Starting an SEO Business: How to Become an SEO Expert
Providing SEO services even to this day is still a very lucrative venture.
The SEO industry is estimated to be worth $79 billion by 2020, according to SEL’s report last year.
Whether you choose to be a solo consultant or to start and operate your own agency – there is money in it. I can attest to that.
But SEO is not for the faint-hearted. The only thing that’s permanent in this line of business is change.
In order to compete, you need to have a solid footing on how SEO really works.
Starting your own SEO consulting business or agency is easy – but running it is no fun at all. Trust me.
For years of working in this field, I realized that SEO is for people who are really competitive in nature.
It’s for people who are really up for never-ending challenges. Given that it’s difficult to scale any service-based business model.
I liked the typical issues Nathan Gotch listed that most consultants/agency owners will encounter when running a client-based SEO business:
Unrealistic expectations. This is usually the product of a weak client application or vetting system. If you don’t establish realistic expectations, you will regret it. Don’t exaggerate what’s possible to meet your sales quota.
Clients can be unreliable and can hurt your cash flow. It doesn’t matter how good your collections system is. There are going to be clients who play games when it comes to paying.
Operations is a headache. Running an SEO agency is challenging because each campaign is unique. That means each campaign requires different actions. This makes it challenging to create solid systems, which as a result, makes it hard to scale.
Requires human capital. To scale an SEO agency, you need to hire people. You can only take it so far by yourself. New challenges arise when you bring employees on, but that will be a subject of a later blog post.
It’s a job with many bosses.Working with clients often feels like a job and not a business. Of course, you can fix this by taking yourself out of the equation. But, that’s easier said than done.
You need to be genuinely passionate to last.
I’m not writing this post to dishearten you in entering this business. But it’s better to know what you’re really getting into before you even start.
Why should you listen to me?
I may not be in the business long enough. I started doing SEO back in 2010, and been really passionate about it ever since.
But I think the one thing that makes me qualified to write about this is the progression of my journey as an SEO:
In short, I’ve been an in-house, a freelancer, and an agency guy. Being all these taught me a lot of things about business.
Now that we have that out of the way, we can move on to the more important aspects of starting your own SEO business.
Core SEO Strategy and Principle
When starting a business, most experts will advise you to start with a detailed business plan. Although, personally, I think it’s best to first come up with your own business’ core principle.
Translating it to our industry, it means having your own core SEO strategy to follow. This is very crucial, since this is where your processes will revolve around (as well as your pricing models).
Many SEO consultants have different views and principles when it comes to effective and ROI-driven SEO.
And fairly enough, these guiding principles are mainly based on their experiences.
Some might have more partiality in content, while some might believe that technical SEO can win it all, and a few could be championing links as the most important factor.
You need to know where you stand.
In my case, I’ve always believed that it’s a combination of all the most important factors:
- A well-optimized website (for both sitewide and page-level fixes).
- Having robust foundational content assets in place that can:
- Rank for search queries that matter to the client’s business
- Match the intent of its target audience/users
- Exemplify brand expertise
- Attract/earn links
- Encourage site conversions
- Build loyalty
- Associating the site’s brand with other authoritative entities in its space through relationship-based link opportunities and other form of content partnerships.
Your core SEO strategy could be as complicated as you want, or could also be as simple as:
- Determine the keywords your clients want to rank for (assess if it’s feasible in the next 12 months. If not, look for other opportunities).
- Build the best content on the keywords they want to rank for (skyscraper style).
- Promote and build links to these content assets.
The important thing is to have your own roadmap to victory.
But also take note that every business/client you will encounter will have its own unique business situation and very specific SEO needs.
SEO is not a one-size-fit all service. What works for a real estate brochure website will not necessarily work for a fashion ecommerce site.
That’s why having a strong grasp on foundational SEO best practices is vital in prolonging an SEO consulting business.
Suggested reading (if you’re new to SEO):
Your Process is your Product
Once you have refined your own core principles (SEO strategies), it will be easier to identify which set of tasks you will need to build processes around on.
