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An SEO Turncoat

by Marc Elison June 16, 2011

Don't panic everybody, I am definitely not trading my virginal white hat for one of a darker colour but I didn't think anybody wants to see another SEO blog post or article titled SEO agency vs. In-house, but that's exactly what this is about. It has been just shy of a year since I left the comfort of Bruce Clay Australia to tread the very different path of an in-house SEO for a very large Australian organisation, and what an interesting year it has been. I recently ran into all my old cohorts from Bruce Clay Australia at SMX Sydney and besides discussing the shifting search-scape and the impact of the Panda update, it was suggested I should write a blog post to celebrate my 1 year(ish) anniversary of leaving Bruce Clay. I thought it was a great idea and this brings us to this article, comparing the different nuances and experiences from an agency SEO to an in-house one. So without further waffle, let's go!

Clients

Fence

One of my first thoughts upon landing the in-house role was; how is it going to feel not having any clients? I can't answer that question because I still have clients; they are just called by another name, Business Units. The organisation I currently work for has products and services, ranging from hotel bookings in Tahiti (I did mention for me to be fully immersed in the product, I should experience it personally, my boss however did not agree, sadly) to car loans, each with their own specific challenges and needs. In actuality, I think I have more 'clients' now than I ever did at Bruce Clay.

The difference I think is that I do have more time and more people to speak to in order to fully understand all the ins and out of the business units that I take care of from an SEO perspective. I am also exposed to more of the people with expert knowledge within those business units as opposed to just two or three people per organisation, which was the case at BC. That being said, different parties within the business units occasionally have different objectives with regard to their websites and this can be an interesting stakeholder management prospect. Whereas at Bruce Clay we generally had an overriding objective for the client, which made the SEO process a little easier.

Reporting

Reporting is often the bane of anybody working within the SEO field and for the most part I am no different. At Bruce Clay we produced some of the most informative, comprehensive reports I have ever come across and for SEO, these reports were a virtual goldmine of actionable insights, however for a non-technical client, they may have seemed a little overwhelming. One of my first priorities upon arriving at my current employer was to find a reporting solution that was:

  • Able to provide actionable insights without being too technical
  • Scalable, no matter how many elements were included
  • Semi-automated
  • Cost effective.

Over the course of a month I did a fairly comprehensive due diligence of all of the reporting packages out there (I must have had about 15 trial versions of SEO software and cloud-based solutions at one stage). In the end, after discussion with the team and the different business units, I made my decision. The key criteria that I prioritised for were:

  • Keyword rankings for each business unit
  • Links acquired over the month
  • Google analytics information which is actually tied to the keyword rankings
  • Facebook, Twitter and YouTube data by using their API's to pull top level analytics

And the great thing is, these reports were produced semi-autonomously on a monthly basis, I add my 2 cents in the form of a commentary and actions and Barry's your uncle (well my uncle anyway, who has an uncle named Bob?!?). If I had an entire team to lovingly handcraft and create the fantastic reports that BC is famous for, but for now a tool will just have to do.

Team environment

I am not gonna kid, at Bruce Clay, it was a veritable SEO geek fest every minute of every day, dissecting Matt Cutts's new video to see what he said (and, as is always the case with Google, what he DIDN'T say), potential new algorithm changes, whether the Kincaid Reading level has an effect of a particular piece of content etc. When I moved in-house, this wasn't the case. When I started working in the digital team and happily proclaimed to everybody that no-follows might still have a use despite the changes Google made to their link counting algorithm to negate the effect of PageRank sculpting, all I got were some polite nods and glassy eyes. In hindsight maybe I should've taken Robert Downey Jr's advice from Tropic Thunder and not gone 100% geek.

There were also some times were I just needed some assurance that a fairly technical SEO measure I was about to implement was correct; however, it wasn't as simple as it used to be at BC where I would reach over to the next desk and ask a question. I actually had to go out to some Q & A sites and ask the question. That being said I have been exposed to a whole new realm of the digital world beyond SEO. I was heavily involved in setting up various external communities that would give people other platforms to get information, interact and buy the products and services we offer outside of our website.

I was initially aghast at this situation, steal traffic and precious links from my website and send them somewhere else; I was not keen at all. However, the benefits of these alternative platforms slowly made me come around, I started to embrace the fact that my role was not to get as many people to my website as possible. It was about achieving the business aims, using whatever technology I had at my disposal. What I thoroughly enjoy is that everyone in the digital team is an expert on another facet of digital marketing. I am learning so much about how the online environment works from a holistic point as opposed to maybe a siloed (disclosure: I am bound by contract to include that word in this blog post) view that a person focusing purely on SEO might have and the team I work with is just awesome.

It was also interesting to see how the various business objectives drove different SEO objectives, sometime working at an agency, why an organisation is suddenly interested in SEO can be a bit of a black box.

Implementation

My first thought after going in-house was "fantastic I can actually get all my SEO changes implemented, instead of making all these great recommendations and the client only implementing 50%!" How naïve I was. It is just as hard getting changes made to a website from the inside as it is on the outside. But I do get much more implemented these days. It's not because it's easier from the inside it's because the people making those changes are now your colleagues instead of clients and you can actually build relationships (aka bribe) and friendships (aka threats) with the web developers and show them why you want to do something and the results you can achieve. It is also easier to gain access to a CMS, reporting platform etc when you are an employee as opposed to being an agency. So do I get more elements implemented now that I did working at Bruce Clay? Probably, but not by as much of a margin as I initially thought.

Final Thoughts

So the questions most of you may be asking besides the obvious "when is this diatribe ever going to end?" which is better, in-house or agency? Well to the disappointment of many of you, I am going to sit firmly on the fence, neither one is markedly better than the other, they are just different. Both appeal to different parts of me. Being able to focus on one organisation and fully engross myself into its culture, people and offerings is definitely something I really enjoy about working in-house. On the flip-side I miss the camaraderie of working in an office purely devoted to the art of SEO, how it works, new trends and innovations and a shared passion for the subject. I think anybody considering moving from in-house to agency or vice versa, should look at their particular strengths and weaknesses and how they would apply to their new environment. I would also suggest trying to get some insight into the team and corporate culture of the prospective agency or company to determine if the culture is a good fit for your personality and work methods.

 


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