The Outsourcing Debate

Within the SEM (define) industry, one debate seems to rage on endlessly for both PPC (define) search and SEO (define), its close cousin: when to outsource and when to keep search functions in-house.

I’ve heard the argument from just about every perspective, and it’s fascinating to hear the different factors that proponents of in-house and outsourcing use. The reality is outsourcing either PPC search or SEO isn’t a binary decision. A continuum of strategic and tactical initiatives compose SEM campaigns. So an organization really isn’t making a decision whether to outsource at all, but which initiatives to outsource, if any.

When the topic of outsourcing search comes up, more often than not it arises for PPC search and SEO simultaneously, which I find very odd. It’s certainly true PPC search and organic SEO share a foundational keyword list, and both need to be tracked simultaneously in either a Web analytics or campaign management platform. Nevertheless, strategies and functions diverge dramatically in making specific outsourcing decisions for SEO and PPC SEM.

Since most people think of SEO and PPC outsourcing issues as intertwined, let’s look at both. First, the SEO side. A company’s SEO objectives must be realistic. The search engines have an imperative to maintain relevance and quality. Your SEO objective should be to have just a little edge in the case when your site and your competition’s are nearly identically relevant. The likelihood of achieving and maintaining top rank for a search is fairly small when you’re not, in fact, most relevant. Newer companies have an especially difficult time building the kind of online link momentum that can come close to dislodging known brands and domains.

Therefore, SEO objectives should be appropriate to your likelihood of success and tempered by how far away from best practices your Internet presence currently is. If you’ve identified major issues in regard to search engine friendliness or lack of content relevant to your business, your homework assignment is clear. By identifying the upside opportunity in SEO and the kinds of issues you face, you’ll be able to determine the best mix of internal and external staff. Link building is like PR, content creation like a unique form of writing. Tech issues relating to internal link structure, URL formation, and usability often reside within a tech or information architecture role.

In nearly every situation I’ve seen in over 10 years’ of practicing SEO, there are always certain problem areas within a site that are low-hanging fruit. Resolving them dramatically improves search visibility. Your SEO needs are therefore likely to change over time. Often, once best practices have been identified, much day-to-day site maintenance can be done in an SEO-friendly way by whatever agency or team handles site content or server maintenance.

PPC search is a different animal due to the constant pressures of a real-time auction marketplace. Yet it does share the trait of requiring an unusually high workload when first getting campaigns set up to mirror best-in-breed practices. That work tends to revolve around keyword identification, creative development (both for ads and landing pages), and recognition of the best campaign structure to maximize CTR (define) and targeting. All search engines treat keywords and keyword phrases differently based on how those words have been entered into a campaign. Knowing best practices in all these setup areas can be quite important in a campaign’s overall efficiency, and getting them right often requires professional help.

Ongoing campaign optimization also isn’t trivial for most PPC search marketers. There are several areas where both skills and technology can be vital to campaign success. Below, the skill areas needed regularly in a campaign:

  • Campaign analytics and report interpretation: You need this not only to look at reports but also to formulate responses to the data.

  • Advertising creative development: Both ads and landing pages must be regularly optimized, more so for seasonal businesses. SEM copywriting is a special skill, similar to headline writing.
  • Testing analyst: To truly know which creative and landing pages are working, one should have a testing analyst to conduct and recommend tests to improve conversion rate.
  • Project manager: Someone must keep track of all current initiatives.
  • API (define) specialist or technology integration specialist: If you’re building your own links into the engine APIs or simply integrating into a third-party reporting or Web analytics tool, you need someone who can execute specific tasks.
  • Bid strategist and manager: If you don’t use a highly sophisticated campaign management solution, someone must monitor either the bids or at least the bidding strategy settings in the tools you do use.

A marketer should have at least two people on staff who can handle each of these areas. I advocate two people instead of one because in the current marketplace, the tenure of a smart search engine marketer is fairly short (meaning there’s high turnover).

Some companies have outsourced much of their non-strategic PPC search functions because of the monumental challenges of staffing all the above skills and keeping those employees. No matter how much a company outsources its SEO and SEM campaigns, it inherently retains the specific business knowledge and marketing data that make it successful. Full or partial outsourcing doesn’t make an internal team redundant; more often it liberates the team from burdensome tactical duties and allows it to think more broadly and strategically.

There’s no reason to start off inherently biased for or against outsourcing. Rather, each firm should look at where an external technology and team can complement its internal team and fill gaps. Then, the marketing campaign will be stronger — and perhaps even outperform itself.

Meet Kevin at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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