Research firm Borrell Associates estimates the SEO services industry to be worth $80B in 2020 so its no wonder why there are always new SEO agencies popping up vying for a share of the market.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through 13 steps for starting your own SEO agency based on learnings from working with over a thousand SEO agencies - our main customer type at SEOptimer.
Ask any agency owner and they'll tell you running your own agency takes a lot of hard work and dedication but it can be highly rewarding. It gives you the independence to do what you want to do and work with the kind of clients you want. Its a high-growth industry and we're thrilled to be able to play some role in the success of many SEO agencies around the world.
Step 1: Figure out your positioning
If you do a quick search on Google for "SEO agency" you get 2.2 million search results. Positioning your agency differently with a unique selling proposition will be vital to your survival in the vast sea of competitors.
We're assuming you don't have deep SEO experience to capitalize on at the early stage of your journey, and fighting on price is not a long term winning strategy. For that reason, we recommend going niche and targeting a particular industry or type of client.
You should pick a target industry that plays to your strengths. For example, if you’ve previously worked as a marketer for an eCommerce business, then you could focus on providing SEO services to eCommerce clients.
Targeting a particular industry or type of client is preferable because it levels the playing field and gives you a big competitive advantage over traditional SEO agencies who work for anyone.
In this example, you might highlight on your website how the eCommerce industry is growing at a rapid pace, and talk about how your goal is to help your clients ride the wave, and dominate their niche:
This agency showcases the stores they’ve worked with and they also specifically state that they help eCommerce companies “grow their brand” and “increase their bottom line”:
On top of that, the agency also highlights that they're a Magento Solutions Partner and Shopify Plus Technology partner which will definitely help them appeal to their target customers:
Here’s another example: an SEO agency who works exclusively with restaurants. Their site talks about restaurant industry pain points and focuses on the battle of local SEO, which is a smart move:
On top of that, they also reference restaurant-specific stats, which makes their content and pitch extremely relatable to the target audience. This agency sounds like they really "get it". This is powerful because every business owner thinks their industry is unique, so being industry-specific immediately positions you as an expert.
Step 2: Build up your SEO knowledge
Obviously, you’ll need to have a decent amount of expertise before starting an SEO consultancy - you want to be able to serve your future clients well, and also rank your own site on Google.
At this point, you might be wondering… is it absolutely necessary for me to learn about SEO? Can I just hire an SEO expert and get them to do the work?
Its best to get your hands dirty and actually learn how to do SEO yourself. Hiring an SEO expert (a real expert!) doesn’t come cheap, and will affect your cash flow. Even if you’re going into this with deep pockets and you have money to burn, consider the fact that you’ll be a lot less convincing of a salesperson in client meetings without in-depth SEO knowledge.
But like any digital skill, SEO is complex and ever-changing. It’s not something you can learn quickly. It takes a lot of hands-on time, trial and error and continual iteration. That said, the good news is there are tons of great blogs and resources that you can rely on for getting up to speed, including:
- Search Engine Land
- Search Engine Journal
- Search Engine Watch
- Google Webmaster Central Blog
- John Mueller
- Rand Fishkin
Look for articles published recently and stay up to date with the many Core Updates and trends from Google on their Webmaster Central Blog. If you find yourself reading a 2016 blog post on Google’s ranking signals, there’s a high chance that a lot of the content in the post is outdated.
Other than reading up online, you can also watch YouTube videos about SEO, and take SEO courses on Coursera and other sites.
Pro-tip: many people focus on on-page SEO because it’s less technical and easier to learn. That said, both on-page and off-page are equally important. While off-page might be harder to master, you need a good grasp of it if you want your SEO consultancy to survive.
Start putting this knowledge to practice by optimizing your agency website. To convince prospective clients that you 'know your stuff', you need a high-ranking website. Focus on the foundational stuff: thorough keyword research, clean URLs, titles, meta descriptions & heading tags, fast page speed, structured data and backlinks from authoritative sources. If you get the basics right, you'll see your rankings improve over time. This is a nice segue to the next step...
