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SEO: In house, Outsourced or Agency?

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The benefits of SEO are numerous and well documented.  From providing a better user experience and brand equity to sourcing high quality and high intent leads, SEO is one of the most powerful acquisition channels out there.  Because the channel is organic, and tends to compound in terms of its return on investment, SEO is the holy grail for many growth stage companies hoping to reach escape velocity.  This as opposed to paid, where you see diminishing returns and increased marginal costs as you increase budget.                 

But this area is quite wide.  Many companies can agree they need SEO as a part of an effective growth strategy, but are left asking: where to start?  When a company embarks on their SEO journey, they are often faced with several choices on how to proceed.  

Thinking about assembling the team that will tackle the various challenges in this area is likely a first step.  But how should you assemble this all important team that will likely determine your SEO fortunes? Should you go with an in-house team of full-time employees you have assembled yourself?  Should you outsource to a distributed team of remote freelancers? Or should you use an agency that can diagnose and tackle the various problems and pitfalls that arise in this area?

This largely depends on a confluence of different factors, but you should begin by doing some self reflection.

1. Where are you starting?

starting seo

Companies vary in terms of the maturity of their web properties.  Are you a company that is pre-market launch and is just getting started with your web presence, or are you an established e-commerce company with many products and extensive domain authority?  

Both companies can benefit from SEO, but the strategies and tactics that will be used for each individual business will vary.  In order to get the ship steered in the right direction, agencies may have the edge. Because they have likely seen various business models and what works well for different verticals, agencies can quickly diagnose problems and solve them.  You can be confident that a team is tackling the issue that thinks about SEO every day, versus a freelancer group that might take less time to know your business. This is why at Format we take the time to understand each individual business we work with, and use our team of experts to take advantage of the specific strategies that apply to those businesses.  A one size fits all solution doesn’t work in the SEO arena.       

An in-house operation can also be helpful in so far as they will be thinking about your product exclusively.  However, as we’ll discuss further on, cost and time of investment may make maintaining that team untenable. Hiring, vetting and onboarding new employees can be incredibly time consuming and costly, whereas hiring an agency gives you a full team at your disposal ready to go on day 1. 

2. What does the audit say?

Before jumping into any long-term strategy, you should have a very firm assessment of what you are doing well and where you can improve.  This is where an audit can be very useful. We at Format use a 33-point checklist that we have honed after working with several different clients and working on numerous SEO strategies.  We have determined that these are the most important factors that lead to success.  

If freelancers you work with, or in-house hires, do not perform a standard assessment and mark areas for improvement, you should question keeping them on for long.  A great systematic plan can only be constructed knowing what areas you need to attack, what is working well now, and how to double down on those successes and minimize points of weakness.   

3. What Budget are you working with?

Have you just raised a seed round or Series A and are looking for key, repeatable growth channels?  Or are you a bootstrapped company with a small budget hoping to show some traction and product-market fit?  Or perhaps you’re a larger, established company with significant revenues and budget, but you struggle in determining where to put that budget to inject that next wave of growth.  

All of these companies can benefit from SEO of course, but the budget at their disposal can have huge implications when it comes to assembling the team that will tackle it for them.

If you are a bootstrapped company, you likely want to do your best to scrap by with your internal founding team performing most of the duties related to SEO, with perhaps a freelancer used for support.  You are looking for signal that you can bring to investors, so a company at this stage may not benefit as much from SEO as another. However, it is never too early to get started in this area, so going after specific keywords and topics can really work for you.  

If you have seed funding or have raised a series A or B, you have likely been given a mandate from your investors to grow – and grow fast.  However, paid acquisition channels have become crowded and ineffective due to a crowded marketplace.

Paid Acquisition FB and Google Cost Increasing

instagram_stories_price_increasing

Most investors expect organic growth.  But, aside from network effects and word of mouth growth, there aren’t many great channels to do so for a new product.  SEO is a fantastic organic channel and one of the few that can help you in the near term and the long-term. But because speed and resources are important, it may not make much sense for your company to hire an internal SEO team.  It likely makes more sense for your early internal hires to be focusing on the product and its resonance with customers. Using an agency to solve your SEO problem gives you peace of mind that this area is being handled, as well as the bandwidth to focus on your product and important hiring decisions. 

