The scene: The SEOMoz afterparty for SMX Advanced 2008.  I was pouring my heart out to an industry pal about the woes of the in-house SEO.  In my next job, I vowed, I would be heading for agency life.  Yeah, and then two years later youll move back in house, he replied sagely.  The grass is always greener.

Sure enough, after just a bit less than two years of agency life, Ive recently moved back in-house.  Has working at an agency made me a lifetime in-house SEO?  Au contraire, mes amis " I had a great time working at an agency, just like Ive had a great time in my in-house positions.  There are also parts of each position that I was/am less than thrilled about.  But if youre pondering a change, heres my list of pros and cons to help you make your own decision " as well as some strategies Ive used in the past to try to ameliorate the cons.

5 Things That Rock About Agency Work

  1. Get familiar with lots of industries. Working in an agency is a great way to get experience across a plethora of different verticals, company sizes and business models.
  2. Learn from your co-workers. Search marketing agencies are full of smart marketers, and each person brings a slightly different experience and skill set to the table.  Encounter a problem youve never seen before? Need a gut check before you send out some recommendations? Just ask your co-workers.
  3. New projects all the time. Theres pretty much never a dull moment at an agency.  Unless youre at a super well-established place thats put a hold on new clients, youll be meeting new people and getting new and interesting projects on the regular.
  4. Be the expert. Companies hire vendors for expertise they dont have in-house; the fact that theyre paying for your expertise lends it a little extra weight.
  5. Fun start-up atmosphere. Even the most well-established search agency is a pretty young company, and keeping employees happy is extra important in a high-demand market like this one.  Chances are the agency youre considering has put some thought into being a fun place to work.

5 Things That Suck About Agency Work

  1. No control over turnaround/execution. One of the most frustrating things about agency work is making stellar recommendations and seeing them go unimplemented.  Once you hand off your recommendations, theres only so much you can do to get them put in place: nagging only goes so far.  Solution: Follow up! Follow through!  Make sure your recommendations are top of mind and make sure you know why they arent being implemented so you know which items to push and which simply cant be done.
  2. Never Enough Hours in the Day. The flip side of the never a dull moment aspect of agency life is that theres always more you could be doing for each of your clients.  Expect to work long hours and not bill for everything you do.  Solution: Work as efficiently as you can. Automate and templatize as many of your repeated processes as possible " the extra work up front will pay off down the line.
  3. Working on Deals You Didnt Sell. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a business isnt ready for SEO.  Its hard for an agency that needs new business to turn away a potential client, so you might end up working on a project you know is doomed to fail " SEO cant fix a flawed business model. Solution: Work with your sales team to educate them on what a good SEO prospect looks like.
  4. Hard to Work in More Time-Consuming Tasks. A big portion of your billable hours will be taken up with reporting and maintenance, making it difficult to work in a truly time-consuming task like a concentrated link building campaign. Solution: Educate your clients and get them working with you to be creating the link-worthy content you dont have the billable hours to do.
  5. Out of the Loop. Since youre not in the building, its easy for you to be out of the loop on your clients projects.  Sometimes a major website change is far underway before its brought to your attention. Solution: Check in with your clients often. Dont forget to specifically ask, any upcoming website changes I should know about?

5 Things That Rock About Being In-House

  1. Intimate knowledge of one site. That website is your whole job.  Its your baby.  That means you can act quickly on new projects and to fix problems.
  2. No more playing telephone. Its nice to be able to just walk down the hall and talk to your IT or marketing team directly.
  3. Go deep on projects. Working in-house gives you the opportunity to go deeper on research projects and spend longer on link building than agency work really allows for.
  4. Help drive strategy. Its easier to keep SEO top of mind for the exec team when youre in meetings with them.  Working in-house means you can fight for the budget you need to make the changes you want.
  5. Be part of the big picture. As part of a larger marketing team, you can work together to sync email, PR, retention marketing, merchandising, etc. with SEO to be one concerted effort and message.

