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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3 Comments on "What can SEO agencies learn from in-house teams?"

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Richa Gangwani
1 year 7 months ago

Good one! Thank you for shar­ing this use­ful con­tent.

Gillon Hunter
1 year 6 months ago

Hav­ing worked both for an agen­cy and in-house, I agree whole­heart­ed­ly with all of your points here. 

I think there is still a mar­ket for agen­cies too, but only the good ones which is why I wrote this arti­cle. It’s for any busi­ness look­ing to work with an SEO agen­cy. This should help sep­a­rate the wheat from the chaff: https://moz.com/ugc/34-questions-you-should-ask-before-hiring-an-agency

1 year 3 months ago
Hi all– I believe that the best depth and breadth of knowl­edge comes from a team. While an in-house SEO might under­stand inter­nal items (such as the work envi­ron­ment) and nuances, there is a strong need for objec­tiv­i­ty. I believe the com­bi­na­tion of a per­son who under­stands the actu­al envi­ron­ment and nuances should work with a per­son (or group) who is far more objec­tive. I do not only believe this for SEO, I believe this for oth­er areas as well (usabil­i­ty, infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture, UX, design, etc.) I cer­tain­ly val­ue the knowl­edge an in-house SEO has. Some of the SEOs on my… Read more »

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