Is inhouse SEO right for you?

Search engine optimization has never been more vital to online retailers. It’s critical for merchants looking to become more visible in the Internet marketplace and gain a digital leg up on competitors.

As more vendors find themselves jockeying for those elusive first page rankings, several have come to embrace SEO as an essential part of their marketing plans. But companies often find themselves struggling to decide whether to do their SEO inhouse, outsource the work, or come up with a workable combination of the two.

SEO duties generally fall into the two distinct roles of management and execution. It’s often said that there is an 80/20 rule to SEO: You spend 80% of your time and effort selling the idea and the other 20% actually doing the work.

In a small company, both of these roles could conceivably be handled by a single team (or even a single SEO specialist). With larger businesses, however, it becomes necessary to make the distinction between the two roles.


The primary functions of SEO management are to budget and allocate the necessary resources and to coordinate efforts between departments — especially marketing, IT and senior management. This role is best handled inhouse, by folks with the political savvy and negotiation skills necessary to navigate the minefields that inevitably exist between these departments.

Effective SEO management also involves integrating search expertise into the organization. It’s important to allow the other departments to work closely with those responsible for executing the SEO practices.

Information technology: An elementary level of SEO knowledge in this department can help speed up the production process. Once the software and website developers have a basic understanding of how SEO affects their day-to-day operations, they’ll be able to make informed decisions even if the SEO team isn’t immediately available.

Also, instilling your developers with SEO fundamentals enables them to take care of the basics. This frees your SEO team to focus on more advanced strategies and solutions.

Marketing: Understanding how SEO works can help the marketing department make decisions that are more technically informed. For example, the people in an ill-informed marketing department might push for an all-Flash website, while those with a basic SEO knowledge would understand why this is a bad idea.

Senior management: Upper managers are often required to make decisions with far-reaching consequences; this can be disastrous if the ramifications aren’t clear. The management team may find the nuts and bolts of SEO of little interest. But they should be shown — or at least briefed on — those aspects of SEO that will affect their decision-making.

One tried-and-true method of structuring SEO management in a larger company is the SEO Center of Excellence (SCOE) model. Rather than falling directly under the purview of marketing or IT, the SCOE exists as an independent body. It works with the other departments while acting as a buffer between them and those responsible for actually executing the SEO changes.

For more information, see Building a Digital Center of Excellence at


When it comes to hiring the specialists responsible for actually developing and implementing the SEO practices, the issue of inhouse vs. outsourced isn’t quite so cut and dried. There are a number of factors you’ll need to take into consideration, so ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is SEO a core competency of this business?

    You need to determine just how important organic search results are to your company’s bottom line. If these search results account for less than 20% of your company’s revenue or revenue potential, you’re probably better off outsourcing your SEO efforts. But if organic search represents 20% or more of your company’s income, SEO is most definitely a core competency. You should hire an inhouse team to handle its execution.

  2. Are there many hoops to jump through to implement changes?

    The greater the website complexity — or the inflexibility of the IT environment — the more it will affect the in-sourcing decision. Complexity drives internal execution costs significantly, and it erodes the ability of third-party agencies to drive change effectively.

    To get good information on this, hire an agency to do the initial audit of the SEO ability of the system, with a specific eye toward ascertaining the maturity of the IT environment for SEO changes and flexibility. This means looking at the SEO worthiness of the content management systems, looking at the governance and the management of the website, and evaluating the navigation structure of the site.

    If the results of this audit show that the IT barriers are significant, the business case for using external agencies falls apart. This does not mean that the overall business case for SEO has gotten better, however. It means the control of the execution aspects is such that inhouse resources who can develop the “tribal knowledge” of how to get things done with IT are invaluable.

  3. Will outsourcing be less expensive than hiring an inhouse team?

    For most companies, the most important factor in making any decision is the bottom line. And there’s no doubt that the last decade has conditioned us to automatically associate outsourcing with cost cutting.

    The fact is, there are a number of advantages to outsourcing your SEO talent. A reputable SEO firm is going to give you immediate access to a pool of experienced professionals who can come in, make their recommendations, and hopefully deliver the results you expect.

    Some businesses have invested heavily in their information technology, however, and have managed to leverage this investment to create and maintain IT barriers that give them an advantage over their competition. While this is a sound business strategy, it does have the unintended effect of making a company’s IT processes inaccessible to those outside the loop.

    In a case such as this, bringing in an outside team to develop and implement your SEO strategies would be a waste of time and money. You’d be much better off training an inhouse staff for SEO execution.

  4. Are there people of sufficient skill within the right price range available for hire?

    Admittedly, this one can be a bit tricky. Even in these troubling economic times, high-end SEO experts are in short supply and high demand. It’s hard to offer top SEO managers more than they can earn from building their own sites and operating them in an affiliate model. Many SEO professionals cut their teeth doing inhouse work before striking out on their own as contractors, and persuading them to work exclusively for you might prove more costly than simply outsourcing the work to an SEO firm.

    Less experienced SEO practitioners are easier to come by and easier to hire — you are taking a chance on an unknown property. But people who are new to the field are often hungry for work and eager to make a name for themselves as SEO up-and-comers. If you’re lucky enough to hire a rising star, you’ll be able to get a lot accomplished relatively inexpensively.

  5. What, specifically, are my company’s SEO needs?

    If you decide to outsource your SEO execution, this shouldn’t prove to be an issue: The SEO firm will grow or shrink the team as necessary and will ensure that each contractor is qualified for his or her assignment.

    If you choose to build your team inhouse, however, you’ll definitely need to take into consideration your current and future needs. For example, you may only need a technical SEO for only six to 12 months, and a link builder for some time after that. If you hire someone full-time to address your technical SEO issues, this person may quickly become bored, frustrated or uninterested as the workload shifts to areas outside of his or her specialty.

  6. To what level is my company investing in technology?

    Technology investment can augment staff. The more your company invests in technology, the less it needs to invest in workers doing the “heavy lifting.”

What proportion of SEO budget should be allocated to staff vs. technology? We often see an investment ratio of 2:1 to 3:1 in services to technology.

The success of your inhouse SEO team depends on the cooperation of IT, marketing and top management. SEO is a worthwhile and valuable pursuit, and you need everyone working toward the same objectives as your SEO team. Not only will this add efficiency to your overall operations, it should also help you achieve your desired results faster.

Stephan Spencer ([email protected]) is the vice president of SEO strategies at SEM/SEO software and services provider Covario, and co-author of the O’Reilly book The Art of SEO.