The Ultimate Guide to Agency-Based and In-House SEO Teams

Written by
Yulia Deda
Nov 23, 2023
21 min read

Not surprisingly, building a well-performing SEO team that you can rely on is not easy, to say the least. It takes time, effort, and persistence to form a team (whether in-house or agency-based) that is both highly skilled and fully committed to your company’s SEO success.

This is the time to decide: How should you build and structure a successful SEO team? Should you hire an in-house or agency-based SEO team? And, do you really need SEO assistance at all?  

In this article, we will:

  • Dig into the differences between in-house and agency-based SEO teams. 
  • Explore the responsibilities of different SEO specialists. 
  • Help you determine which SEO team structure would be best for your business. 
  • Provide tips on how to manage a team that brings real results.

With the wealth of insights offered by the SEO experts featured in this article, we’re confident you can make the right choice, reach your SEO goals, and align them with your overall business objectives.

SEO teams: agency vs in-house

Before deciding on the type of SEO assistance your business will benefit from the most, it’s important to understand the difference between in-house SEO teams and SEO agencies.

In-house SEO means having an internal team of dedicated experts who perform SEO operations exclusively for your organization. This can consist of a single SEO expert or dozens of professionals specializing in different areas of SEO (e.g., content SEO, technical SEO, PR and link building, and more).

SEO agencies, on the other hand, are external organizations that provide SEO services to help businesses achieve their marketing goals, such as increasing search visibility, improving keyword rankings, and increasing website traffic. The services they offer can include tasks like keyword research, competitive analysis, SEO audits, content creation, link building, and SEO reporting.

The responsibilities of an SEO team

Now, let’s dig deeper into the list of responsibilities shared by a typical SEO department, whether it’s in-house or agency-based. 

  • Building an SEO strategy: SEO teams develop SEO strategies with a prioritized list of actions to attract organic traffic from search engines. They also make sure this traffic aligns with higher level business goals. 
  • Competitive research: Since websites don’t operate in a vacuum, analyzing the competitive landscape is vital for a successful SEO campaign. SEOs perform in-depth competitive research to gain valuable insights about your company’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison to your direct competitors. This sets the groundwork for an actionable SEO strategy.
  • Technical SEO: SEO teams conduct comprehensive audits of behind-the-scenes elements, including website hierarchy, security, mobile-friendliness, canonicalization, and more. 
  • Content strategy and on-page SEO: Based on keyword and competitor research, SEO experts build content and on-page SEO plans to help websites get enough relevant organic traffic. The content plan usually includes topics with target keywords and other essential information. The on-page optimization process usually includes improving title tags, meta descriptions, header tags, URL structures, internal linking, and more.
  • Off-page SEO: SEO experts also play a crucial role in crafting effective off-page SEO strategies. For instance, skilled SEO teams can manage your brand’s online image using external sources, creating PR materials, and building reputable backlinks. They also collaborate with industry influencers to get more exposure.
  • Data analysis and reporting: SEO experts can simplify the SEO tracking process and extract valuable insights from diverse data sources. They present this information in a meaningful way to help all parties involved understand the current status of the project’s SEO. Plus, by measuring ROI for SEO, in-house SEOs can showcase the impact of their work to higher-ups.

Should you build your own in-house SEO team?

The decision to hire in-house SEOs or work with an SEO agency depends on factors like the size of your business, allocated budget, and set objectives. 

  • Business size

First of all, having an in-house SEO team gives you direct control over your SEO strategies, priorities, and alignment with other departments, such as content, development, and PR. But small businesses generally don’t need their own SEO team and can benefit more from outsourcing their SEO needs to agencies. This is due to cost-effectiveness, the agencies’ specialized expertise, access to advanced tools and resources, and the speedier results they can bring.

What’s more, an internal SEO department can be an excellent resource and greatly contribute to business growth, but only if it is given the right conditions to thrive (which small companies often lack).

Billie Geena
SEO expert, founder of the SEO consultancy Uptake Agency
A business needs to have a site that’s large enough and will continue to grow once an SEO team is brought on. If a website has no plans to grow its offerings or content, then the SEO team will not be of much help. To put it another way, if there is not scope of constant work from an SEO department, then it could be better to outsource SEO efforts to an agency or a freelancer.

