In-House SEO or Agency SEO?

Deciding whether it makes sense to hire an agency to handle your website's SEO or more sense to build a team internally isn't always easy. It's also difficult to get unbiased input from others since vendors will want to sell their services and current management may just want to build their empires with additional headcount. I can't promise that they're unbiased, but here are my thoughts on the matter. For context, note that I've been an in-house SEO as well as having worked at a couple of SEO agencies.

Starting SEO In-House
A situation I've been involved with just once is when a company wants help getting their SEO program off the ground, but their longterm intention is to handle the work in-house. Kicking off this effort with a couple of months of consulting can help steer the project in the right direction saving much grief down the road.

Trial Run
I've yet to see a website that couldn't achieve at least a doubling in traffic with search engine optimization. Still, some companies may doubt the value of SEO and so a trial run with an SEO agency would make sense. The cost may be high, but at least the risk of longterm commitments is eliminated.

Highly Competitive Industries
Marketing Sherpa's 2006 SEM Benchmark Guide reveals that outsourcing results in average 110% lift in overall site traffic vs in-house which gets just 75%. That's a significant difference that indicates SEO vendors can be worth the premium they often charge. In a similar vein, SEO agencies may be better suited for work in industries with a lot of competition particularly if primary competitors have engaged the sort of outside help that routinely out-performs your typical in-house team.

Small Web Sites
If your website is small and you don't have enough content to warrant hiring a full-time employee, you might as well outsource your SEO efforts. This is especially true if your business is small and you've already outsourced other technical tasks such as web design and web development. Beware of allowing an existing vendor to tack on SEO to their existing contract. I find that design and development companies still don't do SEO as well as dedicated search engine marketing/optimization companies.

Mid-Sized Web Sites
One of the trickiest situations is when a site is mid-sized. If your company doesn't have enough SEO work to keep a full-time employee busy, then outsourcing could be the right answer. I think this for a few reasons:

  1. An idle employee is a waste of money and not good for morale when the rest of the web team is swamped.
  2. A vendor, with multiple people on the account, is likely to provide more creativity than a single employee working in isolation. A single in-house SEO runs the risk of getting wrapped up in a bubble that keeps them from continually pushing the envelop. I've been in this situation and didn't know how much I was holding myself back until I switched employers.
  3. Hiring a lone employee to handle SEO and not providing a path for career-development is a good recipe for making sure that employee is eventually going to look for challenges elsewhere. Again I speak from experience. The company I left validated my decision to leave when they “replaced” me with a director (responsible for SEO and other non-SEO activities), a junior employee to manage SEO efforts, and, the real kicker, an SEO vendor. I let you do the math on those costs!

Large Web Sites
A relatively easy situation is when your business centers around online content in a not-so-competitive market and you've got so much going on that you could support multiple full-time SEO employees (see Paul J. Bruemmer's thoughts on structuring an in-house SEO team). In this case hiring a vendor would be very costly if you expect that vendor to dedicate resources to your project. Full-time employees, if kept busy, can be a better longterm use of budget dollars and with an actual they may be around.

What some companies may not realize is that SEO companies have an internal billing rate for their employees that is used to determine how many hours they are “permitted” to work on a client's account. If you're paying $10,000 a month for SEO and the internal billing rate is $100/hr then you'll get 100 hours of work for the month and NOT the 160+ you'd get from an employee.

So there you have it, a mini-guide to deciding whether to bring SEO in-house or to outsource the work. If you want another SEO's take on the matter, check out Chris Smith's post from earlier this year (I believe Chris wrote his article when he was an in-house SEO, but has since gone over to the agency side).

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