SEO Agencies, In-House Link Team, or Link Company – Which Is Best for You?

I want to start by saying that as the owner of a link-building company, naturally you’re going to think that my obvious bias is toward hiring an outside link firm for link development. However, I started out as head of an agency SEO team, then moved on to working in-house, so I’ve seen the benefits and downsides of all of it. I’m not here to sell you on doing anything other than what works best for you, so hear me out.

SEO Agency

When I say “agency” I mean an SEO company that doesn’t specialize in link-building. When I worked for an agency years and years ago, I was just getting my feet wet in the industry so I learned to do everything from code to on-site and off-site SEO and PPC. It was one of those glorious eras where you could easily be a generalist and not fall far behind. While I liked having a variety of clients to work with, I didn’t really enjoy having my focus spread out so widely as it was tough to try and manage large-scale PPC accounts, optimize hundreds of pages on an e-commerce site, check rankings in various engines every day, look at traffic, and still have time left over to brainstorm new ideas about what would make the site perform better online.

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The Pros

1. There were other people on the team. That was the awesome part, having someone else to brainstorm problems and ideas with, to see what I couldn’t see when I’d go blind over some tiny thing. I was the team lead so I had to know everything, within reason, as I had to lead others, but I loved being on the spot and being responsible. I’d have also loved having someone else in charge so I could ask questions, but being forced to be “the one” was the best thing that could have ever happened in my career as I am incredibly stubborn and don’t like to let anyone down.

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2. I could usually apply what I’d learned with one client to the others. If something in particular was spectacularly successful with one, it was easy enough to translate it into something spectacularly successful for the others. If something failed big time, then I’d save time by not trying it out on 10 other clients. Testing new tactics was incredibly fun.

3. Working with a variety of clients in various industries gave me a great appreciation and knowledge of clients in niches that I’d never have known about otherwise. I’ve always thought that the best link builders and content creators are people who never stop thinking and learning.

4. The simple act of learning how to successfully build links easily translates from one client to the next so it’s theoretically just as easy to do it for one client as another. Sure, you’ll use different approaches and methods with different clients but for the most part, submitting to directories or emailing to ask for a link is pretty similar no matter who the client is.

5. Overall online marketing was pretty easy to coordinate with most clients as our agency also did Web development and design.

The Cons

1. It’s very bad to think that everything you learn on one site will automatically work well for another site. I know I’ve said that I could apply what I learned with one client to the other clients but that comes with a big “usually” attached to it, and that also depends on the tactic. Sometimes making a title change helped, but then we’d try that on other sites and the dial never moved. Using exact match for PPC was great for some clients but for others, not so great. With regards to links, sometimes emailed outreach works great for a site. Sometimes it stinks.

2. Having so many clients to focus on was fun until it was overwhelming. It’s very hard to really know a client when you have 20 of them and you’re trying to do it all. If we’d had specific SEO teams where we could have focused on specific areas then that would have been great but again, it was a blessing for me to have to do it all I think.

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So would I recommend that you use an agency for link work? If they’re trained in building good links, absolutely. Are they, though? I’d try them and see before committing. There are some people who are naturally good at building links. We do work with some SEO companies whose SEOs let us handle the link-building because they are too busy, but these guys know a LOT about link development. They ask me questions and I ask them questions and I’m satisfied that a lot of them only outsource to us because they’re too busy doing other things and link work takes up a ton of time.

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Warning Signs

1. They don’t show you the links they’re building. I’m amazed at the fact that anyone can get away with this but we have dealt with so many people who say their former SEOs never gave them a list of the links they built. I’m not talking about them doing content marketing and social promotions and then landing links a week later either. I’m talking about actively building links and just not giving that data to the client. If your company won’t do that, drop them.

2. They aren’t upfront and honest about how they’ll build links and possible risks involved. If they pull the “just let us handle it” crap, insist on knowing what they’re doing, what the risks are, what you can expect, etc.

3. They don’t communicate with you. I don’t care how busy they are, if you have a question about your marketing campaign and it takes a week for someone to respond to you, that’s a big red flag. In a big agency things can get crazy but that doesn’t mean you should be satisfied with only hearing back from your contact a month after you’ve asked a question.

In-House Link Team

Man I loved being in-house! I loved focusing on just one client, so to speak, even though there were lots of sites and different products. I loved working with other teams for that specific company, too.

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The Pros

1. The focus on just one main client means that you can dive very deeply into everything about that client. You can’t get that kind of knowledge when you have 20 clients to handle. Knowing a client and its sites inside and out tends to make you feel very invested, also, or at least it did that to me. Of course I want all my clients to do well, but when I was in-house I felt even more passionately about it.

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2. You can easily communicate with other teams without having to jump through hoops. I hate it when people try and push link development into a blind corner because it’s so much more effective when there’s open communication and cooperation. If you notice that the PPC team is spending a fortune on a term that you are building links for (and ranking well for) then maybe you can chat about that and one of you can pull back and free up some budget for something else that needs attention.

3. You know more about what’s going on in other channels. I rarely hear much about what’s going on with offline marketing with my clients, for example. When you’re in-house, you have access to all of this. If there’s going to be a big magazine ad next month and you’re building links, well that’s some great ammunition for you. If there’s a huge clearance sale happening over Spring Break and first time users can get 15 percent off plus free shipping, you can mention that in your initial outreach emails and hopefully help generate sales, and if you don’t, you’ve hopefully still triggered a bit of interest that might lead to a mention on social media or a purchase down the road.

