Lee Odden

5 Pros and Cons of SEO Consultant vs Agency

A reader commented recently about not wanting to hire an entire agency, but rather an individual consultant for search marketing services. From a service provider perspective, I’ve tried it “both ways” so to speak, working at an agency, then as an independent consultant and now with our Public Relations and Online Marketing agencies.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to hiring consultants vs an agency engagement, but over time (10+ years) I think I’ve gained a fairly practical and experience based perspective.

As I see it, here are a few of the pros and cons of hiring consultants compared to hiring search marketing agencies.

Hiring a search marketing consultant


  • Specialized – you can get the best
  • Personal attention from a senior practitioner
  • Each campaign treated uniquely
  • Holistic view – consultant is intimately aware of all aspects of the campaign
  • Relationship – it’s easier to form a long term relationship with the owner/operator than an account rep that may change jobs


  • Specialized – yet another vendor to manage
  • Has to wear many hats (eat what they kill)
  • Physical limitations on number of clients that can be serviced
  • Can be more expensive per hour
  • Limited in the number of things that can be done well

Hiring a search marketing agency


  • Cumulative experience from specialized teams
  • Financial stability
  • Intellectual and physical resources
  • Structured processes and scalability
  • Dedicated account managers


  • Senior team does the pitch, junior team implements
  • Structured processes that are not flexible
  • Over emphasis on packaging of reporting analytics and not on insight
  • Small clients/budgets get small attention
  • Substantially greater overhead

I do believe the situation is largely dependent on the type of services needed and the size of the project. I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule that would apply to all situations since there are so many variables at play: SEO or PPC, budget, time frame, client internal resources, etc.

After having the experience as a individual consultant, I think the appreciation for personal attention and service along with the benefits of constantly evolving processes, specialized teams that spend a portion of their time testing and learning emerging tactics as well as truly talented account/project managers gives a small to medium sized agency a big advantage over the one person shops as well as the big dogs.

What’s your opinion on hiring individual consultants vs agencies? Is every situation unique or are there some hard and fast rules that companies can use as a guide?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Very nice post! I am in the process of starting up a 1 man show … however i’m looking to approach 5 clients to start with a max of 7 Total! As a 1 man shop you need to take the time to dive into the accounts you have to prove your worthy of their business. Your thoughts are correct of a small agency being in the perfect position though!


  2. I think that it can definitely depend on the amount of available resources that a company/business has available in-house, to carry out recommendations and/or project implementation schedules.

    If the company has limited resources to carry out implementation, than they need to look for a vendor that can provide these services for them, which may mean a larger agency or organization. However, if a prospect has the personnel in place to bring recommendations into action, then it may be possible to work with an independent consultant (who may not be cost effective for actually implementing recommendations).

    If it’s the former (which seems to be the case in most situations), I would want to work with a small-to medium sized company first, but would spend the time investigating how their internal project management process works, so that I would feel comfortable about the actual effectiveness of the implementation of strategic recommendations.

  3. Its sometimes funny how language plays tricks on us. You and I so often think alike, read many of the same sources, and in general sing from the same hymn sheet, and yet, we seem to have different concepts of definition of what an SEM Consultant does.

    For me, I’m not a consultant because I’m a lone wolf or an individual. I’ve been a consultant both as a one-man business, and with some fairly large SEO companies. I’ve even worked in a team of consultants, where we’d rotate which consultant was dealing with a client at any given time by exactly what areas of expertise were neded, and by what audience (i.e did they need an expert marketer to speak to marketing, or a expert developer to speak to their developers more?).

    For me, a Consultant is not in the same game as an agency at all, because the agency is a way to outsource the work, while a consultant is a way to bring in the knowledge.

    There’s a lot of ‘grunt work’ to a rounded SEO and SEM campaign that frankly can be done more cost-efficiently by any office junior my client may already have than by a reassuringly expensive hire-in. A consultant gives that office junior the steps to follow, creating some basic in-house resource, enabling he outsourcing, if any, to focus on the stuff you’re really paying them for – the specialist work.

    As I said, for my definition, the agency is what you hire to outsource the actual work, while a consultant is what you hire to bring in the specialist knoledge and empower the in-house people, either to do much of that work in-house, or to better manage and supervise the overall strategy, whether outsourced or not.

