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Andy Kerns

Don't Fall for the Fantasy of Effective In-House SEO

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Andy Kerns
Don't Fall for the Fantasy of Effective In-House SEO
Please note this post is published under “Opinion” category and reflects the personal views of the author. If you disagree or have an opinion you would like to offer, feel free to discuss in comments!

This article is under our "Opinion" category. We recommend you share your thoughts with the author.

In a recent post here on SEMRush, my esteemed fellow marketer, Ron Dod, partner and CEO of Visiture, said he feels it shouldn’t be hard to build an internal SEO team capable of “world Google domination.”

With all due respect, Mr. Dod, I beg to differ.

For a vast majority of businesses (and all businesses that aren’t household names in more than three countries), it’s not just hard, it’s damn near impossible. And the prospect of building a successful in-house SEO team that’s more durable, more versatile and less expensive than an SEO agency, is a fantasy.

What follows is a counterpoint to Mr. Dod’s thesis, based on a number of different data points and realities. It will cover four primary subjects:

  1. Real world cost of full-time employees
  2. Millennial turnover
  3. Creative capacity and experience
  4. Emotional burden of addressing failure

Mr. Dod’s article describes SEO teams in a variety of shapes and sizes. I’ll focus on what he calls the “Enterprise Team,” because, frankly, it’s the only one that could begin to compete with the capabilities of a fully flexed agency. An Enterprise Team is made up of the following:

  • 1 VP/Director, salary $100k
  • 1 Manager, salary $60k
  • 2 Specialists, salaries $45k each
  • 2 Copywriters/Outreach Specialists, salaries $45k each

It’s also noted this team would need approximately $34,000 for tools and training. (I think that number’s a bit low when you factor in the time to learn tools, the time to do the training, and the time to shop for both, but it’s one of the points I agree with most).

The rest of the numbers for the Enterprise Team—all of which add up to $340k—are fantastic (in the bad way). Keep reading, I’ll back that up.

Real world cost

Studies (upon studies) show the real cost of an employee goes staggeringly beyond base salary. One report, by software company Deltek, estimates the cost of benefits, overhead and administrative fees at 78 percent of each individual base salary. And there are plenty more resources to back that up. Going by those numbers, $340k becomes $605k.

That’s more than half a million bucks, annually.

Millennial turnover

Speaking of staggering numbers: According to Gallup, millennials are three times more likely than any other generation to have changed jobs in the last 12 months. And 91 percent of them expect to be at their current job less than three years. Sorry folks, you can’t afford the burden of that turnover. SEO takes time, it takes a drumbeat of strategic excellence and creative output. Millennials, if used sparingly, will sabotage you.

The difference between an in-house team of 3 to 4 people and an agency of 20 to 50, is the depth of that agency roster. If anyone drops out, there are two people ready to pick up the slack. We deal with millennial turnover just like anyone else. The difference is, we have more millennials.

Creative capacity and experience

In his proposal, Mr. Dod notes that a copywriter is “a very critical piece of the team” (we couldn’t agree more), and suggests Enterprise Teams should pick up two of them, for the low price of $45k each.

Ah ah ah. Wait one minute. A salaried copywriter at $45k is gonna be pretty green. As in still trying to buff off the tendency toward the kind of ornate prose that’s celebrated in undergrad creative writing workshops but reviled in the business world.

So there’s that.

More important, there’s this—if you’re gonna pay more than half-a-million bucks per year for an Enterprise Team lead by a VP/Director and tasked with world domination, you better be getting more than blogs! That kind of money should get you a whole range of exciting content—graphics, guides, interactives, data visualization. If you’re putting money towards link building, in earnest, you want stuff that’s gonna get picked up and shared by top news and industry publications. You want stuff that gets on Huffington Post, Yahoo, Inc., Mental Floss, Forbes.

To do that, by yourself, from scratch, is a helluva task. You need creative experts—graphic designers, programmers, data analysts, and a creative lead to drive ideation and tie it all together.

I won’t even mention what that team will set you back, but I can guarantee this—when you belly up to the table and sign with a great agency, you’re getting all of it, in spades. You’re getting decades of combined experience and specialization. You’re getting everything you could possibly want or need, in pursuit of SEO world domination.

Emotional burden of addressing failure

This may be the most controversial part of this argument, but it’s one we can’t look away from. We don’t like to think about emotions in a business context, because they’re not typically welcome. The problem is, they’re always here, just beneath the surface, informing all aspects of our work.

You ask any manager or leader, what’s the single most difficult part of her job, the part she dreads most, the part she’d do anything to avoid—it’s letting someone go.

And right behind that, it’s having to manage and push people who aren’t getting the job done, while stall and let things drag out, in order to avoid doing the one thing you hate most.

In his post, Mr. Dod talks about keeping an in-house team accountable, but advises that we “not berate them if goals are not being met.” Sheesh. That sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Is it realistic though? Turns out, it doesn’t matter. Whether or not you’re comfortable berating your team for not meeting goals, is a moot point.

Why? Because nobody is shy about berating an agency that’s getting paid top dollar on an hourly basis. And that’s great for business. By presenting as a collective team of people, agencies open themselves to full and frequent criticism from their clients if they fail to meet expectations. Again, that’s good for business.

Take this one step further: suppose you spend a year or so building your enterprise team, and after another year, you’re not seeing the desired results? Also, let’s say you can’t quite put your finger on the problem. It’s not any one person, or weak point, the crew just isn’t getting it done. Or, maybe they’re making progress, just not justifying their $600k-per-year cost.

Then what? Do you axe the whole team? Do you march 3 to 4 people into your office, one-at-a-time—people you like and have relationships with—to tell them they don’t have a job anymore?If so, that’s a heavy burden.

On the flip side, no one’s losing sleep over the prospect of firing their agency. Good agencies have lots of millennials and lots of clients. They can handle it, and their clients know that.

Still, let’s say you’re shrewd, you’re tough, you’re a consummate business person, and yeah, absolutely, you could axe that whole team if it isn’t performing. Now there’s just one question left to answer: Where are you going the minute that blood bath is over?

You’re going to an agency.

Curious to know the full might of what you’ll get from an agency? Behold—the ten-armed monster!

Andy Kerns
Expert

Provides valuable insights and adds depth to the conversation.

Andy Kerns is a Content Strategist at Digital Third Coast, an award-winning digital marketing agency in Chicago, IL.
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