Should You Bring Search In-House?

Should you bring your search marketing efforts in-house? This is a question many companies are wrestling with right now. It’s a very serious question that’s worth the time it’ll take to make the right choice.

“Bringing search in-house” really means, in many instances, creating a new group inside the company – a new division. Sure, they’ll most likely live within marketing, but they will speak an entirely different language, and they’ll interface with so many other groups within your company that care in building this team is critical.

The Value of an In-House Search Program

The first step in the process is defining the need. It’s a daunting task, and mistakes can be costly – both in terms of lost revenue from the Web site, and from spoiled relationships when trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. We’ll talk more about “the fit” in a minute, for now, lets examine one of the main reasons this idea is even in your head.

No matter how you slice this, bringing search in-house is about one key concept: control. Some people are control freaks, others are very much hands-off. Regardless of your personal style in this regard, the desire to bring your search marketing efforts inside your direct sphere of influence will allow you some key benefits:

  1. Immediate access to the knowledge – No more waiting on return e-mails to tell you if that idea is a good one, or if this idea is safe to implement
  2. Integration with your current workflow – It’s critical that all the efforts of several teams be fed into the system of building, optimizing and maintaining a Web site at the right time, in the right order. Having your folks in-house allows you to integrate their efforts as you would all others.
  3. Innate knowledge – No one knows your product like you. No matter how good the sales pitch, no one outside your company will be able to devote enough time to researching your product to understand it at the depth you do. So, in-house efforts already grasp the core values of the company and they understand the strategic plan the company is following, so they are attuned to the nuances of how projects move forward and what the end goals are.

There may be myriad other reasons why your company is exploring this option, including past bad experiences with outsourced efforts, a corporate culture of “build, not buy,” or even a community-focused desire for local job creation. Whatever the reasons, you’re faced with a serious decision. Only you will be able to determine if your reasons merit the effort.

Implementing an In-House SEM Plan

So, you have been tasked with starting an in-house SEM effort. Where do you begin?

Start by dividing your search plan into two segments – optimization of the Web site for organic rankings, and paid efforts. By doing this, you’ll be able to focus on the unique aspects of each vertical and decide which should get the most attention. While paid search efforts can have the most immediate results, and can often be managed by one person, there can also be a heavy cost involved.

In some industries the cost of a click has skyrocketed, which makes the talent you apply in this area very important. You’ll be looking for someone who’s strong on the numbers, and an excellent copywriter as well – a perfect combo of tech and talent.

Deciding to place the lion’s share of your efforts into the organic search ranking side of things requires its own special mix within a person. Not everyone is equipped to manage the massive amount of continual education it requires to stay on top of the ever-changing world of search. A self starter is a no-brainer here, but this person should also be able to write excellent copy while unconsciously integrating the right keywords into the mix in the right places and in the right volume. This person needs to be able to read the analytics for your site and see the opportunities between the numbers, the direction of traffic flowing into your site, and the keyword research that has pinpointed what users are actively searching for. To say this person needs to see a “big picture” is an understatement.

Fitting Search Into the Business Organization

Now, throw into this mix that this person must excel in relationship building. They, unlike their paid search counterpart, might be integrating efforts with other marketing team members, designers, product managers, programmers and sysadmins. Who they’ll be working with depends on how your internal structures are built, but I know in my own personal case, I liaise with all those folks as well as project managers, ad sales reps and the occasional executive from time to time.

Getting everyone on board with the numerous tips and tweaks you’ll want to implement as part of successfully optimizing your Web site is critical. It’s unlikely this person will be the person implementing URL rewrites for unflattering URL strings. They won’t be physically setting up any needed 301 redirects, though this person will be the first person to see if they work or not, and they’ll need a delicate touch when going back to the programmer to tell them to try again.

Organic optimization efforts live in a world that is part science and part art. Building this side of your team requires an individual who not only fits your company’s culture, but who lives the world of search. It’s not a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday gig that you can walk away from for weeks at a time. Staying on top of the latest trends, changes and updates requires a dedication not solely purchased with a good salary and benefits package.

Now, if that seems like a tall task, take heart. Often those who excel in this environment are already working for you. Neither of you may realize the potential, but with you leading, and having a solid understanding of the value of these skill sets to a person, it’s an easy sell to get someone who’s sort-of interested to convert to a full-on disciple. A savvy employee will see the opportunity and jump onto your bandwagon – and they’re likely just the sort to thrive in this world.

If your main focus trends away from organic efforts and more towards paid efforts, well, things are a bit easier, but not by much. Much like a good programmer can see the three-dimensional finished product from the code he/she creates, a paid search expert must be able to see the “big picture” being painted by the numbers. Click-through rates, costs per click, budget allocations, time-of-day trends, geo-targeting efforts, visitor time on a page stats and so much more is integral to their efforts being successful. It’s easy to set up the account, insert the keywords, drop some text into the ad spaces and “let ‘er rip”. And that sort of attitude will quickly lead to high costs and underperforming ads.

The paid side of search also requires a unique mix in an individual. They have to be “stat-happy” and able to see the picture the numbers are painting, while understanding how the copy they create influences the ebb and flow of ads within a given system. A keen knowledge of how each ad delivery system you’ll be using is critical. Understanding how the systems react to bid changes and learning the tips and tricks inherent to each system can take an average PPC campaign into “stellar” territory. Such success is what you will need to show those watching this in-house experiment, too. Until everyone fully embraces what search can do for your business, consider your efforts to be in a beta state.

Manage Expectations & Track Success

As the leader of the pack, you might find yourself wearing one or more of these hats. If it’s your responsibility, it’s critical that you get all expectations aligned prior to starting things up. Having an executive group who thinks creating the department and backing it with $50 a month for a budget will lead to disappointment for everyone. You’ll be overworked, and areas that require lots of attention might only get a cursory glance.

Remember, while paid search efforts can yield good results in a short time, organic efforts are ongoing and long-term. Think in 6-month blocks for organic efforts. If you have to pick one, make sure you review your company’s goals for the year, then pick the effort that’ll get the most for the least, and get cracking.

I know one individual who, when given the green light to start up PPC campaigns, but no budget, used his personal credit card to fund a campaign. As soon as the product manager saw sales increasing, the job of getting funding to continue the PPC efforts was much easier. If you truly believe in-house is the way to go, or your company wants it to happen, and you sign on for the ride, be ready. Lots of folks like the idea of managing things in-house, but have no idea of what it takes.

If you find yourself in this camp, be ready to learn it yourself, or learn enough to hire the right folks and build a solid team. Two people can make an effective search marketing team, if they’re committed and willing to learn. One person CAN do it all, but invariably they will need to farm some of the work out to third parties at some point, and that brings us right back to budgets and where to spend them.

Answering these critical questions can point you in the right direction. After that, read, learn, ask questions and experiment. Success is out there, if you know what buttons to push.

Duane Forrester is an in-house search marketing manager for Sports Direct Inc., a sports media company in Eastern Canada. He is also the co-chair for SEMPO’s In-House SEM Committee, as well as a 2007 board member. Forrester blogs at The Online Marketing Guy, and moderates in several SEM industry forums.

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