01 Nov 2016

Benefits of Outsourcing SEO Program to Agency vs Building In-House Team

SEO is alive and well, and continues to be a strong driver of targeted potential customers to websites across all verticals. According to Forbes, 82% of shoppers conduct research online before making big purchases, meaning there should be little debate as to whether or not SEO should play a major role in long term digital strategy. However, what continues to be a topic of internal debate is how your SEO program should be developed and managed – whether to outsource to an SEO agency or build an in-house team.

82% of shoppers conduct research online before making big purchases. Stat via @Forbes. Click To Tweet

In my more than 16 years as an SEO professional, I have had the unique perspective of viewing this debate first hand from both sides of the discussion. Prior to joining Vertical Measures, I managed the SEO strategy and built in-house teams for two globally recognized brands: one, a leader in the hospitality industry, the other a Fortune 100 healthcare company.

In each of these roles, my team and myself were the “clients” working with several different agencies to help manage our digital strategy. Now, I work with one of the country’s top SEO agencies helping to develop strategies for a roster of Vertical Measures corporate clients.

In other words, I have seen firsthand the pros and cons of working with agencies and cultivating internal teams. With this in mind, I will share my thoughts on the challenges and opportunities that come with each.

Setting Realistic Expectations and ROI

Before deciding on whether to outsource or build an in-house SEO team, there are a few questions that you should answer that will help to set a reasonable expectation:

  • What impact are you expecting your SEO program to make on your business?
  • How much annual revenue do you expect organic search to contribute to your business?
  • What annual investment are you willing to make to generate that revenue?
Set realistic expectations for your #SEO: How much investment & return do you want to see? Click To Tweet

Regardless of whether you outsource or build in-house, answering these questions will help you identify reasonable goals. This in turn with help you to determine the amount of resources that you will need to commit to achieve the level of success that you are expecting to see in year one, in five years, and long term. Just be aware that two of the biggest missteps that companies often make occur before their program gets off of the ground. They are:

  1. Failure to fully understand and commit the time and investment necessary to fully achieve their goals, and…
  2. Failure to give their SEO team (or agency) enough autonomy and internal support to be successful.

Resources

Managing Resources

One of the most obvious considerations when choosing between in-house and agency, is management of resources. The ability to effectively hire and manage qualified SEO talent is critical to the success of your program. 

Starting the Team 

In-house – Assembling a team of SEO professionals can be a challenge. It is difficult to find people that are really qualified at “reverse engineering” the search algorithm in order to allow them to fully understand the appropriate strategy to adopt.

Who will be the person qualified to interview and select the very first member of your SEO team? Will they know the right questions to ask in order to adequately assess candidates?

As you know, there are an infinite number of industry resources and blogs online today – suggesting that just about anyone with some free time and a curious nature can quickly learn the basics of strategy – and can communicate all of the right answers in an interview. However, when you actually get them on staff, this may not be the case. Most people who work in IT or web design already think they can “do SEO.” And it’s usually not discovered until they are on board and you are deep into the process. Unless you are able find a candidate with the right mix of experience, temperament, and personality to take on the challenge, and ability to replicate that as they build your team, your program may not be successful.

Most people claim they 'do #SEO.' But do they really? Be careful when hiring. Click To Tweet

There is often a temptation to underinvest on SEO staff. Often, a company may try to make do with a lesser experienced person. If your key SEO person is in over their head, it could stunt the growth of your program by months or years.

In a big company, a smart strategy for building an in-house team usually starts first with investing in a Director level position, who has been given the appropriate internal authority, and can build the team while setting the appropriate strategy in motion – and has the willingness to be hands on until there is a team in place. If you hire the wrong Director, a six-month plan can take much longer to be fully realized. It also has a tendency to leave a bad impression on the organization of the SEO industry as a whole.

Agency – The biggest advantage of engaging with an agency is that hiring and firing becomes their risk, not yours. Because agencies already have considerable experience in the industry, they have become adept at finding the right team members at the right skill level to successfully implement all strategy.

Scaling Resources

In-house – Another big challenge with managing SEO in-house is that the number of projects that you are able to develop and implement will likely be limited by the size of your team. If you have one Director/Manager, it is very likely that the majority of their time will be spent on internal education and extoling the virtues of SEO in order to build momentum for the program.

However, they may not have the bandwidth to actually get much accomplished. Your investment should include a plan to develop a team big enough to meet all of your goals within the desired timeframe. It also takes time to build a team. If you have allocated headcount for a team of 5-6, it could take several months before that entire team is in place – and an additional several months to develop a strategy and execute the roadmap.

