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Why SEO Consulting Shouldn’t Exist

(Editorial note: I originally wrote this post over on the Hit Subscribe blog. I’ll be cross-posting anything I think this audience might find interesting and also started a SubStack to which I’ll syndicate marketing-related content.)

This isn’t a clickbait title.  I genuinely stand by the position that “SEO consulting” is a service that shouldn’t exist in the economy.

But before I dive into specifics and my case, I do want to offer a couple of important caveats.

  1. I wouldn’t dispute that some SEO consultants offer some economic value and provide helpful services.  There is economic value to increasing the visibility of content.
  2. The fact that I don’t think the role should exist isn’t a commentary, per se, on people occupying that role.  I don’t think “bathroom attendant” should exist as a role, either, but I’m sure many of them are lovely human beings with friendly demeanors and a good work ethic.

With that out of the way, let me build my case for why the role shouldn’t exist—and what should exist instead.

What Is Consulting?

We’re going to establish some precision around terms here.  In other venues, I’ve talked at length about precise definitions of consulting.  Most succinctly:

Consulting is providing expert advice for a fee.

Emphasis mine.  (Well, entire sentence mine, so, yeah.)

Contrast this with doing labor or execution.  A lot of so-called consultants are really just paid laborers, making them contractors rather than consultants.  But I think “consultant” tends to sound better, so a lot of people who sell services like app dev call themselves consultants.

But that’s not accurate.  Consultants are folks you pay to tell you what to do.

What Is SEO, Really?

SEO is search engine optimization, which is essentially a content distribution tactic.  Someone creates a piece of content, and one of the channels they have in mind for acquiring readers is via search engine.

Let’s think of content as having four concerns:

  1. Who do you want to read the content?
  2. What do you want them to get from it?
  3. What are you hoping they do after they read it?
  4. How do you plan to get the content in front of them?

Each piece of content in your business’s portfolio should have documented answers to these four questions.  And the way you group and segment content into campaigns across those four questions could start to nibble at an overall business acquisition strategy.

But SEO?  It’s just one possible tactic for item four on that list, for some of your content.  It’s pretty far down in the weeds.

SEO as an industry is a matter of guessing what Google and its users like, and then futzing with content until it matches that.

So What Is SEO Consulting?

My last sentence described the labor of SEO.  The kind of thing a contractor would do (futz with content).

But recall that consultants collect money for advice.

So what does it mean to hire an SEO consultant?  It means you hire someone to tell someone else how to futz with content.

More specifically, it means you hire a futzing expert to give other people futzing instructions in order to realize success with an extremely granular, one-dimensional tactic.  Are you starting to see why I don’t think this is the best way to position a services business?

SEO Success Is Actually Pretty Easy

If you’re familiar with our business, it’s probably not lost on you that we tout our success with SEO.  We’ve earned our clients tens of millions of visits via search engine, so I imagine it looks like belittling this as a tactic is scoring on my own goal.

But here’s the thing.  We don’t achieve this success by obsessively reading into every John Mueller tweet, or imitating Brian Dean, or having a 50 million point SEO checklist.  As I’ve summarized in my SEO for non-scumbags series, our ultimate value-bomb, so-powerful-you-won’t-believe it, amazing two-step SEO strategy is as follows.

  1. Figure out what questions people are asking the search engine and answer those questions.
  2. Do it on a site that doesn’t suck to visit.

That’s it.

Do those two things, and you’re 95% of the way there, without all of the tactics, AI, content grades, keyword stuffing, and other endless minutiae.

Does that stuff matter?

Sure, in the 5% margins.  It might help if you rank fifth for a term right now but you want to rank second.  But it’s all irrelevant pablum in the face of those two concerns, and it can even work against them (e.g., when you “SEO” a page so hard that readers think they’re having a stroke because they just read the same term for the forty-fifth time in eight paragraphs).

Why Does SEO Seem So Complicated That it Requires Consultants?

