What’s more cost-effective, bringing your search engine marketing efforts in-house or hiring an agency? The other day I met a guy at a conference who owns 20 websites and was looking for a way to increase rankings for all of them. He couldn’t find good talent (at a reasonable price) to bring in-house that knew SEO and link building, so he was leaning towards hiring an agency to get the job done. Not everyone owns twenty websites, but the in-house vs agency question comes up a lot. Even if you only own one website and you are spending a lot of money every month on agency fees, you might consider hiring someone in-house as an option. There are advantages/disadvantages to hiring an agency but at a certain monthly budget and project scope, it might make sense to hire a full time dedicated person in-house. The question is, when is that a good idea? Also, what are the pros and cons of hiring in-house vs hiring an agency?
I'll start off by saying, it is not a good idea to hire someone that has a traditional marketing background to handle your search engine marketing. Search engine marketing and traditional marketing (radio, TV, print & internet display advertising) are two completely different disciplines and they should be handled separately.
Economies of scale cost advantage - larger organizations might have more than one website (or one giant website) and many internal projects at one time. Having in-house staff split their time between all of the projects can be a cost efficient way to get all of your projects the attention they need. Smaller businesses typically don't have the same economies of scale cost advantage. Industry - The in-house hire can focus all of their attention on the news, people and current events in the industry they’re working in. For example, if you work in the food industry, you might have a better grasp on who the top 5 bloggers in the food industry are and focus all your link building efforts on them since they are the most influential. Internal Processes - The in-house SEM manager also understands the internal processes and organizational structure within the company and therefore can leverage that knowledge to get things done.
Out Of Touch – One of the weaknesses of the in-house SEM manager is they can sometimes be out of touch with the latest changes in the search engine marketing industry such as algorithm shifts or new Adwords policies. They have very little concept of what’s going on outside of their own site(s). Reading is a good way to learn concepts, but actual experience is usually a much better way to learn. They also don't have anyone to bounce ideas off of and their theories usually go unchallenged because know no one else in the company knows enough to argue them. In addition, it is not always necessary to understand a vertical extremely well in order to effectively manage a search marketing campaign. With a little bit of research and some good tools, you can get a pretty good feel for the industry. I personally think it’s more important to understand how search engines and ad platforms work such as AdWords. Knowing the food industry for example, doesn't give the in-house SEO an advantage unless he really knows his stuff about search engines first. Jack Of All Trades, Master of None - It is very hard to find one person that has a thorough knowledge of both SEO and PPC. Most of the time a person is stronger in one or the other. Either that or they know a little bit about both but aren't an expert in either. If you plan on hiring just one person to do both, be prepared for a shortcoming somewhere.
Hiring an Agency
It should be noted that search engine marketing is still a relatively young industry and there are many levels of professionalism when it comes to agencies in this space. If an agency promises you top rankings for competitive keywords for around $299 per month, that is usually a sign that there is something wrong. IIf you could buy top rankings that cheap, everybody would do it. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Also, one should be careful with web design agencies that claim they do SEO. There are different levels of SEO, typically a web design firm can help you get some basic signals in place that will help you communicate better with a search engine but more competitive arenas are better left to SEO specialists.
Efficiency - When you're hiring an agency, probably the biggest advantage you have is efficiency. Agencies have applied the same strategies many times and know the quickest way from point A to point B. Most agencies have a process figured out that works well on a consistent basis. Experience - Agencies leverage the experience and breadth of knowledge based on results they have achieved with many of their other clients. They are also usually the first to know the correct response to algorithm changes because they have the perspective of many client accounts to see patterns emerge. Collaboration - Agencies have many people experienced in the same discipline and can leverage that to work as a team to figure out problems. 2 minds are better than 1.
Lack of Industry Knowledge - The primary weakness of the agency is that it can't commit the time to learn the insides of your company and industry like a full-time in-house hire can. Control - You have more control over how an in-house hire spends his/her time. You can split their time between 4-5 websites whereas this might be more cost prohibitive if you were to hire an agency. Time - you most likely won't have a full-time person dedicated to your project. Again, you will have to determine for yourself whether this is necessary for your organization.
The big question is, at what point does it make sense to forgo the agency route and hire someone in-house? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer because it’s going to depend on your specific situation and needs. I hope the above points help you figure it out for your own situation. One thing seems pretty clear, it doesn't seem to make sense for small businesses to hire in-house because they don't have the same economies of scale that a mid-size or larger company has. For larger organizations, it's going to depend on the quality of the talent you can hire vs the quality processes and people that the agency has developed. In the above example, I told the guy with 20 websites to narrow his focus. If he hired an agency to work on all 20 websites at once, that would be way too expensive and if he hired one person to focus on all 20 websites, they would be spread way too thin. If he narrows his focus to one or two websites and works with an agency, he can learn from them and apply the strategies and best practices to his other sites with an in-house hire later down the road.