Build vs. Buy Software for SEO

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 02/17/2010

Build vs. buy is one of the biggest questions in SEO, along with most other information technology fields. The problem is that you will never reach the same level of familiarity with a system you buy as one you made yourself. Therefore, you always feel like you have power and control when you build it. This post looks at some of the pluses and minuses of build vs. buy in other industries I’ve encountered, and applies it back to where I am right now in my career in search engine optimization.

When it comes time to enhance the system, the good news is that it’s completely in your power and capability to do so. And the bad news is only in your power and capability to do so, without significant investment of time from an outsider. There’s no pool of consultants standing by who can walk in the door and be productive on a completely custom system. I’m in search engine optimization, and this question comes up all the time–in ranking monitors, content management, tracking systems and the like. And search engine optimization is slightly different than other fields with “best practices”, where there is one best way to do things that remains stable over a decade or two.

I spent significant portions of my career in software companies who sold specialized systems, and inevitably the largest competition was already-installed homegrown systems. In digital signage, there was always someone who thought they could cobble something together from Flash or PowerPoint. And in industrial distribution, there was already some order management and inventory system assembled in dBase, Foxbase or the like. Both of these fields are somewhat stable, due to the physical-world realities of installing and networking monitors, and taking orders for and shipping supplies.

Internally grown systems were tough to deal with from a sales perspective because they had a powerful advocate in their creator, and very often were highly customized to the particular circumstances of that company. The advocate had to be won over by seeing how much better his/her life is going to be with this new vendor dependency. And the nuanced features of the internal system that gave the company it’s perceived edge had to be addressed, often leading to customization of the best-practices vendor solution.

So who so you want to be dependent on–some internal person who you might lose, or some vendor who could change pricing or go down a different path than suits you? This creates some of the appeal behind free and open source software–the internal person selects a product which he/she installs and gets that sense of control and white knight heroism, but the codebase is something that is for the most part familiar and well understood somewhere in the consulting world. And it has been the direction I have been gravitating towards a lot lately.

A lot of these free and open source systems have hooks for expansion modules, plugins, or whatever you want to call them. They allow you to customize without worrying (too much) about code breaking with each revision. And you may not even need to customize, because someone might have written exactly the customization you need, as is the case with me right now working on the WordPress blogging platform with the Thesis theme. After just a few days of experience, the build-vs-buy question with best-practices Web content management is settled for me for blogging.

Everything is so nice with WordPress and Thesis. I’m blogging and not worrying about all those baseline features you have to wrangle other publishing platforms into having, like overridable default title tags and URLs. Also, I now don’t have to maintain and advance my own content management system. That leaves the build vs. buy question only unanswered in a few areas, such tracking, rank monitoring, keyword selection, and lead management, and the occasional content/feed management task. Is there anything like the WordPress/Thesis one-two punch in these other areas I feel are necessary for a complete SEO solution?

I’ve created at least one of each system in the past. The lead management system has been running continuously since 2000–a ten-year run–re-shaping the very personality and DNA of the company where it’s running. In all that time, they have not been able to replace it because it addresses their needs so perfectly, at such a low cost. And not until Google Wave have I seen anything with enough existing features and potential promise to replace all the nuances that have so hard-wired that company to my system, which is a subtle blend of message-boards, email and inter-company whispers. It also included order management and content management, that has since been replaced by NetSuite and Drupal. Ahhh, what a good feeling to require systems like that before being worth moving off an internal one.

I’ve also done custom tracking systems, the longest running of which is HitTail, which is deployed on tens of thousands of websites. In the question of build vs. buy, there really was no other way than building. That’s because competitive advantage arises sometimes from doing things differently than everyone else. This is a route to approach both with caution and passion. Caution, because there’s nothing worse than spending your time re-inventing the wheel. And passion, because if it turns out the wheel was never really done well yet, then the pay-off can be very big.

SEO is one of those fields where I’m pretty sure the wheel has not been perfected, and by the time it is, everything will be different anyway due to its shifting and changing nature. It’s not merely the arms-race of algorithm tweaks on Google’s part. It’s the gradual shift of what it means to search-optimize itself, with the game switching from one concentrated and focused front (top-10 in natural search results on any given keyword), to unlimited fronts (feed-fed results customized based on the user profile and location).

And so it is with this perspective that I continue my journey forward in the field of SEO, choosing the free and open source “buy” route for my own personal day-to-day blogging platform, with a paid-for customization to perfect it to the nuances of my situation. My intent is to plant one foot firmly in each world, so that whenever discussions occur, I can give concrete examples of the efficacy of each approach. For me personally, I feel there is a huge opportunity in SEO on all those back-end pieces that make all the difference. But flexibility is key! Everything must be built in such a way to provide a competitive edge right as the landscape shifts under your feed.