Weighing In-House vs Agency SEO For Enterprise Search Strategies

Working on the agency side of search for many years has taught me some valuable lessons. I’ve been privileged to work with the best and brightest, and by turns, saddled to work with the worst and dullest. I’ve seen a little bit of everything: those that get it, those that don’t, and those that don’t know what to get!

I’ve often been attracted, over the years, by the allure of in-house work (in contradistinction to agency work) for the seeming luxury of focusing on a single company and set of sites (or even a single site).

While I’ve never held a full time in-house position (having always been on the consultant or agency side of the fence), my work at Zappos has closely resembled that of an in-house SEO.

So while I haven’t been an in-house SEO full time, I’ve stood in those shoes and looked from that desk chair, so to speak. Combined with our work at AudetteMedia with large and leading companies in many industries, I’ve come to know the challenges for both the in-house and agency roles.

Please note that these thoughts are confined to the SEO discipline and its inherent workflow and processes. However, many of these points will translate to other channels, particularly paid search.

The In-House SEO

The primary strength of the in-house SEO role is that of focus. As a single person (normally) in charge of a company’s organic search channel, the SEO manager must have laser focus on her site’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. She must also closely watch a key set of competitors.

In this work, the in-house SEO develops a tuned eye for the SERPs she cares about and the key competitors she’s working against. She comes to know the baskets of terms that matter, the particularly fruitful techniques and tactics working in her industry, and the benefits of head and tail SEO strategies.

Equally as important, the in-house SEO understands the company. She knows how to get resources, who the key development people are, who to befriend on content teams. She knows who can make on-page changes and modify meta data (which might be different people).

She’s either working with internal SEO tools already (especially as they relate to the site’s particular CMS or platform) or is building business cases to earn the resources for those tools. She can navigate the landscape of the company and traverse the oftentimes thick murk of bureaucracy and internal politics.

At the enterprise level, the in-house expert is a master of leveraging assets. Internally, that means training merchandising, content, PR and social media teams. Externally, that means working with best-of-breed analytics and agency firms that support her overall SEO strategy and direction.

The primary weakness of the in-house SEO role is that of myopia. Not in the sense of a lack of imagination, but in a pervading nearsightedness that’s almost inescapable. The in-house is so deeply immersed in her industry, her company, and her sites, that she can’t see the forest for the trees.

Even worse, she becomes out of touch with where the industry is trending. What’s working for other companies at this level? She oftentimes needs affirmation from an outside source. Enter the agency or consultant.

The Agency SEO

The primary strength of the agency SEO role is that of breadth. The best agencies work on many different sites in diverse industries and categories, all at once. They have large teams and know the benefits of project management. They are accomplished SEOs primarily because of the diverse set of challenges continually presenting themselves.

Upon that bedrock, they build a breadth of experience by rolling out tactics and strategies and then seeing them to fruition. They take those lessons and build upon them, continually, and at a very rapid rate when taking their total client profile into account.

The best agency SEOs are thought leaders. They are teams rather than individuals, and as such benefit from the collaboration of many different minds at once, all working on overlapping projects. The agency SEO team is distinct in its size, quite often, from the sole SEO manager or relatively small in-house team. Agencies often have 4-6 people on a project, and that number can be twice as large for significant client accounts.

Agencies understand the climate that exists at companies, and how best to build business cases that appeal to the decision makers. They have access to large sets of data across multiple categories.

When Google makes an algorithm change, they’re usually the first to know, because they see trends reflected in 40, 50, or 100 different client sites. Agencies often have very bright people on staff looking at macro strategies and trends, and because of their larger footprint, agencies normally have more industry relationships than the in-house SEO does.

Above all, agencies know what works, what doesn’t, and how to prioritize various tactics and strategies for a company to have the highest impact. They know this because they’ve done it before, many times, and much of the guesswork has been removed.

The primary weakness of the agency SEO role is that of shallowness. They simply cannot achieve the depth of knowledge about a particular site and company that an in-house person can. Agencies, especially great ones, are often spread thin and wide. Furthermore, the best and brightest minds in the agency oftentimes do not work directly on client sites.

