Should I outsource or hire?

Avoid a google penalty - hire a professionalIf you’re serious about getting ahead of the competition online then you are going to have to address the decision to outsource or hire staff for search engine optimisation and online marketing at some point.

This post gives unbiased advice on outsourcing or hiring SEO staff. I am an SEO consultant who takes on new clients (outsource) but I’m also currently open for a permanent position as an seo / marketing lead (hire me).

Outsourcing SEO

I wrote a post a while back on the dangers of outsourcing your SEO. In that post I was talking about a situation where a supposedly reputable SEO firm had been hired, but they in turn had outsourced their link building work to an Indian (for Indian read American using cheap labour) company who used poor practice. The end result has been a big hit in ranking for the poor company who hired them.

However outsourcing does not have to be a bad experience. There are good SEOs out there too.

Hiring an seo consultant

This is a good option if you have a technical team (or even person) in place. Sometimes some guidance is all that is required because the people you have in place are capable of taking on that guidance and have the technical ability make the required changes.

An SEO consultant is also a good person to start with if you have a sudden (or more long term) drop in traffic or ranking and need to start with some trouble shooting.

There are several ways in which a consultant SEO works:

  • Train internal staff fully,
  • Train staff on things like content writing while doing some of the technical back end stuff themselves
  • Do everything themselves. This is really more like outsourcing to a one person agency.

Consultants in any sphere tend to be an expensive option. SEO is no different. Therefore the relationship with a consultant tends to be sporadic. However, with a capable team / person in place in your company to implement suggested changes it can save money over time. Also, the fees charged by an seo consultant should be made back through increased site productivity. There may be an initial period of intense work where the site is overhauled followed down the road by some more advanced training or brushing up.

Traditionally marketing departments and IT departments have been seen as very separate entities. However that is now changing. SEO is, or should be, an integral part of the marketing team. Indeed a search engine optimiser is a marketer. I would go so far as to say that it’s impossible to do a good job of search engine optimisation without taking a wider view (marketing perspective). On top of that, conversion of increased site visits into increased revenue is the entire purpose of getting your site to rank higher on search engines.

A good SEO consultant is also a conduit between marketing and IT where IT still look after the website, explaining technical aspects to marketing and marketing ideas to IT.

Things that can go wrong with using an SEO consultant

SEO consultants know SEO. They don’t necessarily know your business or your market well. If you are just after better rankings that may not matter so much, but in reality you are trying to market too. A well worded meta description could make the search result in position three get more clicks than the first two results. To word that well, whoever writes it has to understand the target market.

Of course it is possible for a consultant to learn your business basics. A good SEO understands that search engine optimisation is not a one size fits all practice and will ask questions and demonstrate an understanding of your business in their reporting as a result of your answers and their own research.

The SEO consultant should have direct contact with the people who are making the changes on the site. Without that things get lost in translation and mistakes are made. An SEO working with one person who relays what has been said to a technical team is a recipe for crumbly cake.

As with all things SEO you need to be careful who you put your trust in. Poor SEO decisions can be costly.

Outsourcing to an SEO agency

This is a great option for companies that do not have people with both the technical ability to make changes to their website or the time resources to change content and structure of a website.

Agencies tend to work on monthly retainers although hopefully that is changing. Why? Well, to justify the money monthly they have to put together monthly reports showing what they have been doing.

Once the site has been well optimised and social media has been set up an agency is basically left with link building and article marketing in its various forms. Who is going to be happy to pay €250 – €3000+ a month for 10 links and a ranking and traffic report? 

Aggressive link building is a risky business these days though. The days of submitting to 1000s of directories, article sites and blog / forum commenting are over. You’ll just end up getting slapped by Google and have a difficult clean up job in front of you. Those 10 links may be worth a lot more, but it’s a much harder sell from an agencies point of view.

When it comes to article marketing, I’d have to be very happy that the person writing about my business understood my business.

Another very popular tactic at the moment is guest blogging. I’ll say this: Guest blogging on an established blog by a recognised blogger that relates to your business = good. Anything else = not so much.

I didn’t mention PPC (pay per click) because I don’t consider that to be search engine optimization. It is SEM (Search Engine Marketing). Using an agency to handle your PPC should save you money over doing it by yourself.

Outsourcing entirely means placing a lot of trust in the agency. Not only will they be making structural changes to your site, they will also be building links and probably a social media campaign. What is often overlooked is that content generally needs to be rewritten too. Do you let your SEO company go ahead and make those changes or do you insist on any changes being passed by you first which will slow down the process. The ground rules need to be well established.

One of the real advantages of using an agency is that they have a team of people with different skill sets. An agency will have designers, coders, PPC specialists, affiliate specialists and SEO specialists. That makes a good agency a great proposition for a small or medium sized company that doesn’t have those resources in-house. On top of that, these people are all used to working with each other and know what is required of them by other team members.

Hiring Internal SEO staff

There are definite benefits to hiring your own internal search engine optimisation staff. There are also potential pitfalls.

An internal member of staff is fully immersed in your business. They know it inside out and they also know the competitors. They are aware of current and emerging trends in your business both online and offline. They speak the language associated with your market area.

There is still a lot of confusion out there as to where an internal SEO should be positioned. Frankly that depends on how good they are.

If they are really good then they should be on a par with your marketing manager, coming up with sound marketing ideas as well as looking after structural best practice and content on the website. They should be able to relate, translate and add to marketing discussions as they apply to online presence.

