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As we enter a new year, is it time you take a fresh approach?

Last year, through various tender processes, we at Confused.com drastically reduced the amount of hours and spend we gave to search agencies (both PPC and SEO) and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you…

Why would you want to bring search in-house?

1. Value-for-money

I know every organisation is different, with different commercials in place, but I think the best starting point is to look into whether you’re getting the best value-for-money from your agency:

  • Are you paying them a fixed retainer just to report your SEO positions in a swanky PowerPoint every month, with some recommendations?
  • Are you paying them on a performance basis on PPC for additional sales made through bid optimisation and testing?

In both of those examples, you could recruit a graduate who might cost annually what you pay the agency monthly!

If you’re currently paying on a fixed fee/retainer basis, perhaps look at a ‘cost-per-metric’, e.g. if they’re writing your on-site content for you, how much is the ‘cost-per-article’? Looking at activity this way can be interesting.

Businessperson reducing agency costs

2. Control

I learnt the hard way in 2013 that one area companies should try and own is their SEO off-site strategy and implementation i.e. your link building. (If your SEO agency currently does this for you, ensure you have FULL visibility.)

Why? If you don’t there’s a chance you’re: 

  • Paying them for building zero links.
  • Paying them for building very low-quality links e.g. spammy sites based in countries outside of your market.
  • Paying them for building links on their own sites/networks i.e. helping them make more money etc. (also easier to own relationships in-house). 

Similarly, when we brought some of our PPC in-house, we found some questionable keywords that we were matching against.

Overall, owning some of this work in-house means you have full control. You know exactly what’s happening and where your money’s going.

One problem with agencies is the individuals working on the account can change, as they move up or on – again, giving you less control over who’s working on your account.

3. Why wouldn’t you?

As digital and search marketing become more ubiquitous and advanced, companies need to be ahead of the game in their markets.

Investing in this area in-house could reap rewards further down the line – improved results at a lower cost, reduced reliance on third-party agencies and professional/personal development for you and your team.

What you need in order to bring search in-house?

1. Support from senior management

I find this normally starts one of two ways:

  • You decide to go to them with a business case e.g. 'we currently spend £x on this agency, I think we can reduce spend by x% and maintain results if you let me hire an extra person’.
  • Your boss says something like ‘we need to cut costs/improve results’ – this is a great opportunity to show him option 1! 

I’m lucky to work for a company that really supports in-house and personal development, but even then I’ve come across some senior managers who use agencies as a bit of a comfort blanket. Getting them to agree to a trial for a fixed period is always a good option!

I guess there’s a third time it occurs. If your company uses formal tender and procurement processes, this could also be a good time to consider bringing some work in-house – essentially pitching an in-house team against the agencies?

2. Resourcing

  • Current resources. You might be able to take on the work with the existing team you already have, even if it’s just you – again, think about the work the agency does and how you could fit this into your current schedule.
  • Recruitment. If not, and you need to recruit then this obviously takes some work. We’re based in Cardiff (South Wales) and as a relatively advanced company in the field of digital marketing, we have typically struggled to recruit people in the area with the right level of experience.
  • Entry level recruitment. On the plus side, we have easily found willing graduates and/or staff from our parent company to join the team – this has worked really well: the labour is cheaper, fresh, mouldable (no bad habits) and super-keen!

    The biggest downside of this approach is the investment in your time to train and develop them but what a joy it is seeing them develop and sometimes spread their wings elsewhere in the search marketing world!

Obviously with resourcing and recruitment you need to look at which skills/tasks you’re bringing in-house - if it's bid optimisation or reporting you might want someone numerate, maybe a maths graduate.

If you’re bringing outreach and/or content writing in-house, then you might want to find a PR/journalism graduate.

A selection of SEO tools

3. Tools 

Your agency might be using a lot of expensive tools and/or their own bespoke tools. Do you need them?

  • As a basic SEO toolkit, Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools are free and essential. Other tools are low-cost (from a few hundred pounds/dollars) and highly useful like AWR (Advanced Web Ranking), Moz, Searchmetrics, Majestic and Vocus which will help you keep an eye on your rankings, your links, your competitor’s link, outreach targets etc.
  • For PPC, if your agency is using a bid management tool, are you sure you need to? Google and the Search Alliance have both improved their interfaces and tools over the last few years, therefore allowing you to make mass changes offline via their ‘editors’ and using bid management options like CPA bidding.

