It’s a good time to be in the search engine optimization (SEO) industry. There are more than 63,000 searches per second on an average day, and most consumers and business owners rely heavily on Google when researching new products and services. Moreover, the industry is certainly large enough to have enough to cheese to go around.
Most businesses have adapted by putting at least a little time and effort into their search ranking strategy. Unfortunately, SEO is too time-intensive and technically complex for non-experts to pursue on their own time.
That’s where SEO agencies come in. SEO agencies provide critically in-demand SEO services to the millions of business owners who need them—and profit from their efforts.
If you’ve been in the SEO industry for a while, you likely have some idea of what it takes to start a successful SEO agency. But even if you’re new, launching an SEO company is well within your grasp.
In this guide, we’ll go over the high-level steps for starting an SEO company of your own, including how to choose a direction for your business, how to provide high-quality services for your clients, and of course, how to scale long-term.
By the end, you’ll be ready to write up a business plan of your own and start assembling the resources you need to be successful.
We’ll start by going over the high-level steps you’ll need to take when building an SEO agency from scratch, then delve into each of these topics to explore them in depth. This way, you’ll be able to examine each phase of the process in context.
With that outline in mind, let’s get down to brass tacks.
To start, you’re going to need to choose a niche—some target or direction that differentiates you from your competitors.
This is important for a few reasons, most of which stem from the fact that there are tons of SEO agencies out there—at least 30,000 as listed by Clutch, and tens or even hundreds of thousands of unlisted or mom-and-pop operations. Why would a company choose you over these other competitors, who have been working for years to decades to build their reputation and online presence?
It’s intimidating, to be sure, but choosing a niche helps you in two major ways. First, you’ll eliminate some of your competition immediately. If, say, 33 percent of SEO agencies focus on small businesses, 33 percent focus on mid-sized businesses, and 33 percent focus on large companies, choosing one battleground here would instantly remove 66 percent of your competition.
Obviously, things aren’t this simple, and many agencies target a broad range of customers. But that’s where the second benefit comes into play: many businesses want to work with a specialist rather than a generalist. If you specialize in SEO for law firms, almost any law firm would prefer you to a contemporary who doesn’t have an area of specialty. Your in-depth industry knowledge instantly makes you more relevant and more appealing.
Note that these advantages operate at a high level and in the context of your ground-level marketing tactics; for example, you’ll find it much easier to reach rank one for highly specialized, niche keyword phrases.
So how do you choose a niche? You’ll want to consider three main factors, which you can research or simply brainstorm:
You’ll need to find a balance between these factors, and choose one or more niches in these categories.
One of the most common niche choices is based on industry. You can focus on a broad category, like “finance,” or something more specific, like “local credit unions.” There’s a wide variety of industries to choose from, and don’t feel limited to select only one. There are SEO companies that have reached multi-millions in sales in the following industries, just by focusing:
Some want to be a generalist, rather than specializing. Here’s some healthy advice that flies in the face of that wisdom:
Focus creates wealth, diversification preserves it.
When choosing your segment, understanding and calculating the Total Addressable Market (TAM) will be helpful to understand if the niche is large enough to target.
You can also target clients based on their size. Large corporations tend to have bigger budgets, but they may also be more demanding, and can be harder to land. Small businesses often want more personalized relationships, and can be more flexible, but they may also have smaller budgets and more restrictions. Smaller companies also may need more local SEO expertise, as opposed to a national focus.
New SEO agencies often start by looking for clients in their geographic proximity; there are definitely fewer competitors in your city of residence than there are nationwide. You can always expand to focus on a wider area later in your development. While we no longer focus on Seattle, we started here and still have a number of local clients.
Some SEO agencies target new clients based on their needs; for example, you might specialize in catering to new entrepreneurs who have never heard of SEO before. Conversely, you might target other SEO agencies, offering your superior experience and more bountiful resources to help them grow their own practices.
