Starting A New SEO Business In 2011?

A new year brings new resolutions.

Some readers might be considering taking that giant leap from their boring day job into the wonderfest that is full-time SEO. Huge money! Party central! Hangin' at conferences with Matt Cutts! What could possibly go wrong?

Let's take a serious look at what your new life will look like.

It's Going To Hurt

SEO is a world of hurt.

When you start, you'll have little money. Your bills don't stop coming in. Google, rather uncooperatively, may not rank your sites for six months.

Maybe longer.

Perhaps you've already got a few sites ranking. You've got some steady adsense/affiliate money coming in, which is right about the time Update Oh-My-God happens.

A Google update, like a demented hurricane, trashes your site for no good reason. OK, maybe, maybe you had *some* links that were not, in the cold light of day, strictly-speaking, based 100% on merit. But hey, everyone else was doing it, right?

It will be no consolation that everyone else's sites will have been trashed, too. You will meet these people in SEO forums, gnashing their teeth as if the world has just come to end.

It has, of course.

There are few more heart-breaking moments than when Google sends an H-bomb crashing down on your dreams. Google say they do this to improve their "service", but mostly they do it "because it's fun".

Your SEO forum buddies will explain, sometimes using elaborate math, why everyone's rankings dropped. These explanations are bullshit and can be safely ignored. Well-intended they may be, but your buddies don't have a clue. Chances are they just read something in another forum, thought it sounded profound, so they repeated it.

The sad reality is few people are doing any real testing these days.

Even more annoying will be the person who claims his site hasn't been affected. He will lecture everyone else on how, in the latest update, Google is finally rewarding higher quality sites.

Don't worry. This sanctimonious fool will likely get his site trashed in the next update. It will then be his chance to gnash his teeth.

In SEO, everyone gets their turn eventually.

Right about this time, that autographed picture of Matt Cutts hanging on your wall will start to look sinister. You could swear the picture is pulsing red with the faint glow of hells-fire.

Feeling scared and alone, you take it down and hide it in the drawer.

Are You Serious?

Events, like those described above, are just life's way of testing to see if you're serious.

If you are serious, you climb back up on the horse, get back in that saddle, and go rope some steers. Or, if you're an SEO, not a cowboy, you start fixing your sites.

Alternatively, you could decide that the performance-based SEO lifestyle is way too difficult, and vow to become an SEO consultant instead. Being an SEO consultant really takes the pressure off. Mostly, you just talk about stuff. Repeat things you've heard in forums.

Firstly, gather together some cryptic sounding jargon - "latent semantic indexing" is always a crowd pleaser - and apply to talk at the SMXWebmasterWorldSearchEngineStrategies conference. Next, get your smiling, drunken self into a photo, with your arm around Matt Cutts. This implies you have an inside line at Google. Finally, knock together an SEO consultant web site to display it all to the world. Claim to be an "SEO Expert". Often.

One problem.

Being an SEO Expert is not a rare commodity. There are 22,345,947 SEO experts in India alone. And many work for less than your weekly beer bill. So unless you've got the sales skills of Tony Robbins, the solitary SEO consultant gig is a tough one.

You may decide to join an SEO agency. This is an easier gig, as you can focus 100% on SEO, surrounded by people who claim to know a lot more about SEO than they actually do. Many of your co-workers post regularly on forums.

You will soon enjoy the delights of heading off to a client site to tell a room full of hostile designers why their award winning flash site will have to be redesigned, from scratch, preferably using bare HTML.

Best of luck.

Following that lively exchange of views, you may wish to kiss the dark arts of SEO farewell, and move into the world of PPC.

PPC is a lot easier than SEO. Well, it is if you have a bank balance the size of Texas. If you don't have a lot of money, you'll spend all your time tweaking budgets, which, if you get them wrong, can end up costing you your credit limit. PPC is dangerous, but at least you can take that autographed photo of Matt Cutts back out of the drawer.

He cannot touch you now.

If you fail miserably at being an SEO and PPC consultant, don't despair. You can always take the easy way out.

Become a social media consultant.

Becoming A Social Media Consultant

The beauty of this gig is you don't need any technical chops at all.

