Organic Search SEO

Why in-house SEO fails

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 by Lee Wilson

There are very few examples of small to medium-sized companies where in-house SEO works, or at least where it works anywhere near an optimum level. Despite this, many SMEs often consider in-house search marketing as a viable strategy over outsourcing SEO to an agency. This I find baffling.

Before I go on, full disclosure. I wanted to put some context to my opinions on this, as I have a pretty rounded CV to back up my thoughts on this topic:

–          7+ years setting up, running and building online marketing teams in-house
–          2+ years managing outsourcing of SEO, PPC and other online marketing services
–          2 years contracting in the online development arena
–          4 years working within a digital agency
–          Currently Head of SEO at a leading UK agency

My intention with this post is to highlight some of the pitfalls of in-house SEO. Although many of these will be relevant to in-house marketing generally (and applicable to businesses of all sizes) my main target demographic here is small to medium-sized businesses, as these are the companies where the wrong decision can have the greatest impact.

Who wants to do SEO?

In my experience, SEO (when worked on in-house) is often a job that is added to an existing role. Generally this goes to someone with a marketing role, who is already running PPC successfully or is an enthusiastic employee who just loves to learn new things.

The problem with this is that search marketing is a highly specialist service. It is much easier to impact a website negatively with best intentions than it is to make genuine progress through the application of newly acquired knowledge.

A key part of any digital agency’s relationship with their customers is the ability the share knowledge and educate the people with whom they are working.

Having employees that want to learn and develop their skill sets is a great asset to any company, but expecting them to deliver results in one of the fastest paced industries with huge barriers to entry (based on knowledge-based needs rather than financial ones) is not a fair expectation to set.

The other common decision that is made when commencing SEO in-house is employing someone entirely new to the company and thus investing in new staff.

The problem with this approach is that it can be a big financial risk, as well as being almost impossible to judge the right person for the job. This is mainly due to the specialist function of organic search, plus the huge spectrum of talent within the industry. This ‘talent’ ranges from very damaging skills based on old and black hat SEO right through to unbelievably valuable skills which will bring with them high remuneration costs.

Organic advertising just needs that initial push

There are very few things in life (and especially in business) where you can generate an initial phase of progress then see that momentum continue, irrespective of internal or external influences.

SEO is no different.

Yes, there are almost always lots of immediate impact areas that online marketing specialists can apply to websites in order to demonstrate meaningful value in a very short timeframe, but the misconception is that, once these positive impact updates have been made, a company can sit back and enjoy continued progress from this alone.

This will not happen. Fact.

This is why in nearly all instances in house SEO will fail.

One of the challenges that top digital agencies are able to overcome (as it is often ingrained into the culture) is the ability to continually improve a website’s online performance. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle for SEO outside of an agency environment is this ability to continually drive performance forward with the right momentum over longer timeframes.

What penalty protection?

When you work with a digital agency you are able to experience the impact of people who live and breathe online advertising. You cannot replace the gains that are derived from peer team debate, scrums, agile working practices and genuine enjoyment gained from working in SEO.

Positive implication from the above leads naturally towards a proactive approach to SEO service delivery.

This proactivity will have a valuable part to play on many areas for the website’s success, of which a key area to note is penalty protection.

In many cases this protection would be delivered through ongoing awareness of changes in the industry and practical implementation of best practices. This includes consideration of how the industry is now, how it is changing and how expertise or judgement can be used moving forward.

In-house SEO can be great at reacting to things like this. The skill of reacting to change in-house is driven by the speed at which internal SEO can be reprioritised.

In many cases, in-house SEO is almost treated as a luxury service that can deliver some great results but takes a lot of time and resources to achieve what is needed. As such, SEO can regularly take a back seat in company priority.

When a penalty strikes; when the phones stop ringing and when website enquiries appear as a shadow of their former selves, companies either drain all internal resources in an attempt to quickly fix the ‘problem’ that SEO has now become or they ask an agency to help redress the issues.

Imagine how much greater SEO would become for everyone involved if an online agency could work with you before problems hit and are able to demonstrate long term momentum and bigger wins from all your online projects.


Big data; all the relevant data, everything you have available now, all the information you don’t have access to right now and all the untapped potential that sits within the data.

As an agency, working with data is second nature.

If you work with an agency that has unique technology developed for the purposes of campaign management and opportunity identification, access to this new information will improve your campaign today, tomorrow and forever.

If you work with Google Analytics qualified individuals/teams/companies it is very rare they will not be able to offer insights into the data which are new and value add. The top agencies will be using data for identifying voids in your current online strategy, noticing important actions to fix, removing barriers to success and adding new areas of visibility to your website that would otherwise have never come into fruition.

SEO agency or in-house?

If you’re in the process of deciding whether to trial SEO in-house or take on a new agency to deliver the results you need, the first point of call should be picking up the phone and having a high-level conversation with a digital agency.

Put together a list of questions that you have (or if you don’t have any to hand try these) and talk openly about your budget to see what you can achieve with the money you’ve set aside to spend on new staff (or existing staff resources and development). Only then can you get a like for like idea of exactly what can be achieved with the same money when it’s invested with an agency.

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About the author

Lee Wilson

Lee Wilson

Lee joined Vertical Leap as an SEO Campaign Delivery Manager in 2010 and heads up the SEO team after successfully managing the online and direct marketing development of a financial services company for over seven years. Lee is a certified web applications developer (Cert WAD) and a regular LinkedIn user. Follow me on Google Plus