SEO: Consultant vs Agency

When it comes to outsourcing the SEO function of your organisation, there are a couple of routes to choose from. The main variations on the role of ‘SEO’ you’ll find in the wild are consultants, freelancers and agencies. Not wanting to waste precious company resources on an ill-fitting and ultimately ineffective solution, many entrepreneurs and CMOs are left wondering: how do I figure out which SEO model is right for me? 

Before we get into answering that in more detail, let’s first clear up what you should be looking for. You need an SEO provider who:

  • Brings fresh perspective and creativity to your marketing resource
  • Can drive long-term revenue growth through online channels
  • Is highly educated in all four pillars of SEO: technical SEO, content development, link building and digital PR.
  • Has a reputation in the SEO community as a thought leader delivering consistent and meaningful results for clients.

To help you make an informed decision, we’re breaking down the choice between an SEO consultant and an agency.
What is the difference between an SEO consultant and an SEO agency?

SEO consultants

WHAT IS AN SEO CONSULTANT?

SEO consultants and consultancies are generally (don’t take things at face value - always check the case studies!) made up of industry veterans who, after many years in agency and in-house environments, start up on their own to act as expert advisors to businesses in need of a helping hand when it comes to all things search. 

WHAT DO SEO CONSULTANTS DO?

They do exactly what it says on the tin - they consult. SEO consultancy services don’t exist to substitute for a missing in-house team; they exist to upskill your existing digital marketers, audit your website and help you devise a long-term SEO strategy for your newly-upskilled team to implement. They take the ‘teach a man to fish’ approach to SEO: they won’t do the work for you, but they’ll show you how to do it yourself - as long as you’ve got the necessary manpower. 

SEO agencies

WHAT IS AN SEO AGENCY?

SEO agencies are teams of experts in subjects as diverse as programming and web development, content development, digital PR and social media marketing. Hiring an agency is easily the most popular solution for outsourcing SEO, and that’s because it’s simple, it’s stress-lite and it’s the most reliable method for facilitating long-term revenue growth through your website. 

WHAT DO SEO AGENCIES DO?

SEO agencies combine their varied skill sets to craft and implement bespoke, full-service SEO strategies designed to maximise the visibility of your brand online. Because they are complete, managed teams of people, the speed and consistency of project delivery tends to be much higher when working with an SEO agency.  

Benefits of hiring an SEO agency

A fully-resourced team of SEO professionals at your disposal. True, any agency worth its salt already has other clients on the books and will therefore be juggling multiple projects, but the best SEO agencies are tightly-run ships that manage their time effectively so they can deliver all these projects on time and to a high standard. When you’re working with the right agency, they’ll make you feel like the only client in the world.

Long-term support. One of the most common misconceptions about SEO is that a website can be optimised once and reap the rewards of that process indefinitely. Search engine crawlers are constantly active and websites that are regularly updated with fresh content fare much better. To truly compete for first-page positions, you need a team that can deliver a steady stream of optimisation activity. 

No additional internal pressure. Groundbreaking statement incoming: running a business is pretty hard work. Whether you’re a start-up, local family-run enterprise or a large corporation, your teams probably already have enough on their plate without turning them into SEOs - which isn’t just one job, but at least four - on top of that. Hiring an agency is cheaper and easier in the long run. 

Measurable results and accountability. When you hire a consultant, they teach you the trade and then vanish into the night like some caped crusader. If the strategy isn’t delivering the results you were promised, you’ve no one to turn to but yourself. With an SEO agency, you receive monthly reports on critical data like rankings, traffic and conversions, allowing you to calculate your exact ROI on the strategy. Plus, if the results simply aren’t there, you’ve got someone on hand who should be able to figure out what’s going wrong. 

Truly innovative SEO tactics. Trust us, all the best gossip in the SEO community comes from agencies - whether it’s an anecdote about client traffic reflecting a potential algorithm update or a cutting-edge SEO experiment to help resolve a long-standing technical quandary. We’re responsible for pushing boundaries and finding fresh solutions to problems both old and new. 

Benefits of hiring an SEO consultant

Beef up your in-house team’s potential. SEO consultancies are an incredible asset to businesses with existing in-house digital marketing teams who have a limited or outdated knowledge of search. Working with a consultant can prepare them to play a crucial role in scaling your business through online channels.

Tailor-made advice that integrates with your existing systems. While agencies will create and deliver bespoke strategies, consultants are all about equipping you with the tools you need to do SEO yourself. This means their recommendations for new tools or processes should work seamlessly alongside what you already have in place. 

Maintain in-house control. Some businesses, particularly those who’ve had a negative SEO agency experience in the past, experience some level of anxiety about outsourcing such a crucial part of their business. If you have internal capacity, working with a consultant to upskill your staff in SEO can help you maintain total oversight.

Identify any hidden technical problems. Is your team struggling to figure out why you’ve experienced a sudden dip in rankings, or why - despite all your efforts to optimise - you’re not seeing any progress? The first thing a consultant will typically do is audit your site to uncover any unaddressed technical flaws. It’s worth noting that agencies also conduct complete SEO audits, typically as the first stage in a more long-term project. 

One-time expenditure. We’ll dig a bit deeper into this in just a second, so bear with us. Hiring an SEO agency can seem like a huge financial commitment, particularly as the relationship tends to extend on an indefinite monthly retainer. In comparison, consultancy services are generally engaged for a few months at most before you, theoretically, go on to reap the benefits of their work. 

SEO consultant vs agency pricing

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to do a direct pricing comparison between hiring an SEO agency and hiring a consultant. One is a long-term professional relationship that only tends to be broken if the agency in question isn’t delivering meaningful results; the other is short-term project work. 

The total cost of hiring a consultant is therefore likely to be lower, but this doesn’t paint the complete picture.

Working with an SEO consultant can often incur unforeseen and therefore unbudgeted-for secondary costs with little guarantee of a return on your investment further down the line. Consultants might recommend investing in new SEO tools - sometimes ones they are paid to promote - or sending your staff on relevant training courses, for example.

The burden of implementation is also entirely on your staff and your business. If the strategy doesn’t work out, the consultant has no stake in the matter - they’ve already been paid. You, however, have spent a good deal of time and money on a strategy your staff was ill-prepared or too overstretched to deliver on. 

Meanwhile, SEO agencies rely on their strategies yielding results in order to retain clients and grow their business. That’s why ROI can be as high as 12.2% of marketing spend and reduce the cost of acquisition by up to 87.41%. 

Therefore, while total expenditure might be higher over time, you are likely to reap the long-term financial rewards, making hiring an SEO agency the more profitable investment. 

5 reasons you should hire an SEO agency

  • If you don’t have an existing in-house team

  • If online and digital are major potential revenue streams for your business, meaning you require long-term support

  • If month-by-month progress reports on your organic rankings, traffic and conversions would be helpful to your business case.

  • If you want to be able to calculate the exact or near-exact ROI of your SEO investment.

  • If you want a complete range of expertise across the four pillars of SEO, rather than just one.