Simply grab a book on public relations, rewrite it by dropping the word "Facebook", or "Twitter" in every second paragraph, and hit the speaking circuit. Rehash the same old stuff about "reach", "audience share", and "convergence" and mix it up with new terms like "re-tweet". If you're feeling confident, throw some Cluetrain Manifesto quotes in, like "Markets are conversations", and "Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy".

They love that stuff. No one knows what it means, but that simply validates your high fees.

The problem is the barrier to entry for becoming a social media consultant is set even lower than becoming an SEO consultant. That, and the fact everyone started calling "bs" on the whole thing last year.

My advice: don't quit your day job.

But I know you'll ignore me.

Have fun in 2011 :)

Published: January 25, 2011 by A Reader in seo tips


January 25, 2011 - 9:01am

I find it fun that PeterD and I optionally switch back and forth from optimistic to pessimistic & seem to be at opposite ends of the cycle quite often. I tend to view SEO as a glass that is about 90% full. ;)

Some things I like about the current market are...

  • all the free and cheap analysis tools
  • the diversity of opinions & learning options available
  • the low cost of testing

And I don't view the 6-month hump as a bad thing. I view it as a necessary filter to keep a lot of pikers out of the industry. Sure it sucks while you are going through it, but if you get a site up right away and build a few decent links then you can basically be ready with your full on strategy and really push to lean into the project right as it starts picking up traction.

January 25, 2011 - 9:37am

why not write a solid post - friendships aside on industry certifications (even tho there are none per se), career paths to give the snake oil salesman or potential seo/ppc folks solid ways to become good at their craft? I know SEO Book and SEOmoz help but there are other places such the SEO Training Dojo, Search Engine College etc.

It's possible I haven't run into these articles yet but I was hoping that you guys would at least publish an unbiased article. :)

January 25, 2011 - 11:59am

I just stated that I feel quite optimistic right now ... if you read the end of my last post I finished it with:

Anyone who sees opportunity as permanently disappearing from search is looking at a half-empty glass rather than one which sees opportunities that died reborn again and again.

That being said, it is hard for us to write a solid post on certifications for a variety of reasons...

  • in the past when I have wrote some similar types of posts they end up quoted out of context & even used as ad copy in ways that made me feel uncomfortable
  • if we have spare time to write about SEO training programs then our best use of that time is to spend it making our own training program better (which we are currently doing now)
  • also some of the tools that I endorsed as great values became less good as SEO grew more complex, the price of the tools doubled or tripled (while losing value), and the people selling some of them got ever-sleazier with their approach to sales

I get that eventually this site needs to be more outwardly focused on some fronts, but I don't want to write advertorial styled recommendations for anything unless I actually believe in it completely. (I believe I wrote some reviews of's stuff back when it was credit based before they had an affiliate program and stated how awesome it was. We have also mentioned the likes of Open Site Explorer. We also reviewed SEM Rush before they had an affiliate program as well).

At the end of the day the big issue is getting people to enact on tools and information. That is even one of my own biggest is easier to crank out an SEO blog post or fire off a few Tweets than it is to put the head down and dig into a boring but profitable website of ours that needs a light dusting & heavy elbow grease. I work so much on this site because I am passionate about it, but it is much harder for me to dig in on some of the other sites that are there just to make money.

That said, I have a list of literally hundreds of things to improve on this site (from design, to functionality, to features, to new tools, to new content of various formats, etc.). It is not easy doing everything you want when you get hundreds of emails everyday!

January 25, 2011 - 1:13pm

Save some pain - clients are only interested in seeing your activity - looking at a 1 place rise in the serps isnt enough so spread out your on-site amendment work across the contract length doing the most important stuff first and provide a monthly report on activity they can quantify. also get them involved in producing content explain what you want and why and they'll help out and feel involved.

January 25, 2011 - 2:05pm

I think the biggest issue with starting your own SEO business would be weeding out all the crap clients. If you work for a business you don't have much say in accepting clients (which isn't necessary a good thing) but you get your paycheck every couple of weeks. If you own your own business its important to find the clients that are actually interesting in putting effort into their campaigns. Too often people thing that writing a check = top rankings. These are the clients that after a couple months will call you a crap SEO and leave. Finding the clients that understand the effort/strategy required and stick through the initial 6 months are key.