  4. I pretty much agree with your considerations – I work as a Consultant ans in partnership with agencies and see this happen all the time.

    I prefer to work as a Consultant and have a closer working relationship with the Client.

  5. Avatar David Eaves says

    I find that the bigger companies often do all of your fancy little reports and stuff like that and some of my clients want the same thing, I tell em look you have got the wrong guy, if I started doing fancy ranking reports and stuff like that I wouldn’t have enough time to properly work on my clients sites. A quick 5 minute chat on the phone once a week or so is all it takes.

  6. Consultant v Agency – I don’t think it matters as much as finding the person or team who takes the time to understand your business and care about it; making their interaction with it and you as successful as possible. There are lots of big agencies with great minds that occasionally don’t apply themselves as well as they could because they’re just not hungry enough.

  7. Sometimes it matters to the client who the consultant is. On more than one occasion I was told that choosing me over an agency was because they wanted me. By that, they mean they know who is doing the work. I always felt that was interesting, especially since some of them were turning down quite reputable companies.

  8. I think Kim hits the nail right on the head with his observation: When a Company chooses a Consultant they want THE consultant to do the work for them: The company is most likely seeking closer cooperation …

  9. Avatar David Eaves says

    Yeah, with the big companies they are normally talking to sales people who don’t really know what they are on about, the SEO’s are usually in the background doing the SEO, that has pulled me in a few deals.

  10. Lee, I think the best of both worlds is to hire a small agency who has an expert consultant, but also extra hands to help out. (Not just saying this because it’s my current business model!)

  11. Hey Jill, I’m with you. I did a compliment video to this post on my Facebook profile that mentions small/medium sized agencies as a good solution.

  12. It’s interesting you say that Kim because I think for some companies, the same thing happens with agency selection. If the agency has a desirable brand, some companies will hire them in large part, because of their reputation. ie, “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM”.

    At the same time, I see an increasing number of requests for exactly the situation you describe, where companies what to hire a certain consultant because of their reputation in the industry. That and word of mouth from other clients. 🙂

  13. Ammon, I think you do make a good point in that how a consultant should be used compared to an agency isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison. The trouble is, many companies do not see it that way.

    The issue with consultants offering their knowledge for implementation by junior staff within the client’s company is the lack of professional oversight. Most U.S. companies that hire SEO services do not implement recommendations at all, or properly.

    For example, the value of site audits is only as high as the implementation, not the quality of the consulting. While the consultant’s job is done after report delivery and consultation, improper implementation is often attributed to the consultant, not the in-house teams.

  14. BTW, Jill, Kim and Ammon posting comments on my blog, this is awesome and I am honored! 🙂

  15. They mean they know who is doing the work. I always felt that was interesting, especially since some of them were turning down quite reputable companies.

  16. Some of us do marketing (whether online or off) based on the *content* of the site. Knowing the context helps me land clients.

  17. BarbaraKB said: “Some of us do marketing (whether online or off) based on the *content* of the site.”

    Barabara, I would certainly hope that *all* agencies and cnsultans involved in web marketing ated in the contex of the market in question, the client’s position in that market, their marketing plan, and ultimately their business plan. I think that’s a basic assumption for all true marketing activities.

    just because I don’t often comment (think this might be my first here) doesn’t mean I’m not a fairly regular visitor. You usually come up with some pretty good topics of interest each month, so its rare I’m not by at least once in that time, and often more frequently.

  18. Your key word here is *hope*. I believe many do not because they are too general and do not understand *where* to go for client. I think this is especially critical since, let’s be honest, mass media is dead.

  19. Mass media is dead?

    Oh dear, I would really hope (yes, this time just a keyword as I strongly suspect you actually believe that) that was just a kind of ‘attention-grabbing shock tactic’.

    I’d suggest you research the history of SEOmoz and consider again what effect traditional media, particularly niche periodicals, actually have, and how that compares to even top placement on a competitive (over 50 million) results search term.

