On becoming an in-house SEO

Richard Baxter

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 you’ll see for years. Lucky agencies might get access to a wider variety of tool sets, client permitting.

Commercial acumen and 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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