Search engine optimization is one of the most unique professions you can get into these days. It doesn’t require any particular educational background, it can be self-taught and it can be done anywhere as long as you have a computer and an internet connection. It carries tremendous earning upside and it can be your gateway to go places you’ve never thought you’d go. It’s changing careers and lives all over the world in ways we didn’t think possible just two decades ago.
Yet, SEO’s best quality as a craft may lie in the fact that it’s one of those fields where you can make a quick and easy transition from being an employee to being an entrepreneur. Starting an SEO agency requires almost no capital, yet the potential for profit is sky-high as long as you can scale your business in a sustainable manner.
That’s where it gets a little tricky, though. Much like any service-based enterprise, SEO requires hard work, people management savvy, an eye for opportunity and plenty of discipline. It’s easy enough to get started in this vertical – the part where you grow your business is where a lot of people fail.
We’ve been fortunate enough to last almost a decade as an SEO company of about 200 people. Along the way, we’ve taken our lumps and learned some hard lessons, but we’ve always survived and thrived. If you’re curious how we were able to grow the business without collapsing under our own weight, this post is for you. Here are nine tips on how you can safely scale your SEO agency:
Define and Pursue Your Market Segment
Over the past two decades, SEO has gone from being a one-size-fits-all type of deal to a highly specialized one brimming with opportunities to specialize. As an agency, identifying what particular areas you’re good at and focusing on them is essential to setting the right business direction.
Some agencies choose specific parts of SEO and make it their bread and butter. Due to the size of the SEO market, diversification and focus on singular aspects of the craft is a viable option. In the same way that you can succeed as an automotive company that manufactures wheels and not entire automobiles, you can succeed as an SEO company that just does link building or technical SEO and not full campaigns. In some cases, it’s easier to build a bigger client base by offering very specific services that you’ve mastered just because their competition isn’t as intense as it is for broader SEO services.
In some cases, agencies define their specializations with the kinds of sites they serve best. Some are great at ecommerce optimization while others have a knack for helping small businesses succeed with local SEO. Some even define their market segments by the size of deals they want to target. Some agencies prefer smaller campaigns that range from $500-$1,000 retainers per month, while some target just enterprise clients that they can charge as much as $20,000 per month.
Whatever your preference, zero in on a market segment that aligns with your forte and make it part of your agency’s identity. You can then base your client targeting on that foundation. As your business starts to pick up, you can start adding more to your list of core competencies and grow your business with it.
Get to Know the Right People
You may not realize it, but the old business adage “It’s not what you know, but who you know” applies to SEO. While it’s true that you can sustain a relatively successful SEO agency with leads from channels like organic search, paid search, affiliates and social media, the best kinds of leads usually come from referrals made by people who wield a certain amount of influence over prospective clients.
Think about it: leads that come to you from regular marketing channels are usually complete strangers to your brand. A lead from a referral would have already heard positive feedback about you from a person he or she trusts, making them feel more at ease about doing business with you. By the time you start talking, these people are virtually sold, giving you an easier time to close the deal and negotiate for arrangements that you prefer.
And while there’s no sure-fire way to meet and befriend people who can help your business grow, we found that these activities helped grow our professionals over the years:
– Participation in SEO forums and Facebook groups
– Commenting on popular blogs for the sake of discussion, not cheap links
– Joining SEO organizations
– Speaking in conferences
– Having our key managers attend MBA school
– Ensuring the satisfaction of our clients
It’s important to understand that we don’t do these activities for the sake of actively finding and connecting with influencers. That would just be disingenuous and desperate. We do these things because we want to and it puts us in a position to build meaningful relationships with people who have overlapping interests with us.
Market People First, Brands Second
While there’s no denying the value of brand marketing, potential clients tend to gravitate more towards people than agencies in the SEO scene. Typically, agencies gain notoriety when they have recognizable personalities working for them. Popular bloggers, industry journalists, SEO app developers and event speakers make good faces for companies. Human names tend to have better recall value than most brand names and people are generally more interested to find out about a human knowledge resource than they would be towards a faceless company.
If you don’t have these kinds of people in your organization you can start by maintaining an active company blog and making sure some of your best people contribute to it. Make it a point to give them bylines and have their blogger profiles show their photos. If you can land a guest blogging opportunity on publications like Moz, Search Engine Land and other popular industry blogs, all the better. If you don’t have stage fright, find it in yourself to pitch for a speaking slot in major conferences such as SMX, MozCon, PubCon and others.
When marketing people in your organization, understand that regularity is the key. You can’t speak once in a conference or publish one blog post a month and expect to gain recognition. Constantly getting your name out there helps establish your personnel as legitimate players in the SEO scene.
Do Your Work Early
One of the things that keep most agencies from growing is a high client churn rate. SEO isn’t the field where you can expect clients to have infinite patience. If they don’t see the needle moving for their business within a few months, they’ll likely cut your engagement short. To keep the chances of getting dumped as low as possible, the best advice we can give you is to do your work early.
By that we mean putting in the bulk of the work within the first couple of months. If you’re doing on-site SEO, make sure you cover everything on the checklist within the first two weeks. For larger sites, this may take a month or two.
In our case we don’t wait until month 2 to start building links and writing content. We do it alongside the on-site SEO audit even if it means pulling in more manpower and pouring in more hours. The sooner the links start pointing to the site’s pages, the sooner they’ll drive link equity and help with the rankings. The same is true for the content. Having it there earlier gives it more time to climb the SERPs. By the time you hit month 3 or 4 when the typical client starts looking for traction, you’ll have significant stuff to show.
In some cases, we even do PPC for clients at no extra cost to them just to make their phones ring with some leads while we’re waiting for SEO’s effects to kick in. We may not make much money the first couple of months, but we’ll more than make up for it by extending our average engagement tenure.
