Bringing SEO In-House: Overcoming the Challenges

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Bringing SEO in-house has countless advantages – the primary one being a live body walking the halls and available for meetings and impromptu conversations about SEO.  However, by bringing SEO in-house, you will also face challenges in pulling it off successfully. Armed with knowledge of the challenges, you can minimize potential problems and recognize clues to prepare for what lies ahead.

Knowing What You’re Up Against: The In-House SEO Life Cycle

We are starting to recognize recurring patterns in the life cycle of an in-house SEO. The cycle begins the moment you decide to take on SEO and hire someone to work inside your office, and resembles an upside-down bell curve.

The life cycle begins at the Courtship Phase, where you try to recruit the best in-house SEO possible. Once the new employee walks in the door, the Honeymoon Phase commences, where everyone is interested in talking to the SEO and getting priority for changes is usually a breeze.

Expect the Honeymoon Phase to last about 3-6 months. Most of the variance in time depends on internal company politics, especially the relationship between the department where the SEO resides and the IT department.

You can leverage this phase to its fullest potential by helping and encouraging your SEO to build relationships with other departments, IT in particular. You also want to make the most of this phase by getting SEO-related changes into projects as quickly as possible.

As time passes, you will start noticing changes in how the practice of SEO is perceived within the organization. Other departments start resisting SEO changes. Issues escalate up the ladder as the SEO fights to get optimization changes approved and kept within project scope.

At this point, your SEO initiative approaches the Reality Phase, where things start getting challenging internally. Most in-house SEOs will experience challenges on a day-to-day basis. To reach the end of this phase with the most ease, the SEO needs to educate the team. He or she should pre-sell ideas to key stakeholders so their concerns are addressed one-on-one, not in large meetings.

Spend time nurturing the relationships formed in the Honeymoon Phase so these acquaintances become SEO friends. As the SEO’s manager, you may find you need to be involved in nurturing these relationships, if the SEO has not yet earned enough respect from influential managers. You may also want to enlist others in the company to help build these bridges.

Though it takes a lot of time, invest heavily in relationship building. An SEO’s contacts and allies are the key to getting through this phase as quickly and painlessly as possible.

As time passes, you will hear less and less opposition and start feeling the need for more SEO resources as various departments throughout the company see the value and want SEO in their projects. As this happens, obstacles diminish and your SEO will start working with other departments like a well-oiled machine.

Former opponents of SEO start looking out for SEO and call with questions and ideas. This Synergy Phase begins at the point where SEO has evolved into an integral part of the business process.

You can still expect a few bumps along the way; however, the SEO will be aware of the bumps and there will be a continuous exchange of ideas back-and-forth between IT, Marketing, and SEO.

From my experience, having seen the synergy phase develop on a number of occasions, you will be amazed at what SEO can now begin to accomplish throughout the company.

Knowing the SEO life cycle provides insights into the challenges your in-house SEO will face so you can lay groundwork as you progress, but it can also help you decide where to place your SEO within the organization for optimal success.

Where in the World do I Put In-House SEO?

In-house SEOs can function in any number of different places, but they typically fall into the IT, Marketing, or Product Management realms. Where to locate SEO within your company for optimal success primarily depends on the politics within your organization.

Having SEO-related changes that originate from outside IT put into practice by the IT department seems to be of particular difficulty. Your SEO must be positioned where he or she can successfully influence IT into making changes needed for the site(s) to be more search-engine-friendly.

Input I have had from numerous SEOs indicates that placing SEO in the marketing department probably is the worst option, because IT does not always respond well to changes to architecture and technical items suggested by a marketer. Consequently, there tends to be friction between IT and an SEO identified with the marketing department.

However, if the SEO is located in the IT department, the technical teams seem more open to hearing what he or she has to say. SEO in IT also works well because the SEO is more informed about changes happening on the site (to ensure they are search-engine-friendly), but also because a good SEO will know that partnering with marketing will make their initiative much stronger.

Thus, if you hire the right candidate, even if they wind up in the IT group, your in-house SEO will be open to incorporating marketing into their strategy while still being closer to IT.

If you belong to a company where marketing and IT get along well, you have many options for placing the SEO role. At this point, it comes down to which area can offer the greatest impact to the bottom line, helping productivity and process efficiency.

The primary question to consider as you make this decision is where to place the SEO within the organization so he or she will have the greatest success in implementing changes in both website technology and on-page copy. Involve multiple departments in this decision, including upper level management, IT program managers, and your CTO.

