How To Be An SEO Service Provider

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.

Pay Models

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.

The Future

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? ;)

Further Reading:

Published: November 13, 2008 by A Reader in seo tips


November 13, 2008 - 11:16pm

Hey great blog guys,

i come back to check this weekly always looking to take my websites to the next level of SEO.

many thankyous for this blog,


November 14, 2008 - 12:57am

Great article. I think the same thing. If you are going to spend the time on helping others, why not help yourself. Why help others make all the money? Especially if you are good.

November 14, 2008 - 1:27am


You have hit the TARGET. Specific & digestive guidelines about SEO activities. I truly appreciate your views and feedback for above article. I am sure this will be very useful to us. Spec. Partnership with clients.

Though, a couple of points I want to ask...

1. What should we do if client doesn't want to pay-off for all required SEO MUST DO ACTIVITIES?

2. How feasible it should be to get a position as a niche SEO service provider (Specialized & focused on just one or two services?

Wish you will cover this point in your next article.
To your better Success...

November 14, 2008 - 5:51pm

1.) then get new clients. simple as that...if they don't trust you and listen to you then what is the point banging your head against the wall.
2.) this strategy could work good, particularly if you are a leading publisher in your vertical.

November 14, 2008 - 3:08am

I totally agree with what's said.

ps I've been reading this blog for 3 years.
Hoping to see it change brand to something more precise than "". Just do it :)

November 14, 2008 - 5:48pm

What sort of ideas or directions were you thinking?

November 14, 2008 - 8:31pm

I'm thinking about the fact that you're enough known to be able to rebrand into something more generic. Not content-wise, but brand-wise (ie domain etc)

November 14, 2008 - 8:55pm

I sorta fear changing domain names...sooo many databases and soo many links. If I changed domain names I think the next one would not have SEO in it...though I will likely keep this brand for the next year or two.

The book element might get revived at some point...I have been working hard on the forums and stuff for a while, but I still have tons of content ideas...just not enough time.

November 14, 2008 - 3:16am linking to SEMPO. Pigs are flying. LOL

November 14, 2008 - 5:50pm

I try to come up with some of the content ideas, and to some degree act as editor, but Peter writes a lot of great stuff that I would not have thought of. I don't mind an occasional link to SEMPO so long as Peter keeps writing all that great content.

November 14, 2008 - 3:34am

Great post, Peter!
I really liked this part:
"If you're really good at SEO, do you really need clients?"

I think partnership would be a good option for a smart SEO as this would let him concentrate on his field rather than mastering the other niche which a site belongs to. And you can partner with several folks this way, which reduces your risk in case one or two of your sites get penalized or so.

November 14, 2008 - 5:19am

I think selling SEO "services" is a definite hamster-wheel business model. If you're just doing link building, optimizing title tags and copy and pushing for a benchmark that in essence means the end of a contract, that is certainly hard to scale.

I've been involved in 60+ SEO projects of one stripe or another. I have seen first hand that selling SEO contract work on a piecemeal basis is exhausting and bares little fruit for the agency. In this sense I agree very much with the spirit of your post.

But I still see, on a daily basis, businesses making the most basic of mistakes in their website structure. I see businesses with websites that are established but have not yet been targeted for the right keywords. Where there are problems there is a market for problem solvers - but they have to get creative in assuring value to the client(especially in times like these).

I see SEO as part of a total marketing solution. What does search allow us? Connection with the right people at the right time. There is immense value in that for any business who has faith in their product or service. And if you, as a service provider or consultant, can help businesses tap into that value, you have a marketable service.

SEO services are tough to sell in a scalable way - there is no doubt about that. But I've seen campaigns and projects that work for both the client and the agency - the client comes away with improved business, the agency comes away with good pay and a new salesperson in a happy client. I've seen the value the right project or campaign can have. And however you cut it, value translates to profit if you can produce it consistently.

November 14, 2008 - 6:47am

What I am reading now is exactly what I did a few years ago. Once I learnt some SEO and PPC stuff, I had two paths to take - either sell SEO services (and “take what clients offer” after seeing results) – or start your own business.

I am happy that I chose the latter.

I agree that both have their own risks – but having your own online business can help you become a better learner because you can take more risks, invest on your own will and take time out whenever you want.

And whats more - its more rewarding too!

