SEO Agency vs In-House SEO vs SEO Consultant

On this page
On this page
Let's work together?
Discuss Project

There is a lot of information and service offering types out there, ranging from SEO agencies to in-house SEO resources and independent SEO consultants. You’ve probably seen examples of case studies peppered across LinkedIn from brands and individuals on their apparent SEO prowess. You’ve also no doubt experienced inboxes and LinkedIn messages full of suitors pitching you their SEO wares.

Here, we’ll walk you through the various types of SEO services offerings, what you need to know for each and how to identify a solid partner for consistent organic growth moving forward. 

Assessing your needs: what am I looking for in my business in terms of SEO growth?

While your chosen partner for SEO will play a vital role in guiding you through your strategies for organic growth, you will need to arrive at a decision as a business as to where you’re looking to grow yourself. Do you have a particular product you are looking to gain more conversions from? Are you concerned at a competitor outperforming you in a certain area? Have you experienced a notable drop in organic visibility, traffic and leads and are not sure why? What is your potential budget for SEO, and do you have a target in terms of growth over a certain period?

SEO is a vital channel for sustained organic growth (apparently ~70% of all online experiences begin with a search), though you will need to arrive at an internal decision as to where the opportunities lie for your business and how you are approaching this from a wider aligned digital perspective. Detailing this thoroughly when assessing suitors or as part of your RFP process will help you identify the right partner more effectively moving forward. 

SEO needs for individual businesses will of course vary, though there are a number of common situational examples where prospecting an SEO partner may be a consideration:

  • Rebrand or new product launch

If you’ve recently undertaken or are planning to undertake a rebrand, such as a new website launch, a change of domain, a redesign or are launching a new product, then this might be a good time to consider bringing in SEO support. Major changes in site structure, whether it’s a domain name change or design or content refresh, will require SEO input to ensure traffic levels are maintained and ideally improved upon during these processes.

If you’re launching a new product, SEO investment can be a great way to help position the product and enhance its visibility on search engines through practices such as keyword/topic research and competitor analysis.

  • One off SEO audit or SEO strategy piece

If you’re seeing continual downward trends in terms of traffic and conversions from SEO and are not sure where to begin in terms of recovery, bringing in a specialist to lay down a clear set of next steps in terms of an SEO audit or strategy may be a wise move. It may be that you’ve been the victim of a Google penalty or have fallen foul to one of the many Google algorithm updates. Your site’s technical SEO and code set-up may also be hindering search engine visibility. You may also be struggling in terms of growth from your content efforts and are looking for a clear set of content areas to pursue in order to outdo your competitors. Bringing in an SEO specialist in the form of an agency, in-house resource or freelance consultant can provide clarity in this department. Many in-house SEO teams will seek advice from external SEO consultants.

  • Ongoing SEO support and SEO consultancy

As we’ve highlighted earlier, SEO should ideally be an ongoing investment to make sure you’re getting the most out of it and maintain high standards in terms of search engine visibility. While there is always the need for individual project-based work to align in terms of a strategy for your team to chase, SEO is an ever changing discipline and your competitors certainly won’t be switching off. Along with specialist project-based work, it may also be prudent to consider an ongoing investment over a sustained period of time.

It is often more expensive and time-consuming to run small SEO projects, take a pause, and then bring back the SEO expertise later in the year, as websites will need reviewing, changes to the website will have occurred, and expertise will need to get up to speed. In most cases, it’s cheaper, more efficient, and enhances performance to keep expertise on a retainer model.

What are the different types of SEO services?

SEO services come in different shapes and sizes. You may come across large network digital agencies with an SEO arm that may be suitable for servicing global enterprise business. There are also specialist SEO agencies, the option of hiring a team in-house or taking on a freelance consultant to help drive growth. Let’s weigh up the considerations for these options and the pros and cons of each. 

  • SEO agency vs SEO consultant 

Hiring a dedicated SEO agency or an independent/SEO consultant can be a great way to aid your organic growth. 