4. KPIs

You should set some KPIs that you review on a weekly/monthly basis e.g. PPC, CTR and Quality Score, SEO keyword rankings and traffic.

These will help you to prioritise work e.g. if you can see that your CTR is dropping, then is it your position dropping or do you need to refresh your ad copy?

Having these KPIs will allow you to benchmark your performance against your previous agencies and will hopefully be a nice success story for you to share internally!

Why you might still need an agency

I’m not totally anti-agency, we still use them but only where they add additional value to what we can achieve in-house. (This is exactly what we asked for in our briefs when we went out to pitch).

We’re delighted with the SEO agency we found, they challenge our way of thinking and add a fresh perspective to the work we do in-house.

I know this isn’t an ideal solution for agencies but if you’re making the leap in-house but keeping an agency ‘on-the-side’ as it were, I think flexibility is really important – if you end up struggling in-house, can you easily buy more resource at the agency? And if so, how much will that cost you?! 

In summary, I’m a real advocate for developing in-house digital teams and having gone through it myself I know daunting it can seem. But why not give it a try?

Heledd Jones

Published 13 January, 2014 by Heledd Jones

Heledd Jones is Digital Marketing Manager at Confused.com and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or Google+

10 more posts from this author

Comments (9)

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Patrick Altoft

The key problem with taking SEO in-house is that unless you are a big brand it's going to be really hard to hire SEO people with a level of expertise that you would get from a top agency.

We help clients with recruitment on a regular basis and the quality of candidates, even in London, is very low compared to what we would expect.

Brands that do decide to take SEO in-house need to be careful to ensure that the team is totally up to speed with good links vs bad links as well - we have done plenty of penalty recovery projects following the work of in-house linkbuilders recently. This level of governance is very hard to achieve unless the business has a firm grasp of SEO at a senior level.

almost 3 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

If your SEO agency is charging you a retainer and doing no work you definitely need to get rid of that agency! I am working with a client whose SEO firm was charging them for a maintenance plan, and basically just ran keyword ranking reports. Either go with another firm or hire someone in-house, but at least get real value for your investment!

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Heledd, great post, resonates a lot with what we've found.

We do our own PPC and SEO and while not perfect, it does allow us to really keep a close eye on ROAS. I think in-house gives us much more focus on the nuts and bolts of digital marketing. We have a great team here and I recommend it as an approach.

almost 3 years ago

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Ben Potter

Hi Heledd, good article (and I work agency side!).

A couple of points...

It is important to consider that SEO cannot be managed by a single person alone. SEO requires skill and expertise across a whole range of different disciplines to be truly effective; customer insight, technical, content, creative, PR, social and so on. In my view, a single person cannot possibly have the expertise and experience to deliver, hands-on, every single facet of what makes up contemporary SEO (see my Econsultancy article on this - http://econsultancy.com/blog/10422-will-panda-kill-the-freelance-seo-star).

Therefore, the investment in building a team (four or five people perhaps) can actually be much higher than many brands may anticipate, particularly when you work in the additional costs associated with this, such as recruitment fees, NI, pensions and other benefits.

I think the key to future agency / client relationships is flexibility, as you say. It is too simplistic to simply 'outsource' SEO to an agency in the traditional sense. Most companies are already investing in activities that have the potential to directly benefit SEO performance (such as content creation and social media). We often find our role is to ensure the appropriate strategy is in place, alongside processes, guidelines, tools and templates to work this activity harder from an SEO perspective.

In short, it's much more of a partnership approach.

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Ben, I would actually say we've done better with SEO since we brought it in-house and now have an SEO coordinator. He's able to attend every project meeting and talk to all of the different parts of the business who contribute.

Yes, he's just one guy but I believe that everyone in the department needs to have an appreciation of SEO, it's partly my job as a manger to ensure we build these skills in. After all, good SEO is just a good website, right?

almost 3 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

I'm with Patrick on the recruitment side. Hiring someone with a sufficiently broard range of SEO skills is challenging - the majority are either agency side or freelancing/consulting. If I were to pursue the SEO route as my subject area I'd be inclined to work agency side as variety would be a greater appeal.