Step 3: Build a beautiful-looking website
Your website needs to look good. First impressions matter, and if your website doesn’t have that “wow” factor, your visitors won't be motivated to get in touch. The latest design templates in most modern CMS' are clean and professional so there's really no reason why you can't set up a beautiful site.
Generally speaking, going for something sleek and minimalist is a safe choice. Here’s a positive example:
And a negative example:
If you’re not a professional designer, don’t waste your time and energy agonizing over this - just outsource it to a designer instead. You might want to try and keep your costs low during your start-up phase, but trust me: your website is something that’s worth spending on. At the end of the day, a professional designer will be able to deliver a much more polished and professional-looking site than you’ll be able to produce, within a shorter period of time.
Take the time to set up your social media accounts as well. For SEO businesses, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are mandatory. You can register accounts on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Pinterest if you want, but focus on the first 3 as these will provide the most business value.
Make sure you claim your Google My Business listing, which allows you to display a business profile for consumers who search for your business:
Step 4: Get the word out
When you’re starting an SEO business, the easiest way to get the word out is to attend relevant industry events and network with the other participants. When you meet potential clients, don’t try and pitch to them or close them right off the bat - you’ll come across too salesy and aggressive. Instead, ask them what they’re currently struggling with, and ask for their email so that you can send them a link or resource that’s relevant to the problem they’re facing. From there, you can slowly nurture them, and sell to them when they’re ready.
On top of attending events and networking in-person, you’ll also want to do cold outreach, which is just a fancy way of saying “emailing strangers”. Basically, put together a list of businesses that you’re interested in working with, and then email them to get in touch. There are plenty of tools that help you figure out companies’ email addresses, and while the sending is a little repetitive, you can easily outsource the work to a freelancer for a few bucks per hour.
Some folks will tell you that cold outreach isn’t effective, but that’s not true at all. As long as you personalize your email, and provide an incentive for your prospect to reply to you, you can get pretty good response rates. Here’s an example of an email that works great:
Of course, you’ll have to make sure that you deliver on your promises, in order not to lose credibility. Regardless of whether you’re just starting an SEO business or you’ve been in the game for quite some time now, you don’t want to take your customers’ trust for granted. So if you say that you’ll send over the audit in a couple of hours, make sure you do just that!
Step 5: Build a pipeline to generate leads
On top of attending industry events and doing cold outreach, you need to build a pipeline to generate a steady stream of leads. You might be wondering… what’s the difference between doing cold outreach, and building a pipeline?
With cold outreach, you (or a freelancer) reaches out to prospects, and when you stop doing this, your leads dry up. When you build a pipeline, however, you’re creating some sort of resource, tool or lead magnet that attracts leads to your website, with the goal of getting leads to reach out to you. Basically, once you’ve got your pipeline up and running, it’ll run like clockwork and continuously generate leads for you. Pretty sweet, right?
In building your pipeline, consider what kind of lead magnet you want to offer on your site.
Standard lead magnets include:
If you’re not sure how this works, it’s pretty simple: you offer your lead magnet for download on your site, with the caveat that your prospect has to fill in a simple form before they can access the lead magnet. In this form, you ask for their name, company name, and company email address, and potentially several qualifying questions so that you can figure out if they’re a good fit. These qualifying questions can include:
- How many employees are there in your company? (Give a range to choose from)
- How much revenue does your company generate per year? (Give a range)
- Are you looking to hire an SEO agency?
If you're concerned about your form being too long just skip the qualifying questions and ask them in an email triggered upon form submission.
Step 6: Build out your SEO processes
The majority of SEO businesses offer similar services. They start off with a consultation, wherein they seek to understand their client’s company and customers. They then conduct research and come up with a proposal or SEO strategy for their clients. Once this gets approved, they’ll get to work on optimizing their client’s site for SEO, and taking care of off-site link building. Finally, they’ll measure and track results, and fine-tune their process for even better results.