Above all, you need IT to buy in fully to SEO and its success, and bringing them into the decision tree will help with that effort. This decision is not one to be taken lightly, because it can impact greatly how long it takes to reach the synergy phase.

Bring it All In-House or Outsource Pieces of the Strategy?

Even when you bring SEO in-house, sometimes a consultant can be very useful and strategic. The Hybrid In-House SEO model leverages both an in-house SEO and the use of an agency consultant. You may use an agency to take on action items and deliverables or arrange for hourly consulting that consists of conference calls for advice, insight, Q&A, and meetings with the IT department.

The benefits of adding a consultant to your in-house SEO strategy include:

Insight into the SERPs for multiple websites. Agencies work with many websites and see how changes in the SERPs impact other industries and websites. An in-house SEO has less insight into things happening in the SERPs for other sites, which can leave you wondering if fluctuations are the result of an algo change or something specific to your website. This can be challenging to discern when working on your web properties only.

Validation from an expert. When IT puts up opposition, a consultant can help validate that the SEO’s recommendations are indeed necessary. This not only gives external validation, but the agency may have more experience with these crucial conversations and can help brainstorm technical options with the IT department. In-house SEOs may find that ideas they have proposed for months suddenly gain acceptance the instant an outside consultant makes the same recommendation. In fact, quite often an SEO consultant is engaged for this very purpose.

Champion for the in-house SEO. An agency can actually be one of your biggest allies, particularly if your company (or a specific department) places more value on recommendations from a consultant. When this happens, a consultant can reinforce and validate that you have an excellent resource in-house to reach out to for insight and opportunities.

Quick answers to challenging questions. One great benefit of having an agency as a part of your strategy is the ability to reach out to someone when you are stumped. It takes a lot of time to research questions online and weed out the bad advice from the good. A consultant who has more experience than your in-house SEO may be able to offer up an answer and recommendation in one short conversation.

Expand the manpower when needed. Sometimes SEO goes through a period of increased interest in an organization, particularly after you have done a lot of internal marketing to promote it. When this happens, the last thing you want to do is turn away projects because of a lack of resources. This is when the use of an agency can be very beneficial. They can take on the additional work as needed and bolster the image of SEO.

For most companies that I speak with, having a consultant as part of their in-house SEO strategy is considered the best approach. The in-house SEO keeps SEO top of mind and high in priority, yet you can leverage the vast experience, expertise, and manpower that an agency can bring to the table.

Should I Hire an Existing Employee as my SEO?

Once you decide to bring SEO in-house, you need to hire someone for the role. SEO is a hot and burgeoning field and there will likely be existing employees interested in the position.

You can use an existing employee, but first know the trade-offs. I find that most in-house SEOs fall into the position out of a need to figure it out – they may have first been given a small project and later a full-time position focusing on SEO. The challenge with following that plan in today’s market is that the SEO space is a bit more competitive than in the past, making it important for you to consider the benefits of each option:

Hiring an existing employee. Making an existing employee your SEO can be very lucrative – they have existing knowledge of your business and understand the personalities and politics they will be dealing with. This is something that takes a newcomer many months to get their arms around and may not end successfully.

Some companies realize they have employees who already dabble in SEO and could slide into an in-house SEO role seamlessly. If you find that is the case – go for it!  Consider putting them on an SEO project to see how they do. If it is a success, move ‘em over lickety split.

Other companies find an existing employee with both an interest in and aptitude for SEO, but no experience, and assign that person the SEO duties. This often works out well (this is how I got my start). The downside of this route is the learning curve. There are many things this person will need to learn; meanwhile, you could miss out on low-hanging fruit he or she didn’t know existed because of their lack of knowledge and experience.

If you decide to hire an existing employee as your in-house SEO, the benefit of insight and knowledge of your business and political climate is a tremendous asset. One thing I do recommend, however, is taking the Hybrid In-House SEO route and work with a consultant to ensure you’re going after the right things at the right time.

Hiring an experienced SEO. Hiring an experienced SEO takes the weight off your shoulders. He or she can come in on day one and start doing a thorough analysis with specific recommendations that can be prioritized immediately. They can work on their own or build out a team. If they are highly experienced, you will need the expertise of an agency infrequently, if ever.

Hiring an experienced SEO also reduces the likelihood that you will have mistakes going live. This is not to say that inexperienced SEOs won’t make the right recommendations; however, while IT and SEO both seem to speak the same “techy” language, each has a different dialect, which causes the occasional misunderstanding.

