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SEO Specialist vs. Generalist: Why You May Be Better off Avoiding a Niche

Looking to provide specialized SEO services for a specific vertical? Here's why SEO agencies and pros might be better off as generalists.

Should SEOs focus on verticals

Several years ago, I spent a lot of money hiring an agency consultant.

The consultant came to our office, spent a couple of days interviewing me and my employees.

He also spent time with our accounting department and went over our books.

This particular consultant has more experience than 99 percent of his peers. He’s worked with agencies of all sizes.

He’s conducted some of the best research in existence with regards to what makes an agency successful, and what makes an agency fail.

While he provided us with some much-needed feedback on things that helped our agency tremendously – I flat out rejected his most significant piece of advice.

He told me that we should find a vertical niche and specialize.

He was ready for my rejection. In fact, he had numbers to back up his claims.

He even had numbers around when an agency owner typically overcomes his or her reluctance to specialize.

I’m well past the age where his studies showed I would capitulate to specialization. So I still fight this “best practice” advice that would almost definitely make me a lot more money.


Because deep in my bones I think that I can provide better results as a generalist. Also, I’ve got 20 years of anecdotal evidence to prove it.

I’m Not Dissing You

Let’s get one thing out of the way.

This is not a dig at agencies that specialize in specific verticals.

Many specialty agencies do a great job.

Moreover, specialty agencies certainly have their place. Particularly in public relations and link building.

I won’t say I’ll never specialize.

The siren’s song of an increased paycheck may eventually lure me to specialization. Biz dev would be so much easier than it is now. Specialization could eliminate a lot of my headaches.

However, let’s talk about why I’m not planning to pivot my agency to specialization anytime soon.

Childhood Trauma & Vertical Niches

My father is a CPA. For years, he owned a rather large CPA practice in the Dallas area.

When I was in elementary school, I watched as my father’s business almost failed.

In the ’80s, there was an oil boom. If you know anything about the oil and gas industry, you know this isn’t uncommon. During an oil boom, money flows like water here in Texas.

My dad decided to concentrate his CPA practice to serve the Oil and Gas industry.

In 1986, the price of oil tanked to under $10 per barrel.

It was arguably the biggest oil bust in history. So overnight, my dad’s CPA firm went from one of the largest in the area to having almost no clients. He had to lay off most of his staff.

He diversified his practice. Healthcare, technology, service industry – you name it, he did accounting for it. And his business grew until he sold it in the late 1990s. Now he does people’s taxes to keep busy when he’s not sitting behind a slot machine.

The lesson to my elementary-aged self: don’t put all your eggs in one basket – because when that basket breaks, you probably won’t have a pan to catch them and make an omelet.

Each Business Is Different, Each Business Is the Same

Almost every company that I have worked with considers their approach to business to be unique.

One of our onboarding exercises involves exploring what the unique selling proposition (USP) is for the client.

I can think of only a handful of clients that started with a compelling USP that requires an SEO with specific industry knowledge. Also, in the cases where specialized industry knowledge was needed, the client contact was more than capable of guiding our SEO team.

While every business is different, my experience has been that every business is also the same. The marketing and SEO challenges are similar across all verticals.

Specialization Can Lead to Myopic SEO

When you specialize, you aren’t exposed to the greater SEO world. You are stuck reading about what works in other verticals in publications like Search Engine Journal.

Don’t get me wrong; there is huge value in learning from others in forums, publications, and flat out social media stalking of those who know.

However, in the end, there is no substitute for actually doing. You will learn more by running an SEO campaign than you will by reading about one – every time.

When you specialize, you don’t get the cross-vertical expertise that I believe is necessary for a genuinely robust SEO campaign.

If all you do is work with plastic surgeons, you might not see the issues that are happening in overall healthcare in the SERPs. So when your vertical is affected by a change, you won’t be as equipped to deal with any change that is beyond your current field of vision.

A Website Is a Website

A competent technical SEO professional can optimize any site, regardless of the vertical.

The technical challenges of SEO, in most cases, don’t require specialized knowledge of a vertical.

Our audit process is the same for each vertical.

Also, it works well across the board. I don’t see an advantage to specialization when it comes to technical SEO.

Advantages of a General Approach

The fact that I realize that most businesses, whether they admit it or not, have the same universal issues is a testament to the benefits of working in multiple verticals.

Firms that specialize do so to make the firm’s life easier – not to provide better results for clients.

So while there are similarities in verticals, there is also valuable cross-learning to take advantage of all the time.

What we learn in one vertical frequently can be modified for another vertical.

Exposure to multiple verticals makes us better marketers. When we can connect the dots of what’s going on in a specific vertical, we are better equipped to deal with issues in another vertical.

If our firm weren’t involved in the payday loan industry, we wouldn’t be as strong in local search as we are. There’s nothing like a super-competitive vertical full of spammers and scammers. When you play in that vertical, you better bring your A-game or prepare to sit at the bottom of page 3 in the SERPs.

If we weren’t working in the international education vertical, we wouldn’t be as savvy as we are about how to localize keywords for our other international clients.

If we weren’t working in the healthcare industry, we wouldn’t have the processes for compliance in place that we now for other verticals like insurance and mortgage.

The examples go on and on. The learnings we gain from working in multiple verticals make us better SEO professionals. Better marketers. A better agency.

Bottom Line

There is no right path to take. Only the right way for each SEO.

There are indeed advantages to specializing in specific verticals. Advantages that benefit the SEO professional and, in some cases, the client.

I’m not ready to specialize. I’m having too much fun being a generalist.

More SEO Career Resources:

Image Credit

Featured image created by author, June 2018

Category Careers SEO

I am a 19-year veteran of the digital marketing world with previous experience in journalism, public relations and advertising. I’ve ...

SEO Specialist vs. Generalist: Why You May Be Better off Avoiding a Niche

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