Selling SEO Consulting Services

Why Traditional SEO Consulting Usually Sucks

I do not like doing much traditional SEO client work, and see the business model as having limited longterm value for most SEO consultants. The best consultants could usually make more promoting their own sites and brands than they would working for clients.

  • Most prospective SEO customers are not ranked well because their businesses are unremarkable and have little to no competitive advantage. Worse yet, some of them have arbitrary constraints that hold back growth potential. In many cases it would be cheaper, easier, and more profitable building from scratch with a strong brand and domain name that was built around succeeding on the web.
  • Those who have not fully bought off on the power of SEO often end up underpaying the first time they buy services, which precludes honest consultants from working with them. After they got burned once, they want to minimize future risks, which sets off a market for lemons effect.
  • As the web gets more competitive many of the best SEO techniques are going to relate to content strategies and how a client interacts with the media and people in their marketplace...something that is a bit hard to control as an external consultant unless there is an internal team that also pushes to get it done.
  • Businesses that *really* get SEO and value SEO bring it in house.
  • The people with in house SEO teams sometimes hire 3rd party consultants, but there is a limit to what they *can* spend before their own competency is called in question.
  • Most the time clients do not want you to mention them, and if you do there is a risk that Google will edit the ROI right out of your service.

3 SEO Consulting Models That Work

If one wanted to sell search marketing services for the long haul then the best options are probably

  1. Quasi-Publisher: having an editorial position in a niche vertical (like automotive or consumer credit) where you act as both a thought leader and a promoter who monetizes through display ads, affiliate offers, and product sales. The diversity of revenue streams allows you to shift focus as desired or needed.
  2. Paid SEO Tools: some sort of tool or software product that adds incremental value to the SEO process, though this model is hard because so many people are giving away tools to gain mindshare. At the higher end this model can work for companies that get SEO but have temporary IT related roadblocks that prevent indexing, though it is hard for that to be a longterm strategy for clients because tool providers could keep hiking prices after the companies are dependant on them.
  3. In House SEO Training: some sort of training program where you help others succeed, but you offer guidance more than doing the work directly, though this model is also hard because there is so much free information, and most people do not realize the hidden cost of free.

Why I Still do Limited SEO Consulting

If it doesn't pay well relative to my other income streams, why do I still occasionally sell SEO consulting services?

  1. Projects where I feel I can learn: one of the things that attracted me to search is that it intersects with so many marketing disciplines and site aspects that it feels like I am always learning. Having a partner who is a 20 year veteran of the ad agency world that knows the algorithms better than I do makes it easy to learn something from every project.
  2. Projects where I feel I can have fun: when I was new to the market cash flow would have been a bit more of a criteria, but if client work is a pay cut (which it usually is for me) then it needs to be enjoyable.
  3. Ego and validation: I think more than most people I find a need for validation. This is still a bit of a remnant character flaw of mine that I have been quickly losing since meeting my wife. But it is cool to go to websites you know and patronise often, and see your ideas and strategies make their way into the source code and marketing.
  4. Diversity: variety is the spice of life, and if you sit and look at a computer screen far too long every day it is nice to mix up what you are doing from time to time.

When PPC is Better Than SEO

The complexity of SEO makes the barrier to entry much higher, which is why I like SEO so much from a publisher standpoint. But if you are selling consulting services PPC is a better market to focus on. Businesses using PPC spend lots of money and would look at any external help as a chance for cost savings on current spend, rather than an unknown investment or investment that had to be limited in scope for internal business reasons.

Are you still selling SEO consulting services? Do you still plan to do so in 5 years?

Published: July 7, 2008 by Aaron Wall in marketing


July 7, 2008 - 8:46am

You hit the nail on the head.

July 7, 2008 - 10:55am

Thanks Aaron. I am still planning to do SEO consulting in the near future. At least now I know what not to do when becoming an SEO consultant

July 7, 2008 - 12:12pm

I spent quite a few months reading here and other places aout SEO with plans to launch my own SEO biz. That is of course until I figured out that you and others I was learning from were actually making MORE money SEOing their own niche sites. Glad I figured that 1 out! Now I won't be answering all of the clients questions.

