Large vs. Small Agency SEO: What’s the Difference?
In my two-plus decades of digital marketing, I’ve met and worked with SEOs of all stripes. Good ones, bad ones, and a few who mailed it in to collect a lazy paycheck.
By this, I mean they dispensed the standard SEO advice. Don’t get me wrong — there’s value in SEO “best practices,” but any fool can recite a handbook committed to memory.
The value of an SEO “expert” lies in results, especially results achieved under duress, in a hostile environment, or on a shoestring budget.
What Is SEO?
For the record, SEO is the acronym for “search engine optimization,” or the art and science of getting pages to rank higher in “natural” search results.
It truly is part art, part science, and in the SEO community, some practitioners are better artists than scientists and vice-versa.
You need a balance of both for your small business website to succeed.
This then begs the question: can a small local agency deliver the same SEO results as a national multi-department agency with vastly more resources and connections?
SEO at a Large Agency
A well-known agency like XYZ (name changed to protect the guilty) has dozens of SEO specialists scattered across the globe. These include technical SEOs, SEO content developers, local SEO specialists, account managers, and coders — you name it.
That’s a lot of firepower, right?
But in my experience collaborating with big agency brands, all that firepower produced little work. We held endless meetings culminating in bloated PowerPoint decks of cookie-cutter recommendations. Implementation and execution usually fell on the shoulders or one or two hapless grunts.
Worse, the most talented and conscientious people assigned to our account were quickly promoted to more lucrative accounts.
In three years of consulting with Agency XYZ, we had three account managers and three technical leads who barely understood how our 80,000-page e-commerce website was organized and structured.
SEO content, when requested, came from junior employees with poor to average writing skills. It was usually worse than the content it replaced.
With most brand-name agencies, only the high-dollar clients are fed a full meal of SEO services. Everyone else makes do with table scraps.
Cons of Large Agency SEO
- May have difficulty scaling down services to fit your budget.
- May be unable to give your account the attention it deserves.
- High staff turnover means you’ll constantly educate new employees about your business.
- Interns and junior employees do much of the “optimization.”
Pros of Large Agency SEO
- Staff depth and diversity.
- Can offer a one-stop shop for digital marketing needs.
- More likely to have established relationships with Google, social media channels, etc.
- Broad range of SEO experience and skills.
SEO at a Small Agency
Small agencies, on the other hand, are more nimble and can pivot quickly to address your needs. They’re far more hands-on and accountable for the success of your businesses. They don’t have the built-in inefficiencies of large agencies.
Sounds great so far!
Except, some small agencies have resource problems. Not enough qualified people. Not enough tracking platforms to measure results.
The SEO “expert” could be newbie two years out of college, with a light background in keyword research and a vague understanding of “SEO content.”
No technical prowess. No experience in website design or coding. No UX.
So that’s the risk you run with a smaller agency. The SEO services may be rudimentary at best and, at worst, damaging to your website and brand.
But then again, you could strike gold.
Some independent-minded SEOs prefer small agencies because of the freedom they offer.
- Direct impact on website design, UX, and architecture.
- Direct impact on copywriting.
- Direct access to client sites for on-page optimization.
- Direct input on the code and imagery that affects page load speed.
- Direct contact with clients.
Cons of Small Agency SEO
- May not have the resources to meet all your needs.
- Risk of working with inexperienced “experts.”
- Not as well-connected as larger agencies.
Pros of Small Agency SEO
- Can scale services to fit your budget better.
- More personal attention and accountability.
- Higher staff retention means more continuity in service.
- Sometimes staffed by accomplished SEOs who crave creative freedom.
What’s the Best Option for You? Big or Small?
It depends on several factors:
- The size and complexity of your website. If you have a complex website with thousands of pages, you’ll need an agency with the horsepower for the job. A small local agency might not have the resources to handle a project of that size.
- Your budget. If money is no object, and you don’t mind a $30,000-a-month retainer fee, a large agency could be a viable option.
- But if you’re on a tight budget, a smaller agency might give you the attention you need at a price you can afford. And if you find one with real expertise on staff and a verifiable record of success, then hallelujah! Your business is on the path to salvation.
Do your research and thoroughly vet the agency you hire. Ask for case studies, anonymized data of client sales and site traffic, and so on. And don’t get locked into a long-term contract until you’re convinced they can deliver on their promises.
You deserve the best possible return on your investment, so choose wisely, Grasshopper!
About Culture Cube Digital Marketing
Culture Cube specializes in digital marketing for local businesses. Our clients include plumbers, HVAC installers, appliance repair companies, and local newspapers.
We offer the expertise of a large agency at small agency rates.
Because we specialize, we’re better qualified to promote your small business and create the most effective campaigns.
We don’t waste client money on lavish offices, fancy equipment, costly business trips, and endless meetings. We pass our savings on to you and welcome you as a partner more than a client.
Please contact us to learn what we can do for you.
Peter Losh is the SEO Director of Culture Cube Marketing in Upland, California. He's also a de facto UX designer, site builder, and content creator. Unlike most folks in the SEO biz, he works directly on the sites he optimizes, having witnessed the effects of recommendations that go ignored or misunderstood (in previous gigs).
Peter has worked on websites since the salad days of the internet, first as a graphic artist and web designer at the Centers for Disease Control. Then came several years of freelance web development, SEO and e-commerce management for business sites of various sizes, and ultimately a 10-year stint as the sole SEO Manager of PartyCity.com.
In his spare time, he enjoys classic film, classical music, and classic comebacks. And cats.
Professional Work Experience
- Search engine optimization
- Ecommerce management
- Conversion rate optimization
- UX design and analysis
- Copywriting and training
- E-mail campaign design
- Web design and development
- Graphic design