SEO: In or Out? Part 1

Should SEM (define) be managed inside or outside your business? This question is being asked more often these days by online entities, large and small. Will your business save money by hiring an in-house search engine marketer? Or is it better to outsource SEM to a team of tenured professionals?

Ultimately, the answer resides within your marketing budget and goals. But your decision will also be affected by whether you focus on natural SEO (define), paid performance, or both. Let’s focus on SEO first. In part two, we’ll focus on PPC (define).

Your site should be constantly changing and growing with regular updates, as search engine algorithms shift and flux over time. As a result, strategic SEO is an ongoing process.

For larger sites, anyone — product managers, content managers, marketers — can evolve into the lynchpin role behind SEO efforts. But that person usually needs to be paired with someone from the technical side of site management to make a long-term strategy work. They also need management support to move major projects to fruition.

Most businesses aren’t comfortable with turning over these day-in, day-out site management functions to a third-party, and with good reasons. There are often product claims to consider, federal regulations that affect content, and obligatory corporate compliance issues. Even so, these businesses generally benefit from working with an agency to develop a long-term organic optimization strategy.

At larger organizations, SEO is frequently a matter of not seeing the forest for the tress. Though in-house personnel are usually in lockstep with what’s happening on a site, keeping up with what’s happening on the Web can be difficult for them; SEM is simply not their primary expertise. If the company makes it so, in-house personnel require ongoing education and training to fulfill the role.

Working with an agency helps in-house marketers stay on top of shifts and changes on the Web and in other industries that could affect the company’s ongoing online marketing strategy. As a result, the insight an agency offers can be invaluable to the business.

Even when in-house personnel are highly competent, driven, and well-compensated marketers, an agency usually brings consistency, continuity, and strategic planning to the table.

Some agencies consider in-house marketers a liability: they just want to steal an agency’s plan and implement it on their own, as their own. In my experience, however, in-house personnel can be a search agency’s greatest advocate. A key in-house point of contact can grease the wheels for implementation and help overcome possible budgetary concerns, as well as technical barriers to success.

For larger organizations, in-house search marketers generally work well with agencies, especially when it comes to dividing and conquering certain organic tasks. It’s not uncommon for someone in-house to manage site content optimization in tandem with IT, work with an agency on site architecture, and leave elements such as link building to agency personnel.

Metrics can become a gray area of sharing too much information. Though a certain amount of data sharing is essential for an SEM strategy to be built, measuring an organic strategy’s results is often left to in-house personnel.

It’s in the best interest of all parties to come to an agreement about what data is important and why it will be used to measure an SEO plan’s results. Often enough, in-house personnel have performance reviews and potential bonus money on the table for attaining certain online marketing goals. An agency can become a trusted partner in the process that actually helps in-house personnel stay on target.

There are other issues for businesses that take SEO in-house. When a new employee is hired, there are associated costs of not only training them but also retaining them. If an existing employee is assigned new duties to include SEO, then her job description will change along with her compensation plan. Occasionally, this is a painful process for an in-house marketer. Working with the right agency can help alleviate the pain.

Both scenarios — hiring an agency and growing an in-house SEO team — can come at a premium. Some smaller businesses greatly benefit from training an in-house search engine marketer. Experience is often gained at the expense of other duties, and once they are experienced, in-house marketers can be challenging to retain.

Many smaller businesses seem to think they can’t afford to hire an agency. Yet a multitude of independent consultants can provide valuable services to businesses with small marketing budgets. Even small gains in a site’s visibility can bring great returns to a small business.

Whether your online business starts with an in-house search marketer, a full-service agency, or an independent consultant, a happy business marriage can be built on a successful SEO strategy. Long-term plans greatly benefit from having an SEO pilot in-house, while one-off product launches are generally more cost effective with an agency. Your online marketing goals will help you determine what the right mix is.

If PPC marketing is the primary focus for marketing your online business, other issues do arise. I’ll address these in part two.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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