Tips and Tool to Help You Make The Switch to Working In-house

I wrote this article in June 2012 with the intention of using it as a guest post for a friend’s new site, however the site, unfortunately never went live and, with his permission, I have reproduced the article below.

I recently moved into an in-house SEO role for a large company in the UK to initiate their SEO programme and strategy. I’ve been in the role for a little over 5 months, and I wanted to share with you some of the challenges I have faced as well as how I overcame them.

I’m going to begin mentioning some general tips and then go into some areas of SEO.

For those who do not know, there are some differences between working Agency side and In-house:

Agency SEO 

  • Work on many clients.
  • Attend client meetings.
  • Depending on agency, Work on one aspect (eg. on-page SEO) of numerous clients or work on all aspects of fewer client (10-15).
  • Your time is split between different clients.
  • Gain experience across many industries.

In-House SEO

  • Work on one client (the company you work for).
  • Fewer sites.
  • Your boss/manager is your client.
  • Work on all aspects of SEO (on-page, link building, etc.)
  • Generally work within one industry

@RichardBaxter has written an excellent post On Becoming an In-House SEO for those who would like to read more on the differences.

I am going to tackle numerous points in this post:

SEO Experience

One of the downfalls of being in-house is the potential lack of access to other experts; working in an Agency, you will be surrounded by many experts in SEO (programming, strategy etc), whereas In-house, you will be alone unless you go in-house at a large company.

My advice – don’t switch to a general in-house SEO role if you don’t have experience in all aspects of SEO includING (but not limited to):

  • On-page SEO
  • Link Building
  • Building a Strategy
  • Blogging / Copywriting
  • Keyword Research
  • Excel/Data Analysis
  • Analytics and Reporting
  • Presentation Skills
  • Basic HTML/CSS

I was very fortunately to land my first SEO role working under some great SEOs, such as Neil Walker, Paul Spreadbury and Gary Douglas to name a few.

In my opinion, it’s very important to invest time in making, and then keeping, contacts in the industry, as they will become an invaluable resource whom you can turn to when you need some advice or have questions or you just need to talk about the crazy and cool things happening in our little world! However, and I must emphasise, that this needs to be a two-way relationship – if someone needs helps and you have the knowledge, experience and time to help, then do so. This will do wonders for you in the long run. Trust me.

Keeping up to date with changes in the industry is vital: spend time daily to read articles written by other industry experts, attend conferences (more on this later), and make sure you know what is going on, because knowing the ‘what, why, where, when, who, and how’, shows others that you can do this.

I have a private Skype group set up where some of my previous colleagues and I chat on a daily basis, and discuss various news relating to SEO (we also ponder and plot our next gatherings, because it’s good to keep things varied ☺).

Organisation/Management

This is of utmost importance. If you’re initiating the SEO programme at a company or have been employed to further growth the SEO department, then you must be organised, both personally and professionally – your work must be spot on at all levels.

You will be required to plan and organised some or all of the following:

  • Short-term strategy
  • Long-term strategy
  • Link Building
  • On-page SEO
  • Rankings
  • Weekly/Monthly Reports and what goes in them
  • Outsourcing
  • Content Marketing
  • Your daily work
  • SEO procedures
  • etc.

Pro tip: Don’t rush the initial strategy. Once in motion it will be difficult to go back. Spend time and get it right the first time.

(Tool) Dropbox / Google Drive

Initially I used Dropbox to manage all the files related to the SEO department however shortly afterwards moved onto using Google Drive due to its better collaboration features.

(Tool) Microsoft Outlook

I love the shared calendars in Outlook. I use Outlook to plan each month assigning daily tasks to myself and the team. The calendar is then automatically synced with those who have access to it, making sure everything that needs doing is in there, and everyone involved can see it.

Time Management

I can’t emphasise how important managing time is. In general in-house roles, you are more flexible in terms of what you want to work on each day of the week. If you don’t continuously manage your time well, you can expect lots of problems and pressure.

Neil Walker initially introduced me to (tool) HarvestApp which is fantastic to track your time throughout the day and automatically produce reports at the end of the week/month. I used this for over a year and continued to improve how I manage my time. I have recently stopped using HarvestApp and now use (tool) Toggl, which allows me to work faster - I’d welcome people’s feedback and thoughts on either, and any other, similar tools.