Billie Geena also believes that in-house SEO departments should have access to other business areas like web development, customer service, etc. Not having this cross functionality could limit your internal team’s chances of success. Other teams involved should also be able to support and work with your SEO specialists. If your SEOs aren’t getting help from other departments, they likely will not achieve much SEO success.

  • Allocated budget

While building an in-house SEO team can be beneficial for many companies, doing so takes time and resources that some companies, especially those in their beginning stages, might lack or be unable to commit to. In this case, it would be more reasonable for them to use external sources (e.g., independent consultants or an SEO agency).

Kerstin Reichert
Head of Marketing at SeedLegals
As a company with a small budget, you might be better off working with an external consultant or an agency. This will eventually help you keep flexibility in how, how much and when to allocate your budget.
  • Business objectives

When deciding on whether to hire an in-house SEO team or an SEO agency, pay close attention to your business objectives. 

For one, if your business has long-term SEO goals and you want to invest in SEO as an ongoing strategy, hiring an in-house team can be a more sustainable option. For short-term or project-based goals, like launching a website or running a specific campaign, an SEO agency might be more cost-effective. Agencies can provide specialized expertise for specific projects without the long-term commitment.

Pros of an in-house SEO team

  • Good knowledge of the business

No matter how high-rated an SEO agency is, chances are it will not have as deep an understanding of your company’s products, services, target audience, and industry dynamics as your in-house team. Being an integral part of your organization, SEO specialists have the unique opportunity to explore every facet of your business. This enables them to create and fine-tune their SEO strategies to the specific needs and goals of your business. 

Laura James
SEO Manager for Uscreen
I think it’s hard for SEOs to do their best work if they aren’t embedded within the in-house marketing function. How can they ideate around topics, understand customer needs and wipe out pain points without having a deep understanding of the business and ICP?
  • Trust

While you can always read online reviews about almost any SEO agency on the market, trusting them won’t be as easy as trusting your own in-house SEO team.

You hired your team for a reason. For one, they have the necessary skills and expertise to contribute to the SEO success of your business. Not only that, the people who work for your company are usually fully committed to its success. This makes it easier to trust them as specialists.

But what about SEO agencies? How safe do you feel providing your business data to them? 

One of the main advantages of having an in-house SEO team is that you can trust sensitive business data to them. You may not want to share this type of data with agencies due to the potential security risks.

What’s more, you can never be too certain that they won’t use dishonest or ineffective business practices. If they use black hat SEO tactics, which are typically penalized by Google, your business will almost surely suffer for it.

On the other hand, you can count on people who work for your own organization, especially if they have been by your side for months or even years.

  • Custom approach

Every business has its unique objectives, target audience, and industry-specific challenges. Since in-house SEO teams have a deep understanding of their company’s core values, products/services, and long-term vision, they will be far better at crafting a custom SEO approach than any external expert. 

Plus, in-house SEO teams can be agile. They can quickly adapt their strategies to changing circumstances, the company’s overall marketing objectives, and market trends. 

This flexibility ensures that implemented SEO efforts yield the most relevant and effective results while staying aligned with initially set business goals.

Cons of an in-house SEO team

  • High cost

Let’s face it.

Hiring and maintaining an in-house team can be costly. So, take the time to consider your budget and whether you can afford full-time salaries, benefits, training, and tools in the long run. 

If not, collaboration with an agency might be your best bet. Agencies provide cost flexibility and can be effective at helping with one-time tasks such as an SEO audit. In fact, you can scale services up or down based on your budget and needs. This can be more cost-effective for businesses with limited resources.

  • Some level of expertise needed to hire an SEO team

The risk of hiring an in-house team lies in finding the right talent, providing training, and keeping retention rates high. If, as a manager or business owner, you fail during one of these steps, you must completely restart the hiring process. This not only consumes your most essential resource—time—but money as well.

Agencies, on the other hand, often come with a proven track record. They can mitigate some of the risks associated with in-house teams. Your sole job here is to choose the best SEO agency based on your goals and budget. 

