What can SEO agencies learn from in-house teams?

Mar­cus Rohrt, Lead SEO Man­ag­er at Three, explains how mov­ing SEO oper­a­tions to in-house led to 18% SEO con­ver­sion growth, and what agen­cies can learn as a result.

Marcus Rohrt By Marcus Rohrt from Three. Join the discussion » 3 comments

It’s a long­stand­ing point of debate in the SEO world; what are the advantages/disadvantages of doing SEO in-house as opposed to out­sourc­ing to a spe­cial­ist agency. Where brands have moved oper­a­tions in-house, what can agen­cies learn from it?

Hav­ing devel­oped the in-house SEO oper­a­tions at mobile provider Three, Mar­cus Rohrt shares why he thinks agen­cies will need to pro­vide a more spe­cialised, con­sul­ta­tive role in the future.

There is always an on-going debate of pros and cons with using an SEO agency vs. build­ing your own in-house func­tion.

These debates tend to be focused on people’s opin­ions rather than hard facts and fig­ures. Typ­i­cal argu­ments for using an agency are tap­ping into an envi­ron­ment of strong sub­ject mat­ter exper­tise as well as flex­i­bil­i­ty around resource. Chal­lenges include high turnover of staff and pre­mi­um costs.

After join­ing Three UK, I took upon the chal­lenge to reduce the depen­den­cy on agen­cies in favour of build­ing in-house capa­bil­i­ties as part of our longer term SEO strat­e­gy and propo­si­tion.

We’ve now gone through the process of mov­ing the lion’s share of SEO deliv­er­ables in-house, and have enough data to review the suc­cess of this trans­for­ma­tion.

The potential benefits…

How­ev­er, before we get to the num­bers, let me high­light the wider ben­e­fits we expe­ri­enced as a result of restruc­tur­ing, and from mov­ing SEO oper­a­tions in-house:

  • Abil­i­ty to build strong inter­nal rela­tion­ships; being able to influ­ence key stake­hold­ers with­in our busi­ness aids the process of push­ing through ini­tia­tives on our SEO roadmap. This is cru­cial to achiev­ing SEO growth. In-house teams have much bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties to build trust and show val­ue to its peers with­in the busi­ness. This also helps mak­ing SEO part of our “busi­ness as usu­al” process with­in our dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment.
  • Qual­i­ty of work out­put; for many brands, work­ing with agen­cies in the past may have result­ed in Google penal­ties which of course had a direct impact on SEO per­for­mance. An in-house team can devel­op clear guide­lines of what “great” SEO looks like and ensure that the team adhere to these prin­ci­ples.
  • Cross-chan­nel align­ment; in-house teams have more free­dom and license to move con­tent cre­ation and out­reach away from the SEO chan­nel, and to join forces with social and PR teams for bet­ter syn­di­ca­tion and align­ment.
  • Cost sav­ings; there is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reduce cost by almost half by hir­ing in-house FTEs as opposed to agency fees, while retain­ing the same amount of resource.

So what did the in-house transformation deliver?

  • +18% SEO con­ver­sion growth through build­ing in-house SEO func­tion vs. agency
  • +40% increase in live SEO projects YoY through strong stake­hold­er rela­tion­ship build­ing and more effi­cient ways of work­ing.
  • +18% incre­men­tal SEO con­ver­sion pre vs. post trans­for­ma­tion by get­ting more ini­tia­tives live = bet­ter SEO vis­i­bil­i­ty = more traf­fic and oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­vert vis­i­tors.
  • -45% cost sav­ing annu­al­ly by hir­ing in-house FTEs vs. agency fees.

Challenges with in-house resourcing.

Admit­ted­ly there were chal­lenges in mov­ing oper­a­tions in-house, includ­ing:

Find­ing the right tal­ent; even with an attrac­tive salary and ben­e­fits pack­age, find­ing the right can­di­dates can be a chal­lenge. Junior SEO pro­fes­sion­als, typ­i­cal­ly, may be tempt­ed by offers from big name agen­cies based in Lon­don, which can make a client side role based out­side greater Lon­don less attrac­tive.

There are ben­e­fits to junior SEO’s cut­ting their teeth in the in-house world too: hav­ing worked in both envi­ron­ments, my pref­er­ence is client side as you gain a deep­er under­stand­ing of what dri­ves the busi­ness bot­tom line and the role of SEO along all oth­er chan­nels.

SEO IP and expe­ri­ence; as we phased out our spe­cial­ist agency we saw an ini­tial drop in SEO expe­ri­ence with a new junior team. How­ev­er, we took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sup­port the team with the nec­es­sary train­ing to devel­op indi­vid­ual per­for­mances in line with our own best prac­tice SEO.

So does that mean the end of agencies for us?

Not quite. We still have a retained con­tent agency which we share with our social team. Their respon­si­bil­i­ty is not to focus sole­ly on con­tent for SEO, which isn’t the right approach any­way, but rather to cre­ate con­tent that meets SEO best prac­tice, search trends, brand and com­mer­cial pri­or­i­ties — which can eas­i­ly be shared across all online chan­nels.

Our SEO strat­e­gy, roadmap, on-page and tech­ni­cal ele­ments, engage­ment with third par­ty advo­cates are man­aged in-house, which for the rea­sons out­lined above have yield­ed bet­ter results.


For us, in-house SEO oper­a­tions deliv­er bet­ter com­mer­cial returns, and a more pro­duc­tive envi­ron­ment, at a low­er invest­ment.

This gives rise to a few points of debate about the future of agen­cies:

In future, the role of an agency accord­ing­ly, will be best suit­ed to two needs: as a sup­port­ing func­tion to an in-house team for labour inten­sive tasks, and to ful­fill a con­sul­ta­tive role.

Agen­cies can add val­ue by sup­port­ing labour intense tasks (data sourc­ing, man­age­ment, analy­sis), advice on new emerg­ing trends that needs to be fac­tored into the SEO roadmap, and as a spe­cial­ist con­sul­tan­cy on tech-ori­en­tat­ed tasks.

Do you agree with the above points? To what extent are these true?

Marcus Rohrt

Written by Marcus Rohrt

Lead SEO Manager, Three

Marcus Rohrt has over 13 years of commercial SEO experience under his belt including a mix of client-side roles as well as agencies. He joined Three UK two and half years ago to head up the SEO proposition.

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