July 7, 2008 - 1:46pm

Tremendous post, Aaron. This goes back to the guest post you allowed me to write for you, where I pointed out that the truly great SEO's don't sell SEO services. They SEO their own sites.

I think that there is still a large market and value for SEO consulting services, but I can envision a day (perhaps 10-20 years down the road) when the interactive market matures and companies begin to realize that they should have in-house SEOs as opposed to agencies, but like many outsourced marketing services (online or offline) the agencies will always find ways to make their offering appealing and worth the price tag.

I head up the SEO department at one of the big NYC agencies and my decision-making is always guided by this mentality, so my team strives to deliver a level of consulting and technology that makes our service truly worthwhile. Not saying that we always hit the mark, but we try really really hard to achieve that level of value because we know that's the only way to hold onto our clients in the long run.

July 7, 2008 - 3:10pm

For pretty much all the reasons you mention, I stopped selling SEO. I do very little of it anymore. I see some opportunities in reputation management, but nothing I would go out of my way to pursue.

Basically, SEO has become such a tough sell. You have to provide WAY too much education to the customer/prospect. As you said, most companies who "get it," bring it in house.

On top of everything, it is difficult to separate SEO from traditional marketing. If you've ever worked in marketing, then you'll know how much of a pain it is to get anything done because the effectiveness of marketing relies on buy in and cooperation from too many people.

July 7, 2008 - 3:46pm

Another model that works well for me is being paid commission based on uplift in the client's sales (or taking equity in the company). That way it's like being an affiliate, but I get to use their website instead of my spammy affiliate site :D

July 7, 2008 - 4:36pm

I do that with a small client I have had for 4 years, but most multi-billion dollar corporations are unwilling to give away a percent of lift. And lots of business and sales objectives (brand awareness, competitive landscape, business viability, etc.) are external to search rankings.

July 7, 2008 - 4:01pm

SEO on its own is not sustainable. It is one of many marketing levers and should be viewed in the context of the overall marketing strategy. SEO consultants that fail to realize this will not survive as traditional marketers and their companies begin to understand what SEO is all about.

Having said that, there is room for specialists that understand marketing but focus on SEO as a niche. Similar to what direct marketing agencies, advertising agencies, PR firms etc currently do.

I offer SEO as part of an overall strategic consulting engagement. This works for me and my clients! In 5 years, there will be another "quick win" that people will get behind!

July 7, 2008 - 4:04pm

very interesting post Aaron.
I run my own sites along with giving SEO consulting services to 2 Companies One Based in UK and One is USA. The results and working so far with them is quite pleasant. As i am the one man show for them and they listen to my ideas and gave me budget what i asked for. Results so far so good Rank No.3 in all main Keywords and driving 300% more sales.

Sometimes i think if i didnt landed here back in 2005 i never able learn or expand as starting from designer/developer to web marketing the journey is nice smooth and it is fast ride.

PS: PPCblog is quite informative too.

July 7, 2008 - 5:30pm

Yeah, I quit consulting just as soon as I could in order to focus on my own sites, and I have never regretted it. Like you, though, I do still meet with the same types of clients as I had before, only I do it for free and for just a few hours -- trading a few hours of my time in exchange both for extending my network of contacts and for learning about other industries that I never would have been exposed to. It has been a terrific trade-off so far.

Andrew Shotland
July 7, 2008 - 8:04pm

Diversification is definitely important but I still think there will be a demand for some version of what SEO is well into the future. Most companies cannot bring every service that they use in-house and execute well. SEO services are definitely going to get harder to sell over the next year or two but I don't think that it's going to be because the demand is not there.

July 7, 2008 - 8:43pm

Hi Andrew
What do you think will make it hard to sell outside of demand related issues?

July 7, 2008 - 8:17pm

I love to see you return to this issue again and again every few months, Aaron. I wonder why... ;-)

Consulting works. Whether you call it SEO or not is a different matter, but when you brand it so you may be creating problems. A consultant advises, based on experience, with expert specialized knowledge. An SEO optimizes for search traffic. So what is an SEO Consultant? If you think it's a hired gun SEO, well you will hit all sorts of ceilings as an organization attempts to hand over the reigns to a hired gun. Never a good idea, since SEO is so integrated with everything else, as you note.

