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Search Engine Marketing: Outsource or In-House?

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By now, your company has probably discussed some type of search engine marketing (SEM) initiative. You are not alone. SEM has become increasingly important to all who look to do business and use the Web as a marketing tool.

According to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), the SEM market is over $10 billion in North America alone. Therefore, the biggest question isn't whether you should use SEM (you probably should, if only for brand awareness and direct sales), but rather who will manage your SEM campaigns.

Almost two-thirds of advertisers report they intend to manage all of their SEM initiatives in-house; some 57% of advertisers say they will keep their paid placement entirely in house, 61% say so regarding their organic SEO efforts, and 59% say they will maintain their paid inclusion in-house.

Other industry surveys report that for the past two years 74% of respondents kept SEM in-house.

What should your organization do? It depends. When reviewing your options for in-house or outsourced search engine optimization (SEO) or pay-per-click (PPC) bid management, consider the following.


A wide range of skills is needed

Effective campaigns require a broad range of skills, far more than one single person can offer (although many might say they can). You will need the following personnel:

  1. SEO specialist
  2. Copywriter to draft effective content
  3. PPC specialist to optimally manage your bids
  4. Web stats analyst to monitor and analyze web traffic patterns
  5. Usability professional to ensure your campaign is engaging the user and increasing conversion rates
  6. Web designer to ensure the site landing pages are laid out in an attractive fashion
  7. Web programmer to code the site
  8. Network administrator to ensure the site remains up and running
  9. Project manager to ensure everyone's efforts are coordinated and to remain on budget and within the timeline

Bottom line: SEM is truly a team effort. Be wary of trading breadth for depth by hiring one person for such an important marketing investment.

Rules, trends, and behaviors change constantly

Small changes are released to Google's search algorithm weekly and large ones monthly according to its search team's blog. An SEM firm is more likely to catch these changes as it monitors multiple accounts and stays current with trends.

There are literally hundreds of articles written every day on SEM subjects. In-house resources should be allocated ample time to simply stay up-to-date. Outsource firms should show you how they are staying involved with the market by writing articles or speaking at conferences.

Being aware of these changes has a significant effect on your results. In fact, marketers who outsourced SEO saw a 110% lift in overall site traffic within six months, whereas in-house saw a 73% lift (MarketingSherpa).

Bottom line: Read, read, read.

Consider the total cost of ownership

You can expect to pay an in-house professional $85,000/year, but you should consider all costs of an in-house team—time for hiring, managing, benefits, equipment, and ongoing training. On the other hand, most SEM firms charge $20,000 to $60,000 for a year-long campaign depending on your needs.

Bottom line: Time is money and most SEM firms can do in a matter of days what might take an individual weeks to do.

Clarify your expectations and check your references

No person or company can guarantee results. Such statements of guaranteed results indicate a misunderstanding of how SEM works (you can't pay for top organic listings) or the search engine marketing industry as a whole (more web traffic isn't good if no one is converting to buy your product).

When interviewing either individuals or firms, ask not only for case studies and experience history but also references—the more the better. What's more, remember that if a company doesn't produce results, you can terminate the relationship early in the game. You may even get money back.

Bottom line: Results matter most, and past performance is a key indicator of future success.

SEM means a long-term relationship or a long-term investment

While some SEM strategies can pay off within a few weeks, most take much more time—six to 12 months. You can avoid future problems with a year-long plan with specific milestone expectations and results. A common in-house/outsource hybrid solution is using an outsource firm to develop a 12-month plan and utilizing in-house resources to execute.

Either way, make sure your in-house or outsourced SEM team is well equipped in advance so you aren't taken by surprise.

Bottom line: This will take time—prepare in advance.

Conclusion

In-house teams tend to require a significant investment up front while outsource services spread the costs over time. If you are willing and able to adopt SEM as a cornerstone of your multiyear marketing plan, consider slowly building your in-house team over time. Use specialists as needed. Many SEM firms even provide training services to help you build your in-house team.

Before you engage in your search engine marketing campaign, spend the time researching your options by performing a cost/benefit analysis of outsourcing versus in-house. Do the math and ask yourself what makes sense for you and your business.

In the end, results matter most, not who is providing them.


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David Felfoldi is chief experience officer and founder of Sherpa! Web Studios (www.sherpawebstudios.com), a digital experience marketing and development consultancy based in Atlanta, Georgia. His goal is to make the Web a better experience, including for people who write emails in all capital letters.

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