I personally think every person should track their time and continuously improve how they spend their time which leads to becoming more productive and getting more things done each day.

Wil Reynolds (whom I had the pleasure of listening to at LinkLove London earlier this year) has written an excellent post on this topic which you should read – 10,462 entries over 4.5 years – what I have learned tracking my time, and what you can too.

Presentations

Giving presentations is an important aspect of the in-house SEO life. You will be be dealing with many departments and important people within the company and many a time, presentations are preferred methods of updating people. I actually presented in my interview and once joining the company, I presented every week in my first month on different aspects of SEO and now limit presentations to once a month (unless more are required).

Practice makes perfect. You won’t become a superstar presenter overnight; it takes years or practice. I find watching others present useful too. Some resources:

Presentation Skills for SEO – SEOmoz
@trinefalbe is an experienced presenter and has written an excellent post on this topic.

Strategy

The strategy is the most important aspect of an in-house role. Get it wrong and the chance of failure is high.

Depending on the type of agency, an SEO may strategise part or the whole campaign for the client. If you’re moving to an in-house role, be sure to have lots of experience strategising all aspects of an SEO campaign as this will be a main part of your role, and you will have two parts to your strategy, one for the website and one for the job.

I concentrated on the following areas:

  • Keyword Research
  • On-Page
  • Link Building
  • Social
  • Procedures and Checklists
  • Training

I’ll go into each in a little more detail however before I do this, you need to ask yourself what the main objective of the business is:

  • To increase traffic?
  • More Sales?
  • Generate Brand Awareness?
  • Promote the content on the site?
  • Prepare for the launch of a new product/tool?
  • etc.

Keyword Research

Thousands of posts have been written on keyword research so I’m not going to delve into this. However I will mention a few tips through what I did from an in-house angle. We have two sites here – Toner Giant and Cartridge Monkey. Both sites offer similar product however one is catered for consumers and the other businesses. So initially I did the keyword research for the industry as a whole using various methods and tools (primarily):

  • (Tool) Google AdWords Keywords Tool
  • (Tool) SEM Rush
    • Great for seeing what you and your competitors are already ranking high for.
    • Free tool is limited. Sign up to their Pro version.
  • (Tool) Open Site Explorer
    • Analysing the anchor text of competitor’s backlink profile will reveal plenty of info.
  • (Tool) Microsoft Excel – Smashing it all up together!

Pro Tip: Don’t rely on one tool (that goes for the Google one too). Always use a variety of tools.

So, to convince your in-house Boss/Marketing Manager, You need to use all the methods above and also include information from competitors.

Some SEO agencies stick to a handful of keywords for each client. You can’t do this in-house - you will have to plan for a much bigger number of keywords, and often have to keep adding to these over time.

Once I gathered all the popular, high traffic keywords in the industry I had split them as follows:

  • Which website to optimise for which keyword. It’s not wise to optimised both sites for the same keywords (There are ways round this). This task was difficult and each keyword has to be looked at individually. I had to consider factors such as:
    • If a user searched for a keyword, do we want them to land on Cartridge Monkey or Toner Giant?
    • How will optimising one keyword affect other keywords I choose for the site.
    • etc.
  • What are the primary (high traffic/competitive) keywords
  • The low hanging fruits i.e. keywords we are ranking relative high for already and require little work to push onto page one. (See Barry Adam’s quote below to see why this is important)
  • Homepage Keywords
  • Category and Product Keywords
  • High Traffic long-tail keywords

I did this in Excel.

Neil Walker has written a fantastic article on predicting what return you can expect from an SEO campaign - have a read, as this will assist in promoting your strategy.

It’s very important to work with the whole team at every aspect of the strategy and discuss many aspects of SEO with them, as this will create trust and help you in the long run.

Pro tip: It’s not always the best practice to choose high traffic keywords for the reason that the lower traffic keyword are often more likely to lead to purchases that have a much higher profit margin (and they generally easier to optimise for!)

Analytics / Reporting

This is an important aspect of any SEO campaign. Reporting in-house is slightly different to reporting for clients within an agency.

