Enterprise SEO agency vs. in-house SEO team: What to consider

It’s time to let go of the surface-level thinking of us vs. them. The answer depends on how fast you want to run.

Chat with SearchBot

Every time I start a new job, I get asked, “What does the relationship look like between you, the in-house enterprise SEO Director, and the SEO agency? When can we pull back on our budget for our SEO agency?”

This is a problem in the SEO industry. 

The tweet below illustrates the symptomatic problem within the industry. 

The central problem is understanding that it’s not enterprise SEO agencies vs. in-house SEO teams. It’s not a competition. 

Enterprise SEO involves complex problems dependent on many other resources and departments. It’s time to let go of the surface-level thinking of us vs. them. 

This isn’t an article about the pros and cons of using an SEO agency, consultant, or in-house SEO. It’s about my personal experience of creating a blended approach to using both an SEO agency and an in-house SEO professional.

If you’re an enterprise company investing in SEO, choosing between an in-house SEO and an SEO agency depends on how fast you want to run. Let me explain. 

Why the ‘enterprise SEO agency vs. in-house SEO teams’ concept is broken 

In-house vs. agency - SEL

You either worship the altar of promised ROI predictions from SEO agencies or the realistic, logical in-house SEO that tells you SEO can’t promise ROI. 

Whatever side you’re giving the Voldemort treatment to doesn’t matter. 

It’s an example of how in-house SEO teams and agencies can meet in the middle – and give the C-suite what they want. 

When hiring their first in-house SEO lead, executives often make the mistake of searching for a unicorn that’s equally proficient in technical and content. 

If you find one, lucky you. But it’s more likely you’ll need a give and take. 

SEO agencies should be an extension of your in-house SEO team to fill in the gaps your in-house team is missing.

Ask yourself: Do you need a screwdriver? Or a Swiss Army knife? 

So, instead of promising ROI predictions based on keywords, an in-house SEO team can provide the agency with a full accounting of what true SEO looks like behind the scenes with product, engineering, and content.  

Together, the agency and the in-house team can provide a blueprint for investment, scale, and return. 

Get the daily newsletter search marketers rely on.

Investing in enterprise SEO agencies and in-house SEO teams is expensive

Many enterprise companies have marketing budgets but often believe SEO is “free” and don’t prioritize resources. 

This is a mistake.

This mentality leaves the in-house SEO team to live up to unrealistic expectations and burnout. 

Previously, I worked at a well-known enterprise company with a portfolio of 15 global brands as a Director of SEO to find out I was the only person actually doing SEO. In my first 1on1 with my boss, I was tasked to create a roadmap for when we could let go of our SEO agency to bring SEO in-house. 

The caveat – “bring SEO in-house,” meant I was the only person to execute SEO. 

At this company, that meant partnering with UX to design the website and working with web dev on our page speed, all while executing on-page and link building, not to mention writing content.  

I took on this challenge to make a business use case with a budget for SEO that allocated funds toward scaling my internal SEO team and hiring an SEO agency. 

Here’s how. 

Annual estimated cost (USD):
Enterprise in-house SEO team vs. SEO agency
Low MediumHigh
Agency$120,000$600,000$1.5 million
Numbers are pulled based on my personal experience in-house and working with agencies.

When looking at the side-by-side comparison, it may seem like building an in-house SEO team is cheaper, but an agency can execute faster. 

60% of my time is spent getting leadership and cross-department buy-in to SEO as an in-house SEO professional. With an SEO agency, SEO work is still getting done. 

Take a look at this outline of tasks broken up between an enterprise SEO agency and an in-house SEO team: 

SEO StrategyCreates SEO strategy focusing on processes and cross-department collaboration and shares with the SEO agency. Agency aligns with the in-house SEO team strategy and supports with data and execution of tactics. 
ForecastingProvides forecasting and ROI based on in-house resources.Merges keyword forecasting with in-house forecasting to create a middle agreement.
Monthly ReportShares metrics, definitions, and KPIs that align with overall business goals. Creates monthly reports utilizing data from in-house tools. 
Technical AuditReviews technical audit and begins prioritization.Provides technical audit.
Technical RoadmapPrioritize technical audit findings, creates Jira tickets, and partner with the web dev team for execution. Reviews and aligns on the technical roadmap and troubleshoots questions from the web dev team.
Content AuditReviews content audit and begins prioritization.Provides content audit. 
Content Gap AnalysisReviews content gap analysis and begins prioritization.Provides content gap analysis. 
Keyword MappingReviews keyword mapping and partners with Product Marketing to ensure it aligns with the brand and business goals. Provides keyword mapping.
Content CalendarPrioritize content audit findings, create content briefs (if the agency does not provide them), and partner with the editorial team for execution. Reviews and aligns on the content calendar and troubleshoots questions from the Product Marketing and/or Editorial team.
Content BriefsReviews and approves content briefs, and assigns to the Editorial team, then edits and submits to the web dev team for publishing.Provides content briefs. 

One of the biggest challenges enterprise companies face is how fast the company grows. If you’re a global brand, SEO is expensive and time-consuming. 

As your brand evolves, your marketing and SEO tactics need to accommodate the scale of your company. 

This means prioritizing an in-house SEO team and an SEO agency that can work together at scale. 

The power of working together with enterprise SEO agencies and in-house SEO teams

There is great power in combining forces. Think of Woody and Buzz, Apollo and Rocky, Clarice and Hannibal. 

Enterprise SEO takes a lot of time and money to execute properly. And oftentimes, you’ll have to fight for the resources you know you need to meet the business goals. 

The culprit lies in this stigma of choosing between an SEO agency and building an in-house team. There is no choice. The answer is both. 

Remember, SEO is not here to tell enterprise companies what to do with their web presence. 

Our goal as SEO professionals is to show them the opportunities and together, with a combined effort from the agency and in-house team, you can build a plan for investment and scale. 

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Anna Crowe
Anna Crowe is a Frank's Hot Buffalo sauce advocate (leading with obvious priorities), writer, SEO Director and Consultant. Over the last 13+ years, Anna has successfully run SEO and content programs for brands like Parallels, Dollar Thrifty Rental, Marriott, Hilton, Hearst Magazine, Mailboat Records, Philip Morris International, Bloomin' Brands and Brother and many more. She enjoys burritos and puppies (in that order) when she's not moonlighting as a soccer coach. 

Get the must-read newsletter for search marketers.