For large companies I think there's enough to keep insatiable SEO's well fed but for smaller companies this could be a struggle for the type of talent you need. We've gone for a hybrid consultant/internal SEO/me to manage our SEO strategy, the nitty gritty and creative side, ensuring SEO is considered in all the right areas (web development, design, content, PR, product launches etc)

It's one of those that goes down to being case by case as opposed to a broad brush recommendation to try bringing it in-house.

That said, one of the biggest differences for me between the choice of in-house and outsourcing of PPC and SEO is that one is much more measureable, trackable and accountable than the other (can you guess?). For me this makes PPC easier to bring in house since you can train so much of it to a junior. PPC'ers will shoot me down but I firmly believe SEO is more of an art because of the various unknowns and a top SEO'er requires much more creativity and *experience* than a PPC'er...

almost 3 years ago

Heledd Jones

Heledd Jones, Head of Search Marketing at Confused.com

Thanks for all the comments...

@stu, really great to hear that you're an advocate too and have also found success. I wonder how much of it is down to the fact that we work for big brands as @patrick and @depesh have alluded to.... I guess we always have the advantage that Google favours brands in terms of rankings and results.... Conversely it might be easier to bring search in-house in a small company where you can take more risks in terms of culture?

@ben, again I'd agree with @stu here, we've found some good all-rounders that can be creative as well as analytical and technical, oh and write good copy! Not everyone will be this lucky but I think this can be achievable most of the time if:
-they're trained well, needs some of your time as a manager to coach, train, mentor and challenge them
-you empower them, give them some freedom and responsibility... They might surprise you with some creative thinking and/or great results :)

almost 3 years ago

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Michael Cropper

This is an interest post, and one which I think it a little too focused on huge brands like Confused.com. When companies get to a certain size, there certainly can be benefits to bringing resources in house (across the board, not just digital marketing resources) - although for most brands this simply isn't feasible.

One of the key problems businesses will face is recruiting experienced staff internally with digital marketing skills. This is a problem faced by all in the digital industry. The main difference being is that agencies often have much more experience to allow less experienced people to be trained up quicker.

Another consideration is that internal staff in any job often get caught up in the company culture and 'the way we do things here'. Quite simply, companies can become blinkered and get stuck in the politics of the organisation. In my experience, having worked both on the client and agency side throughout my career, it can be a breath of fresh air to work with an innovative agency that can start to open your eyes to what is possible. In can also be far easier to accomplish results since businesses are paying for the advice.

Interesting point earlier about the additional costs that businesses often don't think about with bringing resources in-house is that of NI and tax, holiday entitlement, sick days, computer equipment and software. This can certainly add to the expense.

Overall though, whether digital marketing is in-house or through an agency, there still needs to be someone in-house that is leading the way and working across discipline to bring everything together. I've seen far too often where companies will pay one agency to just 'do PPC' and another to just 'do SEO' and there simply isn't any collaboration across the board which ultimately leads to poor performing campaigns.

almost 3 years ago

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Ed Leake, Managing Director at Midas Media

I think most bases have been covered here but there's always a case for both sides, I actually did a feature for national magazine on this same subject. It was however in-house/outsource PPC, but it falls in to the search marketing marketing space.

The key point for in-house is control, control of everything that is.

I run a digital agency so of course I'm biased towards outsourcing to a niche, highly skilled team like ourselves. However in this day and age there are far too many agencies that tack on SEO and/or PPC as a service when in reality they should be sticking to and excelling at their core skills. It's too easy to become an "SEO expert"... just add the page to your website and et voila!

This has the negative impact of lots of under-performing accounts and projects that fall in to the 'could do better' category.

I'm still a big advocate of outsourcing part or all of your search marketing because a collaboration, particularly for larger clients, is often the best route. This comes from experience with our bigger clients - simply put working together we get more done and make them more money!

@Stuart "After all, good SEO is just a good website, right?" - I like that analogy and you're not far wrong!

over 2 years ago

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