Just when I thought I was in-house, I pulled myself out. After five years working continuously and exclusively as an in-house SEO, I have decided to cast my lot with the hoards of independent consultants and contractors out there. This decision has caused me to reflect on the relative benefits and drawbacks of life as an in-house search marketing professional.
Many pieces have been written on the relative merits of in-house versus contracted SEO support – indeed, entire conference sessions have been dedicated to the subject. These discussions, however, have tended to focus on what is best for the company, rather than an individual considering one route over another.
There is much I have found immensely rewarding about working in-house, as well as days where a trip to the bar could not possibly come soon enough. For what it is worth, here is my take on some different aspects of in-house SEO life, and what sort of individuals might find themselves best suited to the job.
Working in-house provides you with the opportunity to learn SEO as it relates to one industry really, really well. Being immersed in a specific industry is not necessarily as limiting as it may seem, as sectors that typically employ in-house SEO teams – such as news organizations and multi-channel e-commerce sites – provide a highly diversified work experience.
Working independently, of course, you at least have the potential to work in a variety of industries without having to regularly change jobs. This provides opportunities to acquire real-life experience across industry verticals, each with its own SEO challenges and opportunities.
For those that really need to get excited about a particular product or service to get on board and give it their best, then in-house search marketing is the obvious choice. The flip side is that one’s evangelical zeal may be tempered by a lack of enthusiasm for the site’s offerings, or by the existence of a clearly superior competitor for whom you would rather be working.
Search marketing specialization
For smaller companies, either an in-house SEO or an external contractor may find themselves personally tackling everything having to do with search, including PPC, organic search engine optimization and – not unusually – social media. In larger corporate environments, this changes; certainly for organizations with an in-house SEO team, different team members will be focused on different tasks.
Larger organizations without an in-house team may engage an agency that, in turn, provides specialists from their own pool – but it unlikely that any large company that is serious about improving their search performance will contract an individual to run their entire search program.
Working in-house has given me the opportunity to focus on what I love – organic SEO. Specializing in a particular realm of SEM is not impossible as an independent, but it may take longer to gain the track record and credibility that will allow you to acquire clients.
Whether or not the management of people is a part of your brief as an in-house SEO, and how much time that management consumes again depends on whether or not a company’s size warrants an SEO team and, if so, the size of that team. The bigger your team, the more arduous your management responsibilities will be, and you may find the time you are able to spend working on SEO seriously reduced by such things as arranging vacation schedules or conducting staff reviews.
Aside from team management, there are things like budgeting and the creation of presentations that are required of either an in-house SEO or a consultant, though the amount of time and effort you need to expend will still probably be greater in an in-house role. Oh, and if you like meetings (anyone?) go in-house. Yes, you still have client meetings as a contractor, but you will leave fewer of them grumbling to yourself about how that particular waste of an hour or two would have been better spent attending to your endless task list.
Many of the differences here are obvious. If your ideal workday entails listening to Metallica in your pajamas, then clearly you are not going to want to sacrifice that for an office job.
Less obvious, perhaps, is how much you a much you actually like engaging with people, and how effective you are in winning them over to your point of view (or at least getting them to do something for you in the interest of SEO.) I consider effective interpersonal communication to be a core competency of an in-house SEO. If you lack powers of persuasion, you will find yourself very quickly frustrated by your inability to propel initiatives forward.
While the challenge of achieving buy-in is not mutually exclusive to an in-house role, it is exacerbated by the expectations of your position, particularly if you hold a senior title. When you conduct an external SEO audit for a company that may be the end of it; as an in-house SEO champion, you have to figure out ways of implementing that audit’s recommendations.
In-house search marketers are almost always more embroiled in strategy. I am not talking about strategic versus tactical SEO, but about global corporate strategy. In-house, you may play a bigger role in guiding the company’s direction, particularly if search traffic is a major contributing factor (or a potential major factor) to a company’s bottom line.
This can go either way: immensely rewarding, if you’ve got good ideas and the company is willing to entertain them; unspeakably frustrating if you are sidelined, and forced to sit helplessly by as opportunities are missed and – most grating of all – watching competitive advantages disappear as rivals move forward with the very initiatives you have been pushing.
Put another way, as an in-house SEO, you have more of a vested interest in the ultimate success or failure of a company (and unequivocally so if you manage search for a start-up.) For companies with a clear vision and a great management team, this affords you the opportunity to contribute to the company’s success; for poorly led organizations without a sensible roadmap, you may well find you are spending a great deal of time simply trying to get the company on track. In conjunction with the already arduous day-to-day demands of your position, this further broadening of your responsibilities can lead to burnout.
Show me the money
A plurality of independent contractors I have talked to who have previously been in-house claim they now make more on the their own, working the same or fewer hours. Needless to say, there are a lot of factors to be taken into consideration when comparing income levels. A contractor incurs costs that are either not relevant to an-house SEO or are covered by the employer, including the material costs and time spent promoting your business. A full-time in-house position may also provide benefits that are an out-of-pocket expense for an independent.
Ultimately, whether you will make more as a contractor or in-house SEO depends on your ability to actually get clients. Certainly for those who cherish a regular paycheck the appeal of an in-house job is self-evident. Furthermore, I believe that a talented SEO working for an established and solvent company has pretty good job security, as there continues to be a paucity of experienced SEOs available that want to work in-house.
In regard to that last point, a closing thought for in-house employers. There is definitely a perception among many SEO professionals that the grass is greener as an independent. So when you have an SEO on board that is doing a great job, show you appreciate them. Pay them well. Send them to conferences. Listen with genuine interest to what they say, with the understanding that your SEO necessarily knows a lot about all sorts of units and processes in your company. You just might retain them.
This is not to say I have felt unappreciated in any of my in-house SEO roles, and I will especially miss the opportunities I have to work alongside up-and-coming talent (I have always had extraordinary luck with my team members.) But I am also looking forward to new search challenges, the opportunity to work on a variety of websites, and the chance to spend the better part of my day actually working on SEO.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.