To put it plainly, while in-house teams offer advantages such as a deep understanding of the business, trust, and customization, SEO agencies can provide cost-efficiency and flexibility.

How do you structure an SEO team?

The SEO team structure is typically dependent on many factors. Some of the most significant ones are your type of business, your market, and the strategy you want to invest in. Let’s explore the process of structuring an SEO department for two scenarios: in-house and agency-based.

In-house team

Let’s say you’ve weighed all the pros and cons. You’ve carefully analyzed your business objectives and have decided to build your own SEO department within the organization. Great! But here comes the next question… 

Which SEO team structure would you need to build to ensure its members can cover all the necessary aspects of SEO? 

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

First, your in-house SEO department doesn’t necessarily need to include dozens of people. In reality, it might be enough to hire a single SEO specialist who will be in charge of managing the company’s overall SEO strategy. 

What matters here is not the number of people on your team but their ability to take on different aspects of SEO. If you have a small business and your SEO specialist is capable of closing the gaps in content creation, technical SEO, local SEO, PR activities and link building, that’s great! There’s no need to hire more people and expand the SEO team unless this specialist has enough experience and, most importantly, resources, to perform these activities.

However, this type of SEO team structure usually only works for very new businesses. Once you start to grow, a single person will unlikely be able to plan, implement, monitor, and manage the whole SEO campaign on their own. 

Iva Jovanovic
Head of SEO and Content at Made Online Agency
Start with a General SEO Specialist or SEO Manager (an all-rounder) that covers as many aspects as possible and build on that. With the General SEO specialist working on setting up a strategy and the processes, hire a Junior or an SEO assistant to help with everything, and then build to expand with an On-page Specialist, Technical SEO Specialist and Off-page Specialist to make sure all aspects are covered. After covering all the essentials, you can build upon the increase of workload.

What’s more, your SEO specialists might need to cooperate with:

  • Copywriters
  • Web developers
  • UX designers
  • Outreach/PR specialists
  • Data analysts
  • Other people

By working together, these specialists can successfully complement each other’s involvement and manage the overall SEO strategy.

Alternatively, if your SEO specialist requires assistance but your company lacks the people needed to cover these roles, SEO outsourcing might be a great idea. It will help you save valuable time and money that you would otherwise spend hiring and training new people with the right skillset.

Based on your available resources and the strengths of your SEO specialists, you might allocate specific tasks and responsibilities between them and the agency. For instance, you might have an in-house SEO expert who is in charge of content creation/optimization, technical SEO, competitor analysis, and local SEO. At the same time, an SEO agency can assist you in off-page SEO.

Kerstin Reichert
Head of Marketing at SeedLegals
A typical scenario I have seen in several cases is starting with one in-house person, then adding capacity through an agency or freelancer. If adding more people to the in-house team and topping up capacity with external support proves successful, make sure to continue to grow in this way.”

Either way, to achieve your desired results, you’ll need to establish a tight partnership between your in-house team and an SEO agency.

Agency-based team

Just like small in-house SEO teams, small agencies might delegate all SEO activities to a single person. Big agencies, on the other hand, typically have a more complex organizational structure where each team specializes in a specific SEO area. Here’s a list of job positions that  SEO agencies commonly have (and in different variations): 

  • SEO Specialist/SEO Manager/SEO Strategist
  • Technical SEO Specialist
  • On-Page SEO Specialist
  • Local SEO Specialist
  • Content SEO Specialist
  • Content Writer
  • PR Specialist
  • Data Analyst
  • UX/UI Designer
  • Web Developer
  • Account Manager 
Jamie Reedy
Senior SEO Specialist at Amsive Digital
At Amsive, we’re a full-service agency. As a whole, our SEO team has 35+ people. We have smaller team leads, with each team having at least one strategist and analyst/specialist.

This means that if there’s at least one aspect of SEO that your in-house team isn’t able to cover, you can still outsource this service. 

And if you have no in-house team on board at all, you can use a whole set of different SEO services offered by agencies. The tools they offer generally help you achieve faster results while saving money and time.

