Local SEO: DIY vs Hiring an Agency vs Hiring In-house

In 2016 we wrote the ebook “Local SEO Checklist: 48 Steps to Ignite Your Online Presence”.

It has since been downloaded and read thousands of times and we have received some amazing feedback on it, so we thought it might be time to put together some additional updated resources to answer some common questions about working with local SEO. The following article is an updated companion piece to the ebook that describes everything you need to know before hiring a local SEO, or if you should just do it yourself. We still recommend you download the local SEO checklist and read that too since it acts as a worksheet that you can check off as you improve your website.

You can download the ebook here.

What is local SEO?

Local SEO, or Local Search Engine Optimization is a type of digital marketing that has the goal of generating more visibility on search engines for search queries with local intent. Local SEO utilizes maps, reviews, content, local citations / NAP, schema markup language, and a variety of other local marketing tactics to generate more visibility and drive more leads to a business’s website.

Who should use local SEO?

Any business that gets their customers from a specific geographic area can benefit from hiring a local SEO company. If your customers come to your office / location, or you go to your customer’s homes, then you can benefit from local SEO. Here is a litmus test to see if local SEO is right for you. Take your main service or product and shorten it to a single keyword, then put your city name after it. A local realtor might have something like “real estate austin”. This is a simple way that people search in search engines for local businesses. However, if you sell products online and location isn’t vital to your sales process, then standard SEO might be the best bet for you instead of local SEO. Someone searching “modern paintings” has less local intent and may just want to buy something they find online, not find a service or product in their immediate geographic area.

How Much Does Local SEO cost?

How much you spend on local SEO can range from a few hundred dollars per month (if you go the DIY route) to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per month based on what services you are paying for, as well as how many physical offices or locations you have. For example, a local car mechanic with one shop could get reasonable local SEO work for $500-$2,000/month from a reputable company, but a large corporate chain of stores like Dominos that has thousands of locations could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars optimizing their local SEO. Since there is such a big range, let’s break it down and look at the options as well as the costs associated with each. Pro tip: generally, you should not trust a company that is charging less than $250 per month for local SEO. Even with the smallest campaigns, the tools and fees alone would mean that a person charging $250 per month is probably not legitimate.

Option 1: DIY

Doing your own local SEO is possible with some basic web design and technical knowledge, but there are more complex areas that “do-it-yourselfers” probably won’t be able to handle. Technical SEO updates like schema markup / JSON-LD, website speed, and design optimization require a deeper understanding of SEO and web design practices. High-level SEO tactics like robots.txt, link building and link disavow can result in lost rankings or Google penalties, when not implemented by a knowledgeable, white-hat SEO team.

Who should do DIY Local SEO?

This option is best for small, established companies with limited marketing budgets, and those business owners who are tech and marketing savvy. Stick to basic local SEO optimization tactics that are free and have little to no risk.

Who should stay away from the DIY route?

Brand new businesses should avoid DIY, as there are a myriad of technical setup steps for new websites and digital marketing campaigns. To make a mistake in the early stages could really harm your success in the future. Large companies with multiple locations should also avoid DIY, since scaling the work across many locations is time and work-intensive. There have been many times that we have seen companies that thought their tech-savvy interns could handle a local SEO project, but more often than not those projects go awry, as even small mistakes and inconsistencies in local citations, for example, can mean the failure of a local SEO campaign.

The Work:

DIY local SEO is done mostly by business owners who are strapped for cash, using free resources online to guide them. By using online resources (like our downloadable local SEO checklist), you can probably get through:

  • Setup of Google my Business (for one location)
  • Basic on site optimization of content
  • Small scale local citation campaigns
  • Small scale review generation campaigns

The Costs:

Even DIY local SEO is not free, as you will incur several tangible costs:

  • Website Hosting: Since having a website is essential for local SEO, you will have to pay for a company to host the files on their server. Hosting can cost anywhere from a few dollars a month to a few hundred dollars, but you get what you pay for. The faster your hosting is, the better your site will perform in search engine rankings and in user experience.
  • Website Design and Maintenance: If you can build, edit, and update your website yourself, you are good to go here, but if you require someone to design and update your website for you, you will end up paying for it. Well-built websites for local businesses will cost anywhere from $1,000 for a pre-built templated site, to $25,000 for a fully custom site. Much of the work in local SEO requires making small changes to the website, so if you may be paying someone a few hundred dollars an hour to implement these changes and to manage your web design.
  • Local Citation Fees: Some local citations and directories like BBB require monthly or yearly fees to be listed (see: what are local citations). Depending on which citations you sign up for, you could end up paying a few hundred dollars per month. You can manage all of your local citations yourself, or you could pay a third party vendor like Yext, Moz Local, or Whitespark to do it for you. These vendors typically charge anywhere from $80 a month to a few hundred, depending on how many locations you have. With the additional downside of losing many of your listings, if you ever cancel your subscription.
  • Review Generation Tools: In order to streamline the review generation process, many DIYers choose to use review generation tools like Podium or NearbyNow. These tools will help you collect more reviews, which can help your local SEO efforts. However, these tools usually cost around $50-500 per month.
  • SEO Tracking Tools: You will need to utilize SEO software to track the progress of your work — otherwise you will have no barometer to know if you are being successful in your efforts. You can use tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, or Moz to track your work and see your results. These tools generally cost around $100 / month and up.
  • Your Time: While you will not need to pay yourself for your own work, it is important to remember that as a business owner, your time is valuable. You have a company and a staff that depends on you to make the company profitable, so spending your time on SEO is not always the best investment of your time and energy. If your time is worth more than it costs to hire an SEO, you might want to consider making the investment in your local digital marketing efforts.

The Results:

Results for the DIY method are going to be mixed, depending on your technical skills. The main problem with DIY local SEO is that you don’t have the resources or knowledge needed to troubleshoot common problems. Sure, you might be able to build a Google My Business page yourself, but getting it to show on Google for relevant searches is a “whole ‘nother beast”.

The other common problem is lack of access to or knowledge about editing your website. The way that a website is built and coded is very important to local search engine optimization, and if you cannot edit the HTML, CSS, JS, and PHP code, then your efforts will be limited.

SEO is one of the fastest moving industries in the world. Between regular Google algorithm updates and website technological advances, what you knew six months ago might not be applicable anymore. Worse still, what you thought was a solid tactic is not considered “black-hat” or against Google regulations and best practices, putting your site in jeopardy of lost rankings or manual action.

Option 2: Hiring a Local SEO Company

Hiring an SEO company to do your local digital campaigns will be more expensive than the DIY option, but as the saying goes: “You get what you pay for”. A good SEO company will have experts on staff who understand best practices, can handle web design and development and can troubleshoot and fix issues as they come up. Another major benefit of hiring a company to do your SEO is that you will only have to pay one monthly service fee, and you can let them eat all of the small costs listed above. Hiring a trustworthy local SEO company also has the added benefit of granting peace of mind. An SEO agency will allow you to focus on your day to day business, while they worry about generating leads and bringing new users to your site.

Who should hire a local SEO Company?

This option is best for busy business owners who want to get more leads online, but do not have the time to dedicate towards doing the work themselves. Small to medium-sized companies who have the budget to spend on marketing can benefit greatly by investing in a good local SEO partner. Larger businesses should look for an enterprise SEO company that specializes in deep market research, e-commerce and other expert-level SEO strategies.

Who Shouldn’t Hire an SEO Company?

First of all, if you don’t have the budget to hire an SEO company for an extended term, do not hire one and hope that it will pay for itself right away. Even the best SEO work can take 6 months to a year to show positive ROI, so make sure you have enough money on hand before hiring an SEO agency. If you need quick, short term leads and traffic, investing in digital marketing like PPC or paid social may be the better option. However, those services can also be a significant monetary investment. Evaluate your goals and your budget to create a digital marketing plan that makes sense for your business.

The Work:

If you hire a reputable SEO company to handle your local campaigns, you should expect them to be doing some or all of the following things for you:

  • Setup and optimization of Google My Business pages (for any number of locations)
  • Ongoing content production and optimization
  • Full-scale local citation campaigns
  • Review generation campaigns
  • Schema markup
  • Local link building and outreach
  • Technical SEO: code optimization, speed optimization, etc
  • Reporting - all reputable SEO agencies offer some level of reporting

The Costs:

The convenient thing about hiring a local SEO company is that you will only incur the monthly fee for their services. Some companies may charge for add on services or link building budgets, but most will just charge you a monthly fee. Link building budgets can be a viable tactic for reputable SEO agencies. This will depend greatly on your goals, campaign restrictions and budget.