Dilip Shaw

yet another ben
November 14, 2008 - 10:14am

I've been putting loads of thought into this lately. My SEO career profile currently looks like this:

Freelance > In-house SEO > Freelance & In-house > Freelance & In-house & beginner Affiliate ... can see where this is heading. Essentially with confidence and improving skills you start to think you can get far more value from them than what your day job pays. That's why you should never hear SEO's complaining about what they get paid, as they should simply just set-up their own sites instead...

(Regarding the affiliate website, looks like my first one is going to be a bit of a nightmare as a few big boys in the industry have just set-up in my niche, but shall be a fun learning curve!)


November 14, 2008 - 10:39am

i would like to highlight just as good SEO's look out for good businesses to partner with, even good businesses are in search of honest and quality SEO's. Eg. i would love to have a honest and quality SEO working with me.
This helps me in:
1. Saves my marketing time, money and energy -- in return i share the profit.
2. Lets me focuss more on my core business.
3. When two people work together, if they are able to work amicably and are comfortable with each other they always do more pruductive work than two of them could individually do.
4. When an SEO works with you in partnership, your risk is reduced as he/she shares it with you.


November 14, 2008 - 11:20am

I agree with the direction of your post.

This week I have prepared three proposals - three half days gone for trying to get work - and I still have to work.

And yes there is a huge difference between running your own business and working in SEO - I have found out during the last few months - working in SEO was quite easy - running my own business...

I seem to be heading back in the direction of my own sites and paying them more attention.

yet another ben
November 14, 2008 - 1:25pm

@caminowebmaster, I guess it's important to remember that even running your own websites isn't easy. Essentially that should still be seen as 'running your own business'...

November 14, 2008 - 3:12pm

My own career path is similar to Yet Another Ben's, and I am, and have been pretty happy straddling in-house and freelance duties - I like getting smooth, regular paychecks. I like getting larger budgets to try strategies I wouldn't be able to afford on my own. I like my minimized risk factor. I really like some of the resources, as well as the reduced stress offered by being an in-house. I also like some of the freedom of freelancing, so why not do both? When I only ran my own business (which I did for years before going in-house), I did fine money-wise, but it was a constant cycle of chase work, do work, bill work - whereas now, I can focus more on simply doing work. Freelance clients still come to me, and I can pick and choose the ones I want to work with. But there is no necessity for me to do so - I get paid well by a company that values organic development.
I think being your own boss is fine, but so is being on a good team. And you don't necessarily have to make them mutually exclusive.

November 14, 2008 - 5:45pm

If you build a few of your own strong sites you do not need to "chase work". Rather you can work on your own sites, and when a good client comes along you can prioritize them...and when there are no clients you can take time to learn more about your subject, create content, and market it.

Web Designer
November 14, 2008 - 5:06pm

We are a web design company in London working with small businesses. We are considering offering SEO service to smaller businesses and fully understand that it is quite a challenging task. The success of SEO can be easily measured as such clients have expectations which clearly need to be met. There are no grey areas when it comes to deciding if an SEO campaign has been succesfull or not. As such performance is critical. The lack of awareness about SEO and ranking among smaller businesses is another issue that complicates matters further. We have had some clients express dissatisfaction as to why their website os not first on Google. These are not even SEO clients but simply people we have designed small websites for...! I am sure you get the picture.

November 14, 2008 - 5:43pm

Yup...a strong design without strong SEO is not an effective online marketing strategy. And some people just like to feel they deserve the free traffic. Guess that is a good thing for those of us who work to build those links, rankings, and traffic streams.

November 14, 2008 - 7:30pm

@Aaron - I wasn't complaining about the SEMPO link to be clear. Just thought it was amusing.

November 14, 2008 - 9:39pm

At the company I work for we kind did it the other way around, where we where all full time corporate SEOs working for over 5 years on several sub companies. Then we actaully descided that we can scale this over to a SEO services company. I agree with about thinking before opening a SEO service company, for us it worked out good but most clients come in from word of mouth.

My SEO career profile
Startup Software Company Self SEO> Time Corporate SEO > SEO Company

November 14, 2008 - 10:53pm

Great post! - After a few successful years of working for clients (mainly on a freelance basis), I am slowly moving onto developing my own websites and generating revenue via them.