It’s best to determine what sorts of services you will focus on as an SEO consultant or outsourced work provider.
There are many types of SEO services, and as you grow, offering all of them will be an operational nightmare (unless you have the necessary processes for each type in place).
And one of the best things about doing SEO is that there are a number of tools that can help you create processes for every key area of the practice.
I remember back when I was just starting in 2010 (as a freelance consultant) – I didn’t use any paid tools.
These tools should be enough to get you started. Although, having a couple of paid tools up your sleeve can take your business farther (will expound on this later).
Create SEO Audit Checklists
You need to create your own SEO audit checklists (for all the types of services you’ll be offering) to efficiently operate a consulting business.
Here are some existing audit frameworks that you can tweak and improve along the way (and pass on to SEOs you will eventually hire).
Local SEO Checklists:
Ecommerce SEO Checklists:
International SEO Audit Checklists:
Keyword Research Process:
Keyword research is considerably the backbone of an SEO campaign.
Below are some of the most extensive guides on the topic that you can use to create your own process.
Google Penalty Analysis and Recovery:
Google Analytics organic traffic data and Moz’s list of Google Algorithmic Change History are enough to help you diagnose if the site you’re working on had been hit by an algorithmic update in the past.
Just cross-match the date(s) in which the site had a significant decrease in search-driven traffic with the publicly confirmed updates by Google. This should help you determine which aspects to focus your audit on (if it’s on content quality or link quality issues).
Where as for manual penalties, you can see this alert via Google Search Console.
I’ve written several guides on how to recover from such penalties in the past:
Content Creation Process:
It’s one of the 3 most important ranking factors in SEO, so it’s imperative to have a replicable process for content creation.
Useful guides on content creation:
Build Processes based on Tools
Another way to make your business more economical (in terms of time, effort and labor) is by becoming more proficient with tools in which you can build processes on.
Investing on paid tools (and knowledge in using them effectively) that can help you do things faster is always a good thing, especially when you’re in it for the long-haul.
Using Google Search Console for Technical SEO (Free)
I wrote an extensive guide a few years ago on how to implement a thorough technical on-site audit just by using Search Console.
Evaluating Site’s Crawl Budget
Making sure that all of the site’s important pages (the pages that your client wants to rank) are crawled regularly.
Compare the number of pages submitted via XML sitemap vs. the number of indexed pages.
Then check the average number of pages crawled on the site per day (Crawl > Crawl Stats).
Fetch as Google
To see how Google crawlers see your site vs. how visitors see it (for both desktop and handheld devices):
In which you can see which resources inaccessible to Googlebots.
Where you can easily see if the site has internal duplication issues with their meta data.
Finding URL parameters that could be causing internal duplication and bloating the site’s # of indexable poor-content pages.
And there are other features in which the tool can give you ton of insights from:
- Structured data and Rich Cards
- Structured data testing tool
- Mobile Usability and Accelerated Mobile Pages reports
- Search Analytics (which provides a far more superior keyword performance data)
- Page Speed Insights
- Crawl Errors
Superior Page-Level SEO Audits with OnPage.org (Paid)
Onpage.org can seriously make your on-page SEO reports very competitive.
The tool provides a very detailed report of the overall performance of the pages you want to optimize.
Aside from their advanced reports for page/content-level issues, what I also like about this tool is their TF-IDF feature.
This feature allows you to further improve your pages’ semantic relevance to the search queries they are aiming to rank for (through the other terms frequently used on other competing pages).
Competitive Intelligence using Ahrefs (Paid)
Ahrefs has completely transformed from a link building tool into a full-scale competitor research tool.
It has become a must-have tool for consultants and agency owners for the past couple of years.
You can bring in ton of actionable data and insights and using them to give better direction to your campaigns.
Get your competitors’ link data (for reverse engineering)
Know how much traffic your competitors’ assets are getting
See what types of content linking and sending traffic to their assets
Learn from their other top pages (in terms of links, shares, content formats, promotions, relationships and rankings).
