Consulting Compromises

Top Intersection: Most of these people are not available for traditional client consulting projects because they simply lack the time needed to do them and run many successful projects of their own.

Right Intersection: The person who is available and under-priced quickly gets overworked. I have experienced this with multiple contractors in other fields where they would offer killer services and be surprisingly affordable and fast...and then on the next project they would disappear.

The guy who made the logo for SEO Book back in early 2004 was probably the most talented and most unreliable logo designer I have ever worked with. Sometimes he would be fast, sometimes he would be slow, and sometimes I would pay him and get no response. I wanted the guy to become more successful and reliable so much so that I offered him tons of free marketing so long as he would be available for the boatload of work I was going to send him. He said sure. Before beginning that marketing campaign I asked him if he was ready and got no response. ;)

And last year there was a designer/developer that had amazing skills. We hired him full time and it took him 2 months to make a website design. There are a lot of people in the world who are talented at what they do, but just are not skilled at business and/or do not approach their business like a business.

Left Intersection: There are lots of people who are good at sales who have no substance. If an SEO firm contacts you out of the blue (via tele-spamming or email spam) that is a good hint that they have more salesmen on staff than they have practitioners. If SEO is bolted on as a package for cheap then it is usually a scam.

It is nearly impossible to have enough time to study a fast changing craft, brand yourself as an expert in the space, and yet still find time available for doing consulting. It is not hard to do any 2 of the 3...but all 3 is brutally tough. In consulting so long as you have popularity you do not need much knowledge, as some well known SEOs have proved. But knowledge without popularity can be hard to monetize effectively.

Even if you are pretty decent at sales and have a strong brand it is hard to make an SEO services business model scale without watering it down. And watering down is rarely a solution because it leads to churn.

  • WebSourced at one point was the largest SEO firm, but closed abruptly, largely because their clients were not getting any value.
  • The guy who speaks at 40 SEO conferences a year does little SEO work...his job is to generate leads for the firm where an intern can work on the project. And the projects that the interns work on are rarely top shelf because you often pay expert rates while getting automated and systemized mystery meat services from someone new to the market.
  • Some of the smallest clients tend to be the most demanding, even while paying crumbs. And Google/the search market, which is becoming more corporate, is making it harder and more expensive to service such clients profitably.
  • Corporate client projects which at first may seem like mega-paydays still perform poorly when compared against putting the equivalent effort into growing your publishing projects.
  • Rather than watering down we have decided that scarcity and value are a better strategy. But that is still a work in progress. This site is about 90% of my work time, had a 5 year head start on most of our other publishing efforts, and yet the SEO industry is so hard to monetize (unless you use loads of hype) that this site earns a minority of our income. As we get better at sales we can try to increase earnings...but lately we have just been pushing more on what is working and maintaining this site's quality for existing members (and closing it off to growth) while putting a bit more effort into the higher yielding projects.
Published: September 28, 2009 by Aaron Wall in business


September 29, 2009 - 1:20am

I am a website developer, and this field is way more left intersection than right ;)

For example, a web design company can say they are "e-commerce developers" when they really just repackage OSCommerce or another free open source e-commerce template. They didn't create this template themselves. It's like saying I'm a skilled pashmina weaver, and we make our own pashmina scarves, when I simply just sell what another manufacturer makes. Some may say this doesn't matter - they can set-up e-commerce websites, so what? It matters because they're pretending they're experts when they're nothing more than competent at installing OSCommerce/ZenCart/whatever templates. What's more, they sell these "services" at extortionate rates. It also matters because there are pretending its their own "unique" template when they're selling exactly the same template as thousands of their competitors. This makes it confusing for end-customers who are lead to believe there is a wide selection of templates on offer when in reality there isn't.

It seems companies prefer the path of least resistance - it's easier to erect smoke and mirrors than it is to actually be good at your job, and be an expert.

So the internet is full of salespeople who belong in the left intersection - while they lie and say they belong in the right intersection.

I guess it's ever been thus in the business world, but it's very confusing for end-customers who don't know what to look out for.

(from a developer who has spent 5+ years developing - and maintaining - his own template).

September 29, 2009 - 5:56pm

Andrew, you hit it on the head here. I have had dozens of gigs in the last 3 years cleaning up after these "e-commerce" expert developers. The common problem? They have no idea how to do anything that is not off-the-shelf. Or, they have no idea how horrible their open source solution is to their clients' true desires...kind of like a developer insisting on using a 100% Flash site in 2005.
The confusing part I see, is when I drop the bomb that no, this site will NOT work the way you want it to without a serious investment. The client is confused as to why the original developer didn't tell them.
I've built hundreds of sites in the past 8 years, and would never have the gall to call myself an expert. Evidently, this is not as common as one would hope.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Aaron.

September 30, 2009 - 12:18am the last 3 years cleaning up after these "e-commerce" expert developers. The common problem? They have no idea how to do anything that is not off-the-shelf.

Absolutely, that's when the real problems start, when clients ask for customisations (which is almost all the time). What a can of worm that opens :) - I know "website development companies" that 100% outsource ALL work! Again, no problem if you're upfront about it and let people make an informed decision, but they never are. They pretend it's all in-house, and so this really is terrible for the end-customer who often gets duped into spending thousands for something substandard and/or heavily delayed / requirements misunderstood. I don't see why this can't be regulated somehow - I mean, you wouldn't hire a fake lawyer (who claims to be a real lawyer) who then outsources all your requests to a real lawyer, would you?

September 29, 2009 - 2:13am

Yup Andrew...that is just like the web designer who claims the SEO is in the code ;)

I think what side of the chart people fit on largely depends on what they are good at and how they got into their trade. If you just happened to care a lot and grew and grew you would typically be right leaning, whereas if a person just started out from the perspective of "what can I sell" they are far more likely to be left leaning.

