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?