Collaborators, Hiring, Research

Do you need an in-house SEO specialist?

Yes. Because SEO consultants or agencies can never give you everything SEO that your startup needs. The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to hire an SEO specialist – especially if you haven’t yet validated that SEO will be one of your top growth channels. Anyone in your team – including you, can learn some basic SEO skills to take care of this side of your growth efforts. Let’s look at what this means in real terms. 

What will an SEO consultant or agency do exactly?

SEO consultants are usually people with deep SEO knowledge in how to grow an audience organically. They’ll either have agency or inhouse experience that gives them the ability to quickly tell you what’s needed once you discuss your company’s KPIs. 

An SEO consultant will typically spend some time researching your market, and then deliver a strategy with a (1) plan of execution and (2) the type of team you need to make things happen. Some consultants will help you build this team of freelancers or inhouse specialists you need to execute the plan. 

Agencies do all of the above as well – but are able to also execute everything inhouse.

The real difference between the two – when it comes down to brass tacks – is your budget, and whether the agency has the specific industry knowledge you need. 

For example if an agency’s SEO lead comes from a retail background, then I wouldn’t recommend them to a SaaS company. Or if the lead comes from a banking background, then I wouldn’t recommend them to an eCommerce brand. So the vetting process for external SEO help (consultant or agency) remains the same – you’ll always need someone who speaks and understands your startup’s language.

I’ve had many agencies disappear after they pitched generic SEO plans, when I’ve asked them to show me their work around how they grew a relevant startup’s SEO from scratch. 

Of course if you find an agency with a wide range and you have the budget to follow their advice as intended – you’ll save time and effort on executing SEO plans. Why? Because you’ll get an Account or Project Manager and this will save you precious time spent doing ops management yourself. Keep in mind, though, that you’d still need to review and evaluate their performance. More on how to do that later.

However, if you want to hire an agency only for strategy and setup, then I’d recommend a consultant who’s interested in up-skilling your in-house team or hiring with you. What I hope you’re getting from all of this is that – everything depends on how much money you have and how much access you have to the right type of SEO consultant or agency.

What regular SEO work looks like after the consultant or agency’s gone

In any startup, there will be one of three types of SEO work happening at any given time:

  • Tech SEO audits and maintenance: essentially keeping an eye on your Search Console crawl reports and being proactive about errors, and also keeping an eye on improving site health such as core web vitals, URL structures, monitoring crawl budget etc.
  • SEO strategy improv: monitoring what’s working, what’s not working and adding to your initial strategy to meet new or trending demands. This can look like more landing pages, improved landing pages, better navigation and domain structure, frequent content publishing, programmatic publishing etc.
  • SEO ops and workflows: writing briefs for writers, investigating how you can release pages (+ page experiences) that are massively better to what Google’s currently ranking. This translates to managing a brief-to-article workflow that is time consuming, and a review-publish pipeline that needs diligence and discipline. If you’re keen to automate a lot of these workflows, you’ll need to front some time and money investments in order to benefit after a few months.

While some consultants or agencies will offer routine checkups and circle back every quarter etc, you’re really much better off grooming these skills in-house. You are the best judge of what’s working for your startup.

How you can manage this ongoing SEO work without hiring an SEO specialist

The trick is in finding the right skilled person to grow adjacent skills. What this might look like for a bare bones startup:

Tech SEO audits and maintenance: Your CTO or engineering lead can keep an eye on Search Console for crawl errors, and an external tool like Ahrefs or Deepcrawl for external insights such as missing meta tags, duplicate content etc. Google’s dev support for SC is surprisingly helpful. And so are Ahrefs or SEMrush blogs. If you’re going for log analysis tools like Deepcrawl, your engineering lead can be involved in the setup and you can expect the team from these tools to offer support.

Remember: this is all time consuming but not impossible. Over time, it’s in your best interest to have engineers who are considerate toward SEO needs so this is an investment in the right direction.

SEO strategy improv: Your product or marketing lead – if not the founder themselves – can be part of this effort as it closely correlates to everything else they’re doing. While rankings are vanity metrics for founders reporting to investors (yes people still do care), whoever manages your product direction, design or marketing/pr is in a good position to be proactive about how the SEO strategy is performing.

Remember: the most critical learning curve here would be the reality of how long SEO projects take to start delivering results. A little bit of reading the right content such as this post about how long SEO takes, coupled with a few SEO wins under their belt will help your in-house team build these insights over time.

SEO ops and workflows: The CMO or product lead or if you’re a one-two person show then you yourself can make this happen. The biggest investment here is time. As you find, grow and evaluate freelancers – you’ll also be building in-house systems that help you maintain an SEO engine for future growth. 

Remember: the biggest thing to prepare for here is the time you need to invest in grooming this critical pipeline of SEO work. SEO is nothing without consistency. If you or someone else on your team can’t do justice to the constant brief research, writing, assigning, reviewing and publishing then you’re better off hiring someone to do this for you. 

You could have the world’ best SEO strategy on paper, but it will have been nothing but a waste of time and money if you don’t implement it consistently.

Worthy mention: If you already have a UX/Product Designer, then they absolutely must be part of every SEO consultant/agency conversation at the time of strategy setup. They are your not-so-secret weapon to beating competitor SEO with user-focused design. Gold plate them, respect them and loop them in at every stage of SEO. 

If your current team does not have the capacity to take on any of the above, then you’ll need to hire an in-house SEO specialist – despite any consultant or agency relationship. In this scenario, the in-house SEO will be your top point of reference for everything organic, and the external freelancers, consultants or agencies will become their team. 

In summary, hire for SEO in a meaningful way

Avoid knee-jerk reactions to statements such as ‘we need to do some SEO.’ Growing an organic audience for young startups is hard work, takes time, and involves several rounds of iterations before gathering momentum. 

Hiring an ex-banking SEO or ex-real estate SEO may or may not work for you (unless your startup is in the banking or real estate space) – because not every search specialist has the ground up experience you need in a startup. This is not to say that they can’t develop it. I’ve worked alongside many gifted SEOs who have done really well despite coming from traditional backgrounds. 

The differentiator though – is always something that they built from scratch, whether it’s their own blog, a new resource section for their traditional company or a new programmatic search engine that helps their otherwise traditional company connect service providers with service seekers.

An SEO hire for startups is much like any other hire for a company that needs to move quickly to validate their product; you’d still look for resilience, proactiveness, agility and the ability to learn quickly and communicate insights. How technical or editorial they are in their SEO approach would then depend on your market and website needs, which the consultant or agency would help you identify. Building this SEO brain trust in-house is always a good idea.