Let Strategy Drive Technology. Not the Other Way Around
One of the things that distinguishes SEO from other branches of digital marketing is the fact that there are so many tools that you can use to do your job faster, better and easier. New technologies are constantly being released for on-site SEO, link intelligence, keyword research and content improvement. It’s good that software is plentiful and readily available, but we’ve learned over the past decade that there are only so many that we need to execute successful SEO campaigns. Using a tool just because it’s new and popular often results in confusion and inefficiency.
Our rule of thumb is to let our strategies and processes determine what tools we use. The rationale has to exist before we start introducing software platforms into our operations. Just because a tool is popular doesn’t justify its adoption.
Here’s a specific example: SEMRush is an excellent keyword research platform that has expanded its functionality to other areas of SEO lately. In the past few years, it’s added a backlink reports tool a la Open Site Explorer, and it also has a Site Audit tool to report on SEO problems within a site. While the addition of the backlink and audit tools have been great, we found that the backlink tool doesn’t find nearly as many inbound links as other tools do. The site audit tool also seems to yield a significant number of false positives that can send you on a wild goose chase trying to fix everything it reports.
If we were to start using SEMRush’s additional tools just because they’re there, it would likely disrupt our link acquisition and on-site SEO operations. It would also make them less accurate. For that reason we stick to using SEMRush for keyword research and rank tracking. On-page and off-page SEO is still covered by Screaming Frog and Ahrefs, respectively.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Keeping up with the latest news and strategies in SEO is essential to an agency’s prosperity. As search engines evolve in how they weigh the relevance of listings to queries, so do the strategies that SEOs use to maximize their websites’ search visibility. In that regard, reading industry news sites and blogs is vital so we can continue to adapt to the of an ever-changing playing field.
However, there is such a thing as being too open to information., While it’s important to be aware of what’s happening around the industry, make sure that you absorb insights with a discerning attitude.
In a science as inexact as SEO, it would be foolish to believe everything you read on the web. A lot of SEO bloggers are motivated by lead generation and search visibility. As such, it’s not shocking at all that some would adopt more sensationalist styles in their writing in order to stand out from the rest of the SEO crowd. When this happens, factual accuracy and objectivity suffers .
Choose the sources you want to follow carefully. Research how reputable they are before trying to apply what they’re teaching you in their blogs. Keep in mind that anyone can fabricate SEO success stories and it’s not easy for new or slightly experienced SEOs to see the signs of dishonest writing.
It’s also important to realize that each SEO campaign is unique in its own way. Just because you’re applying a technique you learned from a blogger who claims to have grown his organic traffic by 1,000% in three months doesn’t mean you’ll achieve similar results. The target audiences, markets and execution of strategies on both sites could vary significantly, which may or may not make the strategy effective.
Bottom line: temper your expectations and test everything. Base your campaign on proven methods and make room for new tactics that you want to incorporate. Follow reputable sources and take a cautious stance on information from sources you’re not too familiar with.
Understand What Makes Money
The Pareto principle holds true for a lot of economic phenomena and it’s certainly relevant to running an SEO agency. In a lot of cases, 20% of the things that you do bring in 80% of your income. It may not be obvious at the beginning, but as you go beyond the 10 employee mark, you’ll start to realize what activities, client types and industries yield the most profit. Zeroing on these and building your business around them can help you scale sustainably in a short amount of time.
To some agencies, it might make more sense to focus on link building due to the high profit margins that successful link placements can return. In others, it’s more lucrative to do mostly content creation work. For others still, full SEO campaigns on retainers is the way to go. It really depends on the identity, skills and target market segment of your agency. In our case, we found that reselling SEO services to other agencies was the best business move.
You Don’t Have to Do Everything In-house
Scaling up your business doesn’t mean just taking on new customers — it also means hiring new employees. Here’s the tricky part, though: clients can disengage from you at almost any time. When they do, you’ll be left with financial obligations to employees that you hired based on the needs of those clients. This wouldn’t be an issue if we all had steady streams of new leads to immediately replace departing clients, but not everyone has that luxury.
We found that the best way to mitigate risks is to hold off on hiring until we’re completely sure that we can afford the employee’s salary for the foreseeable future. During the phases when we need manpower but we’ve got uncertainties with the length of client engagements, we simply outsource the work to independent contractors or other agencies.
Independent contractors are great because they only need to be kept in your payroll for as long as you need them. You don’t need to pay for other perks and you only shell out dollars when a project is finished. The same thing goes for agencies. A lot of them offer white label work so you can deliver on all your clients’ needs while still branding the work as your own.
Expand to Adjacent Fields
If there’s one thing that makes the lives of clients easier, it’s having to deal with just one agency for all their digital marketing needs. Starting out with SEO services is great, but you’ll start noticing that clients will ask about PPC, web development and web design services soon after. Take this as a cue for business expansion ideas.
Adding a small web design and development team is a good start. When you have enough business leads to justify additional hires, consider scaling the team up. In the case of our flagship brand TrueLogic, that’s exactly what we did. These days, we’re pretty much a one stop shop for digital marketing. It’s good to offer services, but if you want to work with big corporations, you have to offer comprehensive solutions.
At the end of the day, SEO is a great field to do business in because it opens a lot of doors. You can either focus on it and grow or expand o related fields. You can even deviate entirely into a new business and the lessons SEO teaches you will still be very useful. The opportunities are limitless and they’re ours to capitalize on for as long as we can.
Author: Itamar Gero has been on the net since the days it was still in black and white. Born and raised in Israel, he now lives in the Philippines. He is the founder of SEOReseller.com and has recently launched Siteoscope.com.