Ready to strike out on your own and start an SEO consultancy? Great. Despite repeated proclamations that SEO is dead, it is indeed alive and well. People are still searching, so businesses still need to optimize their sites so that they show up for relevant queries. Perhaps the days of blatantly manipulating Google are behind us, but quality, lasting SEO will remain in demand as long as people use web search.
Don’t just jump into a new consultancy. Finding clients can prove difficult, especially if you can’t show them why you’re worth hiring. Good clients don’t want to hear you talk about your successes. They want to see what you did for other companies, so they have an idea of what they can do for you.
Instead of quitting your job to start a consultancy, it’s best to wade in slowly. Take steps that take just a few hours per week, ramping up your efforts until you have some documented wins under your belt. You can use those to build your client base.
Then it’s time to quit your job and dive in full force.
1. Work on your own sites
How can you show SEO success without having any clients? By treating yourself as a client. Anyone has the ability to create a website, market it, and rank in the search engines. Success with your own projects will impress potential clients.
Want to really wow potential clients? If you’re willing to put in the work, you can not only impress them, but make a little money along the way. Here’s the method.
Identify a client you’d like to work with. You’ll need to identify a company that has particularly weak SEO. Perform keyword research to identify what money keywords the company doesn’t rank for. You’ll need those very soon.
Find that company’s affiliate program. Maybe you’re starting to understand how this works. If the company doesn’t advertise an affiliate program on its website, go check the major affiliate networks such as CJ Affiliate, formerly Commission Junction, and ShareASale. (For more options, google “affiliate network”.)
Build your website. Yes, you’re going to build a website that resells the company’s products. Perhaps you want to identify many more products with the same theme as your potential client. That can work. But focus on reselling that particular company’s products or services.
Enroll in the affiliate program. It’s as simple as that. You’ll need an attractive website to get approved, and you might need to generate some traffic too. But with most networks you can get in relatively easily if your page isn’t spammy.
Rank the site. Going back to the potential client’s list of keywords, go rank the affiliate site. Imagine the presentation you can make based on that. Outrank them for their own money keywords, and they’ll know you have the skills they seek. If you can show them significant sales, you’ll have enormous leverage.
Even if you don’t choose this method, creating your own websites and ranking them is the No. 1 thing you can do to impress clients. They want to see what you’ve done, not what you say you can do.
2. Choose your tool set
Great SEO is not possible without great tools. Make no mistake: great tools will not compensate for poor SEO skills. Only skilled SEOs can properly use these tools.
Think about the issue in terms of physical tools. A carpenter can’t do his job without a hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, and many more tools. But if you or I loaded up a toolbox with these tools, we wouldn’t magically become carpenters. Even if we knew how to use each individual tool, we still wouldn’t know the craft of carpentry.
In the same way, simply knowing how to run a backlink report doesn’t teach you the craft of SEO. Learn the concepts first, and let the tools do their jobs. That said, there are a number of tools that work exceedingly well. Let’s start with some high level ones at a reasonable price. As you become more experience you can identify higher level tools that will eat up more of your budget.
Moz Pro. When searching for a starter tool, it’s best to find one that provides many services. Moz Pro costs just $99 per month, but has an array of tools that can help you with any SEO campaign. From their Fresh Web Explorer, which is like Google Alerts on steroids, to their rank checker, on-page analyzer, and crawl tests, you’ll have a whole suite of tools you can deploy on your own sites, and then on your clients.
Ahrefs. Besides the awesomly appropriate name, Ahrefs is a very powerful backlink explorer. It can also crawl your site, similarly to Moz. The biggest difference? Ahrefs backlink explorer provides more results than Moz’s Open Site Explorer. At $79 for a reasonable starter package, you could do a lot worse.
Raven Tools. Another $99 tool that provides many services. From Majestic-powered backlink reports to Google analytics integration, Raven Tools can help any upstart SEO. Not experienced in creating client reports? This is perhaps Raven’s greatest advantage. The tool can generate reports that your clients will love.
3. Identify and improve your weaknesses
The last, and perhaps most crucial, step before forging out onto your own is to assess your weaknesses. The scope of SEO has grown over the years, and so has the skillset required. You don’t have to be strong in each of the required skills. In fact, it’s almost impossible to do so. But you need at least a base understanding of the following concepts:
- Keyword research and how keywords work with:
- Title tags
- Content itself
- Meta descriptions
- Indexing and crawlability
- HTTP codes
- Content creation, i.e., writing and particularly copywriting
- Social media promotion and engagement
- Outreach (meaning traditional PR skills)
- Marktup (CSS and HTML)
- Understanding of server structures
- Microsoft Excel, which is still the most powerful spreadsheet tool
- How citations and links work
- The sales funnel
- Basic branding concepts
The list doesn’t really end there, but without at least a base understanding of these items — and mastery of a few — finding success as an SEO consultant will prove difficult. The more of these skills you can improve from a base level, the stronger your SEO campaigns will be. You’ll also be able to better address objections from potential clients.
