In Search Podcast: Agency SEO and In-House SEO


Are you currently working in an agency and quietly wondering what life might be like working in-house?

I’m joined today by a lady who made that very jump. She’s spoken at several events, including Brighton SEO and SMX London. She is the former head of SEO of ROAST and the current SEO manager at Unily. A warm welcome to the In Search SEO podcast, Paige Hobart. In this episode, Paige covers some key differences between agency SEO vs in-house SEO, including:

  • Work-life balance
  • Being the sole SEO vs internal collaboration
  • Your future career
  • Selecting your ideal role

 

Key Differences between SEO Agency Work and SEO In-House

Paige: Thank you, David. Lovely to be here.

D: Thanks so much for coming on. You can find Paige over at unily.com. So you sent me a few bullet points beforehand about the difference between working in-house versus working for an agency and one point jumped out at me: living the dream.

Work-Life Balance

P: Oh my god. Yeah. So I’ve only been in-house for two months now. Not long at all. But the big reason for my shift was the work-life balance. An agency was an amazing way for me to be a good SEO that has a huge amount of knowledge. I’ve been exposed to so much stuff. But I just wanted to reassess things. I think a lot of people did after the pandemic. What do I want in life? What do I want my work-life balance to be? So the week before I started this job, I got a second dog, a rescue puppy, and there’s nothing that will force you to take breaks from your PC, like toilet training a new puppy for a couple of months, and now she’s fine.

The guys at Unily are genuinely very flexible. I know a lot of companies will always say, “Yeah, we’re totally flexible. It’s all hybrid, and we trust you.” But then you get there and you see that we all have to be there on a certain day and you have to be seen to be working. And it’s not quite what you expect it to be. But it’s literally the dream at Unily. They leave me to get on with what I need to get on with. They know that I’m very driven, that I’m going to generally be pushing the brand out there and things like this. And going to Brighton and going to all the events and seeing the amazing people that I know and love in the SEO community, whilst just being able to go for a dog walk every lunchtime. I’d have very productive hours. That might be the morning and that might be at seven o’clock at night. And I’ll just get my head down and get things done. But other times I might need to just tidy up the chaos of dog toys around the house.

D: Obviously, every in-house role is different. But in your particular role, you don’t have an SEO team at the moment. Is that the intention to stay like that? Do you prefer this? Is it easier to work nowadays, perhaps by doing things like outsourcing different elements of what you do and not having to have employees?

Being the Sole SEO vs Internal Collaboration

P: Yeah, that’s been definitely the biggest shift from going from a team of 18 SEOs underneath me to just me on my own. It was a huge change. And I really didn’t know what to expect. I said to the team when I left that I think that’s going to be the biggest culture shock, just not having that team of SEOs around me. But it has been great. The people I collaborate with are the developers, the infrastructure team, the content writers, the product team, the client success, team, and sales. All of these different people are the ones that I pull in together and get their advice from their steer. And it’s very different, but in a really lovely way, to be the only SEO and bring all these people together.

D: I can totally relate to what you’re saying there because I’ve managed SEO teams in the past as well. And I’m also working mostly by myself at the moment but I can also look back and think that I’m kind of glad that I got that managerial experience. Do you think that it’s advisable for most people to try to get that type of experience before going into the kind of role that you’re in at the moment?

P: 100% I wouldn’t have changed today my career at all. I think doing seven and a half eight years in an agency has not only exposed me to so much SEO, and all the variations that come with it, but actually managing and supporting a team have been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I have three little cards that sit on my windowsill in my home office from people. Two are from people I’ve managed directly and one colleague just saying thank you for always being supportive, thank you for helping with their careers. And they are genuinely the things that I’m proudest of in my career today. Speaking at events is amazing. Being on stage and meeting loads of people I’m hugely proud, of being on the main stage of Brighton twice. But actually helping those people is the most heartwarming and proudest thing I’ve ever done. So I definitely think having those managerial skills is so rewarding and I would definitely advise that.

It also helps now that I am having to communicate with people from different teams and different levels. Managing a team of almost 20 people means that you’re having to communicate with different personality types quite a lot. And whether it’s your team, or whether it’s clients and different stakeholders, those communication skills are invaluable when you have to deal with developers that are very left or right brain and then the creators at the other end. You have to really hone in on how you speak to people and how they are going to help you and you help them, you just sell it very differently.