While the more expensive option, onboarding an agency will allow you access to their full talent pool. SEO agencies worth their salt will ideally have market leading talent and specialism in all the key areas of SEO, be it content, technical, reporting, digital PR or otherwise, which will keep your business at the forefront of SEO trends. They will often have the means to ideate, research, create and deliver content campaigns, reports and technical SEO audits autonomously, allowing you to delegate and focus on the bigger picture. 

Aside from pricing however, finding the right agency that really “gets” your business and is delivering real value can be difficult. Agency retainer models can be quite formulaic and inflexible depending on the agreements signed, and this may become expensive and ROI-draining if not addressed. Agencies rely on consistent client onboarding in order to grow and be profitable too, so you may not receive the same level of care and diligence if the agency account teams are spinning different plates. 

This is where a consultant may have the edge; that being someone who is able to really get under the hood of a business, stride across different departments and stakeholders to get buy-in and implementation to deliver value. Hiring an SEO consultant will often be less expensive than bringing in full time staff, and you also have the flexibility of increasing or reducing their levels of engagement depending on your needs at the time. 

The obvious downfall here of course is that consultants are of course just one person, and their role is to consult and provide strategic direction from an SEO standpoint. If you don’t have the resources to deliver the implementation recommendations or devise manifestations of this (such as content creation) then it may be worth considering looking at an agency or additional freelance resources to do this. 

  • SEO agency vs inhouse SEO

We’ve covered the pros and cons of hiring an SEO agency already, so let’s weigh this up against the pros and cons of hiring an in-house SEO resource.

Whether you’re looking to bring in a sole in-house SEO consultant or a team composed of a manager/director and several junior executives, building out a dedicated in-house team can be a sustainable and long-term method to drive growth. With in-house talent, you have the potential of a team that really understands the product, the growth plans, the competitor landscape and pain points of a business’ growth and internal blockers in a way that an agency cannot. This can be a more direct route to growth if a solid strategy is devised and there is the right level of internal buy-in from senior stakeholders.

In-house resources can be expensive, and as you grow your need to hire additional resources may add up, which is where relying on an agency may be the easier option. If your business runs into difficult periods financially or experiences seasonality, then having an in-house SEO team who are struggling to make an impact (regardless of how good they are) may be an expensive venture.

There is also an argument that agencies, with their array of talent and fast-moving understanding of the SEO industry in terms of experience may offer a fresh perspective on growth opportunities that you may not be aware of.

  • SEO project vs SEO retainer 

Outside of the SEO service types listed above, there is also the consideration of the engagement type on a contractual basis. 

Some areas of work listed above, such as content strategy or technical SEO audits, lend themselves to project-based work. Project based work may also be more suitable if you’ve only got budget for a certain period or are looking for growth over a certain busy timeframe such as Christmas. 

Retainer-based SEO work typically takes the shape of a set number of hours or days billed on an ongoing monthly basis by your chosen supplier. This can contain a set number of agreed deliverables or commitments each month. It may also contain the option to ramp up time commitments at different times of year, such as quarterly content campaign deliverables, for example. 

While your needs may vary depending on time and budget and there may often be a need to bring in resource for a specific project, to ensure sustained growth, SEO should be something that is invested on an ongoing basis with ideally a partner that is suitable for the long term.  

Does it matter if my potential agency or consultant has won an SEO award?

The SEO industry is awash with various types of search awards, with accreditations given to agencies and consultants for their performance as a whole or for particular instances of work. While landing an industry award is impressive, it shouldn’t necessarily be a deciding factor. A lot of really good SEO work often goes under the radar, and there arguably some agencies who spend a lot of time chasing awards in favour of other important ventures.

Ultimately, you will need to decide for yourself if your potential partner is a good fit for your business in terms of how they understand your needs and whether there’s a good cultural fit in general. We’ll discuss this next.

What does the selection process look like for assessing SEO suppliers?

  • For SEO agencies & SEO consultants

Alluding back to the importance of aligning internally on your business goals, this is where you need to put together a direct RFP (request for proposal) to send out to your prospective suppliers. There are many SEO RFP templates available on the web, though you will need to customise it to your business needs, challenges and goals.

