When looking at creating a robust SEO strategy, I am often candidly asked “what method should I choose?” These methods of deploying a strategy people speak of get bucketed into three areas:
- Using SEO Software and Tools
- SEO Agency or a Consultant
- In-House SEO
I want to begin by saying one is not better than the other. I hope what you see is that a mix of things is likely going to be your best answer. Finding the appropriate mix is what I hope to uncover. Let’s examine what you get with SEO software and examine strengths and weaknesses of hiring in-house SEOs versus outsourcing work to agencies or consultants.
SEO software is all about the value you get out of it
SEO software comes in two kinds, the way I see it: automation of sorts and your more holistic visibility tools. Automated link building and such is nothing I wish to get into. As for holistic visibility tools like rank trackers, keyword research tools and backlink analysis dashboards, you need to have an understanding of the data to get any sort of value out of it. I can tell you about the DA of your site, PA of certain pages, Trust Flow between pages, nearby “bad link neighborhoods” and C-blocks alllllll daaaaaaayyyyy.
What does it mean to you, the business owner? Nothing.
It is the key to understanding a way to SEO success, however. Data is great and all but you need to get your value out of it to be of any use.
If it sits, piles up and no one is there to review data and make correlations that lead to better decisions, it is no good to have even the most robust SEO software.
Search Engine Journal reports that 31% of companies are spending $1000 or more on monthly SEO tools. I believe this to be overkill for most businesses.
Tips for SEO tools on a tight budget
Google Analytics and Search Console are free. They amount of data is overwhelming, but still very insightful. Before spending a ton on tools, see what is possible with these.
Keyword Keg offers the awesome Keywords Everywhere Chrome Plugin, which is free(mium). This is great because it makes keyword research an ongoing thing, rather than a task.
You can get some pretty basic understanding of backlinks from the freemium versions of Moz, Ahrefs, and Majestic. Though a lower-tier paid membership will at least give you access to exporting data and the joys of spreadsheet and functions, sorting and pivot tables! What can I say, I freaking love my exports!
Screaming Frog, my preferred crawler, is a yearly license of about $200. With reports on redirect chains, 404 and 3XX, hreflang, canonicalization, and custom ability to search and extract things like schema and other markup, you cannot find a better audit tool. Few articles make their way to my bookmark bar, but this one from SEER Interactive on Screaming Frog is one of them. Visit it at least once a week.
SEO Powersuite offers some very robust capabilities on the freemium, but the yearly license for around $299 (again, exporting to Excel is crucial to analysis 99% of the time) is well worth it. They can cover your basic crawling, great backlink analysis, an outreach dashboard and ranking reports. They also have a nice newsletter that gives great tips on using all the software. It comes with the download so just be sure to recover it from spam, because it is anything but!
I will say, if you spend more than $20 a month on rank tracking… you are wasting your money. Look at your Search Console (and this sweet article on using Search Analytics for Sheets!) for a relative understanding of positions in the SERPs. These days, and days to come… with mobile devices, browser personalization, cookies, voice search and personal assistants, and even still browser cookies (yep, they are still a thing) tracking “universal” rankings is kind of a waste of your time.
No paid promo here, totally genuine mention… but I have been loving Cognitive SEO and the data they make available for a very reasonable price. Great software if you are in a link penalty and need visibility of your whole profile. On the opposite spectrum, being able to monitor up to 5 competitors and hone in on capturing competitor backlinks is amazing! Bonus: rank tracking built in for the guy who won’t spend money on it! Below, you can see some snapshots:
I have a budget of about $300 a month, with some variable spends here and there for my tool set, and I do this for a living people…
Pro tip: You may be better off asking Fiverr folks for analyses and ad hoc exports from spendy SEO tools. They already have a subscription and likely do not get enough value out of it themselves… why else are they offering these services for only $5 a pop?
In-House SEO Pros & Cons
Your in-house SEO, whether a team or a single person, has valuable inside knowledge of the business. They sit in on the internal meetings, they know the company direction, mission, vendors and so forth. They even get the watercooler talk that helps make the difference sometimes. Point is, they are in the shit. They are an asset to the company essentially. They can work very nimbly with other key areas of business – finance, leadership, traditional marketing, social media management, human resources, production, and so on. They can see pain points and your strengths and generally have their head in the game, at least for a good 40-50 hours a week anyway.
They may lack skills agencies specialize in and may not be the best at using any given software. This makes the monthly SEO tool spend we have talked about even more expensive if training and getting familiar with it is a concern.
SEO Agency Pros & Cons
SEO agencies have scalability that in-house SEOs and teams may lack. They can accomplish a lot with the bandwidth within their SEO team, since business is coming and they have trusted independent contractors on hand, when times are tight. They have also likely worked in your industry and have certain research in their back pocket as well. Flipside there is that you may be getting a cookie cutter strategy… nothing competitive there. They also give great third-party perspective. For lack of better phrasing, sometimes they “call your baby ugly” and help you rethink how website visitors view or come to your website. They help you understand your customer’s journey toward a purchase better.
What the agency lacks is that they are often pricey, and sometimes have competency deficiencies – they may have a narrow, yet deep, skillset. They may specialize in onsite SEO or technical web architecture, and never focus on links. Or they may be a link brokerage that has tons of private blog networks (a.k.a. link spam, link schemes, straight-up buying links) that make link building easy, but not genuine, and never touch your website’s content. You need to understand what your being offered. Flipside of working with industry-specialized agencies, such as automotive SEO or SEOs for lawyers, is that you may be getting a cookie cutter strategy… nothing competitive there.
Finding the Right Mix
Know your strengths and act on them. Your in-house SEO might not have bandwidth, so working with an agency in tandem is not a terrible thing. Also, your SEO might also be able to communicate and “talk shop” better with the agencies point of contact. Again, knowledge without understanding is a waste.
Outsource your difficulties to experts. When your in-house SEO cannot find the solution, an agency might have a solution that you can work into an ongoing strategy. In all my years in an agency, performing intense SEO audits for in-house teams to implement was just another day. What I have learned is, SEO is forever changing, and what is new now, will be common knowledge in a year. It xis okay to simply not know. You will often have strengths and capabilities in other areas your agency cannot even begin to hold a candle to.
Understand how it all works together in a combined SEO strategy. Tools are no good without understanding of how to work them or understand the SEO metrics, and what they mean and how they correlate to… well anything at all. What does an increase or decrease mean. What does the disparity in data prove? Making sure the right people are working with their strengths is what you have control over. Price is no factor when value is high. I have seen companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for half-baked strategies and penalizations and seen shoestring budgets growth hack companies to a new level of business. It is all in the value my friend.