As you can see, there’s a lot of flexibility here. Try not to overthink it; if you aren’t satisfied with your target niche, you can always pivot to something else in the future.
Next, you’ll need to think about what kinds of services you’re going to offer.
Yes, obviously SEO services. But as you know, SEO has many constituent parts, and you may offer some or all of them. You may also offer peripheral services, tangentially related to SEO, or otherwise enhancing your clients’ SEO performance.
There’s an important tie-in to choosing a niche here; if you select one SEO service as a field of specialty, that can come to define you as an agency. For example, you could specialize in writing onsite content, forgoing other services (at least temporarily) to minimize competition and develop a strong reputation.
However, most SEO agencies benefit from offering multiple different services, especially together as a package.
These are some of the most commonly considered:
Most SEO agencies attempt to get clients on a retainer; SEO is a long-term strategy, so it’s much easier to prove your worth and get results over a period of many months. Plus, the consistent revenue makes it easier to manage your business. Consider offering a “bronze,” “silver,” and “gold” package, or a similar assortment of increasingly effective/expensive packages. For example, your bronze package might include 1 new onsite post per week, 1 new high-quality link per week, and a handful of other supportive services, while your gold package includes 3 new onsite posts per week, 3 new links per week, and even more peripheral services.
Alternatively, you could offer your SEO products and services in an a-la-carte format. You could charge a fixed rate per link, per post, or per hour of work; just make sure your clients understand the importance of consistency and long-term effort for SEO.
At this point, you know the niche you’re targeting and what kind of services you’re going to offer, but how are people going to find you? And how can you demonstrate your knowledge of online marketing immediately?
There are arguably some types of businesses that can skate by without a comprehensive web presence, even in 2020. An SEO agency isn’t one of them.
For starters, you need a well-designed, modern website that’s packed with information and easy to navigate. You need lots of content about SEO, on individual pages and in the form of blog posts, videos, and other types of content. The more you have here, the better; if you have one blog post published and it’s from last week, most of your visitors will be reluctant to contact you, instead favoring one of your more experienced competitors.
By extension, your website should be optimized for SEO. If your prospects are navigating your website and they notice missing page titles, an unfavorable URL structure, or content that doesn’t follow best practices, they’re going to leave—and you’ll never get a chance to close them.
You don’t have to be at rank one for head keywords like “SEO agency.” At this point, it’s nearly impossible to enter that space; not only is it competitive, but you can guarantee the best SEO agencies in the world are the ones you’d be competing with. However, you should be visible in rankings for your target niche; even a handful of page-one appearances should be enough to persuade your demographics that you know what you’re talking about.
If you’re new to the world of SEO and you aren’t sure how to rank, you’ll want to do some research and experimenting before starting an agency. We won’t get into the details here, since this is more about starting the agency than engaging in SEO itself, but make sure to check out our blog if you need more information.
It’s also a good idea to flesh out your social media profiles, even if you don’t plan on offering social media services. It’s a useful tool for promoting your content and achieving visibility, and you should make yourself available to as many communication channels as possible.
Depending on how you want to acquire clients, you may need to invest more time and effort into your online web presence; inbound marketing, the process of generating leads by attracting people to your site naturally, requires heavy investment into content, links, and multiple forms of traffic generation.
Your next goal should be perfecting your service offerings. Assuming you’re able to find and recruit clients to your agency, they’re only going to stick around if you’re able to give them results. If your work is sloppy, or if you aren’t able to keep up with the volume they need, they’re going to find another agency to work with.
There are three factors to consider here:
There are a few ways you can improve the quality, consistency, and scalability of your service offerings.
If you’re working as a solo consultant, or as a freelancer, you may be able to do most of the work on your own. In this case, experience is your best friend; the more you practice SEO, the better you’ll get at it, in every dimension.
However, working alone isn’t scalable at all. You may be able to produce good work consistently, but there’s an upper limit to what you can handle. Sooner or later, you’ll need another option.
