In-house SEOs have grown in popularity as more brands realize the value of SEO, but resource and specialization constraints can often mean that some work still needs to be outsourced to an agency.
This has created a somewhat new brand of SEO team: the hybrid model, containing both in-house and agency SEO talent.
While the brand knowledge of an in-house SEO combined with the broad skillset and additional resources of an agency SEO team seems like the ultimate power couple, the hybrid model can present unique challenges.
We spoke with 10 SEO specialists with firsthand experience in the matter to learn more about why the hybrid model exists, the challenges it poses, and how to make it work effectively.
When do in-house teams typically seek out an SEO agency?
The decision to hire in-house SEOs versus an SEO agency is no longer binary. It’s relatively common for brands with in-house SEO teams to seek the help of an agency. But what’s the motivation? That, it turns out, can differ from company to company.
“In my experience,” said Nadene Evans, SEO Manager at Zenefits, “in-house SEO teams seek outside help for a few reasons. 1) They are launching a large project or site redesign 2) Something has gone very wrong with their SEO (such as a penalty) and 3) They are not getting fresh results.”
Whether a brand needs a fresh set of eyes, a second pair of hands, or a bit of both, the right agency can help a brand’s in-house team tackle projects more effectively and quickly than they often can on their own.
Nadene added that her current team at Zenefits also seeks outside help for “specific project roles so that our SEO team can focus on strategy,” but when she was working for a smaller company with fewer resources, their primary reason for seeking outside help was “to fill in the gaps” created by nature of having a small team.
So, should your in-house team consider hiring an outside SEO consultant or agency?
- Need to tackle a large project, especially one with a tight deadline
- Have taken a ranking and traffic hit but aren’t quite sure how to fix it
- Are plateauing and looking for fresh ideas for growth
- Need specific expertise that no one on your current team has
- Have a very small team and need additional resources
…the answer might be “yes!”
What are the top challenges of the hybrid SEO model?
As helpful as it can be for in-house teams to hire SEO agencies, there are some definite challenges to be aware of. Familiarizing yourself with these can help you achieve better synergy for a better chance of success.
1. An “us vs. them” mindset
When two teams work together toward a common goal, it can be easy to fall into a competitive mindset. For example, the agency SEO team may find issues during an SEO audit that could make the in-house team look like they dropped the ball.
Another factor that can create an unhealthily competitive environment is not coming to a consensus on ideas before presenting them to stakeholders. Nadene Evans shared an example of this with us.
“I’ve had external agencies give conflicting information to others in the marketing department without my input, undermining my efforts. For example, if I explain why a certain term is not moving SERPs and the agency has another idea why, it can cause conflicts and confusion. Ideally an external agency communicates with the in-house project manager (most cases the in-house SEO) before sending reports or other data.”
How can we alleviate this type of tension? And how can we avoid it in the first place?
Approaching the relationship with this mentality can be disarming and help alleviate any “us vs. them” fears.
But it’s one thing to start the relationship on the right foot, and quite another to maintain that after the engagement gets underway. Corey Northcutt, CEO at Northcutt, recommends reporting as a possible solution.
“Design reporting to show collective value, not just the agency or you can come off as adversarial.”
And vice versa. In-house SEO reporting should aim to show the collective value of in-house + agency, not just their own efforts.
“Reward and encourage the in-house teams with the results. They will want to work with you more because you’re making everyone look good and not just yourself as an agency. Share the success as a team (agency & business). Don’t claim everything even if you have clear attribution. It’s always a team effort.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about treating your counterparts on the agency or in-house side as coworkers and equals. Assume the best, work together, and share in each other’s success.
“Don’t micromanage. Trust, or get a new agency.”
Most micromanaging comes from a place of wanting to provide clear directives, but we can often overdo it and dip into micromanaging territory.
If you work in-house, create a robust process for hiring an SEO agency, and start with a clear idea of what you need them for. Doing so can help ensure that you trust your agency right from the get-go.
If you work on the agency side and start to feel micromanaged, sit down with your in-house counterparts to reset expectations. Ask them how they think the engagement is going, and discuss ways for working better together.
Communication is key, which brings us to our third point.
3. Communication lapses
By nature of the hybrid model, in-house SEOs typically don’t work in the same office (or often even the same state) as their SEO agency, making frequent and clear communication that much more critical.
But what exactly should in-house SEOs be communicating to their agency? And vice versa?
According to Nadene Evans, in-house SEOs should kick off the engagement with an agency by providing clear guidelines for what they expect.
“Start a working document where all calls are distilled into action items, and be clear about deliverable expectations.” And on the flip-side, “agencies need to be up-front about expected results.”
Doing so will ensure that every person knows their role and what’s expected of them, ensuring no one drops the ball.
Communication is also critical to avoid duplication of efforts. Both agency and in-house teams should clearly communicate what they plan on doing before they do it, update the other team as the project progresses, and let everyone know when the project is done.
All of this communication is great, but if you don’t have clear points of contact, information can still fall between the cracks. Establish clear points of contact so that both the agency and the in-house team knows who to relay information to. One point of contact is usually better than multiple.
When in doubt, err on the side of over-communicating, and make sure you’re communicating to the right people.
4. Different processes and tools
Each team and company has their own way of doing things. When two different teams get together, those differences in tools and processes can cause conflict at worst and confusion at best.
What do you do?