That said, there are still plenty of details you’ll have to work out, including:
- What SEO tools you’ll use. A great place to start is SEOptimer of course ;)
- Your turnaround time for each step of the process
- Who takes care of what part of the process
- How you’ll communicate with your clients (email, phone call, in-person meetings)
On your website, you’ll want to be as clear and precise about your process as possible. The goal is to reduce any friction that your potential customer might be experiencing and give them the confidence to work with you by setting expectations at the start.
For instance, stating that you use “best-in-class SEO tools including SEOptimer” might give you extra brownie points. If you talk about the fact that you provide custom reports and analytics for your clients on a monthly basis, this might also nudge them closer to enquiring. Remember, it’s not just about what you do… it’s also about how you communicate it!
Step 7: Offer a free SEO audit
This is the primary lead generation tactic for SEO agencies because its so effective. Providing a prospective client with a free report showing all the ways you can help them improve their SEO is a very convincing sales tool. It also provides you with another opportunity to showcase your knowledge. Once your agency website is up and running you can easily embed our Audit Tool on your website. You can even customize the font and colors to match your site. Once setup, your website visitors simply enter their URL and email address to get a custom SEO audit report, complete with your recommendations and branded with your agency logo.
Step 8: Figure out your pricing
When it comes to pricing your services, most SEO businesses either charge a monthly retainer or a fixed price per project. There’s also a small segment of SEO businesses who charge based on results.
- Client pays a fixed fee every month as part of an ongoing arrangement
- Provides you with recurring income, which means you’ll have to spend less time and energy on chasing new accounts and closing new deals. (According to statistics, recruiting new customers costs five times as much as retaining current customers!)
- If you’re having trouble getting retainer clients right off the bat, start with per-project rates first and then upsell your clients to a retainer deal once you’ve completed their project
- Client pays a certain amount for the agency to work on a specific project
- Easier to close than retainer deals, but downside is that these provide less stability, and your income might fluctuate from month to month
- Clients pay a fixed amount for each result (eg each search term ranked on the first page of Google)
- Not recommended: the general consensus amongst the SEO community is that no one can truly guarantee results, because even if you do everything right, Google might change its algorithm tomorrow, and your client’s rankings might suddenly tank
- Basically, those in the know look at per-result pricing as an indication of a “bad” SEO agency - either the agency is intending to resort to black hat tactics (more on this later!), or they might simply be making promises that they can’t keep, simply because they want to win the sale
Average prices that SEO businesses charge
According to a survey about SEO costs, SEO businesses that operate on monthly retainers tend to charge around $501-$1,000 per month. If you’re looking specifically at US-based SEO businesses, though, there are a larger proportion of these businesses which charge $2,501-$5,000/month.
When it comes to per‐project pricing, $501-$1,000 is the most popular pricing tier globally. Here, US-based SEO businesses mostly charge $1,001 or more per project.
Step 9: Identify common sales objections and learn to counter them
To run a profitable SEO business, you can’t just be good at SEO - you also need to be an effective salesperson. Other than learning how to pitch your services in a compelling way, you should also familiarize yourself with common sales objections, and think of how to counter them.
Objection #1: Your SEO services are too expensive
When a lead tells you that your SEO services are too expensive, you can counter by emphasizing the value that they can get out of said services.
Statistics show that 90% of clicks on Google go to listings on the first page, so this means that if your client ranks on this page, they can potentially generate 10x or more traffic to their site. Assuming that their conversion rate stays the same, this results in 10x more absolute conversions that they get, every single day.
To go one step further, ask your lead how many visitors they’re currently converting per day and their average deal size, and do the math in front of them. Here’s an example:
Current conversions = 10 per day.
Average deal size = $200 per customer.
Potential conversions following SEO efforts = 100 per day.
Increase in revenue = 90 x $200 = $18,000.