D: I was gonna ask you actually as a follow-up what’s one thing that you’re doing in your current role more effectively as a result of having that managerial experience? But you actually answered that by talking about stakeholders and that there are other people in the micro and the organization that you have, to a certain degree, to sell things to and get them on board in order to be more effective in what you do. Is that really the answer to that one?

P: Yeah, I think that’s totally fair. One of the things that I was thrown into within the first few weeks of my joining Unily was our big annual conference, Unite. So I wasn’t doing any SEO for that week, I was at the venue, answering emails that had issues, helping get things, getting coffee for the people presenting, making sure the live stream was good, and just being in the buzz of it all. It was super fun and completely not what I would do day to day, but I learned so much having to deal with different people. You just learn different skills and it’s nice to change things up a little bit.

D: One thing to point out that you also shared is that you’re not doing anything hugely advanced, you’re just focusing on good solid SEO. I guess a concern for SEOs moving from the agency side might be moving from cutting-edge SEO or looking after massive sites to perhaps doing tasks that they might find a little bit more simple. Was that a concern of yours and how do you deal with it?

P: Not so much. I think it depends on where you’re going. My ex-colleague Matt has gone to this huge eCommerce platform across multiple countries. Now, he’s having to still do quite a high-tech SEO. He needs to be visible in all these countries with millions and millions of pages. I’ve gone B2B, where there are maybe a couple of 1000 pages and less than 200 pillars of content that I need to resolve. And I’m actually in the perfect position as an SEO where they have created lots of good content but it’s all over the place and competing with each other. So I just need to edit, add some hierarchy, pull all that content together, and really show Google and other search engines that this is the page I want to rank. These are the supporting bits of content. And this is how the website is strung together.

It’s not massively advanced at this point. I think we’re going to do a bit more international. For now, there are English and German languages, but I think we’ll do more languages as we progress. I know that there are more advanced things on the horizon. But I’m actually enjoying just pulling it all back and getting in some really solid foundations in my first few months before all the fun, exciting stuff. Like we’ve not even looked at SERP features yet. That’s my jam as well.

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Your Future Career

D: Have you also had to think about what this career move may mean for your future career? You might be at Unily for a few years, maybe many years, but obviously, you’re unlikely going to retire straight after that. So perhaps for future career moves after that, have you thought about what this role will mean for that? Obviously, if someone is thinking about moving in-house, then I guess a concern would be boxing them into a certain type of business and not being able to deal with so many different types of businesses at the same time.

P: Absolutely. I think that’s a very sensible concern to have. If you’ve done a good stint in an agency, you’ll always have that background in multiple different industries, and that experience of working with those different websites. But I guess for my future career, to get quite deep, I’m a 30-year-old woman, I don’t know what will happen this decade. Could be kids, could be house stuff, could be other massive life events. I’m engaged. So I’m going to get married at some point. Not anytime soon. But I think what this career move has done is give me this space to think about life next to work. Whereas agency is like work, work, work, with some life on the side. My thought is up to when I’m 40, it could be just working at Unily, living my life, and doing solid SEO. Of course, you’ve got all the amazing SEO communities out there like Brighton SEO, Women in Tech, and all sorts of stuff where you can still feel like you’re part of something and that you are learning, progressing, meeting new people, and having new ideas without necessarily needing that in your day to day job.

D: Yeah, I love the sound of what you’re saying there. You certainly sound really comfortable and relaxed and satisfied with where you are at the moment. That’s a wonderful place to be.

I think there’s a lot to say about following what you love to do. You can do a great job at that and find opportunities as a result of that, but not necessarily plan everything out. I think people are generally with companies for a lot less time than they used to. I mean, there’s no such thing really as a job for life nowadays. You’ve got to follow the path that you feel is best for yourself. And we kind of started off with you talking about living the dream and having a good work-life balance. But you also talked about you coming from an agency side that’s a little bit more fast-paced. Do you think it’s not really possible for people who are earlier on in their careers, maybe agency side or maybe in a tougher challenging role in-house to actually have that balance? Do you think people early on in their careers should be working harder not having so much of a balance?

P: That is such a trending topic. Should 20-somethings be all about the grind and all that?

D: The Hustle culture?

P: Exactly. Unity is an employee experience platform. So for huge enterprise companies, we provide basically an intranet, where you can find out everything you could possibly need in one place. That means that we do talk about things like quiet quitting, employee experience, and employee lifecycles and satisfaction. It’s a really interesting take on what I’ve experienced. You work, work, work, work, and you will progress, absolutely. If you are hard-working you will progress fast. I was the head of SEO by the time I was 30, that’s mental. That’s pretty cool. In this fast-paced SEO world, you can progress really quickly, really fast.