September 29, 2009 - 2:49am

It is quite difficult to maintain the sustained effort required to rank just one website for a client let alone 10 or 20 of them. Unless of course you have some kind of special secret automated process that reliably generates links without a lot of work. What I love is when you have a rare client who is in a niche where there is large search volume and no competition. Just doing a little on-page SEO gets them a high rank and sends them a flood of business. That's really gratifying--especially when you like the client and they appreciate your work.

On the other hand, there are those niches where you're trying your best to help someone and you just can't seem to find the right angle to their crazy idea. A lot of the time, it's their ideas that are flawed but they will blame you anyway because they paid you to market their site. They believe that success is owed to them and that their idea is the greatest thing to come along since the wheel.

So it is in the SEO business. A lot of businesses are like this. Investment management comes to mind. Fund managers and advisors always want the high net-worth clients because they need fewer of them and can charge ridiculously high fees to move their money around. Even if they're just mediocre managers, good salesmanship often lets them get by without much notice. Most mutual funds are this way.

I find it interesting how often you and Peter write about how being your own publisher is far more lucrative than even large corporate SEO clients.

@AndrewL: While I agree with your point of view with regard to web developers who charge $150 per hour to set up WordPress blogs or Joomla sites, e-commerce has a lot of complexities that the average person could never figure out. When you're dealing with credit cards and SSL, you need to make sure you know exactly what you're doing or you risk jeopardizing your entire business and the trust of your customers.

We build shopping carts both from scratch and using robust applications like Magento. I work with highly seasoned programmers who still get tripped up from time to time with these systems.

Re-using code and the work of others is part of what makes programmers great. Why re-write something when it's already been done elegantly before? You wouldn't chide the vast majority of Windows developers who use MFC or Apple developers who use Cocoa, so why does it matter if a web programmer uses Zend, Pear, or jQuery? That's what they're made for.

September 29, 2009 - 1:24pm


You wouldn't chide the vast majority of Windows developers who use MFC or Apple developers who use Cocoa, so why does it matter if a web programmer uses Zend, Pear, or jQuery? That's what they're made for.

I agree, but that's a lot more granular than just lifting an entire white label template off the shelf and repackaging it as your own. In fact, there's nothing even wrong with THAT if you advertise it as such, but of course many companies never actually state the reality of what they have done, instead they charge high prices that are commensurate to developer fees, which is wrong, and then brand the template as "unique". This is just an example of the "left circle" where the path of least resistance is followed, and they heavily exaggerate their skills.

September 29, 2009 - 3:02am

I don't think he was ripping on people for recycling code...I think he was ripping on people for recycling code and then selling that x hour project as though it was a yy hour project at $zzz rate.

September 29, 2009 - 9:25am


The point about value / scarcity, monetization and quality hit a solid note with me.

The whole mentality behind the SEO services model is inherently becoming more difficult due to search engines applying more filters to quantify relevance in their index.

It goes back to value, how much is your time worth? and where to you want to "invest" your attention.

Getting "a paying client" to the top of search engines for competitive keywords is great, but with all the time, trials and tribulations it takes to produce that effect, it very well could have been your own site (instead of selling yourself on the cheap)regardless of the price.

Usually in the same amount of time, your could have "owned the market" with a web property you developed, in a fraction of the time due to less bureaucracy, resistance or drama.

Even though I signed up almost 2 years ago, this is the first few times leaving a comment. Forget about being an SEO rockstar (like the second tier/circle), just invest your time in web estate or relevant and lucrative joint ventures.

Much respect and stellar topic as usual.

September 29, 2009 - 1:25pm

Hi Aaron,

This hit a note with me as well as I am a web marketing consultant with the dilemma of having too much work and an unscallable business model.

So what's the solution in your opinion?

I am considering firing my smaller clients so I can focus on the bigger ones or firing everyone all together, taking a hit on my income and then focusing on building my own sites. I have a site that generated add revenue and was growing, and then I chose to focus on the short term gain of consulting revenue. I just don't think it can last like this because I cannot provide superior results when I am stretched thin...

Interesting to hear that the success of SEObook, in its current state only accounts for a small portion of your revenue. Sounds like you have found a better way to do things that I would like to learn from.

September 29, 2009 - 2:39pm

This site is a decent chunk of our revenues...but is certainly less than 1/2. And it is most of the labor (plus has more sunk cost).

I don't think the solution for most people is to fire all clients right away. Maybe more of a gradual shift is better. And I wouldn't fire based on price exclusively...I would look at how much you earn vs how much you enjoy (or don't enjoy) the project and how much time it takes for the income.

I still run this site because I enjoy it and for a diversity of income sort of perspective.

September 29, 2009 - 2:02pm

Aaron, this is a great post. I think it especially gets to the heart of the many compromises and talents a company must make to try to be good, I think finding someone with all 3 skills is VERY hard, 2 is somewhat hard, and 1 of those skills is still somewhat hard.

I don't need to regurgitate what you said on a line by line item, but all in all the way you lay out the trade offs like lots of speaking can = little time to do SEO.
talented and cheap can (eventually) = unreliable and bad customer service

sharing the links was very helpful too.

September 29, 2009 - 2:40pm

Glad you like it Wil...always like your speeches :)

September 29, 2009 - 6:15pm

Loving the post, and the chart! It's mad how stuff fits it perfectly when you think about it. I have never seen one of those charts before. I think it should have had depression and rogue traders in it though ;) You know where they fit.

October 19, 2009 - 6:40pm

hello friends...

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