Use Content Explorer and Keyword Explorer for content research
Mention Tracking (Alerts)
MozBar + Gmail for Link Building (Free)
Link Building is a more complicated form of SEO service (because it’s tedious and time consuming).
But it’s not impossible to create simple and easy-to-follow workflows for link acquisition campaigns – even when your business is still in its formative stage.
Tip: The key is to build relationships for your clients. Sell your “outreach” process itself – not the “links”. If you’re going to offer a full service SEO (that includes link building), and you’re unsure that you can deliver the right and/or a certain # of links for your clients. This is the way to go.
It’s more realistic and doable to guarantee 500 outreach emails sent per month (and say with around 2 – 5% acquisition rate), than guaranteeing 10 high quality links per month.
Use MozBar’s Google SERP overlay feature for link prospecting.
Change your Google Search’s settings to display up to 100 search results.
For content-based link opportunities (ex: guest blogging, infographic marketing, content partnerships, resource link requests, etc…), use search queries like your target keyword +:
- “write for us”
- “guest post by”
- “useful links”
Export the first 3 search result pages for each query variant.
Say if you have 10 keyword variants, you can practically collect around 3,000 prospects – in less than an hour. But of course, you’d still have to clean up your list (for duplicate and irrelevant sites/pages).
Here are a few tips for getting quick wins for outreach and link building:
1. Target publications that are relatively new. They are more receptive to content partnership requests (like applying as a columnist).
But make sure that their site has great potentials of becoming an authority in their space in the next several months. Invest on them while it’s still early, and be a part of their growth. Because you’ll never know if they’ll become the next NerdWallet or so.
Criteria in assessing potential partners (in which you can provide content on a weekly/bi-monthly basis):
- Site/blog must be well-designed and well-branded
- Site must have really good content/blog posts already in place.
On how to find them: Click on tools (from Google search) > set time to past year or custom range
A couple of samples of stellar-looking sites I’ve found from this search:
FinanceHackers – DA 7
FromFoundertoCEO – DA 18
Below is a sample outreach email I’ve sent to them:
2. Offer your clients’ data to build relationships (and links)
If your clients have internal data that can be useful to other business/publishers’ audience – make them known. Turn them into redistributable content formats (ex: data visualization, ebook/whitepaper, slide deck, etc…).
Here are a few samples:
Send emails to publishers who will find client’s data valuable.
Then acquire links:
Build relationship for future content collaboration opportunities.
What if your clients don’t have data to share? Use public data to create content that will matter to your clients’ or your target prospects’ audience.
I’ve shared in detail how I’ve come up with this content here.
3. Link exchange and partnerships exclusively for linkable assets.
If your clients have high-value and high-utility content on their site, or if you can create one for them, this is a great way to build long-term relationships for their brands.
I’ve been doing this recently for this blog – as well as for some of our clients.
Here are a few samples:
Automate Outreach and Influencer Marketing with NinjaOutreach (Paid)
As I’ve mentioned above, outreach and link building in general is the most challenging and daunting part of SEO.
But there are tools that can help semi-automate your content promotion and link building outreach campaigns. And NinjaOutreach is one of them.
The tool can extremely speed up your outreach process, as it can help:
- Quickly personalize your email outreach templates
- Automate and schedule your email outreach campaigns
- Track and monitor your email outreach stats (that should allow you to determine which areas of your outreach work and will need more work).
You can also read our walkthrough of our process for enterprise-level link building campaigns here.
How to Get Clients:
You’re now ready to take on clients once you have a foolproof process.
There are thousands of businesses seeking help with SEO every month. The demand is certainly there – and it’s constantly growing.
Some of the popular ways to get SEO clients are:
- Signing up on Freelance job sites like UpWork or Freelancer
- Reaching out locally to pitch your services
- Attending industry conferences (especially on startup or small business conventions where people are most-likely in need of marketing help)
- Sharing your expertise on industry forums and communities like Quora (I used to get a lot of inquiries from WarriorForum back in the days).
