Design Agency SEO Model

Following on from my post "What To Consider When Starting An SEO Agency", we had a few questions about how to approach the design agency model. This is a model whereby you partner with web design companies. I used to run this model, so here are my ideas on how you can approach it.

What Is The Design Agency Model?

This is when you partner with one or more design agencies who do not have a SEO skillset in-house. This can be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps SEO has never occurred to them, they might not have enough full-time SEO work for a new hire, or SEO just seems like too much hassle.

Forming design agency partnerships can be quite lucrative for the SEO. The design agency typically has a stable of existing clients, and if they're big enough, a salesforce who bring in new clients on a regular basis. The design agency bills hours. In essence, they are a consulting business. The more hours they bill, the more money they make. To scale a design agency, they simply add more bodies.

This is where the opportunity lies for a win-win

How To Approach It

When a design agency is pitching to a client, their incentive is to pile feature upon feature, which of course, takes time to build. The more time they can bill for a build, the more money they make.

SEO is an add-on feature.

Some agencies will be happy just to have an extra service option available to clients so the client doesn't go elsewhere, but most agencies will want a cut. I used to work on 10-15%. Because the clients tend to be corporates, you could charge quite high prices, and they wouldn't blink.

Chances are, the design agencies clients are already asking about SEO. Typically, this happens after the site is actually built, and the client can't find themselves on Google. When you find such an agency, it's not difficult to put a mutually beneficial deal together. The demand already exists, and they can't service it.

Identify agencies that are not so big as to have an SEO capability in house, but big enough to attract a steady flow of clients. It's good if they are in your town. Having the ability to go and see them, and work alongside their sales people and designers if need be, is a big plus.

Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting. SEO has a fly-by-night reputation, so it's much easier to establish credibility if you're sitting in front of the people making the decisions, rather than being a detached voice on the phone. They'll also want to see that you're presentable to their clients if you need to attend meetings.

The pitch is you offer white-label search marketing services. You can sweeten the deal by offering to do the first project at cost. The aim is to prove concept and prove that you can fit in with their way of working. It's no different than a job interview and trial period in this respect.

The seamless white label SEO service you provide has little or no overhead cost to the agency. They don't need to hire you and provide you with staff benefits. They'll want to know how and where you fit into the design process, so be prepared to answer such questions. The subtext of this question is they want to know if there are hidden costs i.e. is your work is going to slow the designers down, or make life difficult for them. You could approach this question by saying that if you're in the projects at an early stage, you can make painless recommendations in terms of site build. Emphasize how your work will fit in smoothly, yet provide their clients with added benefit.

Also provide them with marketing collateral. This is the text they include in sales proposals. State the benfits of search engine marketing from a business perspective. You'll get a feel for the type of infoirmation you need to include by looking at their existing proposals. Typically, sales proposals aren't technical in nature. Give an overview of what you do, the benefits you provide, and the cost.

I found that including a PPC option is a good way to go, especially for clients, or agencies, who don't have much awareness of SEO. Even if the designers ignore all your recommendations - believe me, this happens - you can rescue the situation by ensuring traffic still arrives via PPC. You can then demonstrate that traffic is arriving via the search engines, and if you have more input in future, those traffic levels will increase.

Once you've got the first job under your belt, you can negotiate long term arrangements with the agency. You can then go to other agencies - careful that the agencies don't compete directly - and offer the same service, using the first agency as a reference. Repeat until you have as many agencies as you can handle. 4-5 reasonably sized agencies can create a flood of work for an SEO, so much so you'll soon find yourself employing extra staff. That's a great return for 4-5 hour long meetings.

Billing can be by the hour or project based.Try to fit in with however the agency bills. I found most like a project based pricing scheme unless there is significant level of ongoing work.


There are significant benefits to this model for the small SEO provider.

Firstly, you outsource the sales function. Sales can be very time consuming and expensive, and have long lead times. The agencies sales force has an incentive to work hard for you because they can sell higher billing projects, upon which their commissions are likely based. Get onside with the sales people as early as you can. Emphasize benefits such as how many people are looking for SEO services, how valuable an add on it is, and how much agency level SEO can charge. The sales people are your friends, as you earn them more money.

If you've selected your agencies carefully, you get to work with bigger clients than you might otherwise land yourself. Besides being more lucrative, you get to work up more and more contacts at high levels. These people often job hop from corporation to corporation, which opens further opportunities for you down the line.

You don't have to build up your own brand, which can take a lot of time and effort. You leverage off the pre-existing brand and reputation established by the agency.


Loss of control. It can be harder to pick and choose clients if the sales person is keen to sell every client on SEO. This is why it is important to plan for contingencies i.e. if you get a client hell bent on an all flash, brand heavy site, then be prepared to become Mr PPC. You'll also have less control over projects, as projects are typically managed by dedicated project managers.

Hostility form designers. Designers typically don't like people dictating design standards to them, especially people from outside the agency.