#SEO in-house or work with agency? Agency +1: resources are more flexible. Click To Tweet

Agency – Agencies are more flexible. One of the biggest benefits of outsourcing to an agency is its ability to assign additional resources as needed to complete all projects within the desired timeframe. If you have entered into a long-term agreement, 12 months or more, your agency will have the financial flexibility to add team members as needed to accomplish your goals.

Often there is a decent sized pool of talent with a wide range of skills and experience that can be re-assigned as needed based on the requirement for each project. If a team member is not a good fit with a particular client, they can easily be reassigned. This may not be possible in-house. Also, an agency can absorb the impact of a bad hire – often more effectively than an in-house team can.

Development & Execution of Strategy

Promoting the Brand

In-house – One of the distinct advantages that an in-house team has over an agency is that no one understands the nuances of your brand, strategy, corporate objectives, and even internal politics like they will. Unlike an agency, your in-house team will be present in internal meetings and privy to brand related discussions that the agency may never be exposed to.

As an example: In the hospitality industry, there are several layers of competition for the same keywords with direct competitors, affiliates, and even hotel owners themselves competing with the brand head to head for search engine traffic. I know of instances where it took as long as six months just to bring an agency fully up to speed and completely understand the industry before it demonstrated effectiveness.

Agency – This does not mean that your company will not have success working with an agency, but it is dependent on the level of communication between the two entities. The open access that an in-house team has to various key internal stakeholders, such as marketing, sales, and corporate leadership, is often reduced to a single person. If there is a challenge with communication at any point along the way from strategy to implementation it could severely limit their ability to make your program successful.

Implementation

In-house – An in-house team has the distinct advantage to connect and partner with the internal IT team as needed. An effective SEO team will understand that it is critical to invest the time necessary to forge relationships with key members on the IT team. Your SEO team should understand that your strategy is dead in the water without interdepartmental buy-in and ability to implement changes on the website in a reasonable time frame.

#SEO in-house vs. agency? In-house +1: No one better understands the nuances of your brand. Click To Tweet

Agency – This is the most critical challenge that many agencies encounter. Without the ability to implement in a timely manner, success will not be achieved. I have seen this become a major issue with big organizations who are bound to an infrequent and often jam-packed development cycle. If you are part of a big company with implementation challenges, you should expect to sign at least a two-year agreement to allow enough time to develop a strategy built for long term success.

This can be an issue with small companies as well. They may have single webmasters who aren’t sold on the virtues of SEO. Their lack of faith may become a roadblock. This is also often the source of misinformation and frustration. SEO takes time to be fully realized on the search engines. If implementation is continually pushed out, the end of the SOW will be realized before success can be achieved. 

Building an SEO Culture

In-house Team – This is an important challenge that every in-house team faces. Building a culture of SEO requires the ability to train and to champion. Until all internal departments and leadership understands the importance of viewing everything on the website through an SEO lens, the rewards will be few and far between.

Agency – An agency can successfully provide the training, but is dependent on an in-house champion to change the internal culture. Vertical Measures has been very successful with developing custom training sessions that large brands have benefitted from. Many times a completely qualified in-house SEO team can gain a significant amount of additional traction just by enlisting an “unbiased” third party perspective that an agency can offer.

I experienced this first hand while working in the hospitality industry. We made a recommendation that was perceived as high risk, but it offered the potential of high reward. My internal team experienced a significant amount of push back from other internal departments. However, once we engaged with an external SEO agency that conducted an audit of our strategy, and because they recommended the exact same strategy we were calling for – our internal team saw buy-in. The result was a 500% increase in organic traffic over a 6-year period.     

Budget and Expense

Everything comes down to budget.

In-house Team – Building an internal team can be very expensive. There is direct salary, benefits, and usually a bonus system to consider. Unless a company has made the business decision to invest heavily in SEO, there is usually too few designated headcounts in the first year to see significant success.

Outsourcing to an Agency – Often an agency can be a much more affordable option. This is especially true of small to medium sized companies that do not have the resources of a large brand.

Final Recommendation

The bottom line is that the decision of whether to build an in-house team or outsource your program to an agency is dependent on many variables, and entirely reliant on how important organic search is to your overall marketing goals.

For many, the best scenario for a successful SEO program is a hybrid approach. For your program to achieve the greatest level of success, you should consider a small contingent of qualified internal SEO staff – or at the least a Director level person who can navigate the internal politics while being able to “speak the language” with the agency. This approach allows the Director to set realistic objectives, hold the agency to task with deliverable due dates, and communicate the performance details. If an SEO program is outsourced “lock, stock, and barrel” without someone to serve as a bridge between agency and client, the agency will face greater challenges, and the risk of failure for your SEO program is greater.

 


 

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