While this is a great way to get started (or at least cover the basics), you still want to make sure that there is at least one person in the company who has some level of SEO expertise. This person should take responsibility for bridging the gap between external/internal stakeholder communication and providing SEO recommendations.

Tips for building and managing an SEO team that brings real results

If hiring skilled SEOs accounts for 50% of your success, then the remaining 50% depends on how well you manage this team. 

In this block, we’ll explore the most effective practices for hiring and leading a highly productive team that can flip the switch on your SEO.

1. Determine your goals and hiring needs

Instead of hiring a person and waiting for them to decide on the direction to take, start by clearly identifying your goals. Answer questions like:

  • Which goal does the company aim to achieve by hiring an SEO specialist?
  • Which specific skillsets and expertise are needed to achieve this goal?
  • What budget are you ready to allocate?
  • Will a single person be able to perform all the required tasks? Or, do you need to hire a group of people to plan and implement all the required SEO initiatives?

By answering these questions, you can get clear on which person would best fit the job position, which skills and expertise they should possess, and how many people you would need to hire.

2. Set a budget

As with any other channel, you would need to invest in SEO, even if it is driven by an external or internal person.

For in-house SEO, your expenses will include more than the cost of hiring SEO experts. You’ll also need to consider investing in tools for effective optimization, in PR activities, in content if you don’t have your in-house copywriters, etc.

When setting a budget, determine your spending limits. Find out what you are ready to dedicate to SEO on a monthly or annual basis. Then, ask your SEO team to come up with their own budget estimate so that you can set realistic goals and be able to provide them with the resources they need to achieve their goals.

But if you operate in a highly competitive market, you must be prepared to increase your budget and invest extra in ongoing SEO efforts.

With a properly planned budget, you can ensure your SEO team is equipped with all the resources needed to achieve the initial goals set.

3. Bring in the right mix of skills and experience

Choosing potential SEO experts for your team by focusing only on hard skills might be a bad idea. You can always teach someone keyword research or another specific SEO process, but you can’t always expect that person to have real-life experience in a specialized field of SEO. 

Let’s assume you have a SaaS business and are looking for someone to manage an SEO campaign for your website. Your ideal candidate would be someone who has already grown another SaaS website in the past. Their ability to achieve this goal indicates that they not only have the necessary theoretical knowledge but are also able to put it into practice.

4. Define clear areas of responsibility for each team member

If you have the means to hire at least several people for your SEO department, this gives you the chance to distribute tasks and responsibilities to different team members based on their best skills and expertise. This not only streamlines the workflow but also minimizes overlaps and gaps in tasks.

Divide all essential SEO aspects that you want to finetune by groups (e.g., keyword research, on-page optimization, link building, content creation, technical SEO, etc.). After that, assign them to people with relevant professional backgrounds. This will help you achieve your goals faster while giving each member a chance to make meaningful contributions to the project’s success.

5. Encourage continuous learning

When it comes to mastering SEO knowledge, the sky’s the limit. This also applies to junior SEO specialists, executives, and senior managers. 

Specialists cannot continuously contribute to the project’s success if they are not dedicated to furthering their education and skill development. This is why you need to create opportunities for your team to master their skills later on. 

For instance, provide your SEO team with access to online courses, webinars, and training materials. It’s also good practice to motivate them to participate in regular workshops and conferences. Finally, consider dedicating a good chunk of your team’s work hours to research and experimentation (e.g., testing new tools, analyzing new SEO techniques, and so on).

Emina Demiri-Watson
Head of Digital Marketing at Vixen Digital
The key is really to build a culture of continuous learning. Sounds like a cliché, but it’s so important. And, not easy to do! People want to learn, but it’s not easy to carve space for it in today’s business environment. As managers, it is your responsibility to not only provide learning opportunities but to make sure your employees actually make use of it. Making learning a KPI helps, but ultimately it’s about asking the hard questions about what you can do to ensure that your employees’ workload is open enough to fit it in.

6. Enhance internal communication within your team

No matter what department people work in, they should always have the opportunity to share what they know and to offer their ideas. As you’ve probably guessed by now, SEO is no exception to this.

