In-house optimization or outsourcing?

Written: 26-Oct-2007 | Last modified: 29-April-2008 | Filed under: Online Marketing

Over on the Search Marketing blog, Daniel Peden wonders if companies should hire an SEO firm or if they should handle optimization in-house. He advises SEO (and conversion optimization) should be handled by an outside firm.

Hmm. Not sure I can completely agree with his arguments.

Yes, absolutely, an outside firm probably has had more experience in running campaigns than an in-house team, at least at first. But in-house webmasters right out of the box have something the outside firm doesn’t (and likely never will): in-depth day-to-day knowledge of their products, their company, their customers and their industry. And if they put their minds to it, it’s only a matter of time before they have as much (or more) experience in running campaigns in their industry than the outside firm.

Now, I work full time as a webmaster for a small business. Personally, I absolutely would not ever even consider outsourcing everything related to SEO and conversion optimization. My experience tells me there are things I can just do better than some outside firm who almost certainly know way less than I do about my company’s business.

Not Rocket Science

Besides, it’s not as though optimization at the level most businesses need is insanely hard. Let’s face it, folks, this ain’t rocket science. No offense to my many friends who work as full-time freelance or agency-based optimizers, but — no matter what some firms’ sales pitches might claim — the concepts and procedures are not even close to being “too complicated” for the average reasonably experienced webmaster to grasp.

To get you started, the HighRankings forum staff have put together a Tips for New SEOs thread I highly recommend reading, even if you do plan to outsource your optimization.

In-House: More Skilled Than You Might Think

Look, I haven’t exactly been pounding the pavement looking for examples, but I already know off the top of my head about several webmasters who consistently turn in results considerably better than the numbers typically tossed about in ecommerce and search industry publications.

Generally, though, they tend to fly under the radar, so unless you know about them, you probably won’t know about them. There’s little point for them in bragging about their results on the SEO forums or blogs. Just for starters, why go out of your way to tip off your competitors to how well you’re doing?

Of course, if you’re already doing well optimizing your own site, you’re unlikely to seek the aid of an outside optimizer to start with, which can give outside SEOs a skewed perspective on the state of in-house optimization. Just because most companies who contact an optimization firm for help have websites in dire shape, this doesn’t mean in-house teams in general are incapable of effective site optimization. It just means those in-house teams aren’t so good at it.

No Need to be a Lone Ranger

That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to do everything myself, either. As long as there are still only 24 hours in a day, that’s just crazy talk. Naturally there are some aspects of optimization that I can (and have, and likely will again) quite happily outsource. Just the same way some “outside” optimizers themselves subcontract out the bits they don’t have time for or are less comfortable handling for their clients.

So what are these “outsourceable” items? To my mind, good candidates are:

  • Things that absorb a ton of time and require expertise but not company-specific knowledge. Like most small business webmasters, I’m often stretched thin to the point of breaking. If I can hire somebody at a reasonable price to do some heavy lifting on my behalf, that’s a good thing. For instance, programming new site features. Spend a few minutes on some functional specs, turn them over to a developer and let her spend the hours or days it takes to actually write the code.
  • Things that require the efficient use of specialized, expensive tools. The outside firm can spread the cost of the tools across multiple clients and can put to use their hard-won expertise in using those tools effectively. The client gets high-quality results at a budget-friendly price. I’m thinking things like keyword research, where you need to know all the ins-and-outs of tools like Wordtracker or Keyword Discovery to really do it right. Give the keyword research firm some seed terms and the URLs of a few competitors and let them come up with lists of potential target phrases for you.
  • Things for which you lack in-house expertise or the potential to develop in-house expertise on a timely basis. Here, I’m thinking of things like PPC campaign management. It takes a long time to learn all the nuances to really do it well, and in the meantime you can blow a truly frightening amount of money on the learning curve. To my mind, it’s way better to hire a company to set up and manage those types of campaigns than to try to carve out the time to become fully proficient on my own.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, and the things that are advantageous for me to hand off to an outside firm aren’t necessarily the things you’d be best farming out. It all depends on what resources and experience you bring to the table. And to be sure, there are some companies that quite simply lack any in-house expertise at all. For them, outsourcing everything may indeed be the best option.

As for my company, anything we can do well on our own, we do on our own. Anything else, we outsource to a specialist in that field. In this way, I’ve found we get excellent quality work at a reasonable cost.

Just Because All Your Friends Decide to Jump Off a Bridge…

My point is, while outsourcing everything can be a good decision for some companies, it isn’t necessarily the best idea for all companies, and may not even always be appropriate for most companies. The assumption that no businesses can effectively handle any aspect of SEO or conversion optimization in-house and should therefore automatically outsource it all just doesn’t match with my experiences and observations. Your mileage may vary, of course.

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