How should a company handle its search marketing needs?

It depends. Many factors need to be taken into account in order to make the correct choice. Companies frequently make a choice based upon incomplete / incorrect information and end up with unsatisfactory results.

I asked my fellow SEMpdx members to offer their analysis of this important decision:

Kent Lewis: When deciding whether or not to build an in-house search engine marketing (SEM) team, or to outsource to an SEM vendor, it´s not quite as simple as a quick cost-benefit analysis. A successful SEM campaign is all about ROI, but comparing in-house and outsourced vendors is somewhat apples to oranges. At the fundamental level, you can look at the cost of the employees from a salary and benefits perspective, and compare that against vendor pricing (annualized). The challenge is that there are many hidden and soft costs associated with an in-house team, including recruiting, training and retaining. It´s very difficult to attract and retain SEM professionals to an in-house team, as they become orphans within a company that usually doesn´t understand or value their expertise. Furthermore, the cost of training can be significant (thousands of dollars for certified courses and hundreds of hours of reading as well as trial and error testing that can impact the bottom line performance). Additionally, unless you´re building a large team, you´re stuck with one person´s experience and perspective, plus their limited bandwidth.

On the flip-side, an SEM agency is (theoretically) full of passionate, well-trained and seasoned team members, who offer a variety of SEM skills, knowledge and experience. It´s much easier to attract, develop and retain SEM professionals within an agency with a dedicated mission, infrastructure and associated culture. Based on my 12 years of experience in this industry, I´ve found Web Marketing Managers (or equivalent) corporate SEM professionals hired for the SEM position, typically end up outsourcing the day-to-day search (if not the overall SEM strategy) to vendors, which frees them up to block and tackle internal politics, infrastructure and other responsibilities piled onto the constantly evolving role.

To sum up, I´ll let the research speak for itself: agency vendors consistently outperform in-house teams, period. Should you make a decision to outsource your SEM activities, I recommend reading an article I wrote on the topic, as it will shed light on key criteria to use when considering SEM vendors.

Adam Audette: There´s a strong trend for corporations to bring search marketing in-house. I have a friend that recently got picked up by Microsoft for this role, and I´ve heard of a few other big corporations recently (like Apple) hiring SEOs. It makes sense to have someone full-time within the organization who can push search initiatives forward, work with departments to ensure best practices are being followed, but who also understands the internal business strategy. And (maybe most importantly of all) an in-house has the necessary knowledge to vet third-party agencies, which are still critical to leverage for most companies.

The ideal arrangement is to hire an in-house person as well as work with third-party vendors, unless you´ve got a stellar search marketing department. An agency brings a dedicated staff, a lot of specialty knowledge not available to most in-house search marketers (who are very busy with corporate politics). Also, in large corporations sometimes different departments need vastly different SEO. That´s why a lot of the larger corporations work with several SEO/M agencies at once. It´s also generally a better ROI to pay an agency than it is to build out a full-service SEO department in-house.

Right now freelance SEOs are doing really well, there´s so much demand from corporations, traditional agencies, and digital agencies. There´s a real lack in quality search marketers out there. This industry seems pretty big sometimes but I´m amazed at how hard it is to find *quality* SEO amid all the bodies.

The best advice I can give is to *invest* in your in-house SEO! You have to be willing to pay a pretty healthy salary to get a high-level, creative person in-house. But if you do it will pay huge dividends in the company. If you need an example take a look at what Marshall Simmonds has done for the NY Times.

David Mihm: Here are the questions I´d ask myself if I were a small business owner thinking about undertaking SEO:

  • What you´re starting with: Do you have a website at all? Is your website entirely in Flash? Is it in HTML, but uses a ton of images? Is it difficult to navigate? Any of these three problems and you is going to need some outside help. If you´ve got a basic HTML site, and know how to update it yourself, or have someone on staff who knows how, you might be able to stay in-house.
  • Budget ($$$): Are you hesitant about spending cash without an immediate ROI? SEO is a long-term process, and good SEO´s are pricey. If you hire a cheap SEO, you´re probably going to get cheap results. Either commit to SEO as part of your marketing mix, or spend your dollars elsewhere on things you´re more comfortable with, and do the best you can with in-house resources.
  • Budget (Time): If you don´t have the cash, you simply have to be willing to commit the time to reading SEO blogs to learn best-practice techniques, and take the time to implement these techniques--research your keywords and competition, develop new content, pursue new incoming links, etc. Can you ask one of your staff members to take on these additional duties? Can you hire a fresh-faced intern who knows something about the internet to do them for you? If you or your staff don´t have the time, you´re better off hiring a professional, who´s going to be much more efficient with his/her time, and who has experience with strategies that work, to perform this work for you.
  • Industry competition: Are you in Real Estate? Travel? Consumer Electronics? Take a look at the top 10 search results for some keywords and phrases you think are going to bring you business. Are you competing against Fortune 500-type companies, or other mom-and-pops? If the former, you´re probably not going to be able to rank without some serious external SEO help. If the latter, you might be able to do things yourself.

In the majority of industries, there´s no reason that smaller businesses can´t do ongoing search marketing in-house. Particularly in less-competitive industries, making basic title tag changes, some internal link / anchor text restructuring, and good ol´ fashioned content development are probably enough to provide some serious growth in online revenue. Small business owners and marketers can probably get a decent handle on a lot of these basic strategies from Aaron Wall´s SEOBook, SEOmoz´s Beginner´s Guides, the SearchEngineGuide blog, or from attending a couple of SEMpdx events! But you´ve got to ask yourself the above questions and answer honestly.

