There are three basic types of search engine optimization services, and anyone spending money on SEO should be familiar with these differences.
Understanding them helps you know how to hire the right kind of SEO talent, be it agency, freelance or employee. It also helps you more accurately define their true level of experience, and identify what kind of conversion and ROI to expect from the dollars you spend.
It also might help you avoid joining the discouragingly high percent of companies dissatisfied with their SEO, bouncing from one provider to another.
70% of businesses would not recommend their current SEO provider to a friend or colleague.
Why are so many unhappy with their SEO? It’s not just that companies are reluctant to make recommendations; most companies are unhappy with their SEO providers overall, according to Backlinko’s 2019 SEO Services Report.
It’s a shocking statistic that would be oh-so-easy to blame on incompetence, or bad customer service, but I suspect the more common truth is something few admit: there’s a fundamental flaw in the hiring process.
Modern SEO is a different environment
In the past, hiring for SEO was pretty simple. It wasn’t a terribly complicated skill, and it was easy to keep skills current. However, today’s SEO has become a deeply complex field with many subsets of expertise. It’s fracturing into smaller and smaller areas of expertise.
Generalists are becoming more rare and less effective.
Why is this happening? It’s mirroring the same changes happening with marketing and public relations. As the size of the Internet has grown, tactics have become more sophisticated, tools become more specialized to specific functions, the competition for rankings and the sheer volume of content and SEO opportunities have exploded beyond belief, too. SEO is unrecognizable from a decade ago.
Not only is it vastly more complex, it crosses into multiple marketing disciplines: content marketing, CRMs, public relations, digital advertising and pay-per-click, social media. The lines are blurred and cross-integration is everything.
Most SEOs now specialize in specific niches, but those hiring aren’t aware of the shift.
Here’s why that knowledge gap hurts. If someone doesn’t understand the type of SEO service offered – exactly what the subset is and what it excludes, and how that impacts overall success, then they cannot define fair expectations of what they can achieve with the service.
They also can’t judge how much they should spend to get the results they want.
What they assume they’re getting is not what they’re actually paying for.
The vendor or potential new hire might tell them exactly what their area of expertise and competency is… but the words didn’t resonate because a basic understanding of the terminology was missing. They didn’t understand what they were hearing, so they couldn’t ask the right questions. Perhaps they also reacted to enthusiasm or confidence in the SEO professional’s voice, assuming this passion combined with impressive lingo reflected deep expertise, or maybe they threw their hands up in frustration, hiring who they personally liked and connected with the most.
They’re just not speaking the same language.
Even more frequently, they completely miss the fact that the SEO professional they’re talking to specializes in JUST ONE type of SEO.
Then, as they get into the weeds of the project, they start to understand the gaps and nuances a bit more, and they become frustrated. They hired the wrong professional, or the right professional at the wrong time in their website’s SEO evolution.
How can you improve the hiring process? Start with a basic understanding of the three primary types of SEO, so you can better understand their niche and areas of specialty.
I guarantee they have one, even if they don’t readily admit it.
Very few professionals offer all three types of SEO. Even if they do,
it’s highly likely that only one type is their true area of competency.
Be sure to ask deep questions and see current examples of their work,
not just their results.
Here’s a quick summary of each type:
1. ON-PAGE SEO is about integrating SEO basics into each individual page of your website (including content and HTML),
2. OFF-PAGE SEO focuses on assets that link from someone else’s website to yours (backlinks), building authority and referral traffic, and
3. TECHNICAL SEO is about the physical performance of your website, and its ability for search engines to crawl and index its pages.
Can each one be broken down into even smaller components?
Or be impacted by larger marketing strategies and tactics, such as public relations, PPC, content marketing or social media?
Absolutely, but you don’t have to learn everything there is to know about SEO.
You just have to learn enough fundamentals to improve the hiring process.
This is an effective place to begin.
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
The foundation where effective SEO begins, on-page SEO is the optimization of your website.
Integrating customized, keyword-focused meta titles and meta descriptions into each page and post; managing relevancy and keyword density; optimizing images, copy and headlines; creating a fresh flow of content and pages that build context and relevancy – all of these tactics are done on a website to improve search engine rankings and build organic traffic.
On-page SEO is often split into two phases: (1) Overall optimization of a new website or repair/improvements for an existing site, then (2) the longer-term effort of continually adding content and keywords, ranking for new keywords, and improving the position of existing keyword rankings.
Both are essential.
Is content marketing the same as on-page SEO? Content marketing is a term that includes both content creation and content promotion, and many content marketers have no SEO expertise. Consistently publishing original content can impact SEO results, but it requires SEO expertise to leverage SEO in a meaningful way.
On the flip side, many SEO agencies create content as part of their on-page or backlink strategies, but if it’s cheap, quick content focused exclusively on supporting SEO, it may not impact conversion or sales.
Designed to improve authority of your website, off-page SEO is the activity done off your website to give it more credibility and relevance.
It tells a search engine your site is considered an authority, and has content people like and trust. Off-page SEO typically includes directory listings, Google My Business activity, content on other sites (such as byline articles, guest blog posts, certain aspects of social media activity, and link citations to your site (backlinks).