Most SEO agencies try to hire experienced, competent people to serve their clients. There are three primary options: full-time employees, part-time employees, and contractors.
In-house staff members like full-time and part-time employees are advantageous because they’re directly under your control; you’ll be able to train, coach, and supervise them as they hone their skills. However, they also tend to be expensive, and if you’re just starting out, you may not have the budget to bring on an entire team. This also isn’t a scalable approach; while you can always hire employees, you can’t hire them quickly, and as your team expands, your consistency may suffer.
Contractors, by contrast, are much more flexible and scalable, and they tend to be cheaper too. However, there’s less of a guarantee of quality, and if you’re using lots of different contractors, your work will almost inevitably suffer from inconsistency.
The best option for most new SEO agencies is partnering with other firms and outsourcing the work. Some SEO agencies specialize in a given area, like producing content or building links, and offer white-label SEO services to other agencies.
For example, you could partner with a link building agency like SEO.co. In this scenario, you’d pay for offsite content and links for your clients. SEO.co would take responsibility for building them, leveraging their existing network of publishers so you don’t have to build one from scratch. This allows you to provide your clients with the services of a highly experienced agency without needing those years of experience yourself. It’s also less expensive than hiring a team of full-time employees, on average, and you’ll get a guarantee of results.
The quality and consistency of the work will depend on the agency you hire. If you do your due diligence, you should be able to find a reliable and reputable partner. And as long as you partner with an agency of reasonable size, you can count on practically unlimited scalability; you can purchase as few or as many services as you need.
With a plan to offer high-quality services, you’ll be ready to start attracting clients—but wait—how are you going to prove that you can offer results? How can you prove your worth when you’ve only recently started?
Without a reputation, without case studies, and without testimonials, you’re going to have a hard time convincing new prospects that you know what you’re talking about. Nobody wants to be an experimental guinea pig when their company’s online visibility and reputation are on the line.
Accordingly, you’ll need to build a portfolio, or at least get some client work under your belt, before you start meeting with prospective clients. Ideally, you’ll gather some objective evidence of the results of your work; for example, you might compare a website’s monthly organic traffic before and after you began work on it. You may also consider assembling these data in a formal case study, or gathering testimonials from your satisfied clients.
It may seem silly to suggest that you need to find clients before you find clients, but there are a few options available to you:
Feature your results on your main site (assuming you have permission), and be prepared to present them to your prospects.
With a few successes to show off, you can start looking for prospects. Like with most B2B companies, the best approach to follow is to generate lots of relevant (i.e., potentially interested) prospects, then close the deals after you start the conversation.
We’ll explore how to close deals in the next section, but here, we’ll dig into the best methods to use when generating initial prospects.
Most marketing and advertising strategies can be categorized as inbound or outbound. With inbound marketing, your efforts will be spent making your site (or a landing page) more attractive to people, naturally bringing them in. Inbound marketing may take a while to develop, but at its peak, it should cultivate leads automatically and constantly.
There are many individual strategies you can use together in your inbound approach, which you’re probably already familiar with: SEO, content marketing, social media marketing, and so on. The idea is to accumulate lots of inbound visitors who either have a problem that you can solve or are interested in the services you provide.
There are three keys to success here:
Outbound marketing, by contrast, requires you to go out of your way to try and appeal to new clients. Again, there are several tactics to try here, including pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, cold emails, cold calls, and email marketing.
Outbound marketing tends to have a lower ROI than inbound marketing over the long term, but it gets immediate results. Outbound and inbound strategies work best in concert with one another.
Just make sure you follow these principles:
One of the best long-term sources of clients you’ll have is referrals. If you provide your clients with exceptional results and personal service, they may spread the word about your capabilities, giving you a warm introduction to new prospects with no effort on your part. You can also create a referral program, like giving clients a discount on their monthly fee for each new client they help add to your portfolio.