On the Pay-Per-Click side of things, my rule of thumb is that it´s almost always a good idea to hire someone if you´re going to be spending more than $5,000/mo. on PPC. His/her expertise is going to save you money on poor-quality clicks alone, and you´re going to be able to attract and convert high-quality visitors at a much higher rate. If you´re spending between $1,000 and $5,000/mo., you may or may not do better with a consultant, depending on your industry. Less than $1,000/mo.? Your consultant´s retainer is probably going to eat into your ROI, so you´re better off trying things yourself, especially as Google makes its Adwords interface easier and easier to use and understand. Learn what you can about landing page targeting and keyword research from Andrew Goodman´s Winning Strategies with Google Adwords and take the plunge yourself.

In almost all cases, it´s a good idea to get a consultation from an SEO / SEM professional prior to starting. He/she will almost certainly give you an honest answer about what would suit your needs best, and if you do decide to go in-house, might serve a valuable role as a big-picture thinker or advisor regarding your ongoing in-house SEM efforts.

Megan Slick: Every business owner has dealt with payroll. Because SEO is relatively new, business owners are struggling with how to make the best decisions. At different stages of a business´s growth, it requires different payroll tactics. SEO is very similar.

Starting the Business
Payroll: Use Quickbooks.
SEO: Self educate, like reading “Search Engine Optimization: an Hour a Day”, and tackle it yourself.

Small Business
Payroll: Hire an outside payroll company because you can no longer do it yourself.
SEO: Hire an outside SEO firm because you don´t have the time or expertise to handle your growing website´s SEO needs.

Medium Business
Payroll: Hire an in-house bookkeeper.
SEO: Because your website requires constant maintenance, it makes most sense to bring the work in-house to have more control.

Large Business
Payroll: The complexity has exceeded your bookkeeper´s expertise; it is time to begin consulting with an outside expert.
SEO: It is time to consult with an SEO firm that has specific experience in the kind of issues that you need assistance with (PPC, online stores, etc.). Your SEO team continues to do work and becomes the liaison with the outside firm.

Like any business decision, you have to weigh the complexity of your situation and the risk of your SEO decisions.  This means that the answer to the in-house or out of house question depends on the stage your business and website are in.  In the beginning, there are simple solutions for small problems. As the problems grow in complexity, the answers become more complex.  In order to manage risk, business owners need to match expertise at the level of complexity.  Each stage calls for a different SEO expertise.

Colleen Wright: This question really requires a more in-depth analysis than a couple of paragraphs. But my thoughts on this topic include the:

1. Costs of moving in-house versus engaging an outside vendor
2. Ability to find a qualified SEM professional who can handle all of the myriad of changes that happen very quickly within this field, and
3. Consideration of a combination of in-house and “outhouse”.

Let´s take a quick look at each of these scenarios:

The Costs Associated with Moving In-House

Do you have enough work to keep a full-time SEM let alone a whole SEM department busy? If not you could be costing yourself money both in hard dollars and morale. If you have employees that are overworked in one area, they could become frustrated if they see Mr. SEO working a leisurely schedule.

Finding Qualified SEM Professionals who WANT to work In-House

SEO consulting can be lucrative which means it can be more difficult to find a qualified professional that wants to work in-house. Also, there is much more demand than there is supply for SEM professionals who have enough experience to handle the job in-house. At the very least, I would make sure that I hired a qualified SEO consultant to interview possible new hires for the position.

Creating an In-House / “Outhouse” Hybrid

Depending on the size of the company, one solution might be to hire a consultant to help you bring this position in-house or you could outsource part of the work and keep part of it in-house. As Jessica Bowman pointed out in a blog post entitled The Challenges Of Bringing Search Marketing In-House, “Corporate attorneys have an outside council to assist with questions, accountants have auditors and SEOs need an SEO consultant that they can reach to with questions, concerns, unique situations and the “what happened” emergencies that pop up every now and again."

Like any business decision, you have to weigh the complexity of your situation and the risk of your SEO decisions. This means that the answer to the in-house or out of house question depends on the stage your business and website are in.

April 1, 2008

Todd Mintz is the Director of Internet Marketing & Information Systems for S.R. Clarke Inc., a Real Estate Development and Residential / Commercial Construction Executive Search / Recruiting Firm headquartered in Fairfax, VA with offices nationwide. He is also a Director & Founding Member of SEMpdx: Portland, Oregon's Search Engine Marketing Association.


I used to work for a company who did their SEO through an SEO firm, and their PPC in-house. (I was on the in-house side). Here's my take on in-house vs. hiring an agency for mid-to-large businesses.

This is definitely a great article. It seems many businesses don't know what to do and make the right decision then have a bad outlook on SEO as a whole based on the results.

Decent article, and lots of takeaways, but I find it strange that every person you interviewed either works for an SEO/SEM agency, or is a consultant. None of the individuals were in-house.

Although I agree with a lot of the points above, I also think that the trend is building a team in-house. Most companies are in the quasi-inhouse spot, where they bring one or two in, and have them manage the agency/SEO firm.

Most of the larger companies (really large), are moving the direction of in-house, at least from where I sit. It will definitely take some time to transition, but the trend is pretty clear.

In most cases I would recommend inhouse. Over the years I have seen to many agencies who had nothing on their minds but getting more money from their clients while spending most of their time on their own projects and only nursing their clients websites when necessary.

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Search Engine Guide > Todd Mintz > Ask SEMpdx: In-house or Outhouse? What Criteria Should a Company Use to Decide How to Handle its Search Marketing Needs?