Should your SEO company create your content?

I had the most interesting email exchange the other day with a SEO firm.

This particular firm (one that is well known in the industry…and no, I will not name them) contacted me because they wanted to outsource their SEO copywriting. This isn’t uncommon  – in fact, many SEO firms offer SEO copywriting services but don’t keep that particular skill set in house.

The exchange was pleasant, nice and positive. I sent over my prices. My contact wrote back and said that the price was too high. I responded that I work with a number of Certified SEO Copywriters – perhaps I could refer them? I then asked how much they were willing to pay per page.

The answer: $20 per page. And their old writer spent about 30 minutes per page.

I was floored. Literally floored. It takes a lot to shock me (as my friends know.) This was…shocking.  Let me explain the reasons why:

Quality SEO copywriting (or any type of quality writing) takes time. I’ve been a full-time writer for most of my adult life, and I would never – ever – spend 30 minutes on a sales page and call it good. That’s barely enough time to write a rough draft (and that’s on a short-copy page.) In order to write a good sales page (and not crap) you have to:

  • Research the competition and know how to differentiate your client
  • Create the best tone and feel for the page (or know how to replicate your client’s preferred tone and feel)
  • Understand the micro and macro sales focus on the page
  • Highlight the main benefits (both company and product/service)
  • Write a headline (by itself, this could take 30 minutes or more)
  • Create a rough draft
  • Edit the draft mercilessly until it’s “right” (and this can also be highly time consuming)
  • And then…finally…you’re ready to submit your draft.

You see what I mean? No matter how many efficiencies that you’ve built into your writing (and I’ve built in a number of them over the years,) writing quality content takes more time than 30 minutes. Much, much more time.

And then I started wondering, “I wonder if their clients – many of them big-brand clients – know that this SEO is paying their writer $20/page, marking it up to who-knows-what and selling it as quality content.”

(Mind you, I have no problems with a company marking up the cost – that’s just good business. But if you’re working with large brand companies and promising “quality SEO copywriting services,” shouldn’t you WANT the best for your clients?)

This situation puts the client (you) in a buyer beware position. It’s easy to trust a SEO firm when they say, “Don’t worry about the SEO copywriting. We have people who can help you.” It sounds all warm and fuzzy and nice and comforting – and you’d figure that of course the company would have good, experienced, whip-smart writers on staff.

But don’t count on it.

So here’s what to do if you’re thinking about having your SEO firm write your content.

  1. Ask about their writers. Are they Certified in SEO copywriting? How many years experience do they have? How does the SEO company vet their writers before they hire them/ outsource to them? The last thing you want is to find out that their “experienced SEO copywriter” is someone fresh out of college who (as my father used to eloquently say) “doesn’t know their ass from third base.”
  2. Ask about the company’s writing process. Can you have direct contact with the copywriter (highly recommended – otherwise, your information is being filtered through multiple people.) What’s the average time the writer spends on every page? Will the same writer be working on all of your pages, or will your pages be written by multiple writers?
  3. Ask what kind of continuing education the SEO firm provides their writers. The SEO/social media world is constantly changing – and if the writer hasn’t updated their knowledge for a couple years, that can negatively impact your results.
  4. Ask for writing samples from the writer assigned to your account. Always. If you don’t like the samples, request another writer.
  5. Consider chatting with a SEO copywriting agency at the same time. It doesn’t mean that you have to use a copywriting agency over your SEO. But you may find that the prices are similar (often less) than what the SEO firm is charging – and you’ll benefit from more experienced writers (who get paid a living wage.)

Is all of this due diligence necessary? You bet. The writing on your site represents your brand. It’s your “silent salesperson” online. And yes, you deserve to be highly picky. You (probably) wouldn’t work with a SEO firm if you knew they outsourced your account to India. Why would you buy writing services from a firm who devalues the writing so much  – and cares about your branding so little – that they’re outsourcing to the lowest bidder (and yes, Demand Media and Associated Content, I’m talking about you too.)

Think about it.

23 replies
  1. Marjorie S.
    Marjorie S. says:

    Preach it, Heather. I write SEO content for an agency that pays me very well for my services, and even after a 20% markup, their clients couldn’t be happier. Because they can SEE the quality, and they see the results it generates.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Yes, yes, yes! Quality content gets results. And, darn it, a SEO firm should KNOW that. I’m not saying that the firm should have paid their writer $1,000 a page or more (although, certainly, if the writer was that skilled, it would be well worth it!) But c’mon…$20/page…? That just isn’t right….