However you get your prospects, it’s on you and your sales team to close deals and convert those prospects to clients. General sales best practices, like responding to leads as quickly as possible, will apply here.
When you get to know a prospect a little better, you’ll send a proposal. There are several strategies and best practices that can improve your success rate from here:
Whether you’re just starting a conversation with a prospect or you’re in the final stages of closing the deal, it’s important to follow up consistently. Too many salespeople abandon potential deals prematurely; as much as 80 percent of prospects will say “no” or ignore a message up to four times before eventually saying “yes.”
The past few sections have focused on attracting new clients, but it’s even more important to retain your clients. Client retention is less expensive than client acquisition, and more valuable, since you’ll keep generating revenue each month, plus increase your chances of getting more referrals.
In my experience, SEO agency client retention is best considered in three main areas: communication, reporting, and results.
Communication is the most important element to any client retention strategy, because if executed properly, it can mitigate or eliminate most other problems.
There’s nothing especially complicated to consider here. You need to listen to your clients; understand their goals and perspectives. If they have questions, answer them. If they have concerns, address them.
You also need to proactively talk with your clients about your performance; meet with them regularly to go over your progress. Explain what it is you’re doing and why. If you encounter any issues, address them proactively and honestly.
Active listening, transparency, and honesty are vital to any successful client relationship. Also, make sure it’s easy to get in contact with an account representative; nobody wants to be put on hold or wait three days for a response.
Reporting is, in some ways, a form of communication, but it’s worth considering as a separate element. Reporting is how you’ll convey your worth to your clients, and it can make or break a relationship regardless of your overall performance. For example, if you’re getting amazing results, but you fail to educate the client on why those results are amazing, they may not be able to understand the value of the campaign. Conversely, if you’re seeing lackluster results, but you don’t explain why or commit to closing the gap, even loyal clients will consider leaving.
Make sure your reports are detailed, but also intuitive; visuals and short explanations can make complex SEO data much easier to understand. Also make sure your clients do actually understand what the data mean for the campaign.
Of course, your actual results matter too. If the links you build are getting removed, you aren’t generating much domain authority, and your organic traffic increases are negligible, your client won’t want to continue paying.
Of course, there are a couple of issues you’ll need to resolve here:
If your results aren’t where they should be, you’ll need to experiment with different approaches. Sometimes, that means partnering with a different service provider. Other times, it means targeting new keywords or offsite publishers. No matter what, if you want to make an improvement, you have to change something.
By this point in the guide, your SEO agency should have a smattering of initial clients. You’ll have a portfolio of work to reference, and a solid process you can use to earn your clients better results.
From here, much of your effort will be spent growing the agency—expanding your service offerings, increasing your capacity, and of course, adding new clients to your portfolio. The straightforward approach here is to invest more heavily in your inbound, outbound, and referral marketing campaigns, increasing the number of prospects you generate.
If you’re targeting a specific niche, you can also add new niches to your repertoire, or become more general in your demographic targeting. These steps will increase your potential client pool, while also introducing you to some new competitors.
The biggest limiting factor in your development will be your capacity; you may be able to attract new clients, but can you serve them in equal measure? Hiring more employees may help you, but you may find it preferable to outsource your work to an SEO agency that can scale with you.
There’s no limit to how far you can grow, provided you have the right fundamentals and a good expansion strategy in place.
As a way of concluding this article, we have a handful of “bonus” tips that don’t quite fit with the step-by-step approach of the preceding sections:
If you’re interested in starting an SEO agency, or if you’re looking to grow the operation you’ve already got, one of the best things you can do is find a partner who can support you and scale alongside you.
At SEO.co, we specialize in supporting SEO agencies with high-quality link building, guest posting, onsite content, and just about everything else you and your clients need to succeed. Whether you’re just starting out, are in the process of growing, or are currently at scale and in need of higher-tier services, we have the experts who can help.
If you’re interested in getting started with a service package, or if you’re just looking for more information, contact us for a free consultation today!