SEO agency versus in-house team

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Back in the day, businesses would hire an expert SEO agency to optimise their site while they concentrated on running their business. But search optimisation isn’t a one-person job anymore – you need an entire team to manage your online presence.

Reaching the top of the SERPs (and staying there) requires data analysts, content creators, technical SEO experts and programmers to optimise your website at the code level – before you even think about integrating your SEO strategy with social, paid advertising and the rest of your marketing efforts.

That’s quite a team you need to assemble.

Which leaves you with two options: build your own team of SEO and marketing pros or hire an agency to take care of everything for you. In this article, we look at the pros and cons of each.

The pros of hiring an SEO agency

Essentially, hiring an SEO agency means everything is set up for you from day one. You choose an agency, work with them on your objectives and you’re set to go. Here are the key benefits of hiring an agency to manage your search presence:

  • Instant expertise: Agencies provide an instant team of experts ready to make things happen – no training required.
  • Cutting edge: A good agency will always be up-to-date with the latest industry developments, technology and techniques.
  • Scalable: With an agency, you can scale your strategy and investment to suit your needs as they change.
  • More than SEO: Modern SEO needs solid content marketing, paid advertising, social promotion and other marketing strategies to make an impact.
  • Software and tools: Agencies come with powerful tools, all bought and paid for.
  • Hassle-free: Aside from not having to hire a new team, you don’t have to worry about an office to fit them in or anything else.

Hiring an agency means you can concentrate on running your business. Trying to integrate a marketing team into your current setup might be more hassle than it’s worth – and that’s before you even think about hitting targets.

Another important point is the flexibility and scalability you get from hiring an agency. Your SEO needs and ambitions are going to change over time and any delay in adapting your strategy – eg: hiring and training new staff – often leaves you reacting too late to new opportunities or problems.

With an agency, you can scale your SEO efforts up/down instantly as new opportunities or problems emerge. One of the most drastic examples of this we’ve seen recently is the coronavirus outbreak, which left many businesses scaling back on their marketing budgets. Companies that work with an agency have been able to scale back or hit the pause button whereas businesses with an in-house team face the prospect of redundancies.

Hopefully, the government’s furlough scheme helped most businesses survive but this kind of support won’t be there for future economic crises and market disruptions.

The cons of hiring an SEO agency

As always, there are no perfect answers in this field and hiring an agency to handle your SEO efforts comes with some compromises.

  • Finding the right agency: The hardest thing about working with an agency is finding a good one, to begin with.
  • Agencies have other clients: Unlike an in-house team, an agency will have other clients to think about.
  • Ownership: You might not own the accounts or data from certain tools (check this before signing anything).

The biggest issue you might have with hiring an agency is finding the right one to work with. Thankfully, this is much easier these days, thanks to industry standardisation and the availability of reviews on Google and social networks.

As long as you do your research, it’s generally quite easy to distinguish between legitimate agencies and ones you should probably avoid.

In terms of choosing the right agency, you should learn everything you need to know by talking to them directly. If an agency spends the whole conversation talking about what they can do and how great they are, then you might want to consider other options.

What you really want is the agency to start the conversation by asking what you need from them and then a clear, concise explanation about how they’re going to provide this.

The pros of building an in-house team

Having your own in-house SEO team certainly has its perks and here are the key benefits you can expect to enjoy:

  • A dedicated team: An in-house team works on your SEO strategy and yours alone.
  • Company knowledge: They will naturally be exposed to more of the goings-on in your company and develop a deep understanding of what it needs.
  • Communication: In-house teams are there on-demand when you need to contact them although this is less relevant now, thanks to an increase in working from home and improved communication tools like Slack.

For some companies, these benefits are worth investing the time and extra money it takes to build an in-house SEO team. And it will take time to see these benefits materialise.

First, you’ll have to successfully hire and train the right personnel and craft them into a team capable of managing all of your SEO needs. You have to decide whether the long-term gains are worth the initial investment.

