SEO: In-house or Outsource?

There continues to be ongoing debate over whether it’s better for an online business to invest in staff resources in order to perform search engine marketing in-house or whether to engage the services of a third party SEO provider.

The short answer is that “it depends”. For some companies, outsourcing is clearly the best solution and utilizing experts who are well-trained and up-to-date on the latest techniques and best practices is a “no-brainer”, while for others, an in-house approach may be a viable alternative… and occasionally, a combination of the two approaches is what works best.

In the scenario of a combined approach, an ecommerce company with the financial and human resources necessary could engage an expert SEO firm on a consulting basis. As consultants, the third-party would provide regular website critique, build an effective and informed search-engine strategy, provide monitoring and reporting and make the appropriate recommendations in order to help the business stay competitive while the business would utilize its internal staff to implement those recommendations and perform the daily workload and upkeep required to maintain a successful campaign. While this approach can work with the right internal and external resources in place, it requires tightly integrated communication between the two teams and can often be difficult to manage.

In general, the optimal approach for most ecommerce businesses can vary widely and hinges on three factors: budget, timetable, and goals.

Let’s take a closer look at the specific pros and cons of outsourcing SEO services versus hiring or training an employee to perform those duties.

Outsourcing

The lack of qualified SEO specialists in the marketplace makes a compelling case for managing your campaigns through a third-party provider. An established SEO company typically has a ready-made supply of experienced people on hand, access to the analytical tools that provide clients with a competitive edge on the Web, and years of experience in helping different types of businesses achieve high visibility in the search engines.

The Pros
The main advantages of working with a seasoned SEO firm are experience, knowledge, advanced skills, and a proven track record of producing measurable results.

In the “real world” of Internet marketing, a competent SEO professional does not learn their craft overnight. Although the basics of SEO can be superficially learned in one day, the nuances, potential pitfalls, and advanced strategies can take years to master and require constant education of the latest trends, techniques and ever-changing search engine algorithms. Since an improperly optimized ecommerce website can result in thousands of dollars in lost sales every month, choosing a well-established SEO firm, rather than relying on an in-house generalist, can literally make the difference between success and failure.

In spite of the fact that the Internet, as we know it, has been around for awhile, there are still ecommerce website owners who delude themselves into believing that “If you build it, they will come”. It makes for a good movie premise, but has no relevance to establishing a Web presence or making money online.

The reality of building a profitable online ecommerce store is that the playing field is increasingly competitive; and the businesses that rise to the top of the search engine rankings generally have an outside SEO expert or firm working on their behalf.

The Cons
A contract with a professional search engine optimization firm will typically be based on a predetermined number of hours, rather than an open-ended amount of time. Conversely, when you have SEO work performed in-house, the amount of time you devote to it can be as extensive or limited as you choose.

Another potential limitation of an outside SEO firm may be the lack of immediate access that you may occasionally encounter, especially if your chosen SEO firm has a lot of other clients. When you work with a busy, in-demand SEO firm, be prepared to sometimes wait up to 48 hours for a response to an email or phone call, unless it’s an urgent matter.

If, on the other hand, your SEO person happens to be a member of your staff, their response time will range from “immediate” to a couple hours. And, if you’re on a tight budget, you’ll want to consider your marketing budget to engage an outsourced firm. But beware that while some consulting firms may charge more per hour, than you may plan to pay for a hired Internet marketing person. In the end, you get what you pay for and your results may suffer if you do not put the time and effort forth to keep your internal resource well trained on the latest techniques and industry standards.

Bringing it In-house

If, for economic reasons, an in-house model is a better solution for your particular business, then recruiting a qualified, motivated employee is critical to your website’s survival. Adequate experience or intensive training is key to the success of an in-house SEO person. Without the proper knowledge and ongoing professional development, an in-house resource can actually be detrimental to your web site’s rankings. Many techniques that may have worked years ago are now considered aggressive spam techniques by search engines today. These so-called “black hat” tactics could result in your website being penalized or even banned entirely by Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. To drastically reduce the chances of that ever happening, it’s vital that whomever you hire for an SEO position be attuned to the latest trends, developments, and standards in the search engine marketing industry.


The Pros

When you have your own SEO person on the payroll (and they’ve been with you for at least six months), that person will tend to have a more comprehensive knowledge of your business, its culture, and what was discussed at this morning’s staff meeting than an outside SEO professional. It can potentially be an advantage to have an Internet marketer who interacts, in real time, with management, customers, and venders. This direct involvement can be helpful in determining what products, services, and keyword phrases are best to focus on in a search engine marketing campaign. This information can also be communicated to an outside SEO firm, but it comprises an additional step.

From a monetary standpoint, the cost of an SEO employee, especially on a per-hour or basis, would tend to be more economical. There are two primary reasons that it can be cheaper to have an in-house person handle SEO: 1) You, the business owner or manager, exercise complete control over the amount of compensation that’s provided, rather than having the price be determined by an outside SEO company. 2) In-house SEO personnel would typically be assigned a variety of marketing and communication duties; so their value as an employee is spread out, rather than having their productivity and value depend exclusively on Web site results.

The Cons
Everyday, companies and organizations of all sizes make the false assumption that they’ll gain a qualified SEO expert by simply sending their in-house newsletter editor or marketing assistant to a one-day SEO seminar. Granted, that might eventually be true after a year or two of self-study and daily trial and error, but how many businesses can afford the “luxury” of losing sales or – in a worst case scenario — getting banned from Google for bad SEO practices.
The problem is compounded by the fact that in-house SEO generalists may not have access to keyword research tools or know how to use them to their employers’ best advantage. Without that vital data, in-house Internet marketers may attempt to gain high rankings for keyword phrases that few, if any, prospective customers actually search for.

The other shortcoming of many novice SEO practitioners is their lack of understanding of the sales conversion process, as it relates to ecommerce. In other words, they’re not familiar with the copywriting and web design tactics that help convert site visitors into customers. This knowledge deficit can definitely have an impact on the revenue of an online ecommerce store. Additionally, a poor understanding of SEO and link development is a fast track to getting your site tanked by Google.

Summary: Managing a successful SEM campaign requires experience, knowledge, and creative thinking that cannot be quickly and easily acquired. Recruiting an entry-level person or marketing generalist to join your team full-time (or even part-time) will often prove to be a greater expense, in terms of lost sales and other costs, than engaging the services of an experienced, well-established outside SEO firm.

Good SEO specialists have access to resources and contacts that few in-house teams can easily assemble. It all comes down to whether you want to “hit the bricks running” with your search engine marketing program or take your chances with a “hit or miss” approach. The unvarnished truth is that an in-house team or individual will rarely be able to compete with the results produced by an established, experienced SEM/SEO company.

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