Assuming you’re pitching a $2,000 project, this gives your potential client an amazing 800% ROI. It’s pretty tough to argue with that!
Objection #2: I’m already getting a lot of conversions from PPC already. Is SEO really necessary?
Many business owners have the misconception that SEO is something you do if you can’t generate good results from your PPC. It’s your job to convince them that this isn’t the case and that PPC and SEO go hand-in-hand.
While you can generate a ton of sales with PPC, your sales will trickle to a halt once you stop running your ads. On top of that, consider the fact that PPC is getting increasingly expensive. Back in 2013, the average Cost Per Conversion was $10.50. In 2016, this same figure shot up to $33. Who knows how much you’ll have to spend for a single conversion this year and beyond?
On the flip side, SEO is something that will continuously bring value to your brand. When you’re trying to rank on the first page, you’ll probably be churning out plenty of blog posts and acquiring as many backlinks as possible. Once you’ve made it to the top page, though, you might relax your approach slightly.
Yes, you’ll have to produce content from time-to-time, so that your website stays relevant, but you’ll still benefit from the traffic that all your previously published content drives to you. In other words: even if you scale back the amount of time and energy you spend on SEO, you won’t wake up and find that your conversions have come to a halt.
Objection #3: Can you guarantee that I’ll rank within X amount of time?
If your client asks you to guarantee a ranking, chances are, they’ve spoken with another SEO agency who’s given them that guarantee.
Don’t take the bait and promise your client results just to make the sale. Instead, explain the situation to them and share that no agency can truly guarantee results (unless they’re using black hat tactics, that will likely backfire in the long run). Most clients appreciate the honesty and go on to do business with you anyway.
Step 10: Learn how to provide necessary business documentation
The last thing that you’ll have to do before you launch your SEO business proper is to learn how to prepare documents such as:
- SEO proposal
- SEO pitch deck
- SEO contract
First and foremost, an SEO proposal is basically a project outline that walks your client through your SEO process and methodology, the details of the services that you’ll provide, the areas of their website/business you’ll optimize, and the timeline and deliverables for the project. Here is a sample SEO proposal template that you can reference.
An SEO pitch deck is a PowerPoint or Google Slides document that you’ll use when pitching to a client. Think of this as an expanded version of your SEO proposal. You should include all the elements of your proposal here, and you can also add in other content such as a “Why work with us?” section or a “Customer testimonials” section. Note that an SEO pitch deck isn’t strictly necessary - it’s definitely possible to just pitch to your client using your SEO proposal alone.
Next, an SEO contract is a legal agreement that sets expectations and makes sure that the vendor (that’s you!) and the client is well-aligned. Some elements to include here are: deliverables, timelines, payment terms, roles & responsibilities etc. Read this Search Engine Journal article to find out more.
Last but not least, an invoice is a document that specifies the costs and payment terms of your services. You can create your invoices manually using a template, but using an online invoicing tool helps to streamline the process and makes it easier for you to follow up with customers. Here are 5 great invoicing apps to check out.
After launching your SEO business
Step 11: Leverage testimonials, reviews and success stories
Whenever you wrap up a project, ALWAYS ask your client for a testimonial or review. There are many ways you can go about this. For instance, you could draw your client’s attention to the fact that they’ve achieved great results working with you, before asking for a testimonial:
You could even provide them with some sort of incentive in exchange for a testimonial or review:
Make sure you also ask them to add a review for your agency on Clutch.co - the more reviews you get here, the higher your ranking.
Statistics show that displaying reviews can increase conversion rates by 270%, so these are definitely a huge asset that you should capitalize upon. Most folks simply put their reviews on their site and call it a day. But to maximize the value that you get out of your reviews, you should share these on your social media channels AND use them in paid ads. Here’s an example:
Step 12: Craft case studies
On top of getting customer reviews and testimonials its really valuable to create case studies that detail how you helped your customer achieve XYZ results. (Of course, you’ll need to speak to your customer first, and make sure that they’re comfortable with being featured on your site).
