SEO Agency vs. In-House SEO: Which is Right for You?

By Andy Kerns

Visibility online is essential for business success in the modern era. As digital marketing and organic search experts, we understand that just having a website isn’t enough to make sure your customers find you online. Your website needs to be optimized, user friendly, and chock-full of easy-to-navigate content. 

More often than not, visibility boils down to the effective management of cutting edge search engine optimization (SEO) tactics. When businesses decide to really invest in their SEO, the question becomes: do I bring it in-house? Or do I hire an SEO agency

Both in-house SEO experts and SEO agencies have their advantages and disadvantages. We’ve broken down some of the considerations you’ll want to weigh when making the financial investment of an agency vs. in-house SEO. 

Breaking it Down: Cost of Agency vs. Cost of In-House SEO

What is “In-House SEO”?

In-house SEO means your business or organization has a SEO professional, or team of SEO professionals in charge of your website’s visibility in search. It’s their full-time job to make sure your website is optimized for search, rich with SEO-friendly content, audited, and up-to-date to protect against the latest implications of search engines’ algorithms. 

In-house SEO professionals typically bear the title of “SEO specialist,” “content marketing,” “SEO manager,” etc.  Depending on a business’s size and budget, there could be only one SEO professional at an organization, or there could be an entire team of people. 

Typically, in-house SEOs work alongside a business’s marketing department to align on-site strategy with larger marketing goals to reach target audiences. They’re responsible for not just overarching SEO strategy, but the implementation and execution of SEO projects. 

What Does it Mean to Hire an Agency for SEO?

Agencies have experience working with different types of businesses across industries. An SEO agency, or a digital marketing agency specializing in SEO (like Digital Third Coast), is hired by a business to help oversee their SEO. 

Agencies work with clients to develop customized SEO strategies. Typically starting engagements with fundamental audits, keyword research, competitive analysis within your industry, content audits, technical and local SEO efforts, and progressing into tactics like link building and off-site SEO. 

SEO companies are hired on a monthly retainer or project-basis, meaning they have a scope dictated by a budget of hours available to do work. Within that scope, they will tap into their experience and expertise to audit and recommend optimizations for a business’s site. 

Difference Between SEO Agencies & In-House SEO

One of the biggest differences between in-house SEO and their agency counterparts is the breadth of experience working with different industries and trends. In-house SEOs are likely to be focused on their business’s specific campaigns and efforts, whereas an agency specializing in SEO needs to be atop search engine trends and implications to stay a valuable asset for a variety of clients across industries. 

Let’s dive into some of the biggest differences between agency SEO and in-house SEO and the pros and cons of each for your bottom line:

Agency vs. In-House SEO: Cost

One of the main factors when businesses decide to bring on an in-house SEO expert to their team or outsource SEO to an agency, is the cost of SEO. 

We’ve mapped out some of the financial implications of both paths in a series of whimsical graphics to help illustrate the pros and cons of each. 

Overall, annual cost of in-house vs. SEO agency

If you hire an SEO expert with 5+ years of experience, you’re looking at a pay scale of roughly $63,000, annually. Depending on your location, and if your team is remote, Glassdoor quotes the average salary at $73,000, so we’ll split the difference and call it $68,000 a year to hire a team member. 

If you hire an SEO agency to do your SEO work, you’re looking at roughly $84,000 per year. That cost comes from a typical SEO engagement of roughly $7,000 per month including strategy, keyword research, content recommendations, and technical work, link building, and monthly reporting. 

infographic of hire a human vs. hire an agency

Hidden overhead costs of in-house SEO

One thing to consider when weighing the addition of an in-house SEO expert is the additional overhead cost to your business. An in-house team member typically requires benefits like health insurance, 401k matches, PTO time which is roughly 35% of their base salary (or in this case $23,800) which puts your per-person cost at $91,800. 

If your business is not operating in a physical office, then overhead may not necessarily matter. But for those with a physical office presence, office space, furniture, software, and snacks can be as much as an additional 25% of an employee’s base which would raise their cost-to-business to roughly $108,800. 

Then there are administrative implications of adding another person to your team. From accounting to legal fees to liability insurance to corporate taxes (depending on their location), you’re looking at an additional 18% of their base, or $12,240. 

Don’t forget about the cost of onboarding a new team member. Training and onboarding a new employee costs, on average, six to nine months of salary. Even if your company has an incredibly efficient and streamlined onboarding process that is wrapped up in three months, you’re likely going to pay $17,000 to an individual who is not operating at peak efficiency. That brings your annual (first year) cost for an in-house SEO team member to $138,040. 

overhead cost of SEO, illustrated in a graphic design

If you’re looking for a digital marketing manager with 5+ years experience, let’s face it, you’re looking for a millennial — and millennials have notoriously high rates of turnover. One study found 91% of millennials expect to be at their current job for less than 3 years. Which means you’ll be doing all this over again, all the cost, all of the risk. 

Hours cost comparison: agency vs. in-house

Now let’s dive into the hourly cost of having an in-house SEO expert on your team compared to outsourcing your SEO strategy to an expert SEO or digital marketing agency.