An experienced SEO will have faced this dilemma more than once. He or she will know where the risks for inaccuracies lie, how to phrase the issue so everyone gets it right, and which changes need handholding so they go live error-free the first time around.

When hiring an experienced SEO, evaluate each candidate in the same way you would evaluate an agency you are considering working with. Look at websites he or she has optimized and talk to them about tactics they would employ on your website. If you know you do not have the internal expertise to screen experienced candidates for their SEO knowledge, consider hiring a consultant to do this for you.

Soft Skills Needed for an In-House SEO Leader

Whether you hire an existing employee or an experienced SEO, your new hire needs to have the aptitude for navigating the political waters that lie ahead. An in-house SEO faces challenges not typically experienced on the agency side, which means you need to factor this into your selection of a candidate.

What you are looking for is someone with the knowledge to make your SEO campaign a success, but also with the social finesse to present to business executives and gain buy-in from even the most senior of IT engineers.

He or she will need strong presentation skills and the ability to explain technical jargon in everyday language. You do not want someone who peppers an otherwise great message with terms like SERPs, algo, etc., while presenting in front of the CMO and VP level business management – this will cause confusion and takes away from the core message.

Your in-house SEO leader needs to be able to navigate through minefields, sense opposition, and mitigate confrontations. He or she needs to be sensitive to other individuals’ perceptions of how SEO itself may be perceived by those in the organization.

The more politics and red tape in your organization, the more vital these soft skills are for your in-house SEO leader.

Making SEO a Success

Some lessons learned from early adopters of in-house SEO that you could use to help reach synergy as quickly as possible include:

Take baby steps. Your SEO is likely to propose an extremely long list of changes to make the site more search-engine-friendly and worthy of high SERP placement. While this is to be expected, use caution in proposing this mountainous list of changes to higher-ups.

If you suggest that all changes be done immediately, it is likely to be a shock to the system. Possibly, proposed copy changes are quite different from the current content and/or the suggested architecture changes will not work in your present environment or may require too much work to pull off.

Instead, work closely with your SEO and managers who you know are open to change to find ways to break these changes into small chunks so that you can take baby steps to reach the final goal. Propose one small change after another until you eventually get what you want – with minimal opposition.

Ask questions, don’t pose solutions. People don’t like being told what to do, especially if it comes from someone not experienced with a project’s intricacies, legacy, product limitations, and other vital details. Coach your SEO to talk about the problem with stakeholders and ask questions instead of starting conversations with proposed changes.

With the right type of coaxing, stakeholders are likely to come up with the very solution your SEO had in mind. It’s very interesting how the solution proposed by an engineer will carry more weight than a suggestion from the SEO – especially a new SEO – even if it’s the solution your SEO had in mind.

Teach your SEO to master this tactic and the result will be IT helping you define how to make the site search-engine-friendly, while marketing helps you incorporate keywords into page copy – all on their own terms (or so they will think).

Look for allies and cultivate relationships with them. Look around your organization for potential SEO allies.  Two types of allies are key among business and IT stakeholders.

The first are “informers,” who can give you and your SEO a heads up that SEO changes are being removed because of other enhancements being implemented or that SEO changes are being de-scoped to meet deadlines. These allies are vital to keeping you and your SEO informed about things that you would otherwise not find out until it was too late.

The second type of ally could be termed “influencers.” Once appraised of a challenge SEO is facing, they have the clout, influence, and desire to remove obstacles to help make SEO a success. Having these people on your side will simplify your SEO efforts a hundredfold.

Look for small successes. Remember that at times successes are hidden within disappointments. For example, one day after I had pitched the countless opportunities available for SEO to a particular department, a contact said to me, “I thought about calling you today about SEO, but ….”

It was frustrating to see another opportunity come and go, but the seed was planted – the right person thought about SEO at the moment they were working on a project. In short order, this person actually started pulling SEO into various projects.

Listen for these small successes as your SEO talks to you about their frustrations, and bring the hidden successes to light so your SEO can see that progress is being made, even if it doesn’t look that way on the surface.

Incorporate these insights into your in-house SEO strategy and training plan and you will shorten the SEO life cycle and reach synergy before you know it.

About the Author

Jessica Bowman is an in-house SEO at Yahoo! Inc., and relishes in the human side of SEO - the art of getting SEO buy-in throughout the organization. Jessica is an industry columnist and blogs at http://www.SEMinhouse.com.

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