Search engine optimization is a hot topic for many firms, partners and marketing managers. By now, most firms understand what SEo is and why they should be investigating it as a marketing strategy. There is little doubt that most even understand basic SEo strategies and tactics. However, one question that keeps coming up is whether it makes sense for an accounting firm to outsource its SEo function or use internal marketing professionals to manage such projects.
Think about this: You have limited hours in the day to market the firm. There are competing pressures from partners on how to spend your time and which activities take priority. What should you do about an SEO program? This article provides guidance on the issues to consider when deciding how to implement your firm's program.
BENEFITS TO OUTSOURCING
When evaluating which option is the best for your firm, it is important to understand the benefits each approach offers. As you determine which makes the most sense for you, several "value" variables should be assessed to decide the best method for your firm.
"A key benefit to outsourcing would be you have a dedicated team keeping on top of the latest SEO strategies," said Jennifer Fehrenbach, senior marketing specialist at Top 100 Firm Bonadio & Co. "Equally as important is that it would save you time."
"One of the benefits of outsourcing is that it ensures your Web site is receiving constant SEO attention," said Jennifer Hertzig, marketing manager at CPA and consulting firm Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co., in Akron, Ohio. "The drawback to in-house, though, is that there is never enough time in the day; you can always be doing something to improve your SEO."
"The benefits of outsourcing SEO are the promise of rank and being 'found' on the Web," said Jolene Colant, marketing director at CPA and consulting firm Hall Kistler in Canton, Ohio. "The folks entrusted with your SEO will continually keep up with word rankings and demonstrate how their efforts drove leads to your Web site."
BENEFITS TO MANAGING IN-HOUSE
"A major benefit to managing SEO in-house is our ability to internally test, track and manage results on a real-time basis," said Fehrenbach. "When we outsourced, we created a plan for optimization that was done one time per year. This was not nearly frequent enough to provide our team with valuable information to keep the effort fresh."
"The benefit of in-house is total control over your SEO efforts," said Colant. "This works well if your marketing department is Web-savvy and knowledgeable about the nuances of ranking, content development and keyword optimization."
Each approach offers benefits that must be considered. In our experience, this decision is influenced by the condition of the firm's Web site (is it SEO-friendly?), available time, and the desire of marketing managers to take on another project in their schedule.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
An important component to managing any marketing program is the ability to measure return on investment. For firms considering implementing an SEO program, it is important to know what type of information or metrics you should evaluate, regardless of who is providing the services. Ultimately, these metrics are critical to partners, as they need to see "hard numbers" to understand exactly what the firm is getting out of this effort.
"Traffic, number of page visits, time on the site, ranking for keywords we are trying to optimize, qualified leads that come through the Web site's contact form," said Bonadio's Fehrenbach. "Of course, the best leads are those that come to our site from a keyword search and requested to be contacted. They are generally further along in the sales cycle versus a visitor that just fills out a contact form."
"We regularly check the SEO analytics on our site to evaluate where our links are coming from, what keywords have been used to find our site, and what pages/articles are being read most frequently," said Hertzig. "This information is important to understand what people are looking for when they come to our site. Ultimately, the true indicator of ROI can be determined by going out to a search engine, thinking like a prospect and typing in key phrases to see where our firm is listed."
There are no hard-and-fast rules about how to track ROI. However, in my experience the most commonly used metrics for tracking performance include total number of visitors, pages viewed, time on site, percentage of new visitors, top five performing keywords, top five referral sources, top five most visited pages, and number of inquiries made through the Web site.
IS SEO THE NEXT BIG THING?
"No. Creating quality content should be the No. 1 focus. 'If you build it, they will come' is the approach I like to take," said Fehrenbach. "Prospects become clients because they view you as a thought leader, a real person and an expert. If you want the search engines to like you, give them something to like - fresh, relevant, timely content. SEO should take a back seat to preparing good content."
"Yes. I think that SEO is a very important function for the marketing department. ... You need to be ranking when it comes to keywords for your industry in your geographic reach," said BCG's Hertzig. "However, I see the role of SEO as needing to go hand in hand with the time dedicated and spent towards having a reputable Web site. Yes, you want to be found, but at the end of the day, you want what your prospect finds to be something that looks professional and provides information they need."
ADVICE FOR FIRMS
If you are currently in the process of deciding whether to outsource SEO or manage it internally, there are several factors to consider. Be sure to confer regularly with your partner group to understand their expectations and to help refine unrealistic expectations.
"If you want to start doing SEO in-house, first do some research on what the latest SEO trends are, because they change often," Hertzig suggested. "Type in some keywords you would like to be ranked for and see who is on the first page. Look through those sites to see what they are saying. Don't plagiarize, but be cognizant of what words those sites are using. Don't write for yourself, write for your readers."
"If you are looking to an outsourced provider, do your homework and ask lots of questions," said Colant. "Ask your partner group for their expectations. If you are considering an outsourced vendor to manage your SEO, ask what they will do, how they will do it, what the reports will include, and how often you should expect to see them. Ask for case studies of other service firms and, if possible, find out if it has worked for them."
For those looking at SEO for the first time, there are certainly many issues to consider. Be sure to carefully review your expectations, the time commitment to manage an SEO program, the benefits of each approach, partner interest, the state of your current Web site, and the overall budget for SEO activities. An honest assessment of these variables coupled with the advice and information presented herein will give you a head start in bringing SEO to your firm.
Brian Swanson is a principal with Flashpoint Marketing, a marketing and lead-generation company focused on serving the accounting profession. Reach him at (888) 428-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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