It makes most sense that they work with the marketing manager but don’t report to him or her. They should be the gatekeeper of all things online. In other words, they should have the authority to say “no” if an idea is not going to work online or have a potentially negative impact from an SEO perspective. That decision may be overridden in some cases, but it is harder to say no to a marketing idea if the marketing manager is your boss.

As a case in point, take the short post I wrote a little while ago about a company hell bent on increasing their social media integration on the company website. That was a marketing department led initiative driven by the buzz about social media in general, but showed a lack of understanding with regard to the potential for online disaster.

If your online marketer / SEO is not strong enough to be given that level of responsibility, then you could have the wrong person. SEO is absolutely at the heart of everything online. (more on that in my next post).

The biggest plus of having a good internal SEO person / online marketer is that their efforts are not being split across multiple businesses. This allows for an anally retentive amount of attention to detail. When I first started out online it was in-house. I was paying lots of attention to the small stuff as well as the bigger stuff. I was watching the competition like a hawk and generally able to be much better informed on a daily basis than I would be just running weekly reports. The result was that pretty soon the competition were watching me like a hawk. Then they started to copy me…. surely the best form of flattery there is.

The biggest potential negative of hiring internal SEO staff is that they may not be much good, have outdated notions of what works or limited understanding of one aspect or another of the job.

SEO is a big job. You need to be up to date and stay that way. You need to be willing to push boundaries until they break (not on the main company site) and be able to pull back from that. You need to understand marketing, web design, programming, heuristics, web standards, and preferably PPC and affiliate marketing too. You need to know your target market and where to reach them online. You need to have technical ability to be able to implement changes on the website without bringing down the website. You need to be able to extract useful information from Google analytics and other tools. You need to be able to write reports that explain what you’re doing in plain english. You need to be able to manage and train other people in other teams (designers, coders, in fact anybody that has anything to do with the website). There is more, but I think I’ve made my point.

So which option should you pick?

It really depends on your company. Sometimes a combination of all three is the right choice. Sometimes just one of them will suffice.

Factors that would influence my decision would be:

  • How reliant is the company on the internet? Where does most of the current business come from?
  • How does that compare with competitors? (are we missing a trick?)
  • How big is the company and what sort of budget are we willing to allocate to online marketing?
  • What resources do we already have in-house? Is your current website designed and run internally or is it outsourced?
  • What sort of commitment do we want to make to our online presence? Is our website something that can make a significant improvement to the company bottom line or customer service? Then having accountable in-house people is appropriate – even if a lot of the work is outsourced.
  • How much do we already know about search engine optimisation and digital marketing?

The starting point should be either an SEO consultant or an agency. An initial assessment, combined with company goals should dictate what happens next.

Why not just hire internally? Quite simply, you want somebody with a lot of experience when setting out your road map. If you need to get somebody in at all, then you almost certainly don’t know enough to make a good hiring choice yet.

How do I know I’m dealing with a good SEO?

This is a subject that is a post in itself, but I’ll put down the basics here.

  1. You don’t.
  2. See number one.

We are a bit like mechanics / car salesmen. There are some of us that are really good, open and honest, and there are others that may be smooth, polished and convincing but without substance or integrity.

I have been a little facetious by saying “you don’t”, there are of course some things you can look for, but I wanted to make it absolutely clear that the majority of businesses do not know enough to avoid being sold a Ford Fiesta dressed up as a Ferrari. Everybody in SEO That caveat out of the way here are some pointers that you should look for and some that are not so useful…..

  1. Where do they rank themselves. Rank is not everything, but if they don’t rank then you can’t expect them to help you rank.
  2. Able to provide references. I wouldn’t put a lot of weight behind this. Just because somebody is happy with a job does not mean it was a good job (just look at all the problems that get uncovered by a builders during renovations.) But it is good to know that at least somebody can vouch for them to some extent.
  3. Talk to more than one SEO. That will give you a feel for what to expect and some will stand out in either a positive or negative light.
  4. Ask them exactly what they plan to do for your site. Ideally the answer should be “I don’t know yet” on first contact. That is because without having a good look at your site it is impossible to tell what needs to be done.
  5. Stay well away from anybody who starts to talk about submitting your site to directories etc.
  6. NO SECRETS. Search engine optimisation is not black magic (or magic of any description). This is your business and you need to know exactly what is being done for your site/s and why.
  7. Beware of guaranteed rankings (nobody can absolutely guarantee in search engine optimisation) or automated systems (one size does not fit all).
  8. Look for people that ask you as many or more questions than you ask them.
  9. Qualifications. Good for showing an interest and a basic level of knowledge, but quite a few courses are out of date before they are first delivered. Those that aren’t are still no substitute for experience. SEO is a new profession and nobody in Ireland has been doing it for more than 10 or 11 years. Qualifications in SEO serve only to please HR departments.
  10. A web designer is not an SEO. Just about every web designer in the country says they do SEO too now. They don’t. They do some things that are a part of optimisation on their sites. I’m an SEO and I can do some design, but I’m not a designer. Same applies in reverse.
  11. Free Reports. How much time do you put into a free report? ’nuff said.

I want to hire internal SEO staff I need more information.

Here is the best tip I could possibly give. Get an SEO consultant to sit in on the interview process.

You could get them to give you a list of questions but if they are actually there then they can pick up on things that you may miss and be able to probe a little deeper.

About Ian Wortley

Ian is one of Irelands leading SEO consultants with over 8 years experience in the Irish market. Ian discovered his love of all things internet related in 2005 and has been living nearly exclusively online since then, causing much worry to friends and family, but getting great results for clients. Contact Ian: Phone: 01 6854806 Mobile: 086 3817149