Why Do You Need an SEO Agency? An Interview with Chris and Ian
Over the years, SEO has advanced to become a sophisticated, high performing route to business growth. Google’s algorithms have developed significantly to offer a much broader range of information including but not limited to image, video, shopping, maps, knowledge graph and local capabilities. This development alongside a much wider growth of consumer demand for online businesses, has created the need for agencies who specialise in SEO.
We spoke with two of our longstanding members here at WMG. Head of Technical SEO, Chris Shelbourn and Joint Managing Director, Ian Lloyd, shared their insight into how SEO has evolved, why it has become a fundamental, and often cost-effective, channel for businesses to invest in and the signs to look for when searching for a reputable SEO agency.
How has SEO evolved?
Ian: Going back to when I started at the agency 12 years ago, SEO as a channel appealed mostly to businesses with an entrepreneurial attitude who were interested in trying new things. It was rare to see major businesses or any brands from the high street get involved with SEO at this point because they didn’t recognise it as important.
Over the last 12 years, this has changed. Pretty much every high street business or any business wanting to sell their goods or services online needs to have an SEO strategy. If you were to look at our typical SEO client back then, it would be a small to medium sized independent business such as a clothes or skate shop. While we still work with these independent businesses, we now also work with FTSE 100 businesses and big high street brands which is down to the fact that we, as an agency, have grown and evolved significantly alongside the market.
Today, if you were to look at the Google Analytics accounts of many businesses who make money online, you will often find their organic channel will be one of the biggest revenue drivers and therefore, it’s taken very seriously at a marketing level which wasn’t always the case.
Chris: In terms of how SEO has changed you have to look at how Google has changed. First and foremost, it has become a lot more sophisticated. When I first started – although these weren’t practices we ever did or encouraged – businesses came to us with white text on a white background to hide content or stuffed loads of keywords into their footer or meta keywords tag.
Although these were risky strategies, they probably did work in the early to mid-2000s. But since then, Google has become more sophisticated with the first big change occurring in 2011 known as the Panda update. With this update, Google clamped down on thin and duplicate content. We always preached to our clients to use unique content, but I think it became even more important when Google made these changes.
From 2012 onwards, the Google Penguin penalties and manual penalties started coming to the forefront. In these cases, a lot of sites who historically used low quality, spammy link practices that, again, may have worked a few years prior, were now being penalised by Google. From that point, we’ve also seen page speed and optimising for mobile become more important.
The big change that has happened in the last couple of years was the Medic update which looks at whether the content on your site is not only relevant and keyword optimised, but genuinely useful to the user. Do your onsite pages provide all the answers the user needs without navigating to a different page? Are you answering search intent? Is your content conveying your company’s expertise, authority and trust (EAT)?
In terms of the future, I think we’ll see further announcements from Google around core web vitals. It seems likely that these considerations will become a ranking factor and even more focus will be placed on page speed and usability.
Do you think this evolvement of SEO is why businesses are turning to SEO agencies even more?
Ian: Yes, definitely. Every time Google makes a big, complex change such as Chris has outlined, businesses need an expert to navigate their way through it. It becomes harder to generate an ROI unless you’re aware of the right things to do and how to do them. As the organic channel continues to evolve in its complexity, it requires more technical and strategic experts to deploy and drive good results.
Chris: It’s not only technical SEO experts either, it’s specialists in specific strands of SEO that have become so important. Within SEO there are so many different disciplines and to perform well in this space, we would encourage businesses to use a specialist for their focus area.
For example, as an agency, we deploy specialists who work solely on one element of SEO such as link acquisition, or digital PR strategies, or content writing, or technical site auditing or research and development. As SEO becomes more difficult, I think this specialism is something that drives people towards using an agency. Also, when you consider the cost of using an agency, while it may not necessarily be cheap, it can actually be a cost-effective method compared to hiring five or six people to carry out the very different tasks needed to deploy. Plus, you have access to a wider talent pool within the agency. I think this is something that businesses are waking up to with SEO and they’re investing in it because they understand the long-term benefits that many other channels can’t provide.
In March and April when the UK lockdown began, understandably, many businesses went on the defensive and wanted to pause their activities until they could understand what was happening. We saw some industries take a dip in search demand, but a huge and almost surprising amount are at least back to where they were before or even ahead and are now actually dealing with excess demand.
Ian: I totally agree. The graph which shows search interest increasing around SEO agencies will partly be due to the move from bricks-and-mortar to eCommerce that has occurred for many businesses over this period. Everyone is looking at where they can drive revenue and certain industries may need to focus online because they’ve not been able to open their physical premises.
Using an agency and allocating your budget where maximum return will be made, you could deploy three or four people with a specialist skillset designed to reach your objectives. If that agency has top talent, then you instantly have access to a best of breed team and businesses need this knowledge that agencies can provide.
This is something that’s really important to us. We are a specialist agency so we’re always looking for specialists to add to our team and what we’ve seen over the last few years is that generalist marketers in the agency world have struggled. And this doesn’t just apply to SEO. It’s paid media, CRO, affiliate – all of the different digital channels require specialism to really maximise ROI.
When we bring new people into our teams, we train them in specialisms and allow them to grow from that point. Allowing them to really get involved and excel in one area is not just for our benefit, it’s for their benefit and knowledge too.
What would you advise clients to look for when searching for a reputable SEO agency?
Ian: Knowledge of your market and an understanding of how that market works is really key. It’s important for an agency to know who your true digital competitors are. This is something we do through our in-house competitor analysis process. By gaining a true understanding of the client’s market, we can spot opportunities for growth and how to successfully implement the strategy to see results. If an agency can’t produce that and doesn’t really understand the market, you’re taking a much bigger risk at investing your budget and getting no return.
Chris: I agree. I think trusted agencies will use data to make decisions. They’ll use data to inform their strategy and give the client the information they need to say, “Look, this is the right thing to do because this is what the data is showing us, this is the best way to use your investment.”
This approach is something we pride ourselves on, using data to make decisions rather than sticking a finger in the air and making guesses. In the past, I think our industry has had a bit of a reputation for “smoke and mirrors”, whereas we don’t see it that way at all. We’re very open and transparent about everything we do.
Ian: The skill base of the agency’s teams is also important too. This goes beyond just SEO, it’s also how the agency services and supports a client, the interaction, the communication and the overall relationship so the client understands how we execute each element of their campaign. For us, we believe you always need to be comfortable and have great confidence in your team. We even allow potential clients to gather references from our current clients. Opening up this method of communication which allows them to speak openly with one another really helps to build trust in our abilities.
The relationship aspect of working with an agency should always be something a business considers. Do you enjoy the interaction with your agency team? Is there chemistry? Do you know who your team are? At the end of the day, we’re all human and want to work with likeminded people who are on our side. We are on the client’s side and as cheesy as it may sound, we really aim to be a member of their team. When we get positive feedback on the relationships, we know the client is enjoying the interaction with us and we’re driving success for them – what more could you want?
Chris: If the agency does the majority or all of their work in-house, that’s also a positive sign. Having those specialists gives the agency and the client a lot more control over the campaign and how the budget is used. And the quality of work, a good track record and relevant case studies are all really important factors to look for.
Another thing to consider is the longevity of service across the agency team. Within our tech team we’ve got a number of people who’ve been with us for over 10 years and I think that really highlights the kind of team you would be working with. We enjoy working here and with our clients. I mean, Ian and I are still working together after 12 and a half years!
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