The cons of in-house teams

The main problem with building an in-house team is the time and money it takes to get things up and running. This isn’t going to happen overnight and here are the key obstacles you’ll have to overcome:

  • Recruitment: Instead of hiring one agency, you have to hire a full team of talent – and this is where most businesses struggle.
  • Training: It takes time to train new staff and where is this expertise going to come from in the first place?
  • Limited resources: You’ve got an SEO team but who’s going to handle your content, advertising and social workload?
  • Cost: Building an in-house team is generally more expensive than hiring an agency.
  • Tunnel-vision: An internal team may not always see things from an outside perspective.
  • Talent retention: As with any in-house team, retaining talent after you’ve invested resources into hiring and training them is a major issue for businesses.

For a lot of businesses, those issues are simply too much to overcome for an in-house SEO team to justify the time and cost it takes to build. For others, while the benefits are there, they’re just not large enough to justify the initial investment.

However, there are legitimate cases where building an in-house team makes sense for certain businesses. If the long-term returns are worth the initial cost and you understand it will take time to see a return on your investment, it might be an option to consider.

SEO agency vs in-house teams: the cost

You might think hiring an SEO agency is more expensive than building your own team, but the opposite tends to be true. Yes, an agency needs to make profit on top of their workload but they also take a lot of the financial burden off you at the same time.

For example, the number of software tools it takes to manage a modern SEO strategy is staggering – and constantly growing. These tools alone will cost you thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, if you have to develop your own systems and hardware setups.

Meanwhile, an agency already has all of the tools it needs to get results and the cost is shared among all of their clients and spread out over ongoing fees – so you don’t need to make any up-front payment on an expensive tech stack before you even get started.

Of course, there are other expenses to consider, too. With an in-house team, you also have wages, holidays, sick pay, job perks, employer obligations, equipment and all kinds of other expenses to think about. Every uniform, chair and every tea bag adds to the cost that would otherwise be covered by an agency.

It’s not only the financial cost you need to consider, either. The biggest investment you need to make while building an in-house SEO team is actually the time it takes to get things moving. By the time you’ve recruited and trained your team, you still need them to devise and implement a strategy before you start making any progress.

With an agency, you can start making things happen from day one.

Who should hire an SEO agency?

If you want to focus on your business while marketers take care of the marketing, the agency route is for you. You don’t have to worry about building a new team or any of the disruption it might cause – let alone the financial aspect.

Likewise, if you need fast results, flexibility or to get an edge on your industry rivals, then hiring an agency is probably the best option.

For most businesses, this is going to be the route to take, largely because it’s less demanding and the return on your investment comes much sooner. The scalability aspect is a major benefit, too, and the ability to increase/decrease your SEO investment instantly protects you from major market shifts.

Not to mention, it allows you to seize new opportunities faster.

Who should build an in-house SEO team?

The best candidates for building in-house SEO teams are the industry leaders. They tend to have the budget for it and they’re already sitting high in the search ranking – so they can afford to be a little more patient.

They’re also used to hiring plenty of staff and have the reputation to attract top talent.

It’s not always a big vs small business debate, though. If you’re in the software game and your team already has developers, designers and other creative/techies, it could make sense to expand your existing team. There’s a big difference between this and a construction firm, for example, creating an entirely new marketing team from scratch.

If you need more advice on choosing between an SEO agency and going in-house, our team of specialists are more than happy to help. You can fill out the form below or call us on 02392 830281.

Kerry Dye profile picture
Kerry Dye

Kerry has been working in digital marketing almost since the beginning of the World Wide Web, designing her first website in 1995 and moving fully into the industry in 1996 to work for one of the very first web design companies. After a successful four years, Kerry moved to an in-house position for a sailing company, running the digital presence of their yacht races including SEO, PPC and email marketing as the primary channels. A stint then followed at another in-house role as online marketing manager. Kerry moved to Vertical Leap in 2007, making her one of the company’s longest-serving employees. As a T-shaped marketer – able to advise on digital strategy outside her main specialism – she rose through the ranks and in 2012 became the head of the Small and Medium Business (SMB) SEO team. In 2022 she became Vertical Leap's Automation and Process Manager. Kerry lives in the historic town of Bishops Waltham with her husband and daughter. When she’s not at work she enjoys cooking proper food, curling up with a good book and being a leader for Brownie and Rainbow Guides.

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