On Becoming an In-House SEO

How many people made a resolution to find a new job this New Year? Deciding to leave your current employer is not an uncommon decision to make, particularly after Christmas. Today I thought I’d share some experiences I’ve had in the past on becoming an in-house SEO. What are the differences between working in-house compared to “agency side” and how could making the change impact the way you work and the SEO that you do?

You don’t have clients

Sounds like an obvious statement to make but not having multiple clients fundamentally changes the work you do, and when. Imagine you’re an agency SEO consultant. You may have anything between 10 and 20 clients to manage. We recently interviewed an SEO who had even more than 30 clients with his agency! As an agency SEO, you’re required to give consistent customer service while staying on top of the quality provided to each client, and most importantly, trying not to lose any of them. Scheduled reports, knowing how much time is allocated to each customer, managing multiple SEO, technical and link building projects in various niches and industries are all constant reminders of the fact you have more than one website to work with.

On becoming an in-house SEO, your daily schedule changes somewhat. You might find that your long list of clients changes to a long list of development items for SEO enhancements, neatly scheduled into the coming months. Keyword research projects can take a few weeks, rather than a few days. “Time spent” is less of an issue, freeing you to fully explore an idea if need be.

Different tools

Specialist market intelligence tools, such as Hitwise, are more commonly found in the offices of larger brands with budgets to burn. Making a move to an in-house environment can provide opportunities to learn and use these tools on a regular basis. You may come across other “heavyweight” analytics tools such as Omniture and Webtrends during your in-house stint, too. Learning new tools is a wonderful thing, though for the in-house SEO these may be the only analytics tools syou’ll see for years. Lucky agencies might get access to a wider variety of tool sets, client permitting.

Commercial acumen & awareness

As an in-house, senior SEO Manager you’re highly likely to have an agency and linkbuilding budget at your disposal.

Being responsible for that spend will involve putting forward regular business cases for new initiatives to justify the money involved. You tend to develop a skill for estimating return based on the ability to drive more traffic through your target keywords, something I was never asked to do at my previous agency, and something I (so far) have not yet been asked to do with Builtvisible. Let’s not forget that most in-house SEO Managers will very likely be running their departments using a cash flow method, with monthly available budget recorded against spend.

Agencies don’t tend to have large budgets to give to SEO teams to burn. In fact, many agency people I know have their own monthly financial sales target, grown from developing client relationships and upselling services to them. Though this practice tends to sit more squarely with the account management teams, some front line agency SEOs have to do sales too.

While both in-house and agency people have to develop a level of commercial awareness in the industries they’re marketing in, it’s prolonged exposure to a business model that makes for a savvy, commercially astute SEO. The industries I know best are the ones I’ve been fully immersed in for more than a year, perhaps longer.

You’re surrounded by digital marketers

I’ve noticed that often, in-house SEO roles can mean you’re alone in your efforts. Frequently, SEO and PPC are rolled into one internal function and elsewhere in the company, both disciplines are frequently misunderstood or even mistrusted. If you’re lucky enough to inherit an in-house SEO team when you start out as an in-house SEO, be grateful! It’s altogether possible your team are the only other people as enthusiastic as you are about SEO.

Agencies, on the other hand, are completely different. Everyone in the business understands their (and largely, other’s) disciplines which makes for a comradery that is lost in translation to in-house roles.

Master an industry

When you have the opportunity to focus on a single niche for a long period of time, you begin to master it. This is an advantage that in-house SEOs can hold over their agency brethren. Having that sixth sense for seasonal trends in traffic and the anatomy of your long tail is a gift you receive after months of focused, hard work in a single sector. Though it’s far from impossible to achieve this goal at an agency, it’s much more of a challenge as the very nature of your job requires to you spread your time across many types of business. With all that said, an agency SEO receives an opportunity to observe search in a multitude of niches, which permits access to knowledge an in-house SEO may miss. Given that there are many SEOs in a large agency, the opportunity to knowledge share confidential information inside the company is a strong advantage.

If you make a move this Winter and end up in an in-house position, you’ll feel a major difference. If you’re thinking of doing this right now, good luck. If you’ve had similar experiences, tell us what differences you found moving to an in-house role…



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14 thoughts on “On Becoming an In-House SEO

  1. rishil says:

    I think you are spot on with this post Richard. Pretty much mirrors my experiences – however I will like to add, if you are inhouse, your routes to growth may be limited unless you are exceptionally good at building internal relationships.

  2. I think you make a fair point – that’s exactly why left my previous employer and started SEOgadget :-)

  3. Richard Vaughan says:

    As an in house SEO in a small team, I would agree with most points, apart from the “you don’t have clients” part. In my opinion the “business” and it’s senior management are your client and managing expectations of the management and the needs of the business agains tthe realities of what is possible (and when), seems to be just as difficult as managing many smaller client projects; sometimes even more so as you can’t always take a break from one thing and work on something else!

    Being an in-house seo, your client is also your employer, a situation which takes some getting used to and is an important consideration, you need to be a team player and it seems to help to have an interest in and access to information of all parts of the business.

