In-House Vs. Outsourced: What Is the Best Solution?

Search Engine Marketing has grown up. Now that so many senior executives are learning the power of paid search and search engine optimization, the demand for qualified “in-house” search specialists (full time or contract employees) has grown by leaps and bounds. This is similar to other business needs that were first identified and controlled by the domain of outsourced consultants, such as high-profile headhunting (recruiting), or applications development projects, for example.

The relationship between in-house and agency search experts has never really been an adversarial one, at least not overtly. Over the years, people have evangelized the merits of one over the other in forums and in blogs, as well as within organizational marketing planning and strategy meetings within sequestered boardrooms.

In my opinion, the ideal strategy is to get “the best of both worlds.” One should hire the best possible internal staff, but also solicit the support of a search engine marketing firm or a search-proven agency, in order to get the most out of Internet marketing efforts. The trick is finding the right level of skill on both sides, and avoiding the creation or semblance of conflict between the parties. If the in-house team or manager can work well with the agency, and goals are being met, the honeymoon will last a long time. Should jealousy or competition take over – needless time will be wasted, derailing the marketing efforts behind everything.

SES San Jose: The Microcosm Panel

Last week, I was able to cover a Search Engine Strategies panel for Search Engine Roundtable that dealt with this exact topic titled, In House: In, Out, or in Between?The panel was clearly in agreement that the hybrid model works best. In fact, some attendees may have been surprised to hear all the love on the panel for the in-house side, especially since agency folks represented almost the entire panel. Danny Sullivan and Jeff Rohrs did a great job putting this group together, and it worked well because they all had in-house experience in the past.

Paul Elliott of eMergent Marketing/Brulant provided a nice list of pro and cons for in-house and outsourced search marketing, and spoke of key support and liaison roles that must exist when agencies and in-house teams collaborate on projects. He clearly outlined some of the benefits of using an outsourced agency, including the ability to avoid the need to recruit internally (or via outsourcing, I imagine); the benefit of using proprietary tools; and very importantly, in my opinion, the resulting ability to maintain focus on other aspects of the business.

Matt Greitzer of Avenue A | Razorfish also provided excellent insight into some of the questions in-house teams should be asking agencies, including, “Can I meet you?” Matt felt the human relationship was very important to evaluate prior to making any partnership commitments. Marshall Simmonds from the New York Times suggested the use of an “embedded strategist,” and Jessica Bowman of pointed to the human side of the equation in saying that for the in-house specialist, “80 percent of the time is spent selling search marketing to the rest of the team; 20 percent actually doing SEM.”

Bill Hunt from Global Strategies, which he sold to NEO@Ogilvy earlier this year (one of many acquisitions over the past year, which shows that agencies themselves are looking for “in-house” SEM expertise), provided his usual wisdom, advocating “full integration for optimal results.” He also echoed the other speakers’ recommendations to include other marketing departments and senior leadership in the planning.

The common thread was that all the speakers felt the hybrid model could provide outstanding results if properly configured. Based on my experience, I can wholeheartedly concur that working with an expert on the in-house side generally makes things both easier and more successful. Working with buffoons who say yes to a keyword list and then want to make changes three months later is not exactly my cup of soup. Unfortunately, in a lot of large corporations, that soup is served fairly regularly.

Right at the end of the question and answer section of the SES panel, which many people may have missed, there was a short argument about the ability of doing keyword research, and whether this is a task better outsourced or done in-house. Based on the strong feelings evident on both “sides” (Bill Hunt took the in-house side), the argument for in-house versus outsourced is only beginning…

Let the Mudslinging Begin

As a member of the SEMPO Board of Directors, I do a fair amount of work to help promote search marketing. One of the things I am proudest of over the past year is the creation of the SEMPO Institute, which can and hopefully will go a long way toward filling the current gap in qualified individuals in this field. Other SEM training programs have launched as well this year and last year, and Bruce Clay and other SEMs have been offering training somewhat “below the radar” for years.

Unfortunately, the decision was made recently to publish an Editorial in the SEMPO learning center that lambasted in-house search marketers titled, “6 Reasons Why In-House Search Engine Marketing is Ineffective.” The resulting backlash in forums has been loud and sometimes falsely pointed toward SEMPO. Whether or not the authoring company came across as a bit self-serving, this editorial is a good example of the types of disagreements that will be voiced more frequently as the search landscape continues to grow and change.

An Olive Branch

I assume some may be thinking, “Can’t we all just get along?” I feel that it is important to forge ahead in the evolution of the relationships between in-house and agencies. However, I think a little debate now and then can only help strengthen the industry, since discussions such as this – when conducted between adults – will help us all grow and learn. The synergies that can exist between two groups of experts, each with a different job but the same goal of getting the same site(s) ranked, is something that is hard to beat, based on my experience.

So – can we all be adults and behave when working together? I certainly hope so. I feel that those who sling mud often get most of it on themselves. I hope that some of the readers will choose to discuss this topic at the SEW Forums in the thread dedicated to this column: “Just One Agency Point of View.”

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