of differing specialties covering content, Digital PR and technical SEO.
That puts them at an advantage compared to freelance SEO consultants, who tend to specialise in one particular pillar of SEO or just don’t have the capacity to cover all aspects.
An SEO agency will pretty much act as an extension of your internal marketing team, making it a better choice for smaller companies with limited internal resources who are unable to take on the implementation of the work itself.
For larger companies with an in-house marketing and development team it may make more sense to partner with an SEO Consultant for guidance on strategy. Many companies like this manage content production and technical implementation themselves, but do not have the SEO expertise to know what to prioritise and what kind of content to write.
Team of Experts
Rather than just working with one SEO expert, in theory working with an agency gives you access to a whole team of them. The very best SEO agencies will have a team of highly experienced SEO experts working for them, although you will usually only be assigned one senior SEO specialist to work on your account along with 2 or 3 more junior team members.
This range of skills and perspectives can be advantageous for larger sites as the workload can be efficiently distributed, while more eyes can help to spot critical issues faster and ensure nothing is missed.
Agencies rarely hire SEO specialists alone; they also hire web developers, designers, account managers, data analysts and marketing managers.
Depending on how their retainers are structured, this usually means that you’ll have access to these additional resources as part of the ongoing SEO work. This saves time and money as you don’t need to outsource additional tasks and responsibilities to other individuals or companies.
Keeping all of these resources under one roof is certainly less complicated and usually more efficient, with greater collaboration and more effective communication.
Disadvantages of Hiring an SEO Agency
Despite generally charging a lowly hourly or daily fee, SEO agencies may cost more overall as they tend to have larger minimum retainers.
Less Personalised Service
Staff turnover at agencies is usually high, so if you’re with an agency for any significant length of time then your primary point of contact will most likely change, as will the people working on your account. There will also be a lot of different people working on your account.
With all the changes it can be hard to build a personal rapport with those working on your account. Even if you do manage to develop that relationship, the high turnover rate means that person may not be around much longer.
If the agency is delivering results then you might not care at all about the personal relationship.
But in my experience at agencies, SEO teams work best on the accounts that they care most about, which are generally those clients that they have the best personal relationship with.
When you’re unable to select the clients you want to work with, like the majority of SEO agency team members, it can be hard to motivate yourself to do the best possible work.
With bigger teams, higher turnover and often a more corporate approach to client relations, SEO agencies are usually not able to deliver the kind of personalised service that you can find with an SEO consultant.
There’s also the fact that SEO consultants tend to pick and choose the clients they see as the best fit for them personally, meaning they’ll be more invested in you and your business and making the SEO campaign a success.
Longer Turnaround Time
Most SEO agencies have a lot of clients on the books at any one time. They also have a lot of processes in place which, though designed to increase efficiency, sometimes don’t allow them to be flexible and reactive to deliver work quickly.
Agencies are also notoriously bad at working out capacity across a large team and ensuring that they have enough resources to complete the planned work on time for dozens or even hundreds of clients. Then consider the usual workplace issues around holidays, promotions, staff turnover and sickness; these can all cause delays to deliverables.
There’s also all of the time taking by internal meetings and evaluations, which often don’t leave a lot of time to do some actual SEO work.
On the other hand, SEO consultants don’t have all of that to worry about. They have a smaller, more curated client portfolio and won’t have to deal with all of the internal politics that can be found at some agencies. They’re also not confined by rigid working hours and can therefore be more flexible and reactive if needed.
SEO consultants will also have a select group of design, development or copywriting freelancers that they can call upon if required. An SEO agency will usually also have this resource in-house, but those teams might also face the same issues with workload and processes.
Choosing the Right SEO Provider for Your Business
Here’s a few things you want to think about when deciding whether to hire an SEO agency or an SEO freelancer.
- Evaluate Your Business and Staffing Needs
- Determine Your Budget
- Research Your Options
- Consider the Provider’s Expertise and Experience
There’s really no right or wrong answer here, and both SEO agencies and freelance SEO consultants will probably do a great job at delivering SEO services. But you’ll probably see the benefits of those services a lot faster if you hire the most appropriate resource in the first place.
Freelance SEO consultants work well with businesses that have existing marketing resources, but perhaps need guidance on SEO strategy and implementation. They also work well with smaller businesses who perhaps don’t need a great deal of SEO work on their sites to see results but can’t afford the fees charged by agencies.
SEO agencies, on the other hand, tend to work better with businesses that require a ‘full-service’ extension of their existing team. They also might be better suited to large corporations and websites who need dozens or even hundreds of SEO hours each month; something that just one person can’t provide.