As a more established company, it’s likely that you have internal hires that are at least focusing on SEO to an extent.  Maybe there is some sort of strategy that you have implemented already. What you are likely looking for is additional knowledge and advisement that will give you an edge in this area.  This is where hiring on the right agency can really provide additional value. However, you are likely to want to see that they are capable of providing that value. Do they have clients that are as sizeable as yours?  What have they done for those clients? Have they brought a unique perspective to their strategies and are those laying the ground work for long-term gains? These are all questions you should be asking potential agencies before hire.    

If you have seed funding or have raised a series A or B, you have likely been given a mandate from your investors to grow – and grow fast.  However, paid acquisition channels have become crowded and ineffective due to a crowded marketplace.

4. What are your goals?

What you want to ultimately accomplish with SEO should be well sussed out before your make full investment in this area.  An agency with a good auditing system can help you hone down your goals based on information you give them on your current state of affairs, customer personas, competitors, etc..  An internal hire can also do the same. You likely do not want to outsource goal setting to a freelancer, but in some specific cases you can find a good partner in this area that can help.     

Although some businesses may have goals centered around solely increasing visitor traffic to a web property, that is rarely the case.  Most businesses want to source specific, converting customers.   

Common goals include driving a certain number of monthly customers, newsletter signups, etc…  You may also want to goal against the number of top keywords you rank for that lead to specific monthly visitors and traffic.  Other tier 2 goals to track may be related to bounce rate (whether a user immediately leaves the page or not), session time, and CTR to page (from the SERP pages).  These can all be tracked in Google Analytics and Google Search Console

Google has also taken to showing structured snippets in its search results pages, often making it so users may not need to click through to your website to get relevant information. You may want to fold in goals that take advantage of these snippets, and have Calls to Action and forms that allow you to capture this traffic. We at Format have worked on thinking through this new reality of SEO.

Making your decision

Now you should have a firm foundation on why you are pursuing SEO and where you are starting.  While most companies agree on the need for a comprehensive SEO strategy, their approaches vary depending on a variety of factors that extend beyond the above.  We’ll save the nuances of various strategies for another article. For now, we’ll dig into the various people who can handle SEO for you, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.  The team you employ can be one of the biggest make or break factors in the success of your programs.

In general, the various SEO specialists are either hired in-house, outsourced to individual freelancers, or trusted to an agency. 

in-house

Some companies feel like they should hire a full-time candidate internally to focus on SEO.  Commonly cited reasons for this strategy are to have people that can speak with the voice of the product and company pushing forward the content vision.  There is also the added benefit and peace of mind that comes with someone thinking about this everyday from the perspective of the hiring company. If this internal hire is experienced in this area, they also likely have a network of specialists that they can hire when building out the SEO team.  These contacts can be invaluable when it comes to getting an edge on competitors and building on sustainable success.           

However, despite the logic of this strategy, it has its downsides.  Because there are so many different concerns when it comes to SEO (technical, content, strategy, etc…), it is very difficult to find a candidate that excels at, or is even adequate in, all of these various facets.  However, because this landscape is so competitive, and the economics dictate a winner take all ethos, you can’t afford to be average in any of these areas. You need to be best in class. If you are trying to do things right internally, you are likely investing in a robust team that will end up being very costly.    

Polling several companies, we’ve seen that the main concern for the budget conscious stems from hiring.  Great SEO candidates can easily charge $300-500K per year for their expertise, and that is before they bring in their team with their various rates.  They would also expect a healthy benefits package, as well as an equity stake in the company. Most of these unicorns know their value, and expect to be compensated for it.  As well they should – one key insight can lead to millions of dollars in additional revenue.        