But a consultant on SEO issues? Absolutely. A good SEO consultant can cut to the chase and highlight what needs to be done, saving tons of money for your organization. But that has to be the role... not the role of "SEO". Sometimes the most cost-effective use of an SEO consultant is the first $500, which enables them to say "I can't help you.. and here's why". Even knowing that is worth more than $500 bucks.

If you spend time in consultants forums you will see plenty of the "use this cool looking graphic and the client will be impressed" or "use this language and they will pay you more" stuff, but that's the same in sales or other fields. Smart clients enjoy success with SEO consultants because they are smart clients. I think good SEOs should always keep some consulting business on the side. It's like exercise... it can keep you healthy.

July 7, 2008 - 8:44pm

I agree that doing a bit now and then is good, but I write such posts to remind myself to make sure it is a now and then thing and I don't end up doing too much of it.

July 7, 2008 - 9:16pm

Very insightful post. I've always wondered about this, especially when personalization of search results & universal search results are an eventuality.

I work for a large communications company that offers all forms of marketing/promotions (traditional & digital). SEO is just one of our offerings.

From a client perspective, it's beneficial when the consultant you work with can offer a number of tactics to promote your website.

My takeaway message from this is that SEO consultation won't necessarily 100% disappear in the near future...but 'don't be a one-trick pony'.

Carlos o
July 7, 2008 - 10:47pm

My plan is to gradually shift my focus from English language websites to Spanish websites, I think the Spanish market is a few years behind so there will be a lot of SEO work in the upcoming years.

July 7, 2008 - 11:54pm

Thing is that to build a strong brand and a quality website, you either need a good chunk of cash and connections, or a shitload of sweat equity. And for folks newer to the business, needing cash now - as you allude to in reference to cash flow - the long term payoff of the sweat equity route is too hard; bread needs to get on the table tonight. Consulting puts it on the table tonight.

Medium-Longterm, I want to build a nice SEO firm and then turn it into an inhouse team working on my own projects. But that'll have to wait until I have the requisite capital.

July 8, 2008 - 12:43am

So far the SEO consulting model is still working for me although I have limited resources, I can't seem to grow past what I can handle.

So I am still considering the model, and starting to develop a team so I do not do all the work.

And when that starts to kick off and I get more free time for myself, it is now the time to work on my own SEO on my own sites and making my own "client-less world" (sounds like heaven to me) and earn from Affiliate stuff which currently, I am doing poorly.

Joe OBrien
July 8, 2008 - 8:58am

I reckon in-house training could be extended to developing entire SEO departments for large corporates. Once they start to "get it" they'll want to bring it in-house, so I guess there's a market in helping them take it there properly.

July 8, 2008 - 2:33pm

Hey Aaron;

Kudos for all your great work - this is just another piece of the grand masterpiece you offer (obligatory validation). ;)

This couldn't have come at a better time as I'm about to partner up with someone who wants to model our biz in the 80% consulting / 20% publisher range, while I want to do it the complete opposite. I see far greater value in working for ourselves over the long term. This is a must read for him! Thanks!

On Stage Lighting
July 8, 2008 - 3:14pm

Yup, I came to the same conclusions pretty quickly. Same thing with actually building and developing sites. Clients are the biggest PITA in the business - so another vote for the client-free world.

Trouble is, we can't all make a living pushing clicks around, someone has to produce something and need help to sell it. As more folks find their feet doing business online, the playing field is levelled again.

Can't believe I missed out on the 90's and early 2000's - it seems like a deserted gold mine compared to today.

If anyone asks me about SEO services , mine or others, I simply say that anyone who is REALLY any good is unlikely to spend their time grubbing around for someone elses business.

It does mean that maybe the consultancy market will soon be populated by the mediocre (if it isn't already).

July 8, 2008 - 9:08pm

Interesting post. Frankly, I think you’re pi**ing in the wind on the topic of SEO consulting though.

There are plenty of small- to medium-sized businesses out there who can’t afford to bring SEO in-house. It’s an absolutely ridiculous statement to say that companies who “really get it” will do that. The vast majority of companies out there are not Fortune 500 companies.

That’s like saying companies who “get accounting” will bring it in-house. There are plenty of companies that “get it” but outsource it. They’re just not big enough to have someone on it full-time.