P.S. Aaron, in knowing your displeasure for Manhalo and their content related ranking techniques I figured you would appreciate my effort to dethrone there top rankings for 'how to use google analytics'. ( Hopefully enough people will find interest in this non scraped, researched and generally made for beginners content. This is my part to help others as well as fight against the 'Manhalo' type sites. I thought you would appreciate the effort for 'real' content generation.

- Nick LeRoy

January 25, 2011 - 2:14pm

I can't seem to type very well this morning. Of course I meant "Mahalo" not manhalo. :-)

January 25, 2011 - 2:25pm

Peter, this was a lot of fun to read. I am busy preparing for Update Oh My God right now - running out of Bibles.
And I think posts like this - though some see it as pessimistic - are necessary counterweights to the unicorn dreamscapes on the flip side of this coin. The exploding number of experts in India is what happens when every post is about the lollipop simplicity of SEO - instant traffic, for free. Cash machines behind every other click. Set it and forget it. Rinse and repeat. Avalanches of traffic. Everyone is doing it.
When people are looking for their codified answers in these or other posts, they are likely asking the wrong kinds of questions. You say it in this one Peter - "The sad reality is few people are doing any real testing these days."
I don't see that as pessimistic at all. Reality is cold and brutal while being sad sometimes.
Keep up the sour grapes, I say. There's enough unicorns out there already.

January 25, 2011 - 7:27pm

Thanks MartyPants

Yes, there are pain points in SEO that aren't often mentioned. Hopefully the post got a knowing laugh from those who have been there :)

January 25, 2011 - 11:26pm

Hey guys, I totally love the way this article was written plus the reality behind it....Now I was wondering if you can give us a hand....After reading this paragraph of the article.

"The sad reality is few people are doing any real testing these days"

I can't be more agree with this, as I always find people who thinks that they have the perfect answer based on nothing with no real prove.

Any chance I can have some Tips on how to actually do a REAL Testing for a link building campaign, I would really like to learn or at least improve what am doing right now, or at least get to know if am on the right track.

Thanks a lot...

January 25, 2011 - 11:27pm

Beware with all the do-follow links that you now have ;)

On to the subject matter - SEO would be tough if you are overly idealistic or lazy.

Robin Merrill
January 26, 2011 - 1:03am

Thank you for the gut laugh. I started cackling at demented hurricane, and now I've laughed so hard my cheeks hurt.

January 26, 2011 - 10:52am

One of the best SEO posts I've read in a while, and surely the funniest.

January 26, 2011 - 1:06pm

I must say this was funny. I am laughing my A@# off. I wonder what goes after social media cons...if that doesn't work out either?

nic oliver
January 26, 2011 - 7:56pm

It's true - I really enjoyed the article and laughed out loud... so I joined seobook!

I'm going to enjoy reading through the archives.

Where do I get Aaron's book?

January 26, 2011 - 8:18pm

When we open our premium section of the site (in ~ 1 week) members will be able to get the ebook for free as a bonus to their paid subscription.

January 27, 2011 - 12:28am

"I wonder what goes after social media cons...if that doesn't work out either?"

Run for congress....

January 27, 2011 - 3:15am

Other joys to look forward to when you step into an SEO consulting gig include:

  • Retarded developers incorrectly implementing the rel=canonical tag so it references a parent category and nukes the rankings and traffic generated from a entire section of the clients site (that you've worked tirelessly for years to rank)
  • Retarded developers publishing thousands of anorexically thin pages of content (and not telling you) that again toast rankings and traffic of a site
  • Actually anything unexpected a developer does that leads to any kind of "forensic SEO analysis" type work
  • Clients wanting rankings and traffic for a keyword but not wanting to include it on a page
  • Clients who become distracted like a magpie with ADHD by buzz words like "social media engagement" and "twitter strategies" but are yet to get their developers to make any of the changes that will actually deliver more traffic
  • Google places "non human supported" listing / customer service hell
  • Managing Gen Y staff who want you to train them in SEO and then 6 months later don't understand why they can't become your boss

Sheesh I could keep going but then I think I'd become quite depressed about how rough SEO as a profession is and I've only been in search 5 years ;).