      Reply
  2. Amy C. Teeple
    Amy C. Teeple says:

    As an SEO copywriter who does a lot of work with marketing groups and SEO firms, I can appreciate this post from various angles.

    First, $20 per page is a slap in the face for a true SEO copywriter. My rate is already well above that and the better I hone my skills, the more I consider raising my rates.

    On that same note, if you want someone to care about your marketing message, you need to give them the incentive to care. Yes, I only want to produce quality work, but I would rather turn down a lower-paying job than take a job that I feel I can rush through since the client is not paying me as much.

    Also, I have worked with several firms who have no issue having me speak directly with the client. In many cases, it is obvious that I am not an in-house writer since I am in a different time zone than the SEO firm. The client seems to appreciate the fact that the firm used an outside writer (as long as they feel the writer is the best person for the job).

    Well said Heather. Thanks for the post!

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Yeah, I totally understand your “slap in the face” comment. You BET it’s a slap in the face. At $20/page, a writer would have to write 50 pages just to clear 1k/month. Pull out taxes, business expenses, etc…and there isn’t much less.

      At the same time, SEO copywriters need to stop devaluing themselves by saying, “Hell yeah – $20/page is A-OK with me!” If you respect your own talents and capabilities so little, it’s time to find another career. I mean, you’d make more money working at Starbucks (for way, way less stress!)

      Reply
  3. Carole Seawert
    Carole Seawert says:

    30 mins a page! What was the resulting copy like??

    I also find that clients think they only need to pay for actual writing time. I’ve just finished a web project that involved about 10 meetings. (They really like their meetings.) It also involved loads of email and phone liaison, plus liaison with the web designer etc. All that activity goes into my quote, so how someone can do a page for $20 is staggering.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Yes! If only it was as easy as getting the specs from the client and magically producing a page in less time it takes to have a pizza delivered. :) I’m guessing that the SEO gave the writer the specs and called it good – no client meetings required. Scary stuff.

      Reply
  4. Derek Cromwell
    Derek Cromwell says:

    It’s not that I find the offer insulting. I’m actually more disturbed than anything else. That kind of offer is a clear indicator that the SEO company doesn’t understand or value the importance of copy on a landing page.

    They might say they do, but the price they put on it says otherwise.

    when you consider how little traction you can gain from a link building campaign without having compelling, magnetic copy resonating from the page itself – you would think the SEO company would understand that before they can do anything worthwhile offsite they would need to make sure that what they did onsite TRULY matters.

    And that can’t be achieved in 30 minutes, and certainly not at that price. That’s like… Red Light District Copy without the benefit of dinner before hand.

    Reply
  5. Carri Bugbee
    Carri Bugbee says:

    Heather, as someone who has also been a professional marketing writer for most of my 20+ year career, I agreed with all your points until you mentioned “certified.”

    I realize clients probably want some type of indication that their marketers know what they’re doing, but there is no recognized organization that certifies copywriters. In fact, there are no industry standards of competence for ANY marketers. The closest thing to that would be the APR accreditation program for PR folks (which is rather time-consuming to achieve and requires a lengthy test and membership in PRSA), but I doubt it means much to anybody except other PR people. And even that doesn’t certify competency, it’s more about standards and ethics.

    If I were a client, I would run the other direction the minute I heard the word “certified” from any marketing vendor. I would think it was part of a snake-oil sales pitch.

    BTW, I teach a social media marketing class at Portland State. It’s part of the Digital Marketing Strategies certificate program (which also includes a search marketing class). But we don’t claim to certify people and I would be skeptical of any group or institution that did.

    @CarriBugbee

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Carrie,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Skepticism is a healthy thing – and it’s important for clients (and vendors) to go into any relationship being very careful of who they’re working with. I think it’s important – and if you’re teaching a class, I’m sure that you’d agree – that it’s smart for folks to participate in ongoing education. If you want to be involved in digital marketing, taking a class can round out your “real world” experience. Plus, it shows clients (and employers) that you’ve has gone the “extra step” and received ongoing training. Sure, that still means that a client needs to understand what certification means and the process of becoming certified – and due diligence is always important.

      Market Motive is an example of a firm that certifies folks. Their instructors are smart, savvy people – and the owners of the company are top notch. I completely understand your point about the “snake oil” sales pitch – but at the same time, these ARE the folks who have set best practices within the industry. Who better to learn from? And heck, it’s better than folks hitting one conference, hanging out their shingle and claiming that they’re an “experienced marketer.” :)

      Reply
  6. Heather Georgoudiou
    Heather Georgoudiou says:

    Great conversation! I’m an in house copywriter and often wonder how much time to devote to certain projects from a standard SEO press release to creating a new landing page. The tips on preparation and research will help me plan my projects more efficiently.