As everyone probably knows, there are a majority of "clients" out there that expect you to bring them huge success for under $100. Also, as noted in your article, pay-per-performance seo can be very risky - recently had a bad experience with a long-term client who suddenly decided to stop paying me & ignore my bills/emails.

November 15, 2008 - 9:58am

Love the post Aaron! When I first got started off in seo I had a small client base from making the transition from web development to seo and as I developed my skills in the SEM world I started to build capital which allowed me to run my own businesses unrelated to seo similar to what your talking about above. I think the bottom line is most opportunities will take capital so unless you already have the bankroll to run these you need to work with clients until your can fund all your projects.

What I've done in the past to deal with dead beat business,

Businesses that don't pay or take advantage of you in some fashion or form

is take the approach of using the information that I've compiled for them and use that to compete with them, or a better way of saying it, Wish they never screwed with you.

November 15, 2008 - 8:10pm

I like very much the last paragraphs, the Don't do it section. I think it can "save lives" :)

Neil Thurlwell
November 15, 2008 - 11:44pm

I totally agree. I jumped in to setting up my own business a few years ago offering seo and design services. I look back now and know that I was selling myself at low prices just to ensure the business. Due to working from home though and having 3 kids at the time, it got really difficult. Now I have the luxury of working full time as the Assistant SEO Manager of a large multi-national company and still freelancing in my spare time.

Anyone thinking of setting up as an SEO Provider, I highly recommend starting up freelance in your spare time. This way there is less risk financially for you (unless you can get a backer) and it gives you chance to get your name out as a 'brand'.

Or as Aaron suggests build and market your own sites.

November 17, 2008 - 3:35pm

I totally with you Aaron.SEO might sound easy but it not because there is a hell work involved.However loads of Internet Marketers never take the advantage of offline SEO.Though I have been following your footsteps for years,I am able to see a great change when ever I design a site in Drupal.Sometimes I am just laughing when I am having hundreds of hits within 48hrs of releasing a site online.It isvery true that;anyone without access to SEOBOOK is a loser since it has been taken off the shelves.SEOBOOK is a powerful reference worth a millions of pounds.
I am proud to confirm with pride my inheritaed SEO Skills.

November 17, 2008 - 5:38pm

Congrats on your success Stanley, and thanks for the endorsement. :)

November 18, 2008 - 8:59am

Facinating article, well done!

If you can position sites in lucrative keyword niche's, profit sharing with a partner is a great business move as an SEO professional.

- It allows each partner able to focus on what they do best.

- When you partner with another company to sell a service or product online, the onus is on you to make money or not and your partners risk is reduced to zero.

- The more conversions you help foster, the happier (richer) your partner is, and likewise the more money you make. Win-win.

- Another great point, "you gain insight into how other businesses work, which is a valuable education in itself." Absolutely, and in this rapidly evolving medium this is one of the best way to learn (not only about SEO, but about any other kind of company you are interested in.)

November 18, 2008 - 9:45am

It sounds like an ideal idea jswa...but many people in this world are greedy. One of my friends delivered 5 figures of clean business to a partner in the first week of a partnership before they were even well integrated and efficient. Rather than being satisfied with the clean traffic, great leads, and easy conversions - the company they partnered with wanted to claw them out of the deal before the end of week number 2.

Many businesses view SEO as free traffic, even when it is making them 10's of thousands of dollars each week. Stupid but true, unfortunately.

If the market is not liquid it is hard to make the right kinds of requires a lot of trust

November 18, 2008 - 11:01pm

That's why you use your own sites when partnering. I guess it's more of a "selling leads" model. But I would never spend time working on a site that I didn't own.

If a client backs out of a deal, fine. Put up some adsense or affiliate ads while you are looking for a new client to deal with.

And if your leads are good... the client is NOT going to back out of the deal.

It's all about control... and YOU have the control when you own the sites.

November 19, 2008 - 2:39am

With the friend in my example they were using their own site (it still ranks a couple years later and that merchant partner still does not). But the partner did become flaky really quickly. And that site does run a bit of AdSense and affiliate...though the affiliate network was probably as shady as that merchant was. Lots of folks in business. Lots less who are in business and not shady.

Stealth Cash Method
February 20, 2009 - 3:57pm

What I also like about SEO is that everyday is a learning process, you are never too young or old to learn the business. Also in this business trust is very important.

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