January 27, 2011 - 3:53pm

"And I don't view the 6-month hump as a bad thing. I view it as a necessary filter to keep a lot of pikers out of the industry."

You mean SEO/affiliate isn't dead Aaron? You could still start today? Huh. And here I thought I was just one lucky son of a bitch riding on the work I did for a decade no one can ever repeat [/sarcasm]


"why not write a solid post"

I'll be the asshole that wonders why this is Aaron's responsibility. He gives back solidly to the community with this blog - if it's a serious void, fill it and do your own post with your own research. I don't see this as negativity... I see these statements as reality.

"Any chance I can have some Tips on how to actually do a REAL Testing for a link building campaign"

Build links to a site. Then see how it ranks. If it moves up, your links work. If it moves down, they don't or hurt. Do it on a test site for a low competition, no value term if you want to test it link by link. We didn't have all these damn guides - we tested shit. There was no book on SEO until Aaron wrote it. And now people seem to think they can't piss without a manual how how to hold it.

"If you fail miserably at being an SEO and PPC consultant, don't despair. You can always take the easy way out.

Become a social media consultant."

I almost spit coffee right there. You can always smell bullshit when you check an "online marketing agency" blog and see eight of the last ten posts are about branding and social media with a basic post thrown in on title tags for SEO for good measure.

"Retarded developers"

FYI, that's a shitty word to use. I know it's "socially acceptable" but for the record, it's a nasty word to use in place of the word stupid. #justsayin

Sorry if I sound jaded... but I'm sick of the talentless hacks that are making up for nerdy high school days and not being hugged enough as a child by pretending they know jack shit and that blogging and social media gives them the platform to pretend they do. I've said before and I will say again, a lot of bloggers are like reality TV stars... they don't have any talent, simply the platform to pretend they do.

People need to get off their asses and do something. Stop reading, start doing. Stop blogging, start writing site content. Stop marketing yourself for pats on the back and market your websites. I almost regret all the contributions I've made teaching wise in this industry, because it gave so many people the ability to pretend they've ever worked in the trenches.

January 27, 2011 - 4:24pm

I almost regret all the contributions I've made teaching wise in this industry, because it gave so many people the ability to pretend they've ever worked in the trenches.

At the same time, those who know are able to make solid connections. I view that bit as a necessary evil of attracting & meeting the type of people who help make us better. And in addition to it yielding my wonderful wife (& lots of friends), I always get to tease her for having bought from my sales letter when it had an ugly red font headline on a never-ending scrolling salesletter :D

"How could you have bought from that hyped up salesletter honey?" Almost want to wake her up now from her nap just to bug her. hehehe ;)

January 27, 2011 - 6:16pm

Sigh... I know... I met my husband because he attended PubCon and I was speaking there. Thus the almost. ;-)

January 31, 2011 - 6:40pm

And further, when you feel you've done a good job, you can quantify rankings with call-tracking and analytics to support everything, client calls and says something to the effect of...

"Yea, I don't see myself in my little tiny city that gets 10 searches a month, but I'm ranked for my main keyword in a city with over 3mil people. I know you started the website from scratch and got it ranked in 3 months for a keyword getting 1500 searches a month and I'm getting all these calls because you provide this nice call tracking report, along with recordings, but it's just not working out for me."

...yup, good times - makes me want to change out of my PJs.

- Adam

January 31, 2011 - 10:55pm

Flip it around. If one business model is under-funded and under-appreciated then the opposite model is capturing more of the value chain. In many industries it is far easier for you to build the business infrastructure around a solid SEO strategy than it is for them to bolt a solid SEO strategy on whatever they are doing.

This is why I have been advocating more SEOs push to become publishers. Client work isn't bad, but it helps to have an anchoring other source of revenue so you can be picky with what clients you take on & only work with people who are worth working with and who value your contributions.

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