Buying SEO and content feels impossible. Here's why.
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There’s a huge issue with the Content Marketing & SEO industry.
The service providers.
It’s been bugging me for a long time, and I’ve finally decided to invest the time to think, and write about it. I wrote this for anyone who is in the market for SEO & Content services, as well as anyone part of our industry.
Because we, as an industry, are to blame for it. And I want to change it.
Here’s my take: we sell something most people don’t want to buy, but can’t live without.
Think about having your car fixed: if you could avoid paying the mechanic, you’d do it.
Or going to the dentist. Or even … buying cold outreach.
Our industry - my industry - is almost as bad as the lead generation industry.
We have the reputation of: at worst, being scammers - at best, not providing a positive ROI. It’s very hard for prospective buyers to know:
Whether the person they’re talking to is reliable
Whether they’ll deliver
How much they should be paying for the services.
And this is on us: after all, some people charge $200 a month, some others $20,000. Sometimes the quality of work doesn't change from $2,000 a month to $10,000 a month.
I want to look at why it’s so hard to buy (and also sell) content marketing and SEO, and what we can do about it. I did write “we”: me, as a service provider, and you, as a prospective buyer.
Let’s dive in.
The main problem with Content Marketing services in 2023
The main problem with Content Marketing & SEO in 2023 is … marketing.
We’re an industry of marketers marketing to other marketers, for the most part.
And you know what marketers love?
“Let me book 25 qualified sales meetings per week, completely Done For You”
“I’ll double your organic conversions in the next 6 months”
“We’ll help you generate millions in revenue from our email marketing campaigns”
You’ve seen it - time and time again.
And there’s a race to the top for the statements - most of which are misleading. We (as an audience) know it - it’s often too good to be true.
In such a predicament, here’s the problem:
“How do I differentiate the service provider who’s going to deliver?”
Sometimes we the question is somewhat different, like:
“What’s the point in spending money if I’m not sure of the ROI?”
This is the same question - one aspirational, the other less so. There is a race to “whoever has the most compelling statement”. It leaves very little room for measured, non-emotional and rational decision-making.
The most impactful marketing wins most people.
Impactful marketing doesn’t deliver results
That’s not a problem by itself.
The issue is that we’re not selling a product - we’re selling a service. And impactful marketing doesn’t drive results for clients. It does for the service provider though.
It’s a known assumption that most SEO campaigns are unsuccessful.
Vendors love to blame it on the clients for having “unrealistic expectations” or “stopping too soon”. But isn’t it the service provider’s job to manage expectations?
When results don’t come, providers blame clients, and clients blame providers. It becomes harder for those clients to buy again, because they’ve been burned.
Providers know this, and need to handle that objection.
How do they do that?
You guessed it: more marketing. More promises. More big statements.
And we’ve got ourselves a vicious circle.
The misleading side of marketing SEO & Content Marketing
The illustration above mentions “unrealistic/biased results”.
But SEO & Content Marketing can have a very positive impact on top and bottom line.
A good Content Marketing campaign can change the life of a brand.
And it can also make companies loose dozens of thousands of dollars.
So what do I mean by “misleading marketing”.
There are a few ways service providers mislead buyers, or even outright lie to them.
A really good way to make traffic graphs look much, much more impressive than they really are is to squeeze them.
Look at this 10K+ LinkedIn influencer:
There are a couple of issues here:
The traffic graph is ultra squeezed to “make it look like mobile”
We have no way to know if something is filtered or not (more on that later)
Let me do the exact same thing with a graph from one of our clients.
Here is the original:
And now the same graph, squeezed:
Do note that I didn’t change anything but window width.
And here’s the full picture:
Yes, even in that first screenshot, I edited the date - you can see that site suffered in the last 30 days.
I think this proves I can manipulate this graph as much as I like.
2 - The filtered but not shown traffic graph
Another tactic people use to mislead you is showing you a graph that’s potentially filtered.
Let me show you what I mean.
In Google Analytics, you’ve got 2 main places to see all your website traffic:
Audience - Overview
Behavior - Site Content - Landing Pages
In Audience - Overiew, you cannot filter - only segment.
That means you can’t see only a page or a specific subset of pages.
This is what it looks like, segmented to only include Organic Traffic:
In Behavior - Site Content - Landing Pages, you can filter traffic based on URLs or regular expressions.
This is done thanks to that little search bar here:
Now let’s say I want these results to appear much better than they are.
I’m going to filter to only include the pages we worked on.
It’s pretty easy to do thanks to some RegEx work, entering a keyword or a subfolder:
You may say this is all ok - a little bit misleading but ok.
But if I use this graph with a slogan like “from 100 to 3000 users for XYZ” - it starts to resemble outright lying.
At least in my book.
I’ll let you be the judge.
If you have to take one thing away from this, here it is: make sure to look at how a company markets itself as a whole as much as its marketing material.
It might surprise you.
Let’s look at a final real-life example from a high-profile company, using this kind of tactics to deceive prospective customers and the SEO industry alike (they sell training as well):
Yes, the first one looks legit.
The other ones are questionable.
Does this mean that specific company can’t achieve the results they claim?
Does this compel me to take everything they say with a grain of salt?
So what’s the problem with all this?
This is a legitimate question.
After all, marketing’s job is to convey emotions.
How is that different from McDonald’s spilling motor oil instead of maple syrup in their pancake commercials?