Many SEO providers focus exclusively on backlinks, which is especially important to recognize as it is not sufficient SEO on a stand-alone basis. Backlink specialists often have an approach that is focused on bulk backlinks—as many as possible, sometimes using automated process or “pitch” template for blogger outreach, and sometimes using a library of proprietary websites they own and manage to host those backlinks. This approach is cost effective for them in the long term, and simplifies their process, but can mean the client loses all backlinks if they discontinue using that SEO relationship.
If the off-page SEO agency or professional is highly focused on an extremely high volume of backlinks, that can be a red flag. Regardless of how many backlinks you have, they can have no value for SEO if they are on weak websites that aren’t specific to your industry, product or service, AND the page of your website that it links to. If they talk about domain authority of their backlink sites, but not context and relevance, it’s a red flag.
Relevant links are valuable, bulk links may not be.
Technical SEO is about managing and improving the physical performance of a website; how it’s built in terms of programming language, structure and content; how it interacts with search engine bots to be crawled, indexed, rendered and ranked; and how all of these things intersect with user experience.
Is your website fast or slow? Does it have an SSL certificate and at least one sitemap? Is it mobile-friendly? Does it have broken links, badly written code from a plug-in, or is the theme so gigantic that it slows page speed to a crawl? Is it loading correctly on desktops, tablets and mobile? Does it load the entire Google font library or just three actually used by your theme? Are there certain pages that shouldn’t show up on a search engine, or that need to be indexed a certain way? Does the site architecture complement the content and keywords? Is everything relevant to each other?
It’s rife with challenges, and requires experience with programming, HTML, WordPress themes and plugins, Google products, website hosting and more.
How important is it? A website with performance issues, a lack of responsiveness or incorrectly set up for Google bots can have gigantic sums of money thrown at on-page and off-page SEO, yet never rank. Here’s why: if Google views a website as broken, not meeting certain criteria or delivering a bad user experience, the algorithm pushes those pages down on search results. Far down.
Or, just as bad, it won’t show them.
Technical SEO should be part of the conversation when a new website is built; after that, it often falls under the responsibilities of whomever handles day-to-day management of a website, such as the website developer, IT department or in-house webmaster. SEO’s may provide input and monitor certain things, but for many, it’s more of an oversight role. They note gaps and request improvements.
If a company is large enough to have in-house SEO and IT staff, they probably work together on a regular basis to enhance technical SEO, but for smaller, less sophisticated companies, it’s often left out of the equation or rarely addressed, except during the launch of a new website. It’s difficult and time-consuming, so it’s put on the back burner. They’ll have a token nod to responsiveness, since it’s a requirement in today’s online environment, but miss the deep dive into performance that technical SEO consists of.
It’s also typically left out of estimates for new websites and SEO services, unless it’s specifically asked for. It’s time-intensive and may requires skills the web developer and/or the SEO professional doesn’t have. It’s just one of those things that often falls in the cracks.. yet the impact is critical.
Does your website hosting company manage this? Rarely, unless technical SEO is specifically part of the agreement. Even if it’s a managed WordPress service, they handle updates and downtime, but diving into performance issues is only done by request, and requires payment beyond the normal hosting fees.
It’s quite common for SEOs not to handle technical SEO, or to only manage certain aspects of it during a website launch, because on- and off-page SEO is easier to manage, easier to price and more tangible to the client.
If you’ve stuck with me so far, let’s wrap it up.
SEO is deeply complex, which is why it can be so difficult to hire the right fit. Understanding the overall differences between on-page SEO, off-page SEO and technical SEO can help isolate the skills you’re looking for, but it’s also important for any company serious about SEO to have a short-term and long-term strategy guiding their efforts.
It makes the implementation easier to manage over time, and focuses the investment where it has the most impact.
Questions? Please feel free to use the email or phone icon at the top of any page to contact me.
How does my subspecialty—keyword research—apply to these 3 types?
Keyword research and analysis is a key element of on-page SEO. It can dictate what content to create, and the specific keyword phrases each page of their website should focus on using authentic, real-time data, instead of assumptions.
They know exactly what topics to write about, and what keyword phrases to leverage for each page of their site.
Keyword analysis can also apply to off-page SEO, but it’s less of a direct line, and more a byproduct of the data. Once a company has worked with me to create their keyword plan, they can implement it into their off-page activity in several ways.
- They’re able to know which terms to bid on and create Google ad campaigns around,
- Their PPC costs are reduced because landing pages are more relevant to the keyword,
- They understand which keyword phrases need to have more context so they include them in their guest blog posts, press releases and other off-page content, and
- They’re able to use keywords as anchor links in their backlink strategies, and
- They understand their top priority keywords, and can include them in their Google My Business Activity, their social media bios and “about us” descriptions, their videos and infographics, and other key opportunities.
When it comes to technical SEO, keywords don’t apply. Perhaps it applies to the process of managing or removing duplicate content, if that isn’t handled as part of ongoing on-page SEO and content creation, but it’s not typical.