    And the copywriter questions are a great way to start a conversation with new and potential clients.

    Thanks Heather!

    Reply
  7. Laura Crest
    Laura Crest says:

    As always, fantastic stuff and I wish I could broadcast it far and wide to corporate ears who seem deaf to the word: QUALITY!

    Love the fact that you’re still putting spam-monkeys on notice! Yes!

    Reply
  8. George Passwater
    George Passwater says:

    Great post Heather!

    I am just floored every time I am contacted by firms or clients who want quality writing, but only want to pay $5 for a full blown sales page. Don’t they any respect for their customers? I am even more blown away how quickly they want it done – sorry, 30 minutes won’t work…why don’t you contact someone else.

    Great post again Heather – I think every firm or business should read this before they start shopping for a firm to outsource their SEO copywriting to.

    Reply
  9. FuturesGalleriaBlog
    FuturesGalleriaBlog says:

    I DO! i write my entire blog with my entire team. it takes a week for me to write one good quality seo page.

    if i’m writing, i always do a classic trick. be a editor for myself, read and wipe, read n wipe until i feel this page is done.

    your point for seo page writers that writes only for 30 minutes is shocked you, i feel the same way. do i too dumb ? or they lack of quality ?

    i’m very sorry for my poor english. i have a lot to say, but i can;t find the right vocab and grammar. lol.

    Reply
  10. Cory Huff
    Cory Huff says:

    30 minutes is pretty bad. I recently had a ‘full service’ marketing company approach me about being their in-house SEO consultant, and the rates for SEO strategy planning were similar.

    It’s vexing to know that small businesses really can’t afford services of people are really very good at SEO and copywriting, so they fall victim to poor quality marketing companies who sell out of the box solutions.

    Reply
  11. Brendan McCrain
    Brendan McCrain says:

    I know this post is old, but I had to comment. You said:

    “The last thing you want is to find out that their “experienced SEO copywriter” is someone fresh out of college ”

    It’s funny that any industry I work in, there’s some amount of disdain for students just out of college. Your dad’s attitude might be funny to you, but it isn’t based at all in fact.

    You can’t possibly have so much more “real” experience than half the writers on the internet. SEO hasn’t been around long enough for all of you to be claiming you’re one of the old guard. I get that writing is changing and there are fewer markets in the print world and all of a sudden, if you were a writer before the dot.com boom, you’re an expert on internet marketing.

    Most of you “old guard” didn’t have a single college course related to online communications or marketing for the web, whereas my education was entirely about writing for the future, not for newspapers or print ads.

    I don’t see what’s wrong with hiring someone right out of college (except that it’s not you), I was top of my class and I started freelancing while I was still in school; my clients have always received high-quality work. In some instances, I’ve replaced more experienced copywriters who couldn’t adapt to writing for the web.

    Colleges are (slowly) recognizing the demand for our skill set and are teaching kids to write targeted and optimized copy right out the gate. You’d be better off hiring the recent graduates of these schools than half of the “experienced” writers out there.

    Now I have to go find third base…

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Brendan, hi!

      Thanks for your feedback!

      Believe me, I am more than glad that colleges are discussing SEO (and SEO copywriting.) Back in the day (and I am old guard) we had to figure it out as we went along. :) And I agree that there are too many internet marketing “experts” – although some folks certainly deserve the title.

      I completely respect the fact that you were freelancing while you were in school. I did the same thing, and I remember the workload and pace. But something to consider: I am a better writer and strategist now than I was a year ago. And I am a much better writer than I was 20 years ago. I may have been technically proficient, but I hadn’t honed my craft. I hadn’t worked with many clients, and experienced the, uh, unique perspective clients can bring to the table. :)

      Granted, I did learn back when it was all about print ads – you’re right there! But many of those “old school” direct response concepts and strategies work today. New twist, old idea.

      That’s not to say that you aren’t good at what you do. But something to consider: Not every graduate freelanced while in school. Not ever graduate understands the writing-to- sell nuances. Most of them are still pretty green and need a lot of mentoring (which is OK – we were all green once.) There is no disrespect meant to college graduates – and there is nothing wrong with hiring a college graduate if the hire is appropriate for the job requirement. But if a client needs someone more experienced, chances are the recent graduate would not be able to help them as much.

      Thanks again for your feedback. :)

      Reply

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