Let’s recap here for a moment.  SEO consulting is

  1. Expertise in extremely tactical futzing for a specific outcome.
  2. A separation of futzing advice from futzing execution.
  3. Almost entirely in the realm of diminished marginal returns.

So how does every SEO consultant manage to make it seem so… complicated and inscrutable?

The answer to that question lies in the behavior of almost every laborer (or “consultant”) who offers services with no line of sight to desired outcomes.  When you don’t understand your customers’ big picture and goals, you fill their invoices with lots and lots of granular deliverable bullet items to make it look like you’re doing a lot of stuff.

What do you mean, “Why does it cost $400 to unclog my toilet?”!  I had to drive over, get the drain snake out of the truck, carry the drain snake into the house, unspool the drain snake, oil the snake crank, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, give me $400.

SEO consultants guess at how futzing with your site might help you rank.  And if that doesn’t seem like a compelling value proposition, here’s a list of 14,971 things that their 634-point SEO inspection, using seven different tools, produced.

The entire industry is incented to create and execute non-verifiable busy work.

But There’s a Deeper Problem

That alone wouldn’t cause me to condemn a cottage industry to sunset status.  After all, a lot of coaching takes this form.  (“Here’s a bunch of tactics with no way to verify that they make a difference.”)   And I wouldn’t suggest that coaching should cease to exist.  SEO consulting has a secondary, “tail wagging the dog” problem, from an org perspective.

You have extremely tactical experts creating downstream work for much more strategic laborers, which is bass-ackwards.

Let me make this point with a comparison of two scenarios.

Healthy Consultative Example: Management Consulting in Software

Before blundering my way into starting a marketing business, I earned a living as a management consultant.  Specifically, I worked with the software engineering organization.

I’d help organizations that brought me in with requests for help on things like

  1. How should we structure our org chart following a leadership transition?
  2. Why is our agile transformation off the rails and how do we get it back on?
  3. Why are we having trouble attracting and retaining talent?
  4. Should we sunset this piece of software and rewrite it or evolve it over time?

I would come in, help answer those questions with supporting write-ups, and lay out a plan for what the organization should do next.  Textbook consulting.

But here’s the difference.  If I needed to execute those things (or preside over their execution), I could have.

I had been a software engineer for years.  I had managed software engineers, and I had run a department as a CIO, even before my consulting days.

This gave me a deep and nuanced understanding of the tradeoffs, pitfalls, best practices, and concerns around every labor recommendation I made.

Unhealthy Consultative Example: SEO Consulting

But what if I had been a “morale consultant,” with no meaningful software experience to speak of?  I might have answered the retention question with “Pay everyone $50K per year more,” and I might have answered the rewrite question with “Yes, rewrite it; the team hates the legacy code it created.”

In this scenario, I would be giving “expert” advice with a cringeworthy lack of context around the ramifications of my recommendations.

This is the core problem with the (IMO irredeemable) service category of SEO consulting.  SEO consultants are experts in one thing: prevailing tactics for making a search engine rank content.  They are, crucially, not experts in website performance and maintenance, your business’s problem domain and terminology, or content creation.

And yet, they will leave in their wake advice that

  1. Tells your engineers and site maintenance folks how to change your website.
  2. Tells your domain experts what domain-specific terms to use and where to use them.
  3. Tells your content creators how to create content.

This is all advice they’re really not qualified to give, and it’s in service of a very granular, specific tactic.  Tail wags dog.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

When you go commission SEO consulting, this is where things get ugly.  You have paid for their advice, and the SEO consultants produce a deliverable in the form of some kind of action plan for execution by your site maintainers, content creators, marketers, and general staff.

But what happens when your site maintainers tell you it will be prohibitively complicated and expensive to reconcile your site theme with the consultant’s performance recommendations?  What happens when your writers look at the SEO consultant’s content brief and say, “I don’t want my name on that nonsense?”  What happens when your domain experts point out that you’re optimizing for a keyword that is literal nonsense?

What happens is that the sunk cost fallacy kicks in.  You start arguing with those people on behalf of the SEO consultant about their own domains of expertise.  And there’s no good outcome at this point because you either eat the cost of the consultant’s recommendations or you burn goodwill with experts that are probably more valuable and expensive to you, long term.