I do think you will do that better on the agency side, if you are very early on in your career in-house, I’m not sure your progress will be as quick generally in-house. You’re waiting for that person to either leave or die to get a job. But also, you’re not going to be as exposed to other industries. Other website types are the problems of other people, other stakeholders, and personality types. The career path I’ve taken I would recommend to most SEOs if you want to progress fast but get really exposed. But my ex-colleagues lovingly described it as retiring to in-house.

D: So agencies are a better place to start off. If you love SEO, if you want to make an impact in the industry, be in agencies for maybe five to 10 years, and then look at an in-house role after that.

P: I would say so. I then think you’re bringing a lot of value to that in-house role because you’ve been exposed to so much. But early on in your career, you’re surrounded by a team of SEOs. I think going into this job if I’d done this five years ago, it would have been terrifying because I would have constantly been second-guessing myself. Do I still second-guess myself? Yes, but now I can WhatsApp my team, “This is this is the way to do this right?” We all know that impostor syndrome is such a prevalent thing in SEO because you just can’t know. And even when you think you’ve done everything right, sometimes it still doesn’t work. So it can be incredibly daunting to just be out there on your own, trusting just yourself.

So having early on in your career a team of SEOs around you is amazing. I mean, you might get that in-house. Some of the huge comparison websites I’m sure have huge teams of SEOs with people that you can learn from and be exposed to lots of different things. It depends, to use the phrase, just having that size of team and support around you in your career, you’ll just learn so much more.

Selecting Your Ideal Role

D: Absolutely. So if someone is at the stage that you were with a few years of experience in agencies and actually thinking of potentially working in-house, how would you go about selecting the type of role that ideally you want to work in? You said that you decided to work in B2B for a website that’s maybe got a couple of 1000 pages. I’m sure you could have gone B2C or to other larger websites as well. How did you make the decision that you made? And how would you advise other people to make the decision?

P: Really good question. I actually spoke to some recruiters about what it was I was looking for. There were definitely faster-paced, bigger brands that were slipping into my LinkedIn DMs which could have been a big move for me. But this kind of just seemed too good to be true. It’s a 40-minute drive from my house. Completely remote if I want it to be or go into the office, whenever I want to be. It was really chill. The interview process was a big tell that this is a right fit for me. Being agency side, I’m quite used to very informal ways of being, and ways of working. I’m not going to walk into a huge corporate and be that person that fits in. So it was really nice that everything was really informal. And you just get a good vibe from people.

So interview for a lot of things. Really think about what it is that you want from that career move. You might want to be way more challenged day to day, you might still be hungry for it. In which case, do e-commerce or something that’s way more fast-paced, or a bit more exciting than B2B. But I’m just finding all sorts of fun opportunities. Still, there’s always something that you can do extra. Like I’ve been doing a few talks with Andy Crestodina, about CRO. So pulling those learnings into my day-to-day and like getting some client testimonials on these pages. It’s not technically SEO but it is going to help me because it’s going to be good for CRO. I want to make sales at the end of the day. I don’t just want rankings because I’ve worked at SEO long enough to know that that’s not good enough to stay in a job. So I need to make some money for this business.

The Pareto Pickle – Content Hierarchy

D: Let’s finish off with the Pareto Pickle. Pareto says that you can get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. What’s one SEO activity that you would recommend that provides incredible results for modest levels of effort?

P: Oh, that’s so hard. One thing that I’m doing at the moment is providing a good content hierarchy. Making sure that you have mapped out and understand your pillar pages. What are the core pages that you want to rank? What is your supporting content? Making sure you get that balance of supporting rather than competing can be tricky, but just make sure you’ve got good internal linking, that your main page is well optimized, and your other pages. Do you know what the KPIs are for? Is that supplementary content supposed to rank for anything? It doesn’t have to. It could just be a nice timely blog post that demonstrates your expertise in that industry. That’s fine. Start a nice internal link from that to your core page. Nice and easy. Don’t make life hard.

D: Great thought to finish up with. I’ve been your host, David Bain. You can find Paige over at unily.com. Paige, thanks so much for being on the In Search SEO podcast.

P: Thanks so much, David. It’s been a pleasure.

D: And thank you for listening. Check out all the previous episodes and sign up for a free trial of the Rank Ranger platform over at rankranger.com.

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