Case studies bring three main benefits to the table:
- SEO juice
First up, a well-written case study can help drive a ton of traffic (and potential leads) for your SEO business. Check it out:
On top of that, if you come up with a high-quality, compelling case study, there’s a good chance that people will start citing your case study in their SEO guides. This means that you’ll get more backlinks to your site, which helps with your own SEO ranking.
Case studies provide a ton of social proof, and they help you convert more customers easily. If you’re pitching to someone and they’re on the fence about whether they want to engage your SEO services, showing them a relevant case study might just convince them to give you a shot.
Step 13: Engage and retain customers
Last but not least, make sure you keep track of how many customers are churning on a monthly basis and try to improve your retention rate as you go along.
How do you do this? Most agencies do monthly catch-up sessions to update customers, so you can take this as an opportunity to check in and chat with your customers. Ask your customers for feedback. Ask them how they’ve liked working with you so far. If they give you any constructive criticism, make sure you act on it and improve your processes. On top of that, show your clients that you’re providing them with real value and bringing them results. You can do this by walking them through reports that show their improvements over time or even build a simple dashboard that they can refer to.
If you want to gather customer feedback using a more formal method, you can also use the Net Promoter Score (NPS) or a similar tool. Here, you’ll trigger survey emails to your customers, and analyze the results to determine customer satisfaction levels.
3 things to avoid when starting an SEO business
1. Chasing the algorithm
If you’re not sure what this means, it basically refers to obsessively checking on Google’s algorithm, and crafting your entire SEO strategy around any changes in that algorithm.
For example, say you hear that Google is now prioritizing voice-friendly content, and you immediately overhaul all your clients’ websites to make their content more conversational and build custom skills in Alexa.
Its good to keep an eye on industry updates, but you shouldn’t be too focused on one specific ranking factor. Why is this the case? Google often hints at its updates without being completely transparent about them, so what you read online is often interpretations by those in the SEO community. Even if someone says that they did XYZ, and this resulted in their rankings improving, anecdotal evidence isn’t all that reliable, because it only shows you a tiny snapshot of what’s going on.
On top of that, Google is constantly pushing and testing out updates, and they’re known to shift gears or change tactics as they go. So even if the information you’re reading about Google’s new algorithm is accurate, you have no way of knowing how long these changes will last, or whether Google will reverse the changes in the near future.
2. Black Hat SEO
For those unacquainted with black hat SEO, this refers to SEO techniques and practices that violate search engines’ rules. These include keyword stuffing, cloaking, using private link networks, and more. (Techniques that are legitimate and comply with search engines’ rules, on the other hand, are termed white hat SEO).
Basically, unethical consultants or agencies use black hat SEO to “hack” their way into higher search rankings. While it might be tempting to try to game the system, black hat SEO just isn’t worth the risk. Google invests millions of dollars into fighting black hat SEO, and once they catch you utilizing black hat tactics, they’ll slap your site (or your client’s site) with a Google Penalty.
3. Conducting spammy outreach
Don’t be too aggressive in your outreach. If you purchase big email lists and start mass-emailing everyone without bothering to qualify them in any way, your conversion rates are likely to be low. You might hurt your email deliverability as well. Instead, make sure you reach out to folks that are a good fit for your business and always personalize your emails to them.
How exactly do you go about doing this? There are many lead generation tools that will allow you to filter and sort through potential leads based on your specific criteria. For example, UpLead lets you build targeted lists using 50 different criteria, including industry, sales revenue, number of employees, and more.
A final word on how to start an SEO business
While it may seem overwhelming, if you break down each step into smaller goals, it makes the process more manageable. Before you know it, you’ll have successfully started an SEO business!
To further streamline the process, make sure you rely on all the available tools and technology that’s already out there. Once you've established your agency website you'll want to embed our white label SEO audit tool so you can benefit from all the leads that this gets you.
Good luck and full steam ahead!