When the term business process outsourcing (BPO) is mentioned locally, call centers come to mind and rightfully so. The industry has been booming for the past 15 years and currently employs some 1.3 million Filipinos. This makes the BPO scene a primary mover of the Philippine economyand is expected to expand  even more for the next several years.
What most Filipinos aren’t aware of is the fact that BPO is an umbrella term that encompasses many different disciplines. Back office functions such as accounting, software development, website design, order entry and virtually any other office function can now be outsourced as long as an internet connection, a computer and the correct process are accessible to a service provider.
Among all these BPO subsets, one is emerging as an increasingly viable and important one in the Philippines. The craft is called search engine optimization (SEO) and it’s an industry that’s changing the lives of tens of thousands of Filipinos with hardly anyone noticing it.
What is SEO?
Strictly defined, search engine optimization is the process of applying known and proven best practices to improve the visibility of a website in the search results of web portals such as Google. The goal of SEO is to help a website’s listings climb as close to the top of search results as possible so they can gain the best chance of being clicked on by potential customers.
SEO is central to any digital marketing campaign as any business will benefit from having Google refer them to the people searching for products and services that they offer. For instance, if a potential customer is looking for a website where they can buy leather shoes from but doesn’t know where to do it, he’ll likely go to Google to see what he can find. As one may guess, the top result on Google for “leather shoes” is the most likely to be clicked on, allowing it to sell to the potential customer before its competitors get a chance.
While other promotional channels on the web such as social media or affiliates can drive traffic to a website, none of them can send the kind of targeted visitors that only Google can. Traffic from Google tends to be more engaged and easier to convert into paying customers. Therefore, it’s no wonder why companies in developed markets such as the USA, Canada and the UK are constantly embroiled in silent wars for search engine dominance. Being ahead of the pack on search results can literally make or break a business.
Why is SEO Outsourced to the Philippines?
The reasons why foreign companies outsource SEO to the Philippines is similar to the rationale behind the offshoring of other BPO work. Lower labor costs, a high level of English proficiency and the richness of its labor market made the Philippines ideal for foreign companies to source work from. According to one of the Philippines’ leading SEO experts, the laws of supply and demand also favor the Philippines.
“As having a digital presence becomes a must for businesses of all sizes, the demand for SEO grows proportionally,” says Glen Dimaandal, CEO of GDI Online Marketing. “However, SEO is still a very niche industry and finding a reliable service provider even in the US can be hard and expensive.”
“It’s why many businesses turn to Philippine SEO agencies for help,” he continues. “Filipinos have shown that they can learn the craft rather quickly and deliver world-class results.”
Dimaandal says that typical SEO retainer rates in the US start at $3,000 per month, often providing only  very basic work. With Philippine SEO service providers, comprehensive SEO service packages typically go for $1,500 per month maximum.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about value for money,” Dimaandal adds. “Why would anyone want to pay twice or thrice the price for basic services when you can get premium work done for a lot less?”
Local SEO Demand
According to the SEO expert, it’s not just foreign companies who are looking for SEO services. Dimaandal says that local businesses have started to recognize the value of SEO and are demanding the service themselves.
“Our clientele used to be 80% US,UK and Australian businesses,” he says. “These days, those account for maybe 50% of our revenue. Filipino companies are now 30% of our market while the rest are companies from Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.”
Dimaandal credits the rise in the use of smartphones for the increased local demand. Phones have lowered the entry barrier for internet usage among Filipinos and helped even lower-income individuals participate in the online economy.
“Now, even people in their 60s and beyond order from the likes of Lazada, Zalora, and Poundit,” adds Dimaandal. “Even if you own a locally targeted shop like a restaurant or a salon, people now prefer using Google to find businesses like yours.”
“Of course, that goes for your competitors as well. You’ll need to do some SEO to make sure potential customers find you first.,” he continues.
What Type of Companies do SEO?
Hiring a good SEO service provider can be a tricky process. Due to the fact that it’s a relatively new and very niche practice, organizations and individuals can claim expertise and offer it in an effort for a quick cash grab. Advertising agencies, PR firms, web design service providers are often seen offering SEO, but do they really get the job done?
Dimaandal says that it’s possible they can, but adds that it’s unlikely.
“SEO is a very distinct practice that requires highly specialized knowledge,” he says. “While there are indeed some overlaps between PR, advertising, web development and SEO, an agency that specializes in just optimizing for search visibility is still your best bet.”
Dimaandal confides that some of his clients are companies that tried to optimize their websites for search without much success after they sought the help of traditional PR firms and ad agencies. He says that
“There’s a reason why some of our clients are the biggest ad and PR agencies in the US, Singapore and Hong Kong,” Dimaandal adds. “They know marketing, but not the fine details of SEO, so they source that from us. If you’re the client, why would you want to pay extra to an ad agency when you can go straight to an SEO agency like GDI and cut the middleman?”
How Does One Enter the Industry?
Aside from the high demand and the opportunities in it, the most exciting part of the SEO industry may be the fact that anyone can get into it regardless of background and academic attainment. Like call centers, the SEO industry is liberal and people who can perform the work can often find employment.
“There are plenty of online training materials out there to help take you from an absolute newbie to an intermediate-level SEO specialist,” says the GDI CEO. “ I’ve had colleagues who came from all sorts of backgrounds such as computer science, journalism, nursing or even fine arts.”
“The important thing is the willingness to learn and a way for you to apply what you watch and read,” he adds. “Of course coding and writing skills will give you an added advantage.”
According to Dimaandal, an entry-level SEO specialist will make around 15,000-18,000 pesos per month. As the years of experience and skill set grows, so does the pay.
“Mid-level SEOs will make between 40,000-60,000 pesos a month,” he notes. “Very experienced and managerial-level SEOs make 80,000 to 200,000 per month locally. Abroad, rockstar-level SEOs can make as much as $15,000 per month.”
While the exact number of SEO practitioners in the country is unknown, Dimaandal estimates that there must be around 15,000 Filipinos in the industry. This is about 10% of the global total, which is a significant share of the market.
Like call centers, the SEO outsourcing scene is expected to grow even more in the next several years. Unlike call centers, though, search engine optimization and other digital marketing subsets don’t face the threat of AI.