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?