The Results:

You can expect to see results from hiring a local SEO company, and they should be transparent in discussing those results with you. Success in local SEO can be measured by:

  • Increased traffic to your website: This can be seen in Google Analytics reports. If the goal of local SEO is to drive more potential customers to your website, then traffic can be a good measure of success.
  • Visibility in map pack: If a local SEO campaign is successful, your website should be showing in the map pack for relevant searches. Since the map pack is the main local area of Google’s search result pages, your agency should be able to get you ranking in Google Map results.
  • Increased number of leads: A good local SEO campaign should ultimately drive more business to your company and make you more money. Increased relevant leads mean that your local SEO is paying off. A reputable SEO agency will be able to filter and determine what traffic and leads are relevant and valuable for your business.
  • Keyword ranking improvements: as a company, we stopped reporting keyword rankings to our clients, but many SEO companies still use keyword reports to show their progress to clients. To see the full explanation of why we don’t like to use keyword reporting, you can read the full article here.

Option 3: Hiring an In-house SEO Specialist

Hiring an in-house SEO specialist is often done by larger companies who have the budget for added staff, and looking for the full-time dedication of an in-office employee. With that being said, I believe that hiring an agency is almost always a better decision than hiring an in-house SEO. I may be biased as I work in an agency, but in-house hires rarely have the experience and knowledge that would equal all of the talent you get from hiring an agency, for the same price.

Look at it like this, you can have one in-house person to work on your account for a roughly $60-100K salary per year, OR for the same price you could have an agency team of content writers, web designers, SEOs, and strategists, all to work on your account. The one exception I would make to this rule is for very large corporate companies that have entire internal SEO teams internally. In those cases, I would say that bringing on an employee that specializes in local SEO would be a smart move to add to your team.

In-house SEOs are much more vulnerable to becoming trapped in an echo chamber. Because SEO best practices change so frequently, it’s advantageous to have the larger, more varied teams that you will find at an agency. When you only work in one industry and work on the same campaigns over and over, it’s too easy to become overly-comfortable and myopic in your strategies and tactics. Agency SEOs have to constantly adapt to new types of campaigns, industries, and verticals. This forces agency marketers to frequently experiment with new tactics and stay innovative in their approach to campaigns.

Agency SEOs get to work with some of the best web designers and paid marketing strategists in the business. When all of these schools are combined, it allows an agency marketing team to cultivate ideas and strategies that would not be obvious or ultimately elusive to in-house marketers that work alone or as part of a smaller team.

The Work:

When hiring an in-house local SEO specialist, you’ll get many of the same things that you get by hiring an agency (see above), but with 2 major limitations:

  • Limited Resources: there are only so many hours in the day, and for large companies with hundreds or thousands of locations, the workload can be too large to manage so many campaigns.
  • Lack of Specialization: Local SEO is an expansive industry, and expecting one employee to be a master in all areas of it is unreasonable. If you hire a local SEO specialist that is talented at local citation campaigns, they may not be highly skilled in coding or user experience and speed optimization.

An in-house SEO hire can be beneficial to a small or medium-sized business if the hire is very talented, but in most cases, I would stay away from in-house and go the agency route.

An in-house SEO or small team also runs the risk of putting all of your eggs in one basket. If one of your most talented people leaves for another job, you could be left in the lurch while finding a replacement or discover that your replacement can’t utilize any of the work done by your previous in-house SEO. Top-level SEO agencies have tried and true systems for balancing workloads and keeping a strong chain of command. It’s almost like a shield wall. When one SEO falls, the wall readjusts to compensate. When you employ an expert SEO agency, you won’t even notice if someone from your agency SEO team is no longer on your project.

The Costs:

When hiring an in-house specialist, you will be responsible for all of the tools and costs mentioned in the DIY section (SEO software, web design costs, etc). There is also the cost of office space, expensive hardware and dealing with employee absences. However, the major cost in hiring an in-house SEO is the employee’s salary. You can expect to pay around a $45,000 salary for an entry-level SEO in house and up to $125,000 for a veteran SEO. Other costs that you will incur like health insurance and other employee benefits can also add up.

