Tired of SEM Outsourcing? Determining Whether In-House Search Efforts Fit Your Firm


There seems to be a real debate going on in many of the organizations we work with about how to structure their Search Engine Marketing efforts. Fueled, perhaps, by an underlying dissatisfaction with their vendors and the increasing perception that their Search Engine Marketing effort isn’t well coordinated and shouldn’t be so siloed, many companies seem to be re-visiting earlier decisions to hand over Pay-Per-Click and/or Search Engine Optimization chores to outside vendors.

Like most such decisions about “DIY” versus outsourcing, there aren’t likely to be one set of right answers. Every company is different and no two vendor partnerships are ever quite alike. But there are some good reasons why a company might want to pursue this direction — and, if you are thinking about bringing your Search Marketing in-house, here are some key factors to consider.

Most outsourcing decisions — regardless of whether it’s payroll or PPC – share a common set of decision-factors. These include:

How core is the function in question to your business? You need to be good at your core — the things that will really differentiate you from your competitors. For most organizations, completing Payroll isn’t core. It’s necessary, but it’s not a differentiator. Is Search Engine Marketing a core function in your business? The more important internet acquisition is, the more likely the answer is to be yes. If all of your customer acquisition is via the web, then Search Engine Marketing is probably just too important to you to give over to a vendor — and if you don’t have the necessary skills in-house you should probably look at a path toward acquiring them.

How well does the function fit your culture? Business culture is very real. Some organizations are great at selling. Others at product development. Others at customer relationship building. The less suitable your overall business culture is to a function, the less likely you are to be able to succeed at it. And if you can’t succeed at it, then you’re probably better off cultivating a vendor relationship — even the function is extremely important to you.

What kind of culture is best suited to Search Engine Marketing? I’m not sure there is one right answer to this. For PPC advertising, a culture heavily influenced by direct response (DR) marketing is ideal. DR types usually take to PPC with a vengeance. PPC also rewards cultures that are analytic, measurement oriented, technical, aggressive and younger. Defining the best culture for SEO is less easy. SEO when well done tends to be a methodical process that rewards considerable attention to detail and patience.

These cultural questions aren’t just apropos to taking Search in-house. They are factors you should consider when evaluating agencies as well. After all, what was it about most Interactive Agencies that made them a logical choice for doing PPC or SEO in the first place? Nothing, really. Interactive Agencies generally grew up as Design Shops — they had virtually no experience in media buying (possibly the closest old-world non-direct-response function to PPC), and — despite words to the contrary — are usually persistent foes of any kind of analytic or measurement function. In short, it made business sense for Interactive and Creative Agencies to get your PPC business but it often made no cultural sense at all. And that’s probably why, at least in part, they’ve so often made a mess of it.

Which brings us to the next factor in thinking about outsourcing: the quality of your potential partners. Unless you’re budget is very large, you are probably looking at choosing from a relatively small set of local or regional agencies. When you look at a vendor, you should have good reason to believe that not only are they better at Search Engine Marketing than you are right now, but that they would remain better for the foreseeable future.

For many shops, all of the expertise is concentrated in one or two people. That’s really dangerous. If that person walks out the door, so does their competitive advantage. And Search Engine Marketing growth has increasingly made hiring program managers feel like operating a revolving door at a busy hotel.


  1. Gary Angel has keen insight into the logic behind client empowerment; which will always prevail. To empower your client/s with tactical search marketing and measurement is a great solution to the labyrinth of issues surrounding SEO and PPC.

    Taking search marketing in-house requires a very methodical approach, there are a lot of slippery-slopes; a solid foundation must be established and adhered to…which must come from the top down. Examples exist e.g., The New York Times, Cisco and Citicorp just to name a few.

    Gary is right-on in his summary — “you’ll want to make sure you’ve thought about your culture and how you’ll staff up a department…existing staff or outside advice…commit yourself to a good measurement discipline…”

    Nice article Gary!

    Paul J. Bruemmer

  2. Great article. I especially agree with the observation “Lack of knowledge still leads many companies to believe they simply can’t build the expertise in Search Marketing to manage a program themselves.” In-house marketers think it is too overwhelmingly challenging to learn and do search marketing themselves, and that it’s more of a black art better left to the “experts.”

    And I would argue that many search marketing agencies themselves, perpetuate this sentiment through the industry. Well, it makes sense for them to do so, for obvious reasons. ;-)

    I think that in-house search practitioners are starting to “get it.” The bigger question I often hear is that they don’t know how to assign value, and often, goals to their search efforts. For example, they don’t know their value per visitor, their cost-per-acquisition, or their desired margin on paid search efforts – but it’s those end goals that drive the decisions on bid changes, keywords to buy or optimize for, et al. But at least the mechanics of actual SEO and PPC best practices are getting a good uptake. The better educated the clients are the better the industry gets.

  3. With the acquisition of ClickShift, WebTrends now offers solutions in both SEM and SEO. I’d recommend checking out WebTrends Dynamic Search, which they just launched this past Monday. It automates and optimizes paid search efforts.


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