    It is true that not having the perspective of working in various niches is the main achilles heal, but for that reason we have found it even more important then ever to keep on top of news and discussion in the SEO industry as part of your job. Making time to read SEO articles, visit Search Marketing seminars etc. is something that should is an integral part of the job with a dedicated portion of time assigned to it weekly. Without it ones knowledge could very easily become outdated.

    Big pluses are that you can learn so much in terms of the product and development cycles, and with more long term strategic project management and you may find your skillset increases in areas you hadn’t had the chance to be involved in before, due to the necessity of things just needing to be done as part of a team goal.

  4. Hi Richard,

    How about this one?

    Turn in-house into upward mobility or future contract opportunity:
    After becoming familiar with the inner workings of large corporations, you attain an intimate familiarity with business goals and processes you normally wouldn’t have time absorbing on contract. Which makes an in-house SEO/SEM extremely valuable to keep on board, whether that’s through promotion/retention or if you decide to leave, possibly on contract.

  5. Garry, that’s an excellent point. The skills you acquire while you’re familiarising yourself with the goals / processes are invaluable. Thinking about it – the skills you acquire to dissect those processes are important too.

  6. John Cotterell says:

    Nice post Rich, happy new year!

    It’s interesting hearing the parallels between what I do as a developer and the world of SEO, as I could say some very similar things about my experiences working in-house vs working in an agency.

    Something which is a massive breath of fresh air is having the freedom to experiment and perfect your work in ways you could never do in an agency environment. Plus having direct feedback from the company board, rather than via a client account manager can be far more valuable too.

    Something which is different for me is that my agency work has very often been project-based, with little or no overlap between different clients. Even to the point where having just two clients on the go has caused friction between project managers. I gather in SEO, there’s a lot more ongoing work and juggling clients is the norm.

    J

  7. Dan Perry says:

    The one thing I’ve found true at my in-house positions is this: The larger the company, the less you actually “do” SEO. In-house SEO (at least at larger organizations) is less about doing SEO, and more about selling it, and getting others to do it.

    The goal is to get the organization (at all levels) to put enough faith and trust in your SEO opinion. Even if you’re following an agencies SEO recommendation, it’s the in-house SEO who has to sell it up and down the chain on a regular basis. The specifics of the SEO plan may be perfect, but if you can’t convince others in the organization to implement it, it may prove to be a very frustrating experience.

  8. Hi John,

    SEO does tend to be an ongoing thing – although you’ll often find most SEO starts with a project first.

    Good point about getting direct feedback from inside the company, rather than via an account manager, too.

  9. Hi Dan – yes I completely understand the need to “do” SEO – large organisations in particular can have hundreds if not thousands of development items outstanding, even before the SEO work rolls in.

    That’s where getting buy-in and evangelising as much as you can becomes part of the job – great points well made, thank you.

  10. Paul Allen says:

    Major benefits to working in-house include access to cool tools like Hitwise and learning the industry inside out, as mentioned above.

    Working agency side never enables you to properly envelop yourself in that industry, but in-house you become very aware of search and critically, what issues affect your industry. This allows you to make very good judgement calls compared to an agency.

    Getting buy in, influencing stakeholders and raising the profile of SEO was all part of my in-house role. Writing up business cases and estimating (and communicating) the value of different SEO functionality became vital. Despite the massive potential of SEO internal stakeholders will be unaware unless you make them aware!

    Oh and good agency management skills are needed too!

  11. Rob D. says:

    This has confirmed my desire to go for an in-house role over the next couple of months. I essentially work for a Sales company who just happen to sell web design and SEO. In-house would mean a fuller focus individually and would enable me to “properly envelop” myself in the industry, as Paul puts it.

  12. Jamie says:

    Hi I have made the move from been in house to been manager of SEO/ social media for my divison at a Advertising Agency, We are rather large on a world wide scope.

    The main benefit I have found when working for this Agency is that we have access to all the best tracking tools such as Omniture and Nielson tools.

    Also we work together with a large PPC team of about 40 or so, The access to clients is also easier then working in house, some huge corporate clients will never deal with a small- medium in house SEO but if you have millions and million in offline/PPC you can deal direct with the client via other business units you have accesds to gain these clients in a much easier fashion…

  13. Connect Free says:

    I recently joined the SEO industry and work for an SEO agency. I’ve always wondered about In-house SEO. At times, I love the idea of being able to focus on a business/niche and grow in it, but then at other times I feel it might become monotonous. I also believe being an In-house SEO’er would give you more free time (correct me if I’m wrong) to pursue your own personal goals and possibly consultation as well.
    All in all, I think In-house SEO’er is a step up from SEO agency which could eventually leads to your own personal SEO business/consultation. I belive this is what we all strive for, to be our own boss…

  14. Great article, full of good points. Bringing in-house SEO certainly brings about a different perspective but ultimately the goals remain the same. I think being able to access the tools necessary to succeed in SEO is important to agencies and in-house clients, therefore budgeting should always be set aside for some of these aspects.

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