4. Find one client
Now that you have some successes under your belt, are paying for tools, and have built up your skills, you’re probably ready to take on clients. But again, don’t dive off the cliff just yet. Client acquisition can be a tedious process that loses you a lot of money. If you have a day job, it’s probably not time to quit yet. Before you can assemble a stable of clients that will keep your lights on, you have to start with one.
If you followed the method above, you already know your first potential client. If you outrank them for their own keywords and can show them quality sales data, you just might land them. But you can’t count on it. Every company has its own decision-making process. Don’t expect that just because you did something impressive means they’ll hire you. For all you know, they could resent you for stealing their thunder.
The best client acquisition approach is to pitch one at a time. Any kind of spray tactic will look spammy. Low-quality SEO firms do this all the time, and decision makers have become immune to their pitches. In order to get an interview, you have to really impress a company. Here are a few tips.
Run your tools. You already have the tools, so you might as well run them on a target company. This might not always be possible, since some of the tools offer you a limited number of monthly reports. But as long as you’re approaching one client at a time, you shouldn’t run into many issues. Get to know their sites intimiately through the reports you generate.
Study their website. Know every nook and cranny. Count how many clicks it takes from the homepage to reach certain pages. Study the elements of their strongest pages. Monitor their mentions on social media. (Bonus tip: set up a TweetDeck search for their domain name. It will show you when people tweet their link, even if they use bit.ly or another URL shortener.)
Pitch the right person. Nothing will get you a meeting faster than pitching the person who looks best for finding you. Sometimes this will be the CMO. Other times it will be a marketing manager. Look at the company’s About page to check their corporate structure. Find employees on Twitter and LinkedIn. Figure out the very best person to pitch, and then wow them.
Look like a professional. I cannot stress this enough. If you look like an amateur with no clients, companies just won’t hire you. Here are a few tips for looking the part.
- Use a domain email address. Do not use an @gmail.com address. It looks personal and even spammy. The best format is [email protected]
- Spell check four or five times. Make sure you’re not too casual with your tone. Maybe you’re a playful person, and maybe that will work in a meeting. But in an initial email? Keep it light, but also keep it professional sounding.
- Send professional-looking invoices. If you have no clients, you can use FreshBooks for free. At the very least you can use their free invoice template to send branded invoices. Nothing screams amateur louder than a sloppy-looking MS Word invoice template.
- Plan your follow-up. Many newbies get stuck at this point. How to follow up? The best advice: lay out a timeline in the meeting. Does the company need a week to make a decision? A few days? This should inform your follow-up. If you’re following up with a client, let the situation’s urgency dictate your frequency. If they need to provide you something so you can move forward, follow up daily. If it’s not urgent, limit it to twice a week max.
Once you have that single client, you can get the ball rolling.
5. Create case studies
Want more and bigger clients? You’ll have to hit some home runs with smaller clients. Not only that, but you’ll have to show those bigger clients exactly how you produced results.
Stop right there!
You can’t just go create a case study with any client. In many cases you’ll have a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Clients often insist on these with SEO services. Since SEO still has negative connotations, clients don’t want word to get out that they’re working with one. If you have an NDA, you can’t just create a case study.
Other companies actually charge to use their campaign data in a case study. If you use their data and they find out, you could find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Few things could ruin a new consultancy more quickly.
The solution? Talk to your clients. They will appreciate that you want to expand your business and take on more clients. That doesn’t mean they will grant permission to create a case study. But you’ll at least understand what they need. In some cases that will involve payment. In others you might have to anonymize all data. That makes for a less compelling case study, but it is a study nonetheless.
Hopefully you’ve continued working on your own sites during this time and can create even more comprehensive case studies using them. They will be your most powerful selling tools, since you don’t have to anonymize data. You can show potential clients the exact tactics you used to achieve specific results.
Still think you have what it takes to start your own SEO consultancy? Hopefully this guide made you tap the breaks a bit. Yes, SEO services are here to stay, and you can play a part. But we don’t become SEO experts overnight. There are a few steps you must master before you can play in the big leagues.