In-House + Agency = Twice the SEO Power

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Synopsis – Today’s search marketers might be surprised to learn how apt some of the classic advertising and marketing theories and advice from a century ago are when applied to today’s online marketing endeavors. Many ideas about what motivates a person to act on an ad — whether it be projected via a smart touchscreen on a store window in a large city or painted on the side of a building in a small town — haven’t changed despite the massive technological advancements in how to disseminate that message. One of the most often-quoted superstars of advertising, David Ogilvy, had a specific piece of advice that suggested the power that can come from strategic alliances with talented people. In his article, “In-House + Agency = Twice the SEO Power,” Chris Boggs takes this tenet to today’s world of online advertising and discusses how the idea applies to search engine optimization, personified by the synergy resulting from the combination of the talents of an in-house SEO team and an outside agency.

Using a real-life example, Chris goes through some of the difficult decisions faced along the way, problems that cropped up, star performers during the exercise, and some important lessons learned. If your company’s SEO plans seem stuck in a rut, it may help you to consider adding an agency to the mix. Even if you feel your business is too small to benefit, the ideas Chris provides in his article may inspire you to experiment with new techniques to energize your team.

The complete article follows …

In-House + Agency = Twice the SEO Power

Search engine optimization is getting pretty close to becoming a universally accepted component of advertising. More and more C-level executives are asking questions of their marketing teams about ranking in Google – definitely a good sign. Another good sign? Classic advertising and marketing theories and tenets can increasingly be translated to the language of SEO. Claude Hopkins’ classic, Scientific Advertising (originally published in 1923), said: “The best ads ask no one to buy. That is useless….The ads are based entirely on service. They offer wanted information.” One could argue that a search engine spider reads on-page content and awards authority and objective value (and thus high organic positions) with this directive in mind.

Another advertising genius, David Ogilvy, is said to have advised marketers: “First, make yourself a reputation for being a creative genius. Second, surround yourself with partners who are better than you are. Third, leave them to go get on with it.” Applying this to SEO is a wise decision for Internet marketing managers and executives in 2008. Building a strong in-house SEO team and supporting it with an outsourced expert will likely yield the best long-term results for any website, and especially for the Internet presence of a large organization.

Recent Search Marketing Standard articles have provided excellent advice for building an in-house team and choosing the right agency partner. This article relates a real-life example of how one in-house SEO team managed the process internally while leveraging an expert consulting team to provide additional guidance and legwork. With the right internal and external resources allocated – and a strong plan – SEO can be supercharged to fit within all the established search engine guidelines without the need for shortcuts.

Who Owns What?

The particular relationship I’m basing my comments on is between Brulant (the company I work for) and a large multi-service firm. The client already has a strong internal search team from the top on down. Their department head also oversees paid search and display advertising and has advanced knowledge and experience in all pertinent areas. He has built a team of talented individuals into search-trained project managers that handle the voluminous amounts of recommendations and project reports originating in different parts of the company.

The most important part of launching the SEO engagement is establishing the workflow process. Every company has a different structure, both in an organizational sense and in terms of politics. In this case, we held kickoff meetings with different teams, in order to establish processes customized to each service area. The teams were tasked with identifying persons or groups responsible for two primary functions of the SEO project: content ownership and approvals. Once these personnel were identified, the project began to move forward, and the optimization process began.

The first stage of any SEO implementation is keyword research and selection. In this particular relationship, keywords and content ended up being owned by each individual service area, as opposed to a central web or marketing communications division. We decided on a phased approach to ensure keyword research was being delivered for different groups in a consistent and categorized fashion. This allowed the internal team to manage the process smoothly, and for iteration and approvals to occur in a more rapid manner than if the research been delivered en masse. Additionally, this workflow facilitated resource allocation and project planning on the Brulant side, thereby satisfying desired efficiencies on both sides.

The client will always have final say over content that will appear on their website. However, search engine optimizers can be a persuasive bunch, especially with a strong ally in a high position on the inside – in this case, the department head responsible for SEO initiatives. This streamlined the process of deciding which primary service areas would be dominantly positioned on the homepage of the domain, and which would need to rely on deeper pages to make the biggest splash in search engines. Without a strong internal standard-bearer, the infighting over SEO could last weeks – if not months – as keywords and content are decided. Sometimes this is long enough to let two or three competitors get in front and stay there.