I break my reporting as follows:

  • Rankings – Weekly (Primary keywords) / Monthly (All optimised keywords).
    • I’m still searching for the best tool to track rankings. For the time being, I use SEOMoz.
  • Organic Traffic (Brand/Non-Branded) – Monthly
    • % change from the previous month
    • Overall traffic over the last 6-12 months
  • Revenue – Monthly
    • Organic Revenue, Paid Revenue, Total Revenue, Organic Revenue Share, Paid Revenue Share on 1 Excel chart with multiple axis.
  • Assisted Conversions – Monthly
    • Google First Click Organic (Total/Branded/Non-Branded)
    • 6 Month History of First Click Organic Conversions
  • SEO Strategy (Link Building/On-page) – Monthly
  • Guest Blogging Plan – Monthly

I report on all of the above using Excel. Know Excel and pivot tables well. Below are some resources I like:

@RichardBaxter has written a great article explaining some uses of this tool

On-Page

As with other aspects of SEO, you will delve into the on-page aspect deeper than you would at most agencies. Unless you’re moving in-house on one aspect of SEO, having an understanding of HTML/CSS knowledge is a must! I won’t go into detail explaining on-page SEO however some tips and tools:

  • Try to automate the Title and Meta description to be unique and relevant (the site will probably have 1000’s of pages and manually updating each one won’t be feasible.
  • I manually had the important pages on the sites updated such as the category pages and the high-traffic keyword landing pages.
  • (tool) Screaming Frog Spider – A great desktop tool to spider your site and return data such as errors, links, URI issues, etc.
  • (tool) Microsoft IIS SEO Toolkit – Many SEOs are unaware of this great tool from Microsoft. It’s free and has a ton of features. Here are two articles on this:

Link Building

If you’re managing the link building in-house, be sure to have a strategy and organise it very well! For obvious reasons, it’s important to vary the types of links you build. As above, I’m not going to go into this in detail as you can find 1000’s of posts written on this topic. I will, however mention some of the tools I use:

I’ve been using (tool) Link Prospector from Citation labs recently and seems to be quite useful. There are many other great tools out there however I don’t use them as regularly.

Pro Tip: Create amazing content and create a strategy to build a community. Boring industries can do it too. Take a look at http://www.fiskateers.com/.

Procedures and Checklists

It’s important to create guides and checklists for every department that deals with some aspect of the website such as:

  • Uploading new products
  • Writing blog posts
  • Updated the user help pages
  • Writing website copy and product descriptions
  • etc.

So for the first point, it would be good to have a checklist when adding new products to the website so non-SEO co-workers can follow it and ensure the page is well optimised.

Pro tip: Most inductions will involve introductions from each department in the company and so take this opportunity to learn as much as possible on how each department functions and how they use/update the website.

Training

Many a time, many of the employees in an organisation do not have the slightest idea of SEO and so it’s important to educate and train them – some of these people will be important as they will have control over certain aspects of the company’s sites. Give your best and do great training sessions – This will help you in the long run.

Pro tip: Keep it simple.

Conferences/Peers

One of the perks of being in-house is the greater possibility of attending many conferences and listening to SEO experts share their experiences. Conferences have the additional benefit of being somewhere you can meet, interact and make contacts with others in the SEO industry – something which may be more difficult when you are in-house as you may be the only SEO in the company). You can share experiences and ask each other for assistance in the future. I was at Distilled LinkLove earlier this year where I met @Attacat_Joel – Really cool guy, you should follow him.

Resource: Keyphraseology have a detailed list of all the popular SEO conferences in the country and world.

Advice from Experts

Finally I end this article with some advice from industry experts. I asked each expert to provide their advice for someone who is considering making the switch from an SEO agency side role to an in-house SEO role.

Barry Adams (Pierce Communications Ltd)
I have a lot of respect for Barry. He was one of the first SEOs I followed on Twitter. He writes great articles on SEO across a variety of sites such as State of Search and speaks regularly at many conferences. He is currently the Digital Services Director at Pierce Communications Ltd.

I actually made the reverse switch, from in-house to agency, and there’s a huge difference in how you approach the job.Where in an agency you’re focused on billable hours that, hopefully, deliver maximum value for clients, in an in-house role you have a much larger canvas to work with. You can really dig in to the website, and focus on putting the things in place that deliver lasting value for your employer.

