When we asked for questions from our readers on topics they'd like to see covered, we received a few requests on how to set up an SEO agency and position the service.
Here's my take on it:
Don't do it!
OK, I'm being facetious :) But before you run out and sell your SEO skills, let's take a look at the issues, ways to get around them, and how to position your service so you get the greatest reward for your efforts.
I'll also explain why selling your SEO services might be selling yourself short.
SEO As A Career
The news is good. According to SEMPO, pay scales for SEOs are looking healthy:
"Of those respondents with up to one year's experience, 60% reported annual salaries in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. Compensation tracks strongly with experience. At the next level, two to three years experience, almost 34% reported salaries in the $50,000 to $80,000 range. At the more seasoned end of the spectrum, of those professionals with nine or more years experience, just under 40% are earning between $90,000 and $140,000 annually."
However, let's take a closer look at those numbers:
" More than 33% of the survey respondents said they managed both pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns and organic search marketing efforts. Another 35% said they worked primarily in PPC; some 20% worked primarily in organic search"
Most activity in the search marketing space is not SEO. It is PPC.
The reason for this is because SEO is a long term strategy, yet a lot of marketing spend is dictated by short budget cycles. In order to land work, you must be able to demonstrate value reasonably quickly. PPC provides a way to do this. Once businesses are sold on search as a channel, then they'll consider planning for the longer term search strategies, such as SEO.
The exception is when the client is already sold on the value of SEO. This type of client, who doesn't have an existing provider, or hasn't already moved the function in house, might be hard to find.
There is no harm learning both. PPC can teach you a lot a lot about SEO - mainly in terms of keyword research - and it increases your options.
Is Running A Business Really What You Want To Do?
There is a big difference between knowing how to do SEO and selling a service to clients.
For starters, there is the level of competition. Try searching for seo providers. As you can see, the world isn't short of SEO providers! And a lot of them are competing on price.
In an industry with such a low barrier to entry, how will you stand out from the rest? You'll need to give prospective clients a good reason why your service is better than the others on offer. How do you intend to match or better the credentials of established operators? How can you differentiate your service?
Secondly, how do you propose to sell your services?
The sales cycle is a significant cost, both in terms of time and resources. You can put a lot of effort into writing proposals, attending conferences, pitching presentations, and networking. None of this is guaranteed to pay off. And if you do land the work, how much time will you have to both do the SEO work and put in the sales effort required to land the next client? Can you scale up and take on qualified people quickly if that happens?
Thirdly, do you have sufficient cash reserves to live on while you're waiting for your first client to pay up? Cash flow can kill a small business, even those businesses which have a a lot of prospective work in the pipeline. The bills wait for no man.
You get my drift. There are many other considerations before deciding to run your own business, but the takeaway point in terms of SEO is this: determine what you like doing best.
If you like doing just SEO work, consider joining an established agency. They will take care of all the other details. If you want to build your own business empire, doing so mostly involves management, sales and administration. And, if you still have some time left over, some SEO.
How will you be remunerated for your efforts?
Most commonly, SEOs bill by the hour, or by the job. They set performance metrics, such as rankings and/or traffic numbers, and the job is completed when those metrics are achieved. The SEO might be able to get ongoing work in the form of reporting, or by extending the scope of the SEO project. The upside is that such a deal is simple. The downside is this needs to be sold over and over again. When you run out of hours to bill, you've hit the ceiling on your earnings potential, unless you raise your rates, or take on new people.
If you are confident of your skills, and can provide real value to a company - and that means boosting their sales and being able to prove it was you who made that happen - then consider partnership deals.
For example, one high profile SEO I know operates exclusively this way. He doesn't sell his services by the hour, he looks for businesses he can partner with, he boosts their earnings by implementing a robust, long term SEO campaign, then takes a share of their profit. This provides a healthy on-going revenue stream, without having to sell the service over and over again.
This type of deal requires a great deal of trust and transparency, but it is worth doing if you are sure you can deliver value, and can find a solid, reliable partner.
Some SEOs work on a Pay On Performance basis. This is a risky strategy, unless you are certain you can deliver the desired results. All the risk lies with you, and, really, you'd need to charge in such a way that accommodates this risk. Unfortunately, the type of clients who ask for pay-on-performance SEO deals are unlikely to be generous payers.
While search engines deliver value, businesses will pay to be seen on them.
SEO sits awkwardly amongst other marketing channels. The search engines will always try to make PPC attractive, because that's how the search engines make their money.
At the same time, they'll try to negate the value proposition of SEO, because SEO competes with PPC. SEOs are only useful to search engines in that they help spread the word about search engines, and they help sites get crawled. But don't think the search engines are going to do you, or your business model, any favors.
This situation doesn't make the SEOs job impossible, but I'm sure many people would agree that offering SEO as a service is a lot harder than it once was. A few years ago, all you had to do was add a few keywords terms to the copy and titles, point a few links at a site, wait one month, run a ranking report, and voila! You're an SEO provider.
Not any more.
SEO has become a much more holistic strategy. It requires a greater level of buy in from clients, designers, programmers, and all the other people who's toes you might tread on.
But there is plenty of life in the game yet. A lot of SEOs do great business, as can be seen from the huge popularity of the conference circuit. A lot of marketing spend is moving from other channels into search. By selling your services to others, you not only have an occupation, you gain insight into how other businesses work, which is a valuable education in itself.
I'll be going into greater detail on the workings of SEO consultancy in the coming months.
Don't do it :)
Here is why I think some of you might be selling yourself short if you sell your hard won skills to clients.
If you can return real value to clients i.e. not just ranking and traffic, but real tangible, value - then why aren't you keeping all that value for yourself? Why not compete with them instead? How about partnering with people so you get to keep an on-going share of their business? If you can position sites in lucrative keyword areas, that is a very valuable skill. Can clients even afford to pay what you're really worth?
If you're really good at SEO, do you really need clients? ;)
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