- Building and marketing your own brand/website to get inbound leads.
I will only discuss the last one, because that’s where I know I’m good at (and it’s obviously the best way to go).
I liked Glen Allsopp’s business model, wherein he focused on building marketing/SEO agencies just for specific niches.
SEO itself is a very competitive space – and to rank for keywords like “SEO company” or “SEO services” will take you years (and a huge capital) to accomplish.
The smartest thing to do (for people who are just starting in this business) is to build on and compete in spaces you genuinely have a chance of getting a piece of the pie.
The mission is to build your brand as an authority/expert in a particular niche (before expanding). Your services can be focused on one specific location, an industry, or both (one industry in one specific location).
A few good examples:
Location: OmniCore, which is a Local SEO Agency in Dubai
Industry: JurisDigital, an SEO agency for Law firms
Location + Industry: Lime Light Marketing, a Canada Real Estate SEO Agency
It’s easier to build expertise and internal processes with this approach, knowing that you’ll only specialize in a few select types of business.
Creating your website
Use WordPress. It’s easy to create websites these days (and it’s cheap too).
You can always start small.
Get a branded domain name (which is usually just around $6 – $10 per year).
And you can get hosting for as low as $3.95/month at SiteGround (you have no excuse not to start). They have the best support out of the others I’ve tried in years.
But you can also see for yourself how other hosting companies compare here.
Once you have your WordPress site up, setup your first few pages – you don’t really need a lot, just make sure you have the essential ones:
- Homepage – focus on your brand’s unique selling point. What separates you from your competitors? What are the problems that you can really solve for your clients?
- Service Page(s) – share in full detail the types of SEO services you provide (pricing, process overview, etc…)
- About/Contact us – make these pages stand out. People work and follow interesting people.
- Your first Content Asset
Here are some of the most effective content assets you can start with:
- Write an in-depth case study of your first client (including all the methodologies implemented and results).
- Make a comprehensive guide/tutorial of your SEO process (a good option if you don’t have any clients yet).
- Do an extensive guide on how you will do SEO for a sample website in your target industry (like UserOnboard’s app reviews/teardowns)
My first ever blog post here in Kaiserthesage was a 2-part case study on the first site I worked on as an SEO (for a gambling site in UK).
I remember receiving two client inquiries (both companies are based in UK) on the same week I published the case study, and luckily, I was able to close both deals a week after.
If I were to start all over again, I’d probably choose the teardowns.
Don’t forget to promote your content. Here are 100+ ways to do it.
Proposals, Contracts and Pricing
Dan Shure wrote a great piece on his own proposal process.
Personally, I do a quick initial audit of the site, wherein I just mainly pinpoint the areas of the site that needs work (for both short and long-term gains).
SEO Service Contract Templates & Tips:
Pricing your SEO Services
The pricing guide for SEO services/packages from this SEO Sales Guide by Mark Preston is the best I’ve read so far.
Becoming an SEO Expert
It takes a lot of practice and repetition to truly understand and master SEO.
You won’t get through it just by reading (without application). Test the things you read and learn. That’s the only way you can really know what works in SEO.
Do your tests on your own site (that’s what I did when I was starting). Then write about the things you’re learning, because that’s the best way to remember.
On Scaling the Business:
Hiring and Training:
Create a documentation of all your processes. Make them easy-to-digest, so you can easily pass them on to new hires when you start training them.
Only sell the services you know you can do yourself. There’s nothing more important than delivering results and proving the value of your service to your clients’ business.
Although, outsourcing some of the menial tasks (and off-loading your team of some of the time-consuming tasks) can also be a smart business decision. But make sure that you’re outsourcing the tasks to the right people.
If you need to outsource some of your SEO work, just let me know.
Special Shoutout to Oleg Korneitchouk for helping fix my site last night.
If you liked this post, you can follow me on Twitter @jasonacidre