    Seriously, if there’s any SEO agency or consultant that wouldn’t give up a year of page one placement for the phrase “SEO” for just one feature article in one issue of Time magazine, they are certifiable. :o)

  20. I give it up all the time. I like working within a specific content and context. And so do my clients.

    Yes, trying to appeal to the masses is dead.

    I, for one, am happy!

  21. “Mass media is dead” and “trying to appeal to the masses is dead” are two different things.

    “Oh dear” is right. I have a personal example to share.

    This blog ranks #2 on Google for a phrase with over 560 million search results – “online marketing“. I suspect the top two PPC ads (Google and Yahoo) wouldn’t mind that spot.

    Last year we received just a mention, albeit a very positive one, in an article in The Economist. That mention brought us FAR more actual business than the “online marketing” ranking has in 2+ years.

    There’s nothing wrong or unprofitable about successful mass market visibility.

  22. Lee, I think this is really good info for the company seeking outside SEO expertise. My only challenge would be the assumption that an agency is more financial stable. Many companies that look good on the outside are on the brink of bankruptcy and their clients wont know it until its to late. I venture to say that an independent consultant that know their margins and operates their one person consultancy like a business, may actually show more profit. Factors such as overhead can kill a business, and there is much less overhead for the consultant working from his or her home.

  23. and yes, I wish I could edit my posts – so much for proper grammar 🙂

  24. Hey Anthony, it’s true that some companies put on a front in terms of their financial situation and that’s certainly not limited to the search marketing industry. Nor is it limited to companies.

    Plenty of SEO consultants are out there doing the “fake it til you make it” game. If you made a list of the top 5 SEO blogs I know 2 of them that were playing this game until the past year or so.

    Poor management, whether it’s a managing a company or a consultant managing the multiple hats they have to wear is what kills a business.

    As far as profits go, I’ll take a company’s 25% profit on $2m in sales over a independent consultant’s 50% margin on $200k any day. But that’s just me and my capitalistic tendencies. 🙂

    Some consultants have really figured out a system for themselves in terms of running their own business and may be a much better fit for some kinds of projects.

    In other situations, like enterprise SEO for example, a company’s resources are needed – for both short and long term consulting as well as oversight of implementation.

    There’s no need for too much attention on the grammar in comments. 🙂

  25. Avatar Carol Seidl says

    My husband and I have started and sold two software companies. We were always small, no more than 10 employees, and I always found that hiring individual consultants was best for us. Larger agencies, put us on a back burner, perhaps because of our size. We had to hire several different consultants, all with different specialties. This left the overarching vision of the marketing program and perhaps more management issues to us but we worked with very talented people and used them over and over, recommending them to others.

  26. Hi Carol, am glad you’ve stopped by!

    I agree that there is a good fit for consultants over agencies in the right situation. I have also seen the situation you describe regarding small businesses not getting the attention they deserve. In that case the agency should really take a good look at it’s business model and not take on projects they cannot properly serve.

  27. Now that I’m an independent consultant, I vote for consultants! 😛

    Joking aside, I’ve now run the gamut of working in-house for a large company, as a specialist for a few agencies, and now as a consultant on my own… The entire time I’ve almost always recommended working with a consultant rather than an agency. I personally think the pros/cons for a consultant far outweighs the pros/cons for an agency.

  28. Unless a SEO “expert” – whether with a company or as a consultant, has not had the hands on, quantifiable experience of actually having P and L responsibility for website they have been in charge of “optimizing”, I wouldn’t waste a time on either until you have figured out what is actually involved in SEO for yourself. While this may be a little less applicable in a corporate environment, where funds may be a little more liquid, you sure as hell better know when some SEO “expert” is BSing you if you dont have a pile of funds to waste

  29. lee…

    i dont want to deal with clients except at the keyword generation phase.. that’s an AE’s job.. plus i’d rather be working on the clients website than doing sales presentations, account management, proposals, phone calls, etc..

    i do have to deal with the client sometimes.. but that’s pretty much when i want to insert myself to help them reach better goals.. plus when i have to deal with IT depts of big fortune 50 companies.. it’s kinda of a good thing to “talk amongst the geeks” instead of being the lead client contact… they have a job, i have a job and we collaborate a lot better than when it is the AE’s telling the IT peeps..


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