A team member will work roughly 168 hours each month, factoring in an average 8 hour work day and an average of 21 business days every month. An SEO or digital marketing agency will typically be retained for 40 hours per month of strategy and work. It seems a lot less, right?

Well let’s break those numbers down a little bit more by calculating the cost-per-*productive*-hour of a person on your team vs. an agency.

138,040 hours per year / 11.5 months (2 weeks of vacation) / 168 hours = $71.44 per hour. 

hourly cost of agency vs. in-house SEO illustrated in a graphic design

A team member on the clock full time is also going to get sick, do some non-work activities on their laptop during the work day like scroll social media, take restroom breaks, take a phone call or two, etc. Realistically, your employee’s productive hourly rate is about $99 per hour, compared to the cost-per-billable hour of $175 of your digital marketing or SEO agency partner.

Agency vs. In-House SEO: Experience & Expertise

Another difference between SEO agencies and in-house SEO is the breadth of experience and expertise. While one offers a more intimate knowledge of your business and goals, the other can offer a broader and more collective team of expertise. Let’s explore: 

The pros and cons of an in-house SEO team member’s expertise and experience

An in-house SEO professional is going to be uniquely attuned to the wants and needs of your business. Their goals and campaigns may more easily align with the business’s overarching goals and marketing efforts and reflect the capabilities of their unique team. 

However, an in-house team could be as small as one person, or just two or three. Meaning, the depth of your company’s SEO expertise will always be limited to the level of expertise of those few people you hire for the job. 

The pros and cons of an agency’s expertise and experience

An SEO agency, or a digital marketing agency specializing in SEO, typically has one or more team members assigned to a given client account. Those team members have experience working with not just your specific industry, but a variety of industries. As such, they can wield powerful expertise that comes from navigating constantly shifting waves of search engine optimization. But beyond your immediate account manager, when you work with an agency, you typically have access and referral help from a much larger team with a diversity of backgrounds. 

At one point in time, we affectionately referred to our digital marketing agency as a 10-armed monster. Because wrapped into our average hourly rate, per client, is not just one person assigned to an account.

Instead, your account has access to SEO analysts and account managers, the expertise of our Director of SEO, content strategists, content writers, copy editors and researchers, graphic designers, media relations team, technical experts, and much more.

agency vs. in-house SEO expertise illustrated in a graphic design

 Agency vs. In-House SEO: Time & Project Management

Every business’s SEO budget is going to be unique and reflect a wide array of outside factors. While some websites may need more emergent help with optimization than others, every website stands to benefit from routine, ongoing SEO work. 

One of the benefits of partnering with an SEO agency is that it offboards strategic and other SEO-related tasks from your company’s plate to someone else’s. It can be a huge time saver, especially in no one on your team has the time or expertise to stay atop all the best practices to keep your audience finding your website. 

Agencies will tackle reporting, offering some type of client-facing dashboard for everyone at your business to see results that are important to you (keyword rankings, competitive gaps, traffic, conversions, contact form completions, etc.). Agencies will also knock out the work within a set number of hours. If you partner with the right agency, there should be no question that in your contracted hours your work is getting done, and getting done well. Agencies have an incentive to give you the most bang for your buck, because you can always end a contract and find someone else to work with. 

On the flip side, if you partner with the wrong agency, you could be left with questions about where your budget is going and what is being done with your hours. At Digital Third Coast, we value transparency and goal setting, but not every shop is going to be the right fit for what you’re looking for. 

In a perfect world, an in-house SEO professional will have 100% of their hours dedicated to your business’s search engine optimization. That means no matter what goes wrong, you have at least one person’s workload and attention entirely focused on your website! At the same time, that can be *a lot* of work. In-house SEO professionals may get bogged down with day-to-day processes that overarching strategies and industry trends could fall by the wayside. 

Agency vs. In-House SEO: Tools & Access

There are a number of tools in the SEO toolkit that help you stay atop your website’s performance. These tools include SEMRush, Google Analytics (GA4), Ahrefs, Moz, Screaming Frog, and more. 

While no tool does it all, having an arsenal of these tools in your back pocket can help you identify threats and weaknesses of your site in the eyes of search engines, and within the competitive sphere of your industry. 

The downside of these tools is that they can be expensive. Many charge monthly fees for the number of seats, and to get all the tools activated, you could be spending thousands of dollars a month. Because agencies work with a variety of clients and budgets, agencies often have access to a wider array of SEO tools. The benefit being great access to reports and insights about your website’s performance online. In-house teams, especially for smaller companies, may have access to only one or two of these tools for monitoring their SEO performance. 

Which Path is Right for You?

The decision between hiring an SEO agency and growing your in-house team ultimately lies with each business’s needs. 

In-house offers a uniquely personal and brand-aligned opportunity to have a person(s) solely focused on your website’s performance, while agencies offer a breadth of experience and tools to make meaningful recommendations for any business’s SEO.

If you’re curious about what an SEO agency partner can do for you, contact us, today!

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Lyndsey Maddox

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