Many SEO RFPs do not ask the right questions and contain a mish mash of questions from PPC or brand based RFP questionnaires. 

In general, an SEO RFP should contain the following:

  • Company details (history, product and services, target audiences, competitors etc)
  • Breakdown of current digital acquisition (how channels are performing, how SEO is currently contributing to this)
  • Project goals (budgets, KPIs, timelines)
  • Evaluation criteria (what do the responses need to include? This can often be a presentation of a strategy including forecasting, case studies and other factors such as cultural fits)
  • RFP response and decision-making timelines

Following this, an assessment process can be undertaken where a shortlist of suppliers who have responded with detailed and comprehensive responses to your RFP can be invited in to present their strategies and meet your team. There may be more than one round to this stage of the selection process, and it’s up to you and your team if you feel you need more time with your prospective partner to help you make a decision. 

It’s also recommended to adhere to an internal scoring system in terms of how you are assessing your potential partners to ensure fairness and accuracy of your assessment. Input on this can be gathered across your business, though should include elements such as robustness of strategy, alignment on your business needs, price and cultural fit among other things.

The above process may not be as detailed and phased if you’re looking for an individual consultant, though there does still need to be due diligence done to ensure the right fit. An initial kick-off call with a brief, allowing the consultant to come back with a proposal to present to your team is a solid approach. 

  • For in-house SEO roles

Hiring for in-house SEO roles will likely follow a traditional staged interview process, where candidates are invited to meet different team members at different times and answer questions based on their experience and potential approach to the role.

The number and types of interviews will depend on the level of seniority you’re hiring for, though let’s assume you’re looking for a senior level SEO director or head of SEO to lead your organic strategy.

Upon reviewing CVs, potential candidates can perhaps be approached for an initial “sense check” call with your leadership team. This can be relatively informal and can be a back and forth on the candidate’s experience, ways of working and initial impressions on your brand’s SEO opportunities. The goal here is to assess whether there is a good potential fit culturally and commercially, and it’s a good chance for the candidate to ask questions. 

Following this, the second stage interview could be a more formal presentation where the candidate is asked to walk through their proposed strategy for your brand. This is where you will have the chance to assess the candidate’s understanding of your business, whether their strategy is realistic and aligns with your KPIs, and what their communication skills are like. Take steps to scrutinise the strategy and ask questions where possible, even if your SEO understanding is limited. For leadership roles, the onus will be on the SEO candidate to present the strategy and opportunity areas in a way that makes sense to all key people in a business, regardless of how technical the approach may be. 

If this stage goes well, you can perhaps look to introduce your candidate to other members of your team (in digital or otherwise) to further assess whether they’re a good fit overall. 

What are some potential red flags in the selection process?

You should have a good sense of what makes a good or bad potential candidate for your business, though there are some red flags that are specific to hiring an SEO supplier.

  • Guaranteed rankings and ROI: Robust forecasting is a good thing to see in a response to an SEO RFP, even if it can be very hard to properly undertake. That being said, any agency or individual offering “guaranteed top rankings” should be avoided. There is a lot that goes into improving keyword rankings and there are a number of outliers (such as algorithm updates) that can impact this and are beyond your control. While some suppliers may be able to achieve quick and fast rankings, it is likely they’re doing it via nefarious means that will damage your business in the long run. 
  • Unrealistic timelines: Good, sustainable SEO is a long-term activity and takes time. Any supplier promising large gains in the first month or two is again likely relying on black hat techniques that will damage your business in the future. 
  • Lack of transparency: What goes into an SEO strategy and what means are being undertaken to achieve it? It’s all fair and well saying “improve organic conversions on product X” or “achieve organic traffic growth by 20%”, though the potential supplier will need to detail what they are doing to achieve this. Any other nefarious or possible black hat means that the suitor isn’t willing to disclose should be a massive red flag. 
  • Lack of case studies and online presence: Case studies, testimonials and references from previous clients are an important part of due diligence when assessing suppliers. Agencies, consultants and in-house candidates should be able to walk through previous success stories, present positive references if asked and crucially, have some degree of online presence. This can take the form of a website, active social media presence or examples of where the candidate may have given a talk at an industry conference. 