Establishing clear internal communications within an SEO team contributes to the transparent sharing of data, results, and approaches from an SEO perspective. Transparency is extremely important for:

1. Ensuring that everyone is on the same page about the current state of SEO efforts.

2. Gaining valuable data on emerging trends/issues, whether it’s related to keyword performance, traffic trends, conversion rates, or any other SEO-specific area.

3. Optimizing strategies based on data that shows what works and what doesn’t.

What’s more, internal communication plays an essential role in aligning SEO strategies with overall business objectives.

Transparent communication is key to keeping business management informed about your SEO progress and resource needs. It also helps you dig deeper into existing business needs. Another plus is that it prevents misunderstandings and makes it easier to focus on important issues and how to deal with them, both from an SEO and business perspective.

To enhance daily communication, both between team members and colleagues from different departments, take advantage of the tools that are specifically designed for it. For instance, Slack or Microsoft Teams makes it easy to instantly connect. 

You can also schedule regular meetings (daily, weekly or any frequency suited to your team). This is especially important for remote teams.

Check out the following guide on how marketing agencies can optimize remote workflow to gain more valuable insights on this topic. 

7. Support your team’s attendance at industry events

These days, it’s difficult to imagine a more effective way to network with industry experts, exchange insights, and gain firsthand knowledge than through industry event attendance. Considering that the SEO field is constantly changing and becoming more complex, going to industry events is even more important.

Jo Juliana Turnbull
SEO and Marketing Consultant, CEO of Turn Global
Encourage your team to attend conferences including BrightonSEO, International Search Summit and WTSFest or smaller events such as Search London or Search Barcelona. Encourage your team to present and share their results at these events.

Going to events is a great way for your team members to learn and share new insights. It also gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to their professional development. In terms of business, having your team members represent your company at industry events helps to increase your brand awareness.

8. Keep your team in the loop by providing timely feedback

Sharing feedback, both positive and negative, is an integral part of collaboration with any specialist. Even SEO experts need the extra nudge sometimes.

If your team member meets or even exceeds initially established expectations for their role, let them know about it. It will most likely motivate them to keep working harder.

Providing constructive feedback to people who fall short of expected results is even more important, both for them and for the company as a whole. This won’t always be easy, especially if you have good personal relationships with them, but it’s absolutely necessary.

But by highlighting your employee’s weaknesses and discussing areas for improvement, you can help them enhance their professional skills. This will eventually have a positive impact on the overall success of your business.

And the worst feedback is no feedback. So, even though it may sometimes be stressful for both sides, make sure to give regular feedback to every person on your team. If it’s delivered in a constructive, controlled, and respectful way, you and your team will both benefit from it.

Jamie Reedy
Senior SEO Specialist at Amsive Digital
Nothing will frustrate a team more than not understanding how the work they’re doing contributes back to the goals of the client. It’s ok if things have to change, but clearly communicate that and what the new goal post is.

Closing thoughts

At the end of the day, the decision to build an in-house SEO department or to work with an SEO agency is completely up to you. Each option has its pros and cons, so make sure to be thorough as you assess both scenarios.

Keep in mind that in-house SEO teams have a deep understanding of all internal business aspects and can be trusted with sensitive business data sharing. Also, they are more suited to crafting custom SEO approaches that perfectly align with other marketing objectives and contribute to long-term business success.

But to hire, train, and manage a high-performing SEO team, you’ll need to have a high level of expertise and dedicate tons of financial resources to them.

Now if you’re a big company, setting up an internal SEO team is definitely your best option. Small businesses, on the other hand, may benefit more from cooperation with agencies due to their cost-efficiency and the wide range of services they offer.

You may also want to consider combining both in-house and agency-based SEO services. For instance, your in-house team can be in charge of the development of the overall SEO strategy, whereas agency experts will assist you in activities your team doesn’t have enough resources for (technical audit, content creation & optimization, local SEO, etc).

Either way, before selecting a reliable SEO team structure, start by setting clear and actionable goals, figure out budget limits, and define clear areas of responsibility for each team member.

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