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Time to put on your inbound marketing boots! Chances are you’ve thought at one point or another that you need to increase your SEO efforts. A properly run SEO campaign can pay dividends in the long run, providing evergreen content that gets dug up in search results years down the road. Many consider SEO the “Holy Grail” of marketing, a steady and free traffic source that is the virtual equivalent of a highway billboard, except you don’t have to pay $20,000 a month for it. Where do you start though? Assuming that you don’t have an in-house staff overseeing your campaigns you’ll need to decide whether to hire a SEO consultant or use an agency. There are benefits and disadvantages to both. Let’s explore the differences.

The SEO Consultant

Tread carefully. A lot of SEO “professionals” promise you first page results and favorable rankings in SERPS as a way to prove their worth. Unfortunately many companies will pay thousands of dollars for these “first page” results. This mindset is extremely retroactive and dangerous. You often aren’t aware of what techniques they’re using to achieve results so fast. In a matter of a couple of months you may see incredible results but……how long will they stay there. Google is getting good at detecting web spam. Ask JCPenny – they were caught “buying links” after a New York times article outed them for the notorious black-hat tactic. Google took unprecedented, Draconian measures and completely de-indexed JC Penny’s website, even for brand-related search terms – they were gone. A consultant can offer flexibility that lets them come into your business and work hand in hand with your product and marketing teams. But beware, make sure you get references and examples of their previous work.

Hiring an Agency

Finding a good SEO/Digital marketing agency is hard. They’re often very expensive and often times they are hesitant to discuss previous clients’ work. This may be for privacy (or legal) reasons but every time I’ve dealt with a SEO agency I’ll always ask, “what can you deliver as far as link building goes?”. Because at the end of the day it’s all about building authority to your website. It’s impossible to rank in search engines without other websites linking to you. The agency problem seems like a paradox; with all of the pulled resources and shared experience why are most of them unable to discuss link building? You often pay up to twice as much for an agency but are you getting twice the value of an independent consultant? Usually not. But the thing you DO get with an agency is accountability. Many marketing managers at large companies are hesitant to hire consultants because they may come off as not professional, or too small to handle the rigors and demands of an enterprise SEO campaign. The price tag rises exponentially though. I’ve seen cases where a 6 month SEO campaign can cost up to $25,000! For SMB owners this is a jaw-dropping figure. And the fact that SEO is still smoke and mirrors to most people make it all the more “greasy”. SEO Isn’t “One Size Fits All”

Every business/organization is different. Each SEO campaign is different and should be treated as such. There are also varying levels of competitiveness. If you’re trying to start an online shoe company then you’ll be looking at spending thousands (if not millions) on SEO just to get ranking for the big traffic keywords. If you’re in a niche market like “chainsaw replacement parts” then you may have an easier going. Either way, it’s always wise to ask either the consultant or agency to see their list of previous clients and align your expectations with theirs.

Clayton Curtis is a SEO consultant from Atlanta, GA.