Moving things forward: pricing models, contracts and compliance

If you’re ready to move things forward with a selected supplier, there are a number of details to cover in shoring up your agreements so things are watertight moving forward. 

SEO Pricing Models

This can be touched on in your earlier RFP, though there are a number of different SEO pricing models depending on your chosen engagement. Pricing models and agreed deliverables needs to be agreed on early on in the engagement, and when it comes to SEO there are a number of models to consider (outside of traditional salaries for in-house resources).

  • Monthly fee: This is probably the most common model you’ll come across. Monthly fees are based on a set number of dedicated hours and resources each month, ideally with a clear set of deliverables underneath this. Make sure you’re checking deliverables and tasks assigned to these hours and that you’re happy with the work being done alongside the monthly fee.
  • Daily/hourly fee: Some consultants will bill their work on an hourly or daily basis. This can get expensive so it’s important to make sure that the consultant is being transparent in what is being delivered against these hours. This can be done through the use of timesheets, for example.
  • Results based: While not too common, some agencies and consultants may charge a reduced base fee, and then agree on a shared percentage of profits attributed to their work. For example, if there’s a clear and tangible number in terms of revenue gained from SEO in line with work done by that consultant or agency, then they may charge a percentage of this. While this may appear transparent and transactional from a commercial point of view, i.e., charging chiefly on ROI, take care that there aren’t any disputes due to this or you aren’t shovelling out huge amounts of your profits that may be better invested elsewhere. 
  • Deliverables: An agreed set of weekly and monthly deliverables in the form of documents, presentations, and data are agreed upon during the contract signing stage. Upon each deliverable being made within an agreed timeframe, payment will then be made.

Contracts, legal and compliance

In the case of hiring externally, that being a consultant or an agency, make sure that you have strict contracts, Master Service Agreement (MSA) and Statement of Works (SOWs) in place before kick-off. This will help avoid having any disputes further down the line and will serve as a single source of truth when it comes to referring back to deliverable agreements, availability, fees, reporting and so on. 

Even before you’ve started assessing suppliers, make sure they sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) for privacy reasons. Ensure that your consultants are GDPR and data privacy compliant and that your contractual detail alludes to avoiding any malpractice such as black hat techniques. 

As with any external supplier, make sure your legal and HR teams conduct the same degree of due diligence during the procurement and onboarding process. 

How do I measure the SEO success of my supplier moving forward?

Any strategy or agreed SEO campaign or plan should, throughout various stages of its progress, have an agreed set of milestones in terms of KPIs and “what good looks like”. This could be targeting conversions on a certain product from SEO, keyword ranking improvements, traffic improvements or even the successful delivery and implementation of work. 

The onus will be on the supplier in terms of communicating progress from a reporting perspective. Early on in the engagement, they should look to build out an agreed reporting dashboard that serves as the main source of information for all the metrics that you care about. Book in frequent status meetings – perhaps monthly or bi-weekly – to assess these core metrics and performance overall, and the use of time to sync up on project progress, any potential blockers or changes to the strategy or company internally. 

While your supplier should lead this conversation proactively in general, a good supplier relationship is a collaborative one. Make sure you’re doing your part as a business owner to steer the ship in the right direction and provide help and value where possible. 

Useful templates and resources 

Below, we’ve listed an array of useful resources to help guide through the process of investing in SEO resources.

The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Request for Proposal (SEMRush)

10 SEO Experts Share Their Favourite Interview Questions (Search Engine Land)

12 Questions You Need to Ask Before Hiring an SEO Company (Adobe Experience Cloud)

The Ultimate SEO Contract Template (Ahrefs)

Non-disclosure Agreements (GOV.UK)

Let's work together?
Discuss Project

More Useful Insights