Will Ablett, Freelance SEO Consultant, suggests that both in-house and agency SEOs “understand that the way you work needs to be adaptable to your client or agency. Rigid frameworks, structures of delivery, or internal requirements aren’t always going to fit.”
In other words, something’s usually got to give. Due to the size and age of most enterprise brands, pivoting to a new way of doing things is going to be difficult if not impossible. For this reason, hybrid teams usually have more success when the agency is able to adapt to the brand’s internal tools and processes.
If the brand works on projects in two week sprints, you do too. If the brand uses Jira for project management, they’ll likely want to add their agency partner’s work in there too.
In order for hybrid teams to work effectively together, take some time at the beginning of the engagement to uncover each party’s tools and processes, and establish clear guidance on which you’ll use moving forward.
5. Lack of proper onboarding & project management
More often than not, when hybrid teams fail to take root, it’s because they weren’t planted in the proper soil to begin with.
We’re talking about onboarding.
In-house teams can kick off their onboarding, according to Jacque Urick — Director of SEO/SEM & UX at Sears Home Services, by being “clear about why you’re hiring an agency. What are the expectations and KPIs we are accountable for?”
Andrew Isidoro, Marketing Acquisition Manager at The AA, echoed that sentiment by advising in-house teams to “know your strategy and carve out areas to outsource from that. Utilize specialists at delivering specific functions and keep scope tight.”
In other words, in-house teams should hire for specific purposes and clearly articulate those purposes to the agency from day one.
Once you’ve clearly communicated expectations, BJ Enoch suggests that you “start building the ground rules of who’s responsible for what. Use a project management tool (Trello, Asana, or even just a Google doc) to divvy up work.”
Communicating expectations is an important part of onboarding, but so is documentation, so it’s a good idea to put all tasks into a project management tool where they can be delegated (and not forgotten).
In addition to adding initial projects to a project management tool, Nadene Evans suggests that teams should “start a working document where all calls are distilled into action items.”
Calls are an easy place for tasks to get missed. Make sure you document conversations and review them once the meeting is over to highlight any items that require taking action.
Other advice we received for hybrid team project management included:
- “Clearly delineate who does what, expectations, timelines, measurement criteria, etc.” — Sam McRoberts
- “Use a brief always so initiatives don’t get missed.” — Jacob King Stanley
- “Use a shared activity tool like Trello. This way your client’s in-house team and your team have shared visibility of the project, what’s been delivered and what’s up next.” — David Calvert, Marketing Director at Stack Digital
What are the benefits of in-house SEOs partnering with an SEO agency?
There are undoubtedly many hurdles facing hybrid SEO teams, but there are also many benefits.
When done well, what do hybrid SEO teams bring to the table that neither in-house nor agency SEO teams could accomplish on their own?
1. A healthy balance between fresh ideas and established processes
Hiring an SEO agency can bring a fresh perspective to established in-house teams. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut or blinded by your own bias. Bringing in outsiders can help broaden your perspective, allowing you to discover new ideas that can prevent you from stagnating — if you’re open to them.
On the other hand, agency SEOs can benefit from tried-and-true processes that enterprise teams will likely possess. While agencies are tossed to-and-fro by multiple different clients and projects, enterprise teams have typically had many years to focus on building processes that work.
2. Deep institutional knowledge combined with varied experience
When asking our ten SEO professionals for advice, one thing really stuck out. Most seemed to agree that the main benefit of an in-house team is institutional knowledge, while the main benefit of an agency team is varied experience. When paired together, there’s no limits to what a hybrid team can do.
- “Trust the inhouse team, they know their product & customers better. Trust the agency. They’ve got a wealth of knowledge, tools, & skills.” — BJ Enoch
- “In-house SEOs can communicate the top-level brand strategy and the corporate ‘core values’ to the agency. They can also communicate all the ‘quirks’ of the company to the agency so they understand what you need when delivering work. Agency SEO value comes from having fingers in many pies & working across multiple clients at different stages of maturity. In-house SEOs KNOW the business, they understand what’s needed to deliver internal and external success.” — Will Ablett
- “I think the core way these two constituencies need to work together is agency SEOs need to accept that the in-house SEOs likely know what is best for the business and possess tons of historic knowledge that you don’t. Meanwhile in-house SEOs need to realize agency SEOs have experienced way more diverse things and likely know more about the nitty gritty of SEO. And these two skills work REALLY well together if you can all just accept that and work to leverage these strengths through communication and teamwork.” — Dan Leibson, Vice President of Search at Local SEO Guide
3. Increased bandwidth to tackle technical & content debt
When in-house SEO teams have the ability to hire an SEO agency, it increases their bandwidth and range significantly.
The hybrid model enables brands to tackle projects that:
- Require expertise they didn’t have previously
- Have a tight deadline
- Require more work than the in-house team could possibly handle
- Have been waiting on the backburner for years
- Aren’t just the “fires” but the proactive projects as well
Can hybrid SEO teams work in your favor?
As complex as SEO is, it’s no surprise to us when a brand hires an SEO agency on top of building out their in-house SEO team. In-house SEOs are in the throes of a brand’s website day to day and know its strategy inside and out, and SEO agencies can bring a wide array of experience to the table.
What’s most important – whether you have an in-house SEO team, an SEO agency, or both – is making sure to keep everyone on the same page, set expectations early, and work towards measurable results.
Do you have learnings to share about collaborating with an in-house team or agency? We’d love to hear them, and you can let us know in the comments!