First of all, that’s not a good argument (very good case of false dilemma - go learn how to spot that).
This specific company found something that works, and they’re using it.
If they can do what they claim on a consistent basis, that’s great.
But as we’re going to explore, these shady marketing tactics are often followed by no results, or bad results.
But to explore this, we’re going to have to dive deeper into agency economics.
Sorry in advance.
How Most SEO & Content Agencies Operate
I’m only going to talk about agencies because freelancers have a limited scope of action.
They are usually involved in consulting, not in complete outsourcing.
Agencies are service-based businesses.
As such, running an agency is labor intensive, and labor is the #1 expense for agency owners.
SEO & Content Marketing are hard to sell, and there’s a lot of competition, which leads to prices being pushed down somewhat.
Agency owners are aiming for 10-20% net margin, meaning the #1 thing they can do is reduce labor costs to save money, and keep margins “high”.
Remember that most agencies are “small” businesses, so 10% profit margin isn’t a lot of money on the table at the end of the year.
If they want to increase margins and become more profitable, spending less on labor is the #1 thing to do.
This is the general context - keep this in mind.
This context, coupled with the fact that our clients are mostly uneducated about what we do, or the specific of how we do it, means that contracts often include more than is necessary to get results.
“Full of fluff”, some may say.
So we’ve got a great combination:
High labor costs, especially for talented people
Uneducated client base
So what do agencies do?
They outsource the work to freelancers.
This is true for 90% of agencies out there.
If you’re working with an agency, there’s a very high chance that their in-house team is very small, and mostly comprised of “account managers”.
This rings even truer for generalist agencies (agencies selling PPC, SEO, WebDev, Design, etc.).
They can’t possibly have all these skills in-house.
And as SEO and content are often upsold, this happens all the time.
How do I know?
I used to be an SEO freelancer.
And I worked for a LOT of these agencies.
If you spend 5 minutes on Upwork, you’ll find dozens of job posts like these:
Agencies looking for fast, “reliable”, and cheap workforce.
Where’s the issue, I hear?
Whatever the price you’re paying, the only added value the agency has is that they’re posting on Upwork on your behalf.
This is barely a service.
There’s no strategic vision. No expertise. Everything is broken down into small tasks that can be outsourced.
To make matters worse, even “account managers” are usually unknowledgeable people - junior hires made on the cheap and trained on the job.
This is why so many people complain about agencies saying: “the founder is great but the team sucks”. And why the main marketing promise that is made to agency founders is “work on the business, not in it”.
Most SEO & Content campaigns end up failing
The natural consequence of all of this is that most campaigns fail.
Clients blame it on the vendor or the service category:
“SEO doesn’t work”
“Content Marketing doesn’t bring ROI”.
Vendors blame it on clients:
“Clients don’t wait long enough to see returns”
“Clients have unrealistic expectations”.
I don’t care who’s right here - this is just the way it happens.
But vendors are stuck in the circle - the economics of agencies make it so.
So they just … double down on their misleading marketing.
More campaigns fail.
More clients get distrustful.
And it goes on, and on, and on.
Most SEO & Content Marketing agencies hoping they’ll fix their acquisition issue next quarter.
Most clients (maybe like you) waiting on the sidelines, hoping to someday find a decent team to partner up with (just hit me up and let’s talk).
How WE (you and me) have the power to fix it
I know I’m pretty good at ranting.
At least I’m confident in my ability to do so.
But let’s look at what we can do to fix this issue.
Well, the first thing I can do is what I'm doing now: writing about it.
Spreading awareness about the problem.
How Marketing Agencies Can Fix Their Marketing
The #1 route for marketing agencies, even more when it comes to SEO, is being honest and transparent:
About their internal costs
About their team structure.
But also more open about:
Internal documentation (SOPs, Playbooks, etc.)
Clients want to know that you can deliver, and how you plan on doing so.
We can’t market like lead generation agencies saying “we’ll double your revenue this year or we don’t get paid”.
That may work short-term, but it won’t long-term.
It’s hurting us.
Also, stop with misleading marketing and shady tactics.
No one wants that.
How Clients Can Buy Content Marketing and SEO More Easily
Now what can you do about it?
Well, if you’ve had the courage to read thus far, thank you - do more of that.
Joke aside, I think the #1 thing you can do is to make an effort not to fall for the shady stuff.
Interview people the right way - make sure they want to learn about your business
Ask about processes, SOPs, frameworks (maybe they have some public ones to share)
Ask for case studies - live ones, not only screenshots
Above all, BREAK THE VICIOUS CIRCLE.
If you stop falling for promises that sound too good to be true, you’re doing your part.
If you accept vendors saying “this is what we got for other people, but we can’t guarantee it for you” instead of “we’ll do +500% to your revenue in 3 months with SEO”, that’ll help everyone.
If you embrace doing the actual marketing work instead of believing in the new shiny thing, you’ll be better off.
Most agency owners want to do a good job.
They’re just stuck in a hostile environment trying to grow or make ends meet, like everyone else.
This is going to be more and more important as we move to a world with more scarcity and less resources.
I'm the CEO & founder of ScaleCrush. You can often find me ranting way too much about BS marketing advice, fluffy and regurgitated content, and calling out gurus. I also happen to have my very own unoriginal thoughts about the stuff we're going through.
Marketing gurus are lying to you. Am I?
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