The Cons

1. Sometimes having a very narrow focus can bore people. I never got bored but I know that my link builders occasionally get bored and burned out if they work on the same client for too long. It makes some of them do a better job but some people really thrive on variety.

2. Not being funny here, but the potential for losing your job if something bad happens to the site you’re building links for is pretty high.

3. YOU may be the link team. You may have no one to bounce ideas off, which is never fun. If you’re using an in-house link builder, make sure you give him or her adequate room to interact with other link people whether it’s online or offline.

As I said, though, I loved being in-house and I think that focusing on just one main client means that you have all the information you need to succeed.

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Warning Signs

1. There’s very little or no communication. Hopefully in-house this won’t be a big problem but if it is, that’s not good.

2. You make recommendations and they never get implemented, if you’re the link builder. If you’re on another team, the same applies. Let’s say you’re a manager and you ask for a report on traffic from links you’ve built. You don’t get one. Why not? Because the link people aren’t tracking their work. Let’s say you’re a link builder and you point out that there need to be 301s put into place when the developers change URLs, and it doesn’t happen. Bad stuff.

Link Company

This is me today and I love it but as I said, if the right opportunity came along I would love to be in-house again. I also do the exact same thing that my link builders do, so while I do manage them and do other things, I’m still in the trenches building links just like they do. I actually like it a lot and when I have a week where I’m doing other things, I miss it. I think it’s very hard to effectively manage people whose job you’ve never done and I learned a lot about the problems my link builders face once I started doing their job alongside them.

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The Pros

1. Unless they’re just bad link companies, most agencies devoted to links really do know their stuff when it comes to the subject. They’re up on Google’s current Webmaster Guidelines, they understand manual penalties and algorithmic problems, and generally no matter what type of link-building they specialize in, they just know links. Have you ever seen the movie (or read the book) Smila’s Sense of Snow? Smila knows snow. Link companies know links.

2. They’re able to brainstorm with other link builders and stay creative. Link development can really burn you out so being able to talk to people in the same boat is immensely helpful.

3. They will be working with lots of different companies most likely, so you’ll get the benefit of their experience building links for all kinds of sites.

The Cons

1. Links may be ALL they know. If they’re specialists then maybe they’ve only ever built links but it’s nice when they’ve done something else, too, because it’s all pieces of a big puzzle. If your link company doesn’t understand anything other than links, it may be difficult to have them work with other teams.

2. They may have a one size fits all approach to link outreach, and while that might work, there are many times when it won’t. For example, we usually use roughly the same template for outreach although it’s still personalized and customized by each link builder for the site we’re contacting. It doesn’t always work. In fact, we have one client where I noticed the usual wasn’t working and I had to change it up completely to even get any responses.

3. Sometimes when you deal with link development it’s all you think about, getting those links. We face that with our guys because we’re supposed to close out the monthly campaigns, spend the budgets, and keep the client happy. However (and this is true for anyone building links I imagine) link quality can suffer with that pressure. If I had a link budget of $5,000 for a client and that was just for links, I might be more inclined to pursue lower-quality links when the end of the month came around and I knew that the client wouldn’t be able to keep that budget if we couldn’t spend it. Luckily we don’t have anyone in that situation but it’s definitely a possibility. If you were working for an SEO agency, for example, if you didn’t spend the $5,000 on links you could spend the remaining money on some paid ads or on paying a developer to speed up the site, etc.

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Warning Signs

1. They won’t show you the links they build. God I hate this. I don’t mean content marketers here, either. I mean people who are specifically tasked with building links, not creating content that will hopefully get links. That is a nightmare to track sometimes. I’m talking about being charged $5,000 for link development and not being given a breakdown of how that money got spent. If they’re charging on an hourly basis, then that’s fine. If they charge per link like we do, fine. If they just charge you $5,000 and there’s no itemization, I’d switch to someone else.

2. They don’t keep up with changes in the link industry. Just because they’re link specialists doesn’t mean they know how to do anything other than send emails begging for links. If they’re still specializing only in social bookmarking, you might want to look elsewhere. The same applies to using networked links.

3. They refuse to answer your questions. Our clients and potential clients usually ask us a ton of questions and we in turn ask them a ton. There are some questions that we don’t answer (such as who are our clients and where are examples of links we’ve built) so if you run into that non-disclosure, ask for something else to make you feel comfortable. In order to compensate clients for not being able to see examples before they sign on, we do a very small test run, for example, and if they want to use us, then we sign a contract. If not, we part ways. If a client wants to know how we plan to get links for them, we tell them exactly what we’ll be doing.

4. They promise you that their strategies and tactics are 100 percent whitehat, 100 percent safe, and penalty-proof. I buy the 100 percent whitehat bit (with evidence of course) but totally safe? Penalty-proof? I think there are safe tactics certainly but I wouldn’t stake my life on it, not using that language at least. Penalty-proof? I don’t believe that for a second. How can anything be penalty-proof when Google keeps adding to their list of Webmaster Guidelines?

Summary

A lot to consider, isn’t it? If I didn’t own my own company, which route would I go? Probably in-house, as I loved that role myself and I’d rather have a link builder that knew my site inside and out and was dedicated to helping me and me alone. However, my company is tiny. We don’t have 10,000 products to sell. If I owned Home Depot, I’d probably hire an in-house team plus use an outside link firm to help out. If I owned a restaurant and wanted to do better online, I’d probably hire an agency so they could handle more than just links, but as I’ve said, a lot of SEO companies do outsource their link building to link companies.

What do you guys think? Have you had any good or bad experiences that you’d like to share? What is your dream role if you’re building links? What’s your choice if you’re a business owner and need links?

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