Look for areas where there is cross-over and articulate SEO in their terms. For example, if an agency is focused on usability, then talk that aspect up - usability imperatives and SEO often go hand in hand. Have alternative, low impact SEO strategies ready if you can't get your first choice on strategy. For example, add a site map to facilitate crawling, focus on off-site strategies like link building, build a site-within-a-site consisting of pages that aren't part of the main design, and suggest alternative navigation for those with disabilities.

Some designers are fine, of course, but expect the most push-back in this area. If you get too much push-back because you are imposing what they perceive as draconian conditions, then they will likely complain about you to management. As the designers are the bread and butter of the agency, and you are merely providing an add on, you may soon find yourself out of a contract.

You don't own the clients. The clients belong to the design agency, and they might not want you to use the names of their clients in your promotional material. Also, if you ever want to sell you business, you don't have a client list to sell, which is typically the only thing of value. Essentially, you are not building a business you can likely sell, you're operating as an independent contractor.

When it comes to billing, make sure this is not dependent on the agency getting the money out of the client. Bill the agency directly and let them worry about credit risk. It can be difficult to chase their clients for money due to the indirect nature of the contract.

Any questions? Add 'em below. It would also be good to hear from SEOs who run this model.

Published: September 11, 2009 by A Reader in business


September 11, 2009 - 6:55am

Under the white label, you'll need to be careful that when your affiliates make the sale they also manage the relationship as the SEO campaign progresses. In the past we found that sometimes clients who came in from white label affiliates would end up expecting a lot more than what was realistic - can cause problems and potential loss of business.

September 11, 2009 - 7:58pm

Even within a company that can be a problem with aggressive salespeople. One of my friends was the contact point for clients in his firm, and the guy who did the selling would promise absolutely unachievable goals. Needless to say eventually that SEO company fell apart ;)

September 12, 2009 - 10:06am

Great post and how true. I have experienced the designer issues you mention and am always amazed and saddened by such behaviour as designers should know better.

Thanks for all the other tips.

September 14, 2009 - 3:56pm

Thank you for expanding on this particular business model, Peter. I have only ever worked on my own sites, and recently became interested in working on local SEO projects. Just don't find much appeal in managing client relationships, especially the acquisition part.

I'll give the white label model a go.

September 15, 2009 - 7:02am

For a lot of web design firms, SEO is a way they can build in extra hours to projects where the development costs usually run over budget. SEO can usually cover that cost as well as provide a much-needed service to clients who generally don't have a clue as to how to market their sites. This is usually most clients.

I liked this quote the best: Even if the designers ignore all your recommendations - believe me, this happens - you can rescue the situation by ensuring traffic still arrives via PPC.

How true it is! Designers love to design and coders love to code and the SEO has to clean up the mess afterwards. I've found that a little Clockwork Orange-style re-education can go a long way though. Keep beating them over the head with it and eventually they get it.

Still, all the SEO in the world can't make up for a bad business idea which SEOs seem to find themselves stick with from time to time.

September 15, 2009 - 5:19pm

Our company has practiced this model since its inception. I've almost always found it to lead to a relationship where the designers learn more and more about best practices, and end up not only making better design - but end up acquiring a lot of additional business.

September 16, 2009 - 5:58pm

Great write up, I call on potential partners every day & have seen both the good and the bad.

We provide a white label service, but find most of our partners prefer what we call the "open white label" solution. This allows the partner to mark up our pricing as much as they want, but they are not trying to be the "SEO experts". Their clients can contact us directly, which reduces PM time necessary on their end. It's also easier when our partners don't have to hide the fact that we exist :)

One huge benefit designers get from partnering with us is once the first project is under our belts, they generally gain a much better understanding of SEO in general (if they didn't have already) and typically implement best practices on future projects. By outsourcing their client's SEO, they are getting free advice & consultation.

A huge hurdle we see is getting designers to follow our process. When a site design is delivered to a client before we perform a technical review, if the site does not follow certain standards, it could put the designer in an awkward situation if the client likes the design but it, say... has no indexable text.

Again, great points. Thanks for the post!

September 21, 2009 - 3:49pm

I know some might view this as very subjective, but do you have any good resources for determining cost structure? Other than your now closed membership. ;) (Still kicking myself for not getting in there when I had the chance.)

Anyway, at this point, I'm figuring price based on desired hourly rate multiplied by decent estimation of hours involved in a project. Is that the best place to start for now?

Just a little leery because I've never done SEO for anyone beside myself at this point.

Thanks so much for this post, again. The timing couldn't have been better, and I'm already setting up meetings with several agencies in the area.

September 22, 2009 - 2:43pm

Hi Dan
there are lots of different pricing models...when new and hungry it can be based on what you value your time at, but as you gain more brand recognition/exposure/demand then you can start using something more akin to value based pricing...although its hard to get anywhere near the value you can add to a big client...none of them want to pay millions for services (heck it is hard to do contracts in the 6 figures) even if they are getting a 100:1 return on spend).

I could go a lot more specific...but I would prefer to reserve that sort of stuff for the forums.

September 24, 2009 - 9:49pm

I really appreciate that you took the time to answer, Aaron. I wouldn't ask you to get more specific than that. Just wanted to know that I was on a good track. Thank you for your time!

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