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Getting started with in-house SEO: a Q-and-A with AOL’s Simon Heseltine

5 min read

Brands & Campaigns

This blog series, featuring interviews with speakers from the SES Conference & Expo, scheduled Aug. 15 to 19 in San Francisco,  is brought to you by Incisive Media.

This Q-and-A is with Simon Heseltine, AOL’s director in charge of search engine optimization. Heseltine is in charge of organic search and training across all of the AOL and Huffington Post Media Group.

How do businesses decide whether to outsource SEO or do it themselves? What are the benefits of doing it yourself, versus outsourcing?

The main decision that a company has to make is whether or not SEO is a key function within their business.  If so, then it absolutely makes sense to have an in-house team, so that the knowledge remains within the company and there is someone on hand, with institutional knowledge who cares only about their business, as opposed to an agency which will most likely be dealing with several clients at once.  That’s not to say that outsourcing doesn’t or shouldn’t also happen.  Agencies can be used to train internal staff, to backfill when resource constraints mean that operations need help and to help your internal staff find out what they don’t know they don’t know.

The size of the task also defines whether an in-house SEO is needed.  If you have multiple sites that are constantly changing, and your business is heavily based on or around them, then yes, but if it’s a small corporate site that changes monthly, you either want to maybe go with an agency, or have someone on staff that has SEO as part of their responsibilities, but make sure they actually know what they’re doing, or get them trained up so that they eventually do, don’t rely on someone who says they know SEO because they simply know how to spell it.

How do you recommend companies get started with SEO? What resources and tools do you rely on?

I’d say that for a company that is going to start an in-house team, they need to make sure that they know what questions to ask and what answers to expect.  Unfortunately there are people out there that can and have bluffed themselves into good SEO positions because the hiring manager just didn’t have the right domain knowledge.  Would you hire a Java developer without having someone who knows the language ask them some questions?  Or a DBA who didn’t know what data normalization was?  If you don’t have the experience in-house, then it isn’t a bad idea to hire an SEO agency to help you hire your team, and the chances are that they may know some really good candidates to get you started.

As for resources, it’s perhaps a little bit of a conflict of interest given that I write a monthly column for them, but is a fantastic resource for news and articles on SEO, PPC and Social Media.  The SEO community is also very active on Twitter, Google+, etc.  Follow as many as you can, listen and participate, you’ll find articles and news that you may otherwise have missed.

As for Tools, there are lots of different tools that are available, depending on what you’re trying to do.  I personally like starting off an audit using the Microsoft IIS SEO toolkit, but that’s not the only tool I use.  For an idea of what else your team should be looking at/using, I’d recommend either attending the “Tools of the Trade for SEO” session @ SES-SF, or at least reading the inevitable write-ups.

Where should SEO live within an organization? Should it be controlled by one person or department? Should it be a shared responsibility?

I wrote an article about this back in March on SearchEngineWatch.  There’s no right answer, apart from whatever works for your company.  In my time as an SEO I’ve been in marketing, reporting to the CEO, reporting within a specific vertical, design, corporate, technology, design again, technology again.  In some situations there’s been a VP of SEO, in others a director, reporting into a VP of a department incorporating SEO.  What really matters is whether there is buy-in for SEO from management; with that, the structure of the team is really just about optimizing resources.

Where I’ve had the most success in-house though, has been when SEO has been more than just a function of the SEO team, but has also been a major part of other people’s jobs, with the SEO team functioning in a support/strategic role.  When this is the case, then everyone is accountable for the success and failure of SEO, which tends to give everyone impetus to push forward with SEO.

How do you integrate SEO with other marketing and branding efforts, such as social media or paid search marketing efforts?

Again, this depends on the size of your organization and the size of the teams, but there should absolutely be some level of integration between those teams, if not between the roles.  Social and SEO are becoming more and more intertwined, and there’s always been some level of overlap between SEO & PPC, especially down at the keyword level, so it makes sense to have some level of collaboration.

How to measure SEO success? How about return on investment?

As long as you have your analytics solution set up correctly, tracking as close to every interaction on your site as you can, then you’ll be able to see either the sales that you can attribute to SEO, or the lift in whatever metric you’re tracking — unique visitors, etc.