The truth behind the in-house VS agency debate

Since the dawn of SEO, the rivalry has been fierce and the competition has been hot. The debate has raged on for centuries. (Ok, more like a couple of decades, but we’re going for gravitas here.) Even now, the battle between in-house SEOs and SEO agencies continues to grow.

All joking aside, there is, and seemingly always has been, competition between in-house SEOs and SEO agencies. Here at UnGagged, we know that a good SEO is a good SEO, wherever they work and whatever their background. But the internet is littered with articles trying to argue that one is definitely better than the other. Ostensibly, they’re designed to help companies make the right choice for their business, but more often than not they are thinly-veiled adverts for agencies. In some cases, not-so-thinly veiled.

One of the more high-profile examples to join the fray has been featured in Forbes, of all places. Just like the others, it claims to help business owners make the best choices for their own budgets, internal structures and requirements. However, also like many of the other articles out there, the underlying message is that agencies have more experience, more resources and generally more to give than an in-house SEO ever could have.

So, what is the difference between in-house and agency SEOs?

What these articles claim, seems to come down to this:

Good for… Bad for…
In-house SEOs Industry knowledge
Having more controlMore regular updates
Expenses (salaries, sick pay, training, tool subscriptions)

Experience

Resources

SEO Agencies Experience

Tools and resources

Up to the minute tactics

Industry knowledge

Lack of control

Communication flow

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. This snazzy table equates to six criteria: industry knowledge, control, communication, experience, resources, and expense. Now there is some logic to the way these have been allocated as pros and cons for each type of SEO, but that logic will only go so far. Because at the end of the day, it comes down to who is recruited. Anyone can fall on the right or wrong side of these criteria, whether they’ll be joining the company as an employee, or providing a service as a third-party contractor. It’s not actually about in-house versus agency, it’s about quality.

Where does that leave us, as SEOs trying to get jobs or clients? In the face of articles like this, should we all be celebrating the reign of the agency, or digging our heels in to prove the worth of in-house? I think that response misses the point. There’s a place for both. Some SEOs love agency working, others wouldn’t dream of giving up in-house gigs. Which begs the question, is there a real difference between working at an agency, and working as an in-house SEO?

How do the work environments compare?

Let’s move away from the claims that one approach is better for business purposes. Instead, let’s turn our focus to what it’s actually like to work at an agency or in-house. As an SEO, there are a completely different set of things to consider, and it comes down to the kind of work you want to do and the kind of environment you thrive in.

Agency work

At an agency there tends to be a little more variety in the projects that you’ll tackle. You might find that you’re assigned to a client on a relatively long-term basis. However, some clients are only in for one campaign and then they’re done. Plus, even if you do have a longer relationship with a client, the chances are they won’t be your only one. So if you like jumping in and out of different businesses and products, and you aren’t too concerned about their big-picture and overarching goals, agency work may be your bag.

Timescales also tend to be shorter and more strict at an agency. It comes with the territory of having multiple clients, not to mention the need to complete work in order to get paid. If you love a fast-paced work environment and need the pressure of a tight deadline to keep you motivated, then agency work could be for you.

When it comes to salaries, there is an assumption that agencies can pay more than in-house positions. They can command high fees for the work they do, and they can have various income streams depending on how many clients they have. However, this is an oversimplification. Some smaller or newer agencies aren’t likely to be in a position to pay top dollar, so don’t fall into that trap.

In-house work

It goes without saying that in-house SEOs will be working on the same business or product all the time. But that means they can have a broader scope to the projects they work on. They’ll be able to see the history of previous work and map out what’s on the horizon. Rather than dipping in and out of lots of different things, in-house work requires a longer-term investment. It can be very satisfying if you like to follow things through and keep experimenting as the results and challenges come in.

You might also find that in-house SEO work has less time pressure associated with it. Organisations that are large enough to have their own SEO team tend to also have lots of processes and procedures in place too. If you prefer to have more time to explore every avenue and really get into the weeds with a project, in-house work might offer you a more satisfying experience than the changeability of agency work.

While you may believe that in-house SEOs earn less than agency SEOs, we’ve already mentioned that this isn’t always the case. Plus, in-house work can afford more stability. The success of the company isn’t based solely on keeping clients happy, there are other things at play and other structures in place. For some people that’s a real comfort, and could be a large reason for choosing in-house positions over agency roles.

It all comes down to finding work that suits you. You’re never going to sway a business one way or the other if they’ve decided they want agency or in-house SEOs. You’ve got to focus on what is within your control: deciding what work environment you need. Then it’s up to you to make yourself indispensable to that kind of employer. When it comes to finding work in this industry, it’s a matter of skills and abilities, and recognising what makes a good SEO.

Well, what does make a good SEO?

As in any job, there are soft skills and hard skills that every SEO should have. Some of these skills are universal for every job and if you have to be told that you need to have a strong work ethic and to get along well with others, then I’m concerned for your career future. But skills like curiosity and adaptability are a little more unique to the world of SEO. As is an analytical mind and aptitude with certain tools. And what about coding and knowing how to perform really good research?

There are a ton of skills that are unique to our industry, which is exactly why it’s so successful, so lucrative and so much fun to be a part of. One thing that differentiates digital marketing from other industries, is the fact that it’s constantly changing. Anyone who is worth their salt in this business is doing one thing above all else: keeping up with the changes. People who don’t like change and want to stick to the same tactics day-in and day-out, don’t get very far in this industry.

The most important thing you can do as an SEO is to keep your eyes on the horizon. Keep learning, keep pushing and keep challenging the status quo. If you don’t, you’re going to get left behind, whether you are in-house or agency based. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with your work, even if you love what you do. We’ve all been there and I’m sure we’ll all end up there a few more times in our careers. That’s why it’s so important to read newsletters and articles, attend events, and give yourself as many sources of inspiration as possible. You simply can’t continue to be innovative, if you close yourself off. To stay successful in this game, you’ve got to stay curious.

 

By Lizzie McCauley, UnGagged

Upcoming Conference: UnGagged Los Angeles 2019