If you decided to cut costs by hiring a mid or below-market candidate with limited track record and understanding, you are risking wasting time and effort on a losing strategy.  Worse still, you may run into a situation where a hire leads you down a path that you cannot return from. Google doesn’t forget so easily. If you are dinged because of poor tactics or strategy, your web property may be forever tainted.  That is why Google recommends getting set up with an experienced SEO as early as possible to set the groundwork for long-term success.             

Many founding teams also feel that they can figure it out on the fly, and see how things go with their own bandwidth fueling the SEO train.  After all, there are many resources out there on SEO that give a general playbook on how to succeed.  However, between hiring (the biggest responsibility of a founding team) and product building, it’s quite difficult to give SEO the proper attention that it deserves.  If you aren’t tackling things in a strategically viable way, then you are just wasting cycles. You may not see SEO as a priority, given the numerous fires you are likely putting out and investor questions you are answering.  But much like raising capital, you want to do it while you don’t necessarily need the money. The best time to plant a tree was yesterday. The second best time is now.

Outsourced

Another strategy that can be employed is to hire remote freelancers that can fill in the gaps to build out an SEO strategy.  You can hire individual folks to handle content, on-page issues, technical issues and more. Freelancer networks like Upwork and Toptal allow you to access numerous freelancers with different skill sets that can fill in the gaps for you on SEO.  These are global networks, and you can find freelancers at every price point in almost every corner of the globe.  You can search for freelancers using various filtering criteria, including price point, location, skillset and background.          

One downside to using this strategy is that it can be very time consuming to source, vet and hire freelancers.  Even though there are reviews and ratings associated with most freelancers on these networks, they are less than reliable in practice.  You won’t know what you have in a freelancer until you try them out, which takes time and money.   

Another less than ideal facet of going the freelancer route is that you will still have to manage and dictate terms to this team.  This is not a set it and forget it model.  

It is very rare that you hire freelancers that are self sufficient, know how to stay on brand, and can think strategically as well.  There may be some diamonds in the rough, but in general, freelancers will only do exactly what you dictate to them, nothing more. They are not incentivized to go above and beyond.  They are incentivized to do the minimum amount of work that will get you to give them a positive review.    

If there is anything in the way of miscommunication (which happens often), then not only did you pay for something you didn’t want, you also wasted time and cycles and are one more week or month delayed on taking the proper steps toward a viable SEO strategy.  Be wary when going this route.              

Agency

Agencies in general can be hit or miss, but if you find a good one, they can be a sustainable partner that pays long lasting dividends.  Agencies have the benefit of having teams that have already encountered a variety of SEO challenges and have found ways to surmount them.  They have also likely worked with a variety of clients in disparate verticals. This experience and strategic savvy can create real value for your business.    

Agencies also give you peace of mind that your SEO strategy is being handled, and you will not have to babysit them (like you might with freelancers or even in-house employees).  Agencies should provide periodic updates and show you the progress they are making towards the goals you aligned on during the auditing process.     

Good agencies have worked with well respected clients, will provide a solid assessment of your current SEO status and what you needed to focus on to improve, and can clearly communicate how they will provide value to your business.  The first thing that many companies look for when vetting an agency are their prior clients and what was done for those clients. This is a great thing to ask an agency when determining if the partnership is for you.    

When you consider the cost of a full fledged team hired in-house vs. the agency model, you may be surprised to find that it is much more cost effective to go with the agency.  If you want an out of the box, set it and forget it solution to your SEO problem, an agency is the way to go. We at Format in particular take pride in our relationship with our clients, and strive to offer best in class service that they can be proud of.

Going forward

Regardless of the team you assemble, one thing is for sure (we’ll quote directly from Google):


If you’re thinking about hiring an SEO, the earlier the better. A great time to hire is when you’re considering a site redesign, or planning to launch a new site. That way, you and your SEO can ensure that your site is designed to be search engine-friendly from the bottom up. However, a good SEO can also help improve an existing site.

Google

Good luck out there and don’t succumb to overwhelm.  Make rational decisions, pursue the best strategy, and grow your business predictably with SEO.   

By Michael S

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