Once a company has decided to undertake a SEO project, even though the planning should be long-term, the action and decision making should begin immediately, so as not to lose even a single week of better-optimized content. This may seem over the top to some, but it is based on significant experience. For example, another client last year shifted strategies nearly at the end of the engagement and chose not to use a whole newly created subdomain targeting a specific online commerce opportunity. Now, six months later, their barrier to entrance into the Top 10 for their targeted terms is likely 300%-400% higher.

Bumps in the Road

The client who shifted strategies at the last minute – delaying the promotion of optimized content to a live website – may be an extreme example, but there are many more scenarios that can result in a rocky road. With our multi-service client, many of their services are bound by legal restrictions, both at the service and marketing level. The client is subject to multiple internal reviews of all supposedly finalized SEO content, sometimes causing delays in receiving approval to move ahead. However, thanks to the clear process established during the kickoff phase, these delays have been mitigated. Also, thanks to consistent communication throughout content development, the majority of the optimization made it through the approval process unscathed. Again, having a strong executive in-house championing the content helps to get content though quicker, and the value of that relationship and trust helps both sides get closer to the goal more quickly.

Another problem that may occur is fallout from business models changing between the time of the signing of the SEO engagement and the kickoff or content approval phase. Another client, also a multi-line company, once surprised Brulant during the kickoff phase by a request from one line of the business that asked to be blocked from being indexed in the search engines, stating that they in fact did not want any visibility.

Issues will arise in almost every project, no matter how smooth the relationship. The value of a strong relationship is that it is more likely that a problem can be quickly resolved. In the case of legal delays, other work can be done, such as preparing for the linking portion of the SEO engagement or establishing performance benchmarks and reporting templates. Also, since there are multiple services being addressed, focus on either side can switch in mid-stride – again thanks to strong teams on both sides (don’t try this at home, kids).

The Client Overachiever

One of the best parts of Brulant’s relationship with this particular client was our realization that we were dealing with an individual we began to fondly refer to as the client’s SEO “Poster Child.” During the establishment of the communication process, we had invited service area managers/owners to participate in the ongoing meetings at their convenience – during the build process as well as through the ongoing reporting that kicked in after the content had been optimized and pushed live. One manager in particular took this to heart, and has participated at a level greatly exceeding that of the rest of the service managers.

The Poster Child (as we affectionately call him) is at nearly all the relevant meetings between the internal and Brulant teams. His presence in those meeting has collectively saved the project in excess of 20 hours of back-and-forth communications. I point this out not to denigrate the other service content owners, as I realize they are very busy and SEO is only one of many responsibilities they have. Rather, I congratulate the Poster Child for his dedication to the cause. He has fully bought in to the value of SEO, and it is likely his area of the website will incrementally benefit as a result. Perhaps most importantly, the Poster Child helps to keep the morale level high, both internally and externally. That alone is enough to warrant accolades.

The Best of Both Worlds

Not everyone can have a strong SEO team consisting of both internal management and outsourced support. However, it appears that people are learning that SEO should not be taken lightly when considering staffing decisions. Indeed.com’s Job Trends graph, which shows relative growth for job descriptions, indicates close to a 600% increase since 2005 in the inclusion of the term “seo” in job descriptions, having grown from a presence in .025% of jobs to 0.15% of all jobs as of May 2008. Other indicators make it clear there is a shortage of talent in SEO that is being addressed on multiple fronts.

According to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization Survey of SEM Agencies and Advertisers (December 2007-January 2008), many firms choose to outsource SEO, primarily because it is still a relatively new tactic. The report states that “about half of respondents (53%) began conducting Organic SEO programs in the past three years. The same percentage of responders report their primary reason for outsourcing organic SEO is difficulty staying abreast of ‘best practices,’ and more than a third (37%) lack the necessary tools in-house.” These last two numbers will likely shrink as the job pool grows. However, research indicates – and our experience also suggests – that at least for the next few years, having both in-house specialists and a competent SEO firm assisting them may well be the best option for achieving lasting success.

About the Author

Chris Boggs of Rosetta is a specialist in search engine optimization and paid search advertising. Chris joined Brulant in 2007 as the Manager of the SEO team, and Rosetta acquired Brulant in 2008.

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