The second business I ever started was an SEO agency. By no means did I see myself creating an agency… I simply stumbled upon it. Before I go into how I built an SEO agency and made millions from it, let me give you a quick background on how I stumbled upon it…
The first website I ever started was a job board. I was trying to get the website ranked for terms like “job search” and “tech jobs”. I hired a few SEO agencies to help me out, but none provided any results. After tens of thousands of dollars down the drain, I had no more money and no choice but to learn how to optimize for search engines… all on my own.
From reading sites like Search Engine Watch and SEObook, I started getting the hang of SEO. I made on-page changes to my own site, and learned how to build links by talking to people like Patrick Gavin on a weekly basis.
Eventually, I started to rank really well for job-related terms on Google, but the business failed because of these reasons.
When my first venture failed, I decided I was going to quit entrepreneurship, get a college degree like everyone else, and get a job after graduation. To get a head start on things, I started taking college classes while I was in high school.
The first college class I took was Speech 101. The professor asked us to give three speeches on any topic of our choice. One of the topics I chose was on SEO… It was called “How search engines work”.
One of the gentlemen sitting in the room during my speech was a sales rep from Elpac Electronics. He approached me after my speech and told me that the company he worked for was looking for an SEO person. He introduced me to the marketing manager of the company, and the company hired me as a contractor for $3,500 a month.
After a few months of me working with Elpac, their rankings shot up to number one on Google for terms like “power supplies”. They were so happy, they introduced me to other companies they knew. Within months, I was pulling in around $20,000 a month from SEO consulting.
That’s when I started an SEO agency – And here’s how I built it to seven figures:
Top Rated Digital Marketing Agencies to Grow Your SEO Business
If you want to grow your SEO business, you’ll need a digital marketing agency. Here’s the best options.
- Ignite Visibility — Best overall digital marketing agency for mid- to enterprise-level businesses
- 97th Floor — Best for enterprise B2B brands with bigger budgets
- Rise Interactive — Best for attracting ecommerce customers
- WebFX — Best for dominating local SEO
- DigitalMarketing.com — Best for nailing your campaign the first time
- WebiMax — Best if you also needs online reputation management
- Mad Fish Digital — Best for socially-conscious brand and nonprofits
- Split Reef — Best for climbing to the top in the App Store
- Max Audience — Best for creating an automated B2B marketing system
- Location3 — Best for brick-and-mortar franchises
You can read our full reviews of each digital marketing agency here.
The best clients come from referrals
I know this goes without saying… the best clients you will ever get as an agency is from previous customers, friends, or even family members. When someone refers to you, chances of you closing that deal are really high.
But if you treat that client poorly, not only will they stop paying you, but you’ll notice that the number of referrals you get on a regular basis will slowly start going down.
For this reason,you have to have a clean reputation and be known for taking care of your clients even when you don’t think it makes sense to. By doing this, in the long run, you’ll continually gain new clients from referrals.
When I first started the agency, referrals were my primary source of revenue, but once I learned how to gain customers through marketing, it became our 4th most popular channel.
You can’t rely only on referrals
I used to rely on the word of mouth as my main revenue source. It’s easy to build a six-figure SEO agency, assuming you can provide the service. It’s really hard to create a seven-figure business from it though.
Here are the main ways I got new customers:
Consistently blog about SEO, social media marketing, conversion optimization and content marketing. The more technical your blog posts are and the more often you use data to backup your points, the more leads you will get.
For example, this post on how content length affects rankings and conversions drove 51 leads, while my post on don’t forget the marketing in content marketing only drove 18 leads. Both posts did well on the social web, but the one on content length contained more stats and data. In general, I’ve seen that posts with stats and data drive roughly three times more leads than posts that don’t contain any data or stats.
Speak at conferences
SEO and marketing conferences used to be the place to get new customers. I used to pick up at least $100,000 per marketing conference I went to that had over 1,500 attendees. Sooner or later, all of the other SEOs and marketers started to speak at the same events, and the amount of new revenue I acquired from these events drastically shrunk.
I later learned that the best events to speak at are non-industry events. For example, when I spoke about online marketing at an online gambling event, I was able to lock PokerStrategy.com in a $1.2 million contract. From finance to fitness and everything in between, non-industry events typically brought in four times more revenue than industry events.
You just have to make sure you are speaking at conferences that charge at least $1,000 per ticket as that means you are usually talking to an audience that can afford your services. When you speak, you have to talk about specific tactics people can leverage, show examples of companies using those tactics, and wrap it up with data that shows your methods were successful.
Help out bloggers
The last method I used to gain new customers was to reach out to Technorati 100 companies and offer them free SEO. Most of them didn’t take me up on the offer, but a handful did. From TechCrunch to Gawker Media, I did free SEO for these companies in exchange for a badge on their sites that said “SEO by…”
That badge would link back to my site and drive leads. If I got lucky, they would also do a blog post on the results they received from me, which typically led to over $250,000 in new revenue as those blogs had a large following.
