I have been listening to the Izzi and Nils Show Podcast this morning – again. And the current episode of their podcast made me want to write this blog post. The episode’s title is „In-House vs. Self-Employed“, and they are talking about the pros and cons of working as an Inhouse SEO or being self-employed.
During their talk, they also talked a lot about agency life and working in an agency. In my career, I have been working in an agency, but also have been working as an inhouse SEO – so I can give you a little insight in what I think about both employment options. But please, take this with a grain of salt, as I am just writing down my own, very personal opinion about this.
My history as an SEO
When I started out with web development in 2001, I was working for a very small local computer store. Back in the days, the owner decided to give web development a try and offered website development to his clients. For me, it meant to shift from being just the guy who stands in the shop selling computers to learning how to code.
After learning quite a lot, I decided to explore the world and left the company to discover some countries. I went back a few years later and continued to work as a web developer – at least that’s what my job was called back then. Most of what I did what just creating static HTML pages with very little programming.
My first inhouse position
In 2007, I started working as one of germany’s first fulltime inhouse developers for a german car dealership. Back then, this was a really unusual thing, and even today I think that most car dealers would rather have an agency do the work instead of hiring a fulltime employee. And it makes perfect sense to not hire a fulltime dev or SEO for such a small company.
But this particular dealership was very different. The boss was always exploring new ways of generating revenue, and having an inhouse dev meant that he could very quickly turn new ideas to products, which then would generate revenue. And we did a great job at that.
Working at this car dealership made me get in touch with the field of SEO for the first time. Of course I had done optimization for websites before. When you build a website, you do it so search engines would love it. You build up great content, you make it as fast as possible, you always look for ways to improve the user experience. But being an inhouse dev gave me the opportunity to test – a lot.
I have come up with many ideas to improve our websites – and the user experience on the websites. When I started out at that dealership, the standard was (and still is) to include your vehicle inventory by using an iframe to pull the content of some online vehicle marketplace – mainly from mobile.de or AutoScout24.
This makes is very easy to show your inventory on your own website without having to do a lot of work. But that also meant that we would never ever rank for any „buy intent“ keywords that are relevant for a car dealership.
That was one reason why we started developing our own vehicle inventory for our website. Another reason was that those marketplaces only allowed for 10 to 15 photos of each vehicle to be uploaded – which, for us, was just not enough.
We were one of the few dealers who had 30+ photos of each vehicle on the website. We put a lot of effort in displaying our vehicle inventory in a perfect way, so the users would have the best experience possible. We would answer every question a user might have right there on the website. If we ever experienced questions from customers that were not answered on the website, we would re-think how we displayed our vehicles on our website.
That way were able to move very quickly and change our website within hours or days to improve the experience for the customer on our website.
Why am I telling you all this in such great detail? Well, mainly to show you one benefit of having an inhouse dev or SEO. You can move very, very quickly. You can adapt new ideas within days.
Of course, search engine optimization started to become a great deal back then. I started working on image optimization – having the focus keywords in directory structure, filename, alt and title tags. We put the focus keywords within the image captions, and also built professional templates for the display of the vehicle inventory.
As an employee, I had a lot of work to do – but it was also very rewarding. I had the time to test a lot of things. I was able to try out new stuff, to see whether it works or not, and to come up with new ideas to improve not only our website, but also the entire customer relationship lifecycle.
This first employment as a fulltime dev and SEO paved the road for me. I started to love doing inhouse work. I loved being able to question beaten paths, and to change the way things work. I started to fall in love with SEO. And, most importantly: I had a boss who gave me complete control over what I was doing. He trusted me and gave me time and space for developing ideas and to test them.
Sadly, the company went bankrupt at some point – mainly because of the dependency on one manufacturer. So after 7.5 years in that company, I had to look for another job.
My first agency job
I quickly found a job as a web developer at an agency. I was really happy to be able to jump into the agency business, as I have always thought that agencies do the really great work. I hoped to be able to work on customer websites and help those customers the same way as I was able to help my former employer generate more revenue with his website.