One thing I would recommend to a switcher to in-house: prove your value early on. Tackle that low-hanging fruit quickly and show that they made the right decision when they hired you as a full-time in-house resource. Then you have their trust and you can start working on the long-term quality building projects.

Also, what’s very important as an in-house resource is that your web reports get discussed at the right level. If your company’s board meetings don’t include an agenda item that requires web analytics reports, you need to make sure that it does.

Online performance needs to be discussed and empowered at the highest levels of the organisation. Don’t leave it up to your direct manager to translate your reports to the board – get yourself in front of those decision makers and evangelise about the potential of digital marketing.

That way you get buy-in at the top, and as long as your work delivers success you’ll be assigned all the resources you’ll ever need to make sure it continues to grow.

But if the board doesn’t see your added value, they won’t see why they need to keep you.

You can and follow Barry on Twitter @badams and visit his site at barryadams.co.uk.

Jessica Lee
Jessica is the Content and Media Manager at Bruce Clay Inc, A global internet marketing company. She is a contributor to the book – SEO All-in-one For Dummies – and has written some fantastic posts over at the Bruce Clay Blog.

Agency experience gives you a breadth and depth of knowledge that prepares you to be a hard-hitter in an in-house role.

My advice is: be prepared to draw upon the many scenarios you’ve experienced in the agency, but be flexible in your approach, because in-house is often a very focused environment. And, you may find that things don’t move as fast in-house, so prepare for how you are going to handle that if it’s the case. As a newcomer, you’ll likely be able to see the glaring SEO obstacles much clearer than those who have been there for a while. But there’s typically politics involved in getting SEO done in-house.

Remember that it takes a team, so identify your alliances right away – those who believe in your vision and can help you push it through. Build mutually beneficial relationships with them, and SEO teamwork goes a lot further.

You can follow Jessica on Twitter @BzzContent

David Main
David is the Head of Search at Dominion Marine Media and has over 14 years of experience in marketing. He shares some very valuable info below.

Strategy – don’t start without one. A content strategy is vital and should include SEO and social media.Ambassadors – it’s important if you work in a small team to ensure that SEO processes are taught throughout marketing, editorial and product development.  Provide training and make it easy for them to get in contact. Get ambassadors in each department to help your cause.

Reporting – we use Raven Tools and SEOmoz to help with this, use Google Analyics and SiteCatalyst (Omniture) with custom dashboards in GA and segments and events in SiteCatalyst. Excel (with SEO add-on) and Screaming Frog also assisting us in our analysis for reporting.  Vital to monitor changes in search, the effects of economies and also inside influences.

Small wins – getting the low hanging fruit first, making an impact to help attract increased budgets. Ensure that stakeholders know the risks of minimal effort and that continual improvement with A/B testing is vital for increased usability, accessibility and conversions!

Good hires – for the future and could lead.

You can follow David on Twitter @DavidJMain

Rishi Lakhani
I’m sure many of you will know who Rishi is. Occasionally, he gives 10 minutes to answer any questions his followers on Twitter may have. I took this opportunity to ask him for his advice on on making the switch from agency to in-house. Read his tweets below for some priceless info.

You can follow Rishi on Twitter @rishil and visit his site at explicitly.me.

And that brings us to the end of this article. I myself have been in-house for almost 6 months so there is still lots for me to learn! I would appreciate your experiences and tips in the comments.

  • http://www.carolineconstable.com/ Caroline Constable

    Nice post! Any tips on moving from in-house back to agency? ;-)

    • http://www.twitter.com/SEOAhmed SEOAhmed

      Haha not yet mate, possibly in a future article! :-)

  • http://www.attacat.co.uk/ Attacat Joel

    Hey Ahmed, really nice post with a lot of great resources – nodded my head in agreement to almost all of them! We’re considering moving across to toggl from basecamp and I really like it. Any plans for conferences this year? I’m keen but with smaller agencies the price can be prohibitive sometimes – you don’t find that’s the case for in-house?

    • http://www.twitter.com/SEOAhmed SEOAhmed

      Hi Joel – thanks! I’m hoping to attend quite a few conferences this year – will defos keep you informed! :) . I feel a person working in-house will get a lot more opportunities and cost won’t be too much of an issue as there is a lot of knowledge to be gained – something which is seen to be more difficult in-house!