The Results:

If you hire an employee to work in-office on your local SEO, the results will vary greatly depending on their work experience and knowledge. Make sure to use due diligence in vetting out your hire, and make sure to get specific examples of work that they have done. When hiring an agency, it is easy to get work references, but when hiring an in-house employee it can be more difficult. You will have to be knowledgeable enough to ensure that they are doing quality work and be ready to step in and cover for them when they are sick or on vacation.

The one major advantage that in-house SEO teams have over agencies, is access to the day-to-day knowledge and inner workings of the company. SEO can be difficult with limited information from the client, so in-house workers have a big advantage of being in the office with their client (the employer) every day. If you take the in-house route, try to find someone with a solid knowledge of SEO and your industry.

Who Needs Enterprise SEO?

One common misconception is that enterprise companies always have enterprise SEO and vice versa. Enterprise SEO is driven by the size, scope, and ambition of a digital marketing campaign, not necessarily the size and prestige of a brand or company. There are many companies outside of the Fortune 1000 listings that have enterprise SEO campaigns and some Fortune 1000 companies that do not require enterprise SEO.

What is Enterprise SEO?

When your SEO campaign needs to exceed the scope of a normal SEO campaign, you are entering the realm of an enterprise campaign. Enterprise SEO campaigns need a lot more time, effort and TLC to succeed. Enterprise SEO campaigns are extremely complex and go much deeper than normal SEO efforts. Here are some of the aspects where you can see the difference between enterprise and traditional SEO:

  • Keyword research and planning will go much deeper and require more structured templates. Staying organized and cultivating thorough keyword sets and subsets are crucial for managing the size and scope of an enterprise SEO campaign, especially for e-commerce campaigns that have thousands or tens of thousands of products.
  • Enterprise SEO campaigns will require in-depth knowledge of programming and tool creation. An expert enterprise SEO team sets industry standards by developing new tools and assets that will set their campaign apart from competitors.
  • Content becomes even more important for enterprise SEO. An enterprise content team will focus on unique research that becomes the standard for their targeted vertical. The content produced for an enterprise campaign should lead the industry with new data and insights. The goal should be to produce content that is more likely to be shared, organically attract high authority backlinks and have the best chance to go viral.

There are many other things that go into Enterprise SEO, if you would like to learn more about them, you should reach out to an agency with enterprise SEO experience.

DIY Enterprise SEO

This scenario is rare, as most small business owners that would opt for DIY SEO would not need an enterprise level campaign. Some smaller campaigns may have a site (especially e-commerce) that could benefit from an enterprise campaign, however, the time needed to handle a project of this scale would be far too great for most DIY business owners. In the case of DIY, it’s generally better to focus on basic SEO strategies and tactics.

In-house Enterprise SEO

Many large companies already have their own in-house marketing teams that fulfill some of the aspects of enterprise SEO. They have the advantage of being able to directly work with other people at their company and within the industry. The downside is that enterprise SEO requires a very high-level understanding of advanced SEO tactics that are not often in the arsenal of general in-house marketers and SEOs. In-house marketers will often hire enterprise SEO specialists that can help guide them through advanced enterprise strategies. Working together, they can then design new projects, templates, and programs that combine insider knowledge of the business and enterprise SEO best practices.

Agency Enterprise SEO

Medium to large companies, that want to become industry leaders in the digital arena, will benefit the most from working with an agency that offers enterprise SEO services. Expert agencies will be able to provide high-level content, research, networks, and strategies that make an enterprise campaign successful. An agency can work with an in-house team of marketers or industry experts to compile data and research that becomes the foundation for game-changing content. This will be the type of content that other companies and marketers use to research their content. By becoming the driving force for content in your industry, your business will be poised to generate high authority backlinks and engagement from blogs, media and press.

Conclusion

Local SEO is a valuable service with the potential to make loads of money for your business-- there are just several different ways to achieve the end result.

There are benefits to each route: DIY, hiring an agency or hiring an in-house employee, however, it all depends on what your needs are as a business. Small companies with small budgets can benefit from DIY until they grow, most companies can benefit by hiring an agency full of experts, and large companies can benefit from bringing local SEO experts into their staff.

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