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Thursday, January 15, 2009

SEO Career - Agency vs. In-House SEO

As the search industry grows agencies are popping up all over and more and more companies are hiring in-house SEO's. How does one decide to get into search engine optimization and which direction does one take in their career path? In-House SEO or SEO Agency?
In 2006 I finally jumped ship from SEO Agency to full time in-house SEO at Classmates.com as their SEO Manager. It was a position created with no real thought put into it as to what work was needed, how to scale the effectiveness of the position, or who the position would be reporting to but there definitely was a need for someone in-house as the agency they were working with at the time had great suggestions for SEO but weren't able to get the work completed.
I was originally hired to work under one of the VPs in Marketing who was very good at analysis, but not so much on the technical side of the website, and most certainly didn't understand SEO. He set me loose after I explained the keyword analysis and analyzing what terms were driving conversions from paid search in order to determine a starting point for optimizing the site. Unfortunately that VP quit just a few weeks after my hiring along with not having someone to directly guide me I continued to work on the site as if I were a consultant optimizing for a client. During the first couple of months I befriended a few of the VPs throughout the company who had setup a meeting with Ted Cahall (CEO) along with a group of developers, Directors and other VPs in order to hammer out what changes needed to be made and set a priority. Close to the end of the meeting Ted Cahall had asked me how much revenue I predicted out of these changes. A concept I had never even thought of. As consultants our goal is to optimize the site and increase traffic or rankings as much as possible to show that our work was effective. It was always up to the clients and the website to drive the conversions. Now I was faced with an end-to-end process that I had worried about as a UI designer, but never as an SEO.
My role as an in-house SEO was definitely a learning experience for both Classmates.com and myself. Being in-house and optimizing a website is a completely different beast altogether. This posting looks at the different aspects of each role pointing out the pros and cons in hopes that SEO's can not only understand the difference, but can make a decision as to what direction they would like to go in as a career.

Agency SEO

Depending on the position you are in with an agency the responsibilities change but the end result will always remain the same. Most often than not when a client signs a contract they expect certain things from their agency. A client usually chooses SEO because they aren't showing up in the search engines for terms that they feel they should be showing up for. The reasoning behind this is if they show up for the right terms they will see more conversions or leads from the website they invested so much money in with design and development. For them it all boils down to revenue, for the SEO agency it translates into ranking and ultimately traffic (eventually digging into qualified traffic and leads).
Typically most SEO agencies will have anywhere from 10 to possibly hundreds of clients assigned to one search engine optimizer (or SEO Strategist). Each SEO Strategist begins working with each client by asking a few questions in order to understand the business model and what the client considers an aquisition. The SEO Strategist will then draw up a keyword analysis looking through words and terms based on what the client thinks their users will be suing to find their website. From there the SEO Strategist will choose a select few terms that are most relevant and develop meta tags (Title and Description), suggest copy revisions or additions to the website, suggest a linking strategy and so on. The agency will then send regular ranking reports along with tracking analysis of the traffic coming to the site through natural SEO.
Some SEO agencies have grown beyond the cookie cutter fashion of optimizing a website for their clients in offering landing page design, testing, optimization etc. or even offering social media campaigns that generate links as well as traffic from social networking websites or blogs, etc.

In-House SEO

In the past couple of years more and more companies are bringing SEO in-house not to replace the agency they are using necessarily, but to help manage the relationship between the agency and the people internally that need to complete the work in order to champion the work through effectively. To explain the role of an in-house SEO is to list out most of the responsibilities and goals of what is expected of them.
Core responsibilities of an in-house SEO:
Develop the company and or website SEO strategy and implementation. (complete with time line, work needed from other teams, agency help, etc along with spend)
Hands-on optimization; improving site structure, page construction, content, keyword lists, and SEO copy writing where needed (some companies have copywriters on staff and developers allocated for the work needed)
Keyword Analysis, and set KPI benchmarking and reporting for sites' organic search optimization efforts and continual monitoring of search trends related to the company or website.
Define SEO requirements in a product management capacity by recommending site enhancements that maximize ROI and increase rank of natural search result listings.
Serve as internal search expert, driving all communication between company's domestic and/or international companies to ensure best practices are shared and leveraged throughout.
Work on landing page redesign projects to ensure that paid and natural search pages are not only maximizing traffic but driving conversions.
Analyze and translate quantitative and qualitative data from web analytics tool into an actionable SEO plan.
Create and validate business cases for projects.
Maintain dashboard with work completed including spend along with conversions for each item in order to track cost per acquisition for natural SEO. (in some cases you will be expected to report this to upper level executives or help your superior report your work and effectiveness)
For some larger organizations an in-house SEO can be expected to:
Document business requirements for other teams, working with stakeholders throughout the organization to factor in their needs.
Is the business voice for SEO projects throughout the product development process, working closely with the technology organization.
Experience in defining and writing product/​functional specifications

In some cases an in-house SEO is expected to:
Work closely with the paid search marketing team (if not part of the responsibilities as an in-house SEO - depending on the company size) in creating SEO strategy to increase organic traffic and rankings.
Leverage social networking, user generated content and PR releases to drive qualified traffic. (as social media becomes recognized as a high impact strategy I believe companies will start to hire social media people as a role all its own)
Manage SEO initiatives for Google beta programs such as, mash ups for Google maps, Google co-op, plug-ins for Google desktop, widgets and other incremental SEO opportunities where applicable.
Set up a process to continuously educate internal teams on SEO best practices and emerging optimization techniques.

As you can see the roles and resposinbilities of the in-house SEO and SEO Agency employee are completely different, but yet both require a solid understanding of SEO. So how does one get started in SEO as a career? If you are passionate about SEO and you find that you have a unique satisfaction of seeing a website or page rank for a term you targeted then you have been bitten by the SEO bug and are definitely cut out to work both for an agency or in-house. It is highly recommended that you start with a smaller agency or on your own optimizing as many websites for clients as you can. Gather data and document as much as you can so that when you go to the agency or company hiring an in-house SEO you have examples of your work to show you understand the basics and can at least optimize a website. Agencies give you the opportunity to work with multiple websites and clients so that you not only get different scenarios of website optimization, but become exceptionally good at working with people along with the common questions such as, "I searched 'X' and we don't show up, why?" The questions you get from clients as an SEO Strategist in an agency prepare you for the same questions you will get occasionally see as an in-house SEO.
When you are ready to make the transition from agency to in-house SEO be prepared to have a robust understanding of marketing and how they track conversions, budget, etc as well as having the patience in working with other teams such as copywriters, designers, developers, legal, PR and so on. You will not only have to know SEO well, but to be able to explain different aspects of it to people that think differently from you. For example, when talking to a designer you will want to stress the importance of copy on a page that would most likely have a design focus in order to get key terms in there, or explain to someone in legal that you don't have complete control over what ranks in the search engines.
All in all both positions are very rewarding and a job in search engine optimization is not only challenging, but a lot of fun with a constant evolution in strategy and know how.

For more help on getting started in a career in SEO visit:
Market Motive SEO Training
SEOMoz Beginner's Guide to SEO