5 Things That Suck About Being in-House

  1. The buck stops here. If your recommendations arent implemented, its on your head.  This can mean working for months or even years to find solutions to a websites deeper problems. Solution: Make sure your managers know what your longer-term projects are and why theyre taking so long.  Leverage their clout to get around obstacles you cant surmount on your own.
  2. Isolation. Its harder to keep up on industry trends and stay fresh with knowledge when youre the only search marketer at your company. Solution: Network with search marketers in your area, and make sure youre meeting up for drinks and shop talk frequently. Bonus: this is fun.
  3. Wearing many hats. Youre going to need to pick up a shovel and pitch in on a lot of different projects on your marketing team; this can result in a lot of non-search-marketing tasks becoming your responsibility. Solution: If youre feeling bogged down in non-search work, make your managers aware of the search stuff youre not able to get to because of it, and its impact on the bottom line.
  4. People dont know what you do. Just because youre in-house doesnt mean the loop problem goes away.  A website can have a lot of moving parts, and if your dev team doesnt get SEO best practices, you could still be dealing with changes made without your knowledge. Solution: The ol booze and cookies.  Sit down with any teams that touch the website and do a brown-bag presentation on SEO.  Stop by frequently to ask if you can help with anything and to remind them to loop you in if any major changes are being made.
  5. Politics. Being an in-house SEO is just as much about politics as it is about search marketing skills. Get ready to fight for your projects as they get prioritized against everyone elses. Solution: Show them the money " relate performance improvements back to revenue gains, and your stuff will get done.
Ruth Burr

Ruth Burr has been working in SEO since 2006, both in-house and agency-side. She's currently working as the Lead SEO at SEOMoz. Ruth's passions include data-driven decision making, quality content, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

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12 Responses to “Should I Work In-House or at an Agency? [10 For/Against]”

  1. Once you get past the basic agency vs. in-house debate, you can actually slice up the situation even more. Within in-house positions there's quite a lot the differs between an ecommerce business and a publishing business. On the agency side, there are significant differences between big agencies that do everything and small agencies that focus. It's taken me a while to figure out what's right (for me).

    • Ruth Burr says:

      Marios – I so agree! I think like any industry, the best thing we can do is take the best part of each position to the next one, and learn what we do and don't want along the way.

  2. Thanks Ruth for this very nice post and insights on SEO. I am contemplating on outsourcing the task and it is nice to see the pros and cons coming from an industry expert. While the site is still on the works and budgeting is scarce, I feel that it would be better to outsource the workload. However, I feel that my knowledge on the matter sets me back. I have read much on the new software available and is thinking about outsourcing the labor to populate the process.

    • Ruth Burr says:

      Hi Thomas, I'd really encourage you to be looking at SEO requirements now, before your site is fully up – it will save you so much money down the line. An SEO engagement can be anything from a one-time audit to a full-time employee, so I hope you'll be able to find a solution that works for you within your budget. Best of luck!

  3. This is a really well done post Ruth. While I think the pros and cons you listed are very comprehensive… I'm left wondering why you don't run a business on the side. To really test your abilities, you should try running your own sites. This will keep you current with new things, and make you even more valuable in your day jobs. You can start simple with some affiliate products.

    • Ruth Burr says:

      Hi Brian, I appreciate your comments. A lot of SEOs do run their own side businesses and sites, it's true. I've made a personal decision not to as part of my commitment to my family and to a healthy work/life balance. Since I never try any SEO tactics that I wouldn't try on an employer's website, I'm able to really give each site I work on my all, and that site gets the full benefit of my ongoing testing and learning.

  4. Nancy says:

    I am currently working in house. You are right about most people not having an idea on what I do. So far, I am not yet tired of explaining my work to them. I am actually having fun especially that I am very passionate with what I do. But with the type of work's increasing popularity in time I am sure I will do less explaining.

  5. Michael says:

    I get a little bit of both worlds by working as an in-house SEO/social media marketing manager for a company and doing marketing consultation freelance on the side.

    To be sure, it's tough to strike a balance between a full-time job, freelancing and a social life, but it feels great to get two "paychecks" in one week!

  6. […] Should I Work In-House or at an Agency? [10 For/Against] – Search Engine People […]

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