Hand Off to Bob or Outsource the Job? by Scott Buresh
We are often asked if professional SEO (search engine optimization) can be done effectively utilizing in-house talent. Despite our obvious self-interests on the subject, our answer is always a qualified “yes”– you can achieve professional SEO results using existing talent. However, for every company we have known that has met with great in-house SEO success, we know of many more that have seen their in-house efforts fail. We have also discovered the companies that have succeeded share some common traits.
If your company is considering doing SEO in-house, there are some critical questions that you should address before you proceed.
Do I have the proper resources at my disposal to achieve professional SEO results?
Search engine optimization takes time, and your internal SEO expert will need to have a great deal of it at his or her disposal – especially at the project’s outset when target audiences, keyphrases, and optimization schemes are first being established. Even after the initial optimization effort, the nature of SEO will require this person to spend ample time keeping up with industry trends, monitoring campaign progress, performing A/B testing, and expanding the campaign as new products and service areas are added.
Perhaps even more important than time, achieving professional SEO results requires a unique set of aptitudes. The person responsible for your internal SEO initiative must possess the ability to learn quickly and to look at your website from a macro-perspective, marrying together the needs of sales, marketing, and IT. He or she can not be an aggressive risk taker, as this is often a surefire way to get your website penalized and potentially removed from the major search engines. These gifted people exist in many companies, but given the unique attributes that these individuals possess, their time is often already spent in other crucial areas of the business.
Without enough time to invest in the project or the right type of person to execute it, an internal SEO initiative is likely doomed to fail.
Do I know which departments of my company should be involved, and will they work with an insider?
As mentioned above, professional SEO, by necessity, involves marketing, sales, and IT. The SEO expert must work with marketing to find out what types of offers and initiatives are working offline to help translate them effectively online. He or she must work with sales to identify the types of leads that are most valuable so that you can target the right people in the keyphrase selection process. And, finally, your SEO expert will need to work with IT to determine any technical limitations to the SEO recommendations, learn of any past initiatives based on a technical approach, and get the final optimization schemes implemented on the website.
Sadly, in many businesses, these departments have a somewhat adversarial relationship. However, it is the duty of the SEO expert to act as a project manager and coordinate the efforts of all three departments if you are going to get the most out of your campaign. No professional SEO project can be completed in a vacuum. For whatever reason, it is often easier for an outsider to get adversarial departments on the same page, in the same way that a marriage counselor might convince a woman of her undying love for her husband while the husband is still grimacing from a well-placed knee in the parking lot.
Will someone be held accountable for the results?
This may seem like a small consideration, but it can have a tremendous impact on the success of the campaign. If you have added this responsibility to some poor soul’s job description with the direction that he or she should “do the best you can,” you’ll be lucky to make any headway at all (especially if the person is not enthusiastic about SEO). Whether SEO is done in-house or outsourced, someone will have to take responsibility for showing progress, explaining setbacks, and continually improving results. Without this accountability, it is very common to see an initiative fade as the buck is passed.
Can I afford delayed results based on a learning curve?
It’s a reality – professional SEO expertise has a steep learning curve. While the information on how to perform the basics of optimization are freely available on the web, much of the information out there is also contradictory, and some of it is actually dangerous. It takes time for someone unfamiliar with the discipline to sort the SEO wheat from the SEO chaff (on a side note, a “quoted” search of Google reveals that this may actually mark the first occasion in human history that the phrase “SEO chaff” has been used – we’re betting it’s also the last). Simply put, if the person you are putting on the job has no experience, it will take longer to get results. This may not be a consideration if you aren’t counting on new business from SEO any time soon. However, if you are losing business to your competition due to their professional SEO initiatives, time might be a larger factor.
Will it cost me less to do it in house than it would to choose a professional SEO firm?
Often, companies will attempt this specialized discipline in-house in order to save money, and sometimes this works out as intended. However, accurate calculations of the cost of in-house labor that would be involved versus the price of the firm you would otherwise hire should be performed to make an accurate comparison. When making this calculation, also factor in the opportunity cost of the resource – the tasks that your in-house people are not able to perform because they are involved in SEO.
In addition, if worse comes to worst and your in-house SEO expert is led astray by some of the more dangerous “how-to” guides available, it can cost even more to repair the damage than it would have to hire a professional SEO firm to perform the optimization from the outset. And an internal SEO campaign gone wrong can cost even more than the stated fee – websites that violate the terms of service of the major search engines (whether intentional or not) can be severely penalized or even removed, costing you a lot of lost revenue when potential customers can not find your website for a period of time.
Do I believe that the end result I’ll get in-house will be equal to or greater than the results I would have gotten from a professional SEO firm?
Search engine optimization can create huge sales opportunities, and slight increases in overall exposure can have not-so-slight increases in your bottom-line revenue. If you believe that your talented in-house resource will, given enough time, achieve results equal to or greater than those that could have been achieved by the professional SEO firm you might have chosen, it may make sense to do it internally.
However, in addition to a better knowledge of industry trends, one clear advantage that search engine optimization firms have is the benefit of the experience and macro-perspective that comes from managing many different websites over time. Professional SEO firms can watch a wide range of sites on a continual basis to see what trends are working, what trends aren’t, and what formerly recommended tactics are now actually hurting results.
This macro-perspective allows professional SEO firms to test new tactics as they appear on a case-by-case basis and apply those results across a wide range of clients to determine what the benefit is. It is harder for an individual with access to only one site to perform enough testing and research to achieve optimum results all the time, something that should also factor into the equation.
Do I have at least a slight tolerance for risk?
Neophytes to SEO can make mistakes that can lead to search engine penalization or removal. This happens most commonly when they have an IT background and treat SEO as a strictly technical exercise. We are often called in to assist companies who have had an internal initiative backfire, leaving them in a worse position than the one they were in before they started. The simple truth is that you cannot perform effective SEO without marrying your efforts to the visitor experience, but this is not something that is intuitively understood when people approach SEO for the first time.
However, professional SEO firms are not perfect either. Some firms use those same optimization methods that violate the search engines’ terms of service and can get your site penalized. So, if you do decide to outsource, educate yourself on SEO and do some research on the firm. Know the basics of the business, find out who the firm’s clients are and how long they’ve been in business, and ask for professional references – just like you would do with any major business purchase.
If you have considered all of the above questions, and your answers to all seven are “yes,” your company may be uniquely equipped to achieve professional SEO results in-house. If you answered “no” to any of the first three questions but “yes” to the rest, it does not necessarily mean that you can’t perform SEO in-house – just that you may not be in a position to do so at this time. Taking the actions required to get you in the right position to answer in the affirmative might be worth your while. However, if you answered “no” to any of the last four questions, you may want to consider outsourcing the project to a professional SEO firm.
A professional SEO firm has the resources, the time, the expertise, and, most importantly, the experience, to launch an SEO initiative for your website that will have a positive effect on your bottom line. Whichever option you choose, it is important that you fully embrace the channel. A half-hearted initiative, whether done internally or outsourced, can be as ineffective as taking no action at all.