Fuck being a coding monkey
Sadly, the first agency I worked for was not the ideal one for me. I was merely a coding monkey, had to code a bit here and a bit there, but the main work was outsourced to freelancers to take the project lead. So we changed freelancers over time, which meant that there was a new project lead every now and then. And those freeöancers would tear apart what the one before him has done – and I would have to keep up and try my best to do my work accordingly.
But being a coding monkey was not what I had in mind, so after a year I decided to find another job. I sent an email to the biggest agency in my home town telling them that I was available as a dev if they wanted to. And yes, they wanted me. Yay.
My second agency job
After a couple of weeks, we signed the contract and I quit my old job. I was so happy – not only because I could leave my current employment for greener pastures, but also because I wouldn’t just work as a dev, but also as an SEO – a thing that was impossible at the old agency.
So I went to work for them. And it felt great. The team was very professional – I really enjoyed working with them. The agency wasn’t just an online ageny, but also had a big share of their employees working on print and even one working on brand building, which isn’t a normal thing in such a small town agency.
After that, we were trying to focus on SEO for our clients. And that’s when I started to realize that agency life as an SEO is not my cup of tea.
We were a small town (40k souls) agency, and we had small and medium sized clients. Mostly smaller ones. So you try telling your small business client that he needs to do SEO. Have you ever tried to sell your roofer that you want to help him get organic search engine traffic and that you need to charge amount XXX per month for monitoring and improvements?
To be honest: most small businesses do need SEO. And yes, their websites could be seriously improved. But most of these small businesses simply do not have the money (or the willingness) to spend big amounts of money on SEO. Which is understandable.
But this also means that you can only spend 2 to 4 hours on each client every month. What can you as an SEO do in 2 to 4 hours? Close to nothing. The time I spend on writing this blog post would exceed the time I had for most clients‘ monthly SEO. In short: you can’t do a lot for the clients – and they will become unhappy because you don’t get the desired results in the desired time.
And I guess this is one of the main reasons for me to leave the agency life: I just could not do the work in such a way that it would make the client and me happy.
I want to be proud of the work I deliver. I want to see results, and I want to see the client happy. But that also means that I need to be able to spend time on the client’s website, on research, on content creation, on code improvement and so on.
Unhappy clients, unhappy SEO
I could not make my clients happy because the communication between the agency and the client was mostly „Of course we can do SEO for 300 to 400 Euros per month“. But in most cases, that won’t work. At least in my experience.
If you want great SEO, you need to pay for it – at least in the beginning. An SEO needs to check everything on your website. Structure, links, all types of content, ranking, analytics, do keyword and competitor research, and much more. It is a lot of work.
Yes, that big amoung work will become less and less over time, and the cost will decrease over time, but still: the SEO needs to monitor your website and the results of the SEO campaigns done in the past. He still needs to check on what your competitors are doing, and he needs the funds to act accordingly.
And this way of saying „we can do it cheap, too“ of this particular agency made me question whether I wanted to continue working as an SEO in an agency. If it was a real SEO agency with customers who were able to understand the costs and time needed for SEO campaigns, it might have been a different thing. But working for a „normal“ agency, it meant that I could not do as much for the clients as I wanted to.
Leaving the second agency
And in the end, that led to leaving this agency. A client (prospect) came up and asked me whether I wanted to work for him. And after weeks of thinking about it, I said yes. Even if that means that I would have to drive 1.5 hours each day just to get to work and back, instead of cycling to work for just 5 minutes.
I decided to leave the agency simply because I wanted to be able to change things and to be proud of the work I deliver. I want to see success. And I just couldn’t do that as an agency SEO. Yes, I may have worked at the wrong agencies. Maybe a true SEO agency would have worked better for me. Maybe self employment would have been better for me.
But for now, being an inhouse SEO is most rewarding thing for me.
Sidenote: I do work self employed next to my fulltime employment. But usually, I do not do hands-on work, but work as an SEO consultant for companies like hotels (hotel chains) and other online businesses.
But I still love the security of being a fulltime employee :)