A small business with a small website can usually have all of their digital marketing needs met by a freelancer or an agency — there’s rarely enough work to make a full-time digital marketing hire worthwhile, and even a full-fledged ongoing agency relationship may be overkill for the amount of recurring SEO work that will need to be done.
At a large enterprise-level or ecommerce business, the website’s needs (and budget) are complex enough that there’s usually a whole team of marketers (SEO and PPC experts, copywriters, developers, PR specialists, etc.) seeing to the site’s marketing. A large business may choose to outsource this team in the form of an ongoing agency retainer or two, but the need for a multi-person team is usually pretty clear.
However, if you’re a mid-sized business — or a large business with a mid-sized website — your digital marketing needs might be right on the cusp. When addressing digital marketing strategy, many such businesses struggle with whether they should be looking to make a full-time, in-house hire, or vetting digital marketing agencies for an ongoing relationship. Having been on both sides of the equation (working in-house and at agencies) over the years, I’ve pulled together some pros and cons for each strategy.
Hiring an In-House SEO
- Direct access to internal teams. SEO is a discipline that can touch a lot of other teams’ work, including web development, design, copywriting, brand marketing, and PR. An in-house SEO has access to all of these teams, because they’re co-workers. They’re more likely to be invited to crucial meetings and discussions that affect the site’s overall SEO health, and they’re present full-time to advocate for SEO internally.
- Internal visibility: Along those same lines, an in-house SEO is more likely to be on non-marketing teams’ radar. Fewer people will be asking “do we have someone doing SEO for us?” compared to when SEO is being handled by an outside consultancy.
- Deep knowledge of the website. Since an in-house SEO is only working on one site (or family of sites, depending on your business), they can take the time to gain a deep, rich understanding of the website and its problems. Over time, they’ll become intimately familiar with the site’s history, as well as internal roadblocks that may be preventing SEO success.
- Isolation: When there’s only one SEO person working on your team or at your company, it can get a little lonely. If a problem or situation comes up that your in-house SEO isn’t prepared to deal with, they don’t have anyone else internally to bounce ideas off of, or to ask for advice. When I worked as an in-house SEO, this lack of a sounding board was one of the hardest things about the job. To combat this, you’ll want to budget for some ongoing training and education for your new in-house hire, such as tickets to search marketing conferences.
- It’s expensive: Because of that isolation factor, it’s important to hire an in-house SEO with several years of experience under their belt. They’re about to become the subject matter expert for your whole company, so you don’t want to hire someone who’s never done SEO before (I say this even though that’s exactly how I, and many people I know, learned to do SEO, but that’s a story for another time). Unless you’re truly prepared to spend the next couple of years waiting for your brand-new SEO hire to get up to speed, you’ll want to hire someone with at least a few years of experience. To be effective, your in-house SEO will also need to be empowered to make or at least advocate for change within your organization, which is difficult for someone to do at the very bottom of the corporate ladder. An SEO Specialist makes an average of about $53,000 per year nationwide, although that will of course depend in part on your location and market, as well as the experience and skill level the candidate brings to the table.
- Good SEOs are hard to find: I’ve encountered plenty of businesses over the years that have gotten the budget and approval to create a new SEO role within their organization, but just can’t find the right person. There is more demand for experienced in-house SEOs than there currently are SEOs on the job market (although that may change as we see how current economic turmoil will shake out over the coming months and years). If you’re a small business, if your budgeted salary is on the lower side, or if you’re in an “unexciting” field, you may have a hard time attracting and retaining good SEO talent.
- They need enough to do: If your company or your website is small, you may not have quite enough SEO work for someone to be occupied with it full-time. This is one reason you often see small businesses hiring for a combination SEO/social media/email marketer, but the more tasks you add to that job description, the fewer people you’ll find who can do all of them well, especially on a small business’ budget.
Hiring an Agency
If you can’t find the right SEO for you, or just don’t have quite enough work or budget to justify a new full-time hire, the right digital marketing agency can be a great alternative.
- Deeper bench: Unlike in-house marketers, agency SEOs work with a whole team of people who do the same work they do. Any time they’ve got a question or encounter a new scenario, they have a built-in group of experts who they can brainstorm with or ask for advice.
- Continuity of service: If the person working on your account decides to leave the agency, you don’t have to go through your own hiring process again or let the position stand vacant while you vet new candidates; the agency will make sure someone else takes over the work on your site.
- Smaller budget: At UpBuild, our typical engagements tend to be more expensive than many digital marketing agencies’, because we cap our team’s capacity at a maximum of 4 clients per person. This means our clients are getting anywhere from ⅓ to ⅕ of a person’s time per month (accounting for internal tasks and client’s individual needs). Even our most expensive engagements, though, usually cost much less than what a business would pay in annual salary (plus benefits) to a full-time in-house SEO. With a highly collaborative agency relationship, you can get a lot of value out of that spend. As we’re fond of saying, “we may be your most expensive marketing vendor, but we’re also your cheapest marketing employee.”
- Separation from internal teams: Whereas an in-house SEO can attend meetings and hear about evolving business goals themselves, your agency partner will be relying on you to make sure they get all the relevant information they need for long-term SEO success. This requires more intentional communication on the part of the agency’s internal point of contact, both in relaying important news and developments to them, and in advocating for the agency’s recommended changes internally.
- Potential for inconsistency: The other side to the continuity of service that I mentioned above is that with an agency partner, you may struggle with consistency of service; if the person working on your account leaves, the new person may struggle to get up to speed with your site (or simply not do as good a job). At UpBuild, employee retention is one of our most important metrics, in part to provide our clients with as much consistency of service as possible.
- Lack of visibility: When you’re the only one talking to your agency partner, your co-workers and even higher-ups may not remember that the company already has a solution in place for digital marketing; this means they might not remember to loop your agency partner in on important decisions that will affect the website (of course, speaking from experience, this happens to in-house SEOs sometimes, too).
So how do you know which one is right for you?
Hire in-house if you:
- Have a large website with complex SEO needs that you know needs full-time oversight.
- Have the budget to support the salary and education of an experienced SEO.
- Need someone to take SEO and run it without a lot of oversight from you.
Hire an agency if you:
- Need expert work, but don’t have quite enough of said work to keep a full-time employee busy.
- Have had trouble finding or retaining someone to do SEO full-time.
- Have the budget to invest in your site, but don’t have the budget for a new full-time employee.
- Have an internal stakeholder who’s ready and willing to manage the agency relationship and make sure recommendations get implemented.