Lots of these smaller companies need SEO services and it’s far cheaper to outsource it. Sure it would be nice to have someone working on your marketing full-time, but it isn’t always possible.

It’s not always easy working with a lot of smaller clients and many times I would like to be able to do far more, so there are limitations. I agree that as an outside consultant it can be tough because I often see other issues companies need to work on.

At our company we don’t see ourselves as just an SEO company, but an Internet marketing company. We can do a lot, from creating optimized content, traditional SEO, pay-per-click and more traditional communications.

I suppose we could make more money if we were just to work on our own niche sites, but you can make a good living helping companies out that can’t hire someone full-time.

July 9, 2008 - 8:44am

Here in the UK over 99% of businesses are small (0-49 employees) and almost 90% of businesses have under 10 employees. I agree with Alain that these guys are going to struggle to take all their requirements in house be that SEO or accounting.

Although SEO firms like ourselves are not part of the SEO glitterati I think we serve a real purpose when it comes to oiling the wheels of small businesses.


July 9, 2008 - 12:56am

Hi Alain
I guess I was more thinking about our growth on sites we have given a minority of our time an effort on. I am not one who is all about the money per say, but as the SEO process keeps growing increasingly expensive the ROI of owning sites compared to helping others rank keeps diverging by larger amounts.

July 9, 2008 - 8:24pm

Hi Aaron,

I guess it really depends on what you want to do. I think that there's plenty of money to be made either way.

If all the good SEO people decide they just want to focus on their own sites, great! It just opens up the small- to medium-sized business market to the SEO consultants who want to stay in that market.

Unfortunately what it will also do is drive up the costs to these businesses who want quality SEO because of a shortage of good SEO consultants.

Being relatively new to the field of SEO there seems to be a huge emphasis on being a "rockstar" and doing SEO for huge companies. While that may be nice for some, the reality is that most of the work isn't quite so glamorous.

July 9, 2008 - 2:38pm

Another post that belongs in the Hall of Bookmarks, ready to be called upon once again when things slow down and my brain needs a refresher on how to do things good and proper.

I've been focusing more and more on the Training idea of SEO and have started utilising this approach more and more with the clients that have hired me more as a consultant.

I've also been trying to get my SEO Tool idea off the ground too, but it's been hard to find the time to devote to it.

Nice article dude.

July 10, 2008 - 4:26am

You got broken linkls on site mate.Check it out

Valerie DiCarlo
July 11, 2008 - 3:01am

Sorry Aaron,

I have enjoyed your posts and am not generally a "commenter" in blogs or forums, but this one prompted me to speak up.

I agree with much of what Alain says:
There is plenty of small to medium sized business out there to be a busy - and successful - consultant... especially if you're good at what you do.

Your post was narrow and certainly not in line w/the real world... not all business can or will pay the big SEO firm prices... but then again, I think some of these blog posts by the "SEO Elite" are just to get a rise out of people! LOL

Thanks for the rise and good laugh! And posts like this simply grow my business... more work for me if others buy into this "theory".

Valerie :o)

July 17, 2008 - 10:17pm


As you well know, the full value of good SEO often doesn't emerge for several months or even years. Most clients just don't get this long-term principle.

At the end of the day, when you get good enough at SEO, you can make more money working for yourself than for others. It's really that simple.

There are some anomalies. But... even the best gigs don't create any assets with long term profit potential.

July 20, 2008 - 7:11pm

Thank you, this article showing me how to run the business.

November 7, 2008 - 4:31am

Could you help me with my website ? Every month my traffic from google is dropping for about 2 weeks and then is coming back as it was..and so on ... I can`t see what`s the problem with it. My website address is steroids[dot]ro. Thank you.

Subhankar Chakr...
October 10, 2017 - 8:06pm

Hi Team,

This is Subhankar here. I am an Independent blogger and local SEO expert working as a freelancer.My following top DA 60+ sites which are available for guest post:

Above sites are just few examples. I have many more sites with high domain authority status. Let me know if you like my proposal then I would be happy to discuss more about the publishing guidelines, turn around time, rate cards etc in next mail.

I would be happy to work with you for a long time.

Kind Regards,

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