What Should Exist?  Most Tactically, Two Things

At the risk of revealing my age, I can remember a time that was “pre-agile” in software.  In this world, you had separate “phases” in software development for defining requirements, creating design and architecture, writing code, and testing the code.  This was unaffectionately known as “waterfall software development,” and it was a recipe for failing badly at shipping software.  The problem was really the siloed division of labor.

That’s the case here.  Treating “SEO consulting” as a standalone concern is the source of all evil that I’ve described so far.

Solution 1: In-House SEO Expertise

For larger organizations, I’d wholeheartedly advise bringing this concern in-house, particularly if you’ve committed to investing a significant portion of your digital marketing budget into bringing search engine traffic.  With an in-house person or team, you can define collaboration models that shift risk to the left.

  1. Have the SEO expert sit with the folks responsible for site maintenance when coming up with plans to improve site performance.
  2. Likewise, an SEO expert can enlist a domain expert when identifying keywords to target with content and brief content with the same style of review.
  3. The SEO expert can adopt heuristics for when to let go of so-called SEO best practices in the face of pragmatic team concerns.

And this can all happen with sane collaboration between reasonable human beings—something that isn’t possible with a forklift-drop deliverable like an “SEO plan” or whatever a consultant will sell.

Solution 2: Bundle Fulfillment and Strategy

If you’re smaller or don’t want to in-house SEO, the other route here is to put the “consultant” on the hook for fulfillment (or at least have them oversee it).  This does render them no longer a consultant, for the sake of completeness of my thesis here.

In this scenario, you hire an SEO expert that assumes responsibility for budget and execution of any recommendations they may have.  This prevents quixotic recommendations like “Just have your $1/word author write a four-million-word pillar post.” But it also shifts the burden of arguing with your other experts from you to them.

This dynamic is actually what led Hit Subscribe to offering full-service SEO, including directly executing technical recommendations, generating content, and even collaborating with client web developers.  It was the only way to create a client experience around SEO that wasn’t frustrating and filled with issues.

Anyone enlisting an SEO consultant without fulfillment will deal with these issues in some form or another.  You’ll find yourself refereeing between vendors pointing their fingers at each other, or between your staff that resents being told their business by a “consultant” with minimal understanding of their craft.  Whatever the specifics, the client sponsor owns the inevitable headache of SEO consulting.

But if the SEO vendor also owns fulfillment, then any such headaches happen inside that vendor and are not the client’s problem.

A Better Consulting Paradigm

This brings me full circle to thinking about our own offerings and whether I’m a hypocrite for doing SEO consulting, at times, without fulfillment.  Just today, as I’m typing this, we were writing a proposal for an “SEO MVP” project and working on executing another, similar project.

But I realized two things.

  1. From our own consulting and fulfillment interplay experience, we frame all recommendations that we don’t fulfill in a way that defers to the clients’ experts when conflict arises.
  2. Our charter with clients isn’t “do SEO and rank” but rather modeling expected outcomes, applying game theory, and laying out a plan to earn a return on content spend (through search or otherwise).

In other words, we’re not offering SEO consulting; we’re offering process and decision consulting around lead generation.

I’ve elaborated at length about game theory, so I won’t do it in the conclusion of this post.  Instead, I’ll close by suggesting that “SEO consulting” is too tactical to exist as a standalone service.  Any truly consultative offering, when dealing with an inherently risky move like “try to rank in the top three,” should address the question “What if that doesn’t work?”  And the answer shouldn’t just be “Do more tactics, and do them harder,” as is almost always the case with so-called SEO consulting.

Real consulting should help clients form plans and contingencies to attract the right people, show them the right message, and create the right incentives to get them to continue along the buyer’s journey.  True consulting answers the question “How do we win more business?”

If you’re going to invite someone into your organization as an expert to tell you what to do, you should make sure that expert is strategic.  And SEO consulting is inherently not.

SEOTechnical Writing


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