The Value of Combining SEO Agencies and Internal Teams

During my last five years in the agency environment, I’ve worked on an array of search engine optimization (SEO) campaigns – many with enterprise-level clients. I’ve executed and coordinated teams on tactical levels (optimizing page titles and content, coordinating link campaign outreach, and hundreds of other tasks), consulted on overall site performance, aligned campaigns to business objectives, and used analytics data to drive strategy and prioritize resources.

I have found that the best results are most often obtained by clients who have internal team members who:

  • Understand SEO to some degree
  • Can instruct team members on how to execute some of the more basic recommendations
  • Can communicate to the rest of the internal team the value of the work that’s being proposed so that the recommendations get prioritized and implemented

Based on my experience consulting for and training in-house SEO teams, it’s my contention that there’s a synergy that happens between an SEO agency and an in-house team that can maximize the impact of an ongoing SEO campaign. Plus, it can save money. That might seem counterintuitive, as it sounds like I’m advocating hiring more people to do the same job. But really, I’m suggesting that you divide the job between the two teams. This approach makes the best financial sense and it increases the likelihood that your campaign will be successful.

First, let’s talk about the money issue, since that tends to be the most significant factor. The fact is, good SEO agencies are expensive. And they’re expensive for a reason. It takes a lot of research and development time for folks to get good at SEO and to stay on top of an ever-changing industry. This is especially true if the agency deals with large enterprise-level sites, where automated tools and proprietary technology can really have a significant effect on your results.

The amount of investment required to produce sophisticated solutions at a large scale can be very expensive. Of course, results vary, and so do SEO firms and what each one offers. But most firms that deal with large clients have tools and technologies that help them automate data collection as well as analyze that data to understand performance and spot trends. An SEO agency’s experience in using these tools, as well as analyzing data and driving strategy based on that data, is oftentimes worth paying a great deal of money for.

However, once the strategy has been developed and the opportunities prioritized and resourced, enterprise-level organizations often get better long-term value by having the SEO firm train their internal SEO team on how to execute the SEO recommendations on an ongoing basis versus paying an agency rate on an ongoing basis.

Again, it’s important to keep in mind that the context of what I’m recommending should really be applied to enterprise-level sites with thousands of pages, where the amount of SEO work that could be done is beyond the resources that could ever be available. In these situations, prioritization of resources, goals, and economies of scale are critical to achieving maximum ROI. And that’s where an agency’s experience oftentimes more than justifies the cost of their services.

For example, with an enterprise-level site that has an ever-increasing number of high quality content pages, it’s a good strategy to train the teams that are producing the content in on-page optimization tactics. This significantly reduces the number of agency hours or even internal SEO hours that would be required to keep up.

There are a number of similar efficiencies that SEO agencies can help you realize by leveraging their experience and training capabilities to empower different individuals within the organization to make strong contributions to the SEO campaign. And there are a number of ways that SEO agencies can leverage their experience with similar clients to help you avoid the typical pitfalls that many organizations encounter when trying to execute an SEO campaign.

SEO agencies can bring a lot to the table in terms of strategic insight, experience, and the ability to get greater internal support to the table in supporting in-house SEO teams. But perhaps the most valuable service that an agency can perform is to provide expertise on SEO best practices on an ongoing basis in the form of recommendations and in-house team training. This allows in-house SEO folks to spend their time on tactical execution rather than the potential black hole of research and development.

If you don’t have an agency supporting your in-house team, then part of your overhead will go toward your team members staying up-to-date on SEO best practices. The amount of research and development that it takes to stay on top of all relevant industry trends and techniques is not trivial, especially for companies whose cultures do not support these types of activities.

That’s how agencies add value to an in-house SEO team – keeping everyone up-to-date on current techniques, training internal teams as necessary, providing strategic guidance based on experience and data analysis, and aligning internal teams.

In-house teams who are trained properly allow organizations to spend more time and money on the execution of optimization tactics because the hourly cost of the internal team is less than that of an agency.

The in-house team also provides valuable day-to-day insight into the campaign, provides an excellent “checks and balance” system for all SEO recommendations, and allows for more day-to-day attention of all things SEO.

This column was originally published in SES Magazine in August 2010.

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