SEO isn’t always the play, but in most cases, it’s either a baseline effort or a major revenue producing channel. It matters and shouldn’t be ignored.


Many business owners and executive-level business professionals know this to be true, but also don’t know much about SEO. They know what it is—they just don’t understand it, on a fundamental level. So, in lieu of internal expertise, they outsource to SEO agencies (as they very well should).

seo reality versus expectation


But—anytime a business makes investments they don’t fully understand, it puts them in a position to be taken advantage of. It just so happens that the agency-delivered SEO service model is one of the most structurally broken service types in marketing.

Let’s take a look at common problems and unpack how to avoid them.

What SEO Agencies Are Selling You

It’s sad, but these are the familiar realities you’ll face when working with an SEO agency.

1. Dressed Up Technical Jargon

SEO subscribes to very technical nomenclature. In many instances it’s accurate, fascinating, and commendable (see for yourself). In other cases, it’s a smokescreen to make simple concepts sound complicated. SEO specialists are constantly tempted to deploy jargon when more understandable communication is unfavourable to them and their performance. This can be very difficult to spot if you’re not well acquainted with the lingo. But if you’re in-the-know, it’s a major red flag.

2. Quick Tasks Masquerading as Heavy Projects

With technical jargon on their side, agencies are free to “tell you” what they are doing without you really knowing what it is they are doing. Do you know how long it takes to create an XML Sitemap and submit it to Google Search Console? How about implementing JSON structured data via Google Tag Manager? Adjusting canonical tags to desirable duplicate links? I’ll leave you guessing, and that’s the point.

3. SEO Tunnel Vision

The most productive and effective SEO mindsets come from marketers who understand more channels than just SEO. This is because SEO reaches its highest potential when paired with multi-channel content projects (e.g. content projects that involve email, advertising, video, and social, in addition to organic search). Unfortunately, when an agency sells you “just SEO”, there is no motivation to broach these subjects.

4. Cherry-picked Report Metrics

Agencies typically send clients SEO Reports once a month. This means that once a month you (as the client) get to judge your results. If you’re unhappy, you may discontinue your contract. If you discontinue your contract, the SEO specialist will experience a bruised ego or worse. Fortunately for them (and unfortunately for you), in a given month there is rarely a shortage of good or bad metrics to choose from. Which metrics do you think they’ll choose to share with you in your report?

5. Never-ending Monthly Service Packages

Here’s a trade secret: SEO isn’t a good ongoing monthly service. To paraphrase, the service of SEO doesn’t translate well to an ongoing retainer service model. It just doesn’t. In most cases, SEO should be project-based, augmented by monitoring and support.

Instead, agencies shape their SEO service packages to resemble how they sell PPC management services— as ongoing monthly retainers. The trouble is, the SEO project work dries up. As a result, you’re left with endless technical pursuits with diminishing returns.

6. The Idea that Discontinuing SEO Services Will Make Your Website Disappear

Unfortunately, fear tactics are commonly used to create the illusion that you are ever dependent on your SEO agency. The truth is, if you’ve done your SEO due diligence, completed the high priority projects, and followed best practices, it’s time to re-evaluate your service structure.


What You Probably Need Instead

With the pitfalls now in plain sight, let’s talk about how to approach SEO without the drawbacks. Here’s a high-impact methodology to adopt when you don’t yet have in-house SEO experience.

1. Source an Impartial SEO Leader

If you don’t understand SEO, find someone who does, do your best to reduce their biases, and let them represent your organization during your SEO project. Informed internal leadership is essential to acquire a high-impact SEO program without the fluff.

2. Commission an SEO Audit

Before selecting where to start, you’ll need to know your opportunity set. A good SEO audit leverages both automated site scans (e.g. SEMrush Site Scan) and human-identified opportunities. The site scans work to assess your website’s current state, while the human-based opportunities expose what your website could be (i.e. site scans aren’t yet great at identifying content gaps).


Ask your SEO agency their methodology for SEO audits and pay close attention to what it includes.

3. Develop an SEO Roadmap

The SEO audit is a mere check-point in the pursuit of identifying an SEO roadmap— a list of SEO opportunities prioritized by impact, ease, and complexity. Many agencies fall short on this step, despite it being the most critical junction.


At this stage, scrutinize the rationale for each component of the SEO road map. Look at each line-item as a project (with an ending), not an never-ending service. Your impartial SEO leader will come in handy as a guide during this step to identify high-impact projects and cull bloat.

4. Involve Internal Talent in the SEO Execution

Believe it or not, SEO isn’t rocket science. It can be taught, and even executed by rookies. It is ideal to tap one or two in-house team members to learn SEO basics alongside your agency as they execute.


This is an ideal mix of execution types:

  • Use agency resources for highly complex and/or technical execution.
  • Use agency guidance for tasks that are transferable to in-house talent.
  • Use agency guidance for ongoing monitoring (e.g. site health, rankings, algorithm updates).
  • Engage your impartial SEO leader to scrutinize and prioritize projects.
  • Transition agency guidance to internal knowledge whenever possible.

5. Know When to Reduce Your Engagement

Ultimately, your goal should be to achieve optimal SEO foundations, and then decide if you want to expand into SEO growth (e.g. content expansion). Be mindful that a good SEO plan will start with the highest impact tasks first, and therefore is a game of diminishing returns. Be okay with the idea that SEO is something you can shift focus away from after a time, just as long as you don’t let go of the wheel.

Written By:

Darcy McGilvery

Darcy lives at the intersection of art, business, and science. His esteemed work with hundreds of brands spans a mix of marketing leadership, operations, and strategy. Armed with degrees in marketing, psychology, and business, Darcy has obtained a holistic understanding of the modern consumer. His specialties include building marketing systems, content direction, and fostering high-functioning teams.