I find the ongoing debate surrounding SEO's complexity -- or lack thereof -- quite amusing. People on one side of the argument claim that SEO isn't that hard to figure out, that it doesn't change much, and if you're the conservative type who's unwilling to take risks, then you should be safe trying it on your own. Proponents of the other side of the debate argue the opposite, ostensibly to justify their own service offering.
While I can appreciate points made by each side, I find the whole argument irrelevant. Here's why.
Complex? Yeah. But so what?
Is it really that hard to decipher a search engine's algorithm? Yes. In fact, it's damned hard. But truth be told, it's a moot point because that's not really what an SEO agency should be trying to accomplish. Common sense should tell us that it's impossible to totally reverse-engineer the algorithm to perfection.
Instead, an SEO agency should be looking for the key on-page elements and other Web factors that allow their client's Web site to rank favorably in the natural search listings. Today, these elements and factors are widely known. Just follow any search engine's webmaster guidelines and conduct some of your own research, and you should be able to figure out what elements and factors make up the "core" of practicing SEO. Doing so will provide you with a solid foundation for implementing your SEO campaign.
The Bigger Question
However, the reality is, rarely do we come across a company who hasn't either performed SEO for themselves, or done so with the help of an agency. So for the most part, the marketplace is already familiar with the "core" of practicing SEO. This begs the bigger question in this debate: What is the real value of a search marketing agency? While some agencies may have trouble articulating an answer, I view the response as quite simple. A search marketing agency's true value can be realized through providing the following:
Analysis, Cause & Effect:
Agencies perform SEO services for many clients -- simultaneously -- and are constantly tracking numerous statistics for each of their clients. If something were to go wrong with your natural search visibility, the breadth of data available to the search marketing agency will aid in identifying the root cause of your decline.
For example: Did other clients experience similar drops? What patterns exist between sites, engines, etc.? Without this data, any potential cause and its associated solution would be pure speculation, because you will have nothing to compare your site's behavior to, or your ranking shifts against. By having other data available, comparisons can be made, more confident conclusions can be drawn, and more precise solutions formulated.
Support & Prioritization:
Unfortunately, SEO is one of those marketing initiatives that requires the aid and cooperation of multiple departments, such as editorial, legal, and IT. And of course, each of these departments has their own priorities, and rarely are they sitting around waiting for your commands. Using its knowledge and experience gained through working with many other clients, an SEO agency can facilitate cross-departmental cooperation by building a business case for required resources, as well as for escalating SEO initiatives on these departments' respective priority lists.
This means building a step-by-step plan for the actual requirements of the other departments. By including supporting data, a forecast and potential returns, proposed timing, and some project management parameters, and you'll have a comprehensive and clear business case to execute SEO initiatives. Rarely will an in-house resource have the abundance of data and experience on which to build such a business case.
Assuming that most people who are implementing SEO campaigns are familiar with its "core" principles, and if the level of knowledge and experience and expertise within your organization doesn't require hand-holding during standard SEO execution, then you might be interested in services that go "beyond the core" of SEO. Sure, having great rankings is fantastic, but if the same people are always looking for you, then it's only worth so much.
The way to create growth is to utilize SEO services for purposes of demand generation, not just a mechanism to capture those prospects already looking for you. For example, you might think about developing an online game, contest, or even a tool that is unique. Think of the types of e-mails you receive that are viral in nature and that you inevitably forward on because their cool. These types of "tools" create awareness for your brand, products, and services -- awareness that will lead to demand, and of course, online searchers.
It is also important to extend your reach, as the search engines are no longer the only places on the Web that have zillions of people roaming and visiting every day. You might want to consider some social networking sites such as MySpace, YouTube, etc. To most effectively think and execute "beyond the core" requires experience in doing so for many organizations of different shapes, sizes, industries, and business models. Such experience would be incredibly hard to leverage if you are not outsourcing SEO.
Last, but in no way least, is strategy. "I want more qualified traffic visiting and converting on my Web site, so go get me phenomenal rankings." Sound familiar? This goal may be all well and good, but it's also very SEO-centric. Any SEO agency can tell you that every marketing initiative you undertake will impact your search campaign, and your search campaign will impact every other marketing effort you implement.
So typically the goals and the plan you devise with an SEO agency to achieve those goals will extend beyond the Web site and just SEO. It will involve looking at the entire marketing calendar, looking for synergies between the various marketing programs (beyond SEO) that should spark creativity and allow for the understanding of how SEO fits into each outbound marketing initiative. Ultimately, this strategy/plan will be the basis for your marketing tactics across all channels and all media.
So, is SEO rocket science? No. But that doesn't mean it's easy. In truth, SEO's complexity -- or lack thereof -- is irrelevant. What really matters is the value it delivers. That value can be found in experience, creativity, analysis, strategy, and sound business sense.