The SEO Consultant

A word needs to be said in acknowledgement of the single consultant. For the in-house SEO, there are advantages inherent in working directly with a consultant. Some of the agency’s strengths are also the consultant’s, particularly as it relates to breadth, keeping up on trends, and access to data. But there are weaknesses, too, particularly as it relates to bandwidth. An individual consultant can only take on so much work, and great ones are always in strong demand. This can translate to the consultant charging very high rates.

The SEO Dream Team

Excellence in SEO comes from continual work, and integrating that work into the very fiber of a company. SEO touches everything. It needs an evangelist within the company to network, drive execution, and close the loop on reporting to management.

At the enterprise level, the SEO manager cannot do this alone. She needs support, she needs an agency to do some of the heavy lifting, to support and drive strategy, and sometimes, even to be the voice of opposition against trenchant company policies. Agencies can be the “bad guy” when it’s warranted.

If I were to construct the SEO dream team for an enterprise-level company, it would certainly include not only an SEO manager, but a whole team of SEOs and a director-level position as well. I would lean on an outside agency, one focused on absolute excellence and with a proven track record. I would advocate for SEO analytics tools such as Brightedge, SEO Clarity, Conductor, or Matrix, and I would attend every search conference I could. The in-house needs conferences even more than the agency does, because it can give them valuable insight into what others are doing in the industry.

Stock image from Shutterstock, used under license.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO


About The Author: is the Chief Knowledge Officer at RKG, where he blogs regularly. You'll find him speaking at conferences around the world when he's not riding down mountains on something fast. Follow Adam on Twitter as @audette.

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  • http://eddiemorales.net/ Eddie Morales

    This article reminds me of an article written on SEO Moz by @ipullrank , http://ow.ly/5Hlso , about the same topic.

  • http://www.audettemedia.com Adam Audette

    One thing I left out from my “SEO dream team.” I would have a dedicated development resource for the SEO team. The single most important (and often lacking) resource there is!

  • http://www.hostelbookers.com davidecorradi

    A couple of years ago I couldn’t agree more. Nowadays I am afraid in-House SEO, if properly structured, is a much more complex and knowledgeable beast than you are picturing. 

    A real example, mine: after 4 years working in one of the top multilingual agency in the UK I am now in house SEO Manager for a company working in the travel industry.
    Well, the in-house SEO situation I am proudly part of, is miles away from what you have described: I am managing 10 incredibly competent international in-house SEOs that are going to conferences, are keeping them self as informed as any other SEO out there and they can use their time and creativity focusing on one single objective. And I can’t stress enough this point: working in an agency you may have (sometimes) better tools or processes but there is a primary weakness that is difficult to defeat: time.

    Just my 2cents

  • http://seoexpertforyou.com/ S.E.Y.

    I think that a seo agency is the best way to go because they are up to date on everything and normally they have a lot of people to manage your campaign rather than just one person.

  • http://www.bartgibby.com/ Bart Gibby


    So true about the development resources. I am an SEO Director and I can barely get anything for SEO from our Agency’s dev team. They are always too busy working on Account Management, sales & marketing projects. Hopefully I get something soon lol. Or we won’t be able to handle the work load.

  • http://www.litigationandtrial.com/twitter-welcome/ Maxwell S. Kennerly

    The primary weakness of the agency (or the consultant) is that they might be a rip-off. There are lots and lots of SEO agencies / consultants in my industry who charge a fortune to do a modest amount of work, work that could be done in-house even by unspecialized employees.

    In turn, the primary strength of the in-house SEO is loyalty. You don’t doubt if they’re working for you or just collecting their monthly fee.

  • http://www.audettemedia.com Adam Audette

    @davidecorradi actually, you’re affirming much of what I wrote about in-house and “dream team” SEO. Maybe a bit too defensive in your take?

    @maxwell re loyalty of the in-house… until a better job comes along. Loyalty can be a false proxy for more pragmatic concerns. Re agencies, I agree with your experiences as far as lesser firms are concerned. But, that’s a simple straw man to knock down.


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