Out of all the methods I mentioned above, speaking at conferences was the leading way to gain new customers, blogging was the second, and helping out bloggers was the third.
There’s always churn
Whether a client is referred to you or they found you through some other means, sooner or later they are going to leave you. SEO is a business with a high churn rate… it’s very rare that someone will stick with you as a client for three years.
Because of this, you want to survey your clients on a monthly basis. Find out what issues they are having with you, your team, or your company. Let them know that they should be transparent and frank.
Some of the questions you can ask are:
- Are you satisfied with the level of service you are receiving?
- What is one thing that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we did?
- Is there anything we can improve upon?
Once you have that data, you should try to fix the identified issues. If you do this with your customers on a monthly basis and you see the survey responses improving, you are doing well. If not, you have an operational problem within your business.
In addition to surveying your clients, make sure you also provide them with a monthly report and weekly calls. The more you communicate with them, the faster you will find out if they are happy or not.
I’ve also noticed that the more you communicate with the client, the longer they will stay with you. I know, this process may seem like a pain in the butt, but it’s harder to get new clients than it is to keep your current ones paying. So, cherish your clients.
Be results driven
I had this philosophy from day one because I got burnt by paying other SEO agencies. They took all of my money and didn’t provide much in return. Due to this, I only took on clients for whom I could provide the results… but I never explained that to potential clients in a way that made sense to them.
What I started doing was estimating how much more traffic I could drive to the companies. I would take their current rankings and use the multiplier from this table. So, if they ranked #6 for a keyword that drove them 1,000 visitors a month and I thought I could take them to #1, I would estimate that I could drive them 10,400 visitors, which is 9,400 extra visitors than they currently have.
I would then take their current conversion rate, let’s say 2%, and their average value per sale, let’s say $100 dollars, and show them that 9,400 extra visitors could give them $18,800 a month in extra revenue. I would then do this for each of their keywords and estimate how much more money I could make them each month.
By showing potential clients how much more money you can make them versus how much you are charging, you can help make their decision to go with you pretty easy. The only thing they have to worry about is whether you can actually provide the results. To combat this, you would use testimonials and case studies to show what you have done in the past.
Ideally, you want to use detailed case studies showing how much money you have made other companies as well as outlining what you exactly did to achieve those results. In addition to that, you want to list all of the big brands you have worked with as it shows your credibility.
What I also learned through this process is that though the majority of our customers were mid-sized businesses, they wanted to see all of the large Fortune 500 companies we worked with even though these customers themselves were nowhere near that size.
When we showed our potential clients all of the small and medium businesses we worked with versus only showing them large brands we worked with, our conversion rate of locking them in as a customer decreased by almost half.
Once we learned this, we started to work with as many large brands as possible, even if the large brand wasn’t willing to spend money on us… Heck, we were even willing to lose money or do the work for free.
Give away the farm
When you are building your agency, you need to focus on getting clients that pay you six figures a year. It’s hard to build a profitable agency and provide great results when someone only pays you a few grand a month.
The best way to get companies to pay you six figures is to give away the farm. Within your proposals, you should have one section that breaks down everything the company is doing wrong, how they can fix it, and what it would cost for you to fix it.
Don’t worry about a company taking everything you gave them and doing it on their own… people are lazy. They’d rather pay you to fix their problems.
If you show your prospects in advance what you will fix for them versus only offering a list of services in a proposal, they will be more likely to hire you. This will allow you not only increase your deal closing rate but also charge them a lot more.
Make sure you don’t negotiate on your prices because I bet other SEO agencies won’t go into this much depth to lock in a potential client. Yes, you may be more expensive, but at least the company will know what they getting with you versus what they will get with competing SEO agencies.
Leverage business development
In the short run, you will lose money on business development. In the long run, however, you’ll be able to make it up. The quickest way for you to increase your revenue is to become the outsourced arm of bigger agencies.
As an SEO company, look for ad agencies to partner with as there are a number of ad agencies that are way bigger than SEO agencies. Feel free to cold call them and offer free help with their own websites. If you do well, they’ll drive a lot of clients to you.
It’s a tedious process, but it works really well. We used to do this, and we would get a steady flow of leads from ad agencies. You just have to be willing to lose money upfront, as you will be doing their SEO for free in the short run.
When dealing with these ad agencies, let them know that your minimum price is six figures a year because they should have no problem getting big contracts for you. They’ll probably try to white label your service, which you should be okay with as they will be driving you revenue and eliminating a lot of the hassle by dealing with your clients on your behalf.
Never stop giving
The last, but not least, piece of advice I want to give you is to never stop giving. One of the major ways I grew the SEO agency is by helping people for free. When I first started, people helped me for free, so I would try to pay it forward by doing the same thing.
Even to this date, I try to respond to every email I get and respond to every comment on this blog. Whatever I can do to help people out, as long as it doesn’t break my bank, I do it. Why?… Because I really care about you, just like people cared to help me out when I was a kid starting my first venture.
You will earn a lot of karma points, and you’ll notice that people will start saying great things about you to other businesses or people, which eventually will get you more business. But the key is to not expect anything in return when helping people.
Now lets discuss the 9 components that every SEO Team should have in order to be effective…
The 9 Components of an Effective SEO Team
A modern SEO team is nothing like it used to be.
It’s extremely rare to find a single SEO capable of doing everything necessary to fully optimize a business for search.
And even if you do have all those skills, it’s better to have multiple people who specialize in different areas (if you have the budget).
You can form a team in-house or hire an agency—either option can work.
However, you’ll obviously have much more control over an in-house team.
In this post, I’ll go over all the components of an effective SEO team so that you know whether you have all the areas covered.
Keep in mind, there’s no perfect structure for an SEO team. One person could cover one or several of these components.
Ideally, you’ll have at least a few people who can cover each area if needed in case of emergencies.
Finally, if you are planning to hire an agency, it’s worth researching their team to find out whether they have specialists who cover these areas.
Component #1: Let’s start at the top – SEO manager/director
The head of the team manages everyone else.
The SEO manager or director is more concerned with the “big picture” strategy rather than the tactics each team member uses to accomplish their work.
The SEO manager’s job typically involves pitching and working with clients.
This involves working out payment agreements, keeping clients updated and happy, and creating proposals for new SEO projects.
While you can hire a sales rep to bring in new clients, most of them won’t have enough SEO knowledge to capture big clients.
The sales process should also naturally be an opportunity to determine the client’s strengths and needs and then to devise an effective SEO strategy.
In addition, it’s crucial that you deliver on the promises you make to win the sale, so whoever is pitching a project should also be involved in its execution.
The other part of the job is managing employees.
A director needs to make sure that employees (that we’ll be talking about later on) know what their responsibilities are within a project.
And just like any other manager, the SEO manager must be able to motivate his or her employees.
Although I said that one person can often play multiple roles, being an SEO manager for even small-to-medium-sized businesses is a full job in itself.
Component #2: The content creator(s)
I’ve said it before: “Content marketing is the new SEO”.
In short, content is more important than ever when it comes to growing organic search traffic.
Sure, there’s always some technical work that can be done on a client’s existing site, but eventually your traffic will plateau unless you’re producing stellar content.
Therefore, you need at least one content creator.
Some very successful businesses have only one or two content creators (like Groove or Buffer), while others have several (like HubSpot). If you’ve already got content producers on your team, don’t worry about their number.
In this case, I’m referring to writers as “content creators” since the vast majority of content is written. Of course, if your content creators can also create videos or infographics, that’s a bonus.
Many “SEO writers” were hired for $5-10 per article. Not surprisingly, these writers create low quality content that rarely ranks outside of extremely low competition niches.
Modern SEO writers are much more professional, and you should expect to pay them accordingly. While it varies, you’re probably looking at a minimum of $100 per post, often much more.
And while that seems like a big cost, you’ll save a lot on acquiring backlinks since getting links to great content is infinitely easier.
Finally, many content creators also have great copywriting skills. It’s common for content creators to also be involved in email marketing and conversion rate optimization (more on those later) in small SEO teams.
Component #3: Designers
If you recognize the need for great content, you’ll need a designer to create custom images for just about all your content.
It’s unlikely you’ll find someone with both great design skills and strong writing skills, so you’ll need at least two different people for these two roles.
The manager must ensure that the content creators and designers are on the same track. Otherwise, you’ll end up with writing being done before the images are ready and vice-versa.
Since designing is such a specialized skill, it’s typically best to hire someone to work just on designing. If you don’t have enough demand for a designer to justify that, you can hire a freelancer to work with on an on-going basis.
Component #4: PR and link builders
I’ve chosen to combine public relations (PR) outreach and link building here even though there are some distinctions between the two. But for the majority of modern SEO, they are the same.
Both consist mostly of reaching out to other people in your industry and related industries, looking to develop relationships that will be mutually beneficial.
PR is a much broader term that encompasses modern link building. However, the relationships could be used for other opportunities beyond acquiring a simple link (like a joint venture).
Most SEOs who specialize in link building should also be expanding their skillsets to include more PR skills.
Relationships grow exponentially: A key concept with this kind of approach to link building is the network effect.
The network effect means that with each new person joining the network, the network becomes exceedingly more valuable to all the members of the network.
Putting this in terms of link building and PR: As your network grows, those relationships become much more valuable together than they are alone.
When you have more strong relationships, you can start to offer things like joint ventures. In addition, you may be able to help out one of your contacts by connecting them with another contact.
The reason why I tell you all this is that it’s best to hire one specific person (or a small team for a large organization) to do all your outreach.
If you hire a whole team, you can build a big network, but it will essentially be a bunch of small networks, which doesn’t leverage the exponential power of the network effect.
Instead, if one person (or a few) has a large network at their disposal, your link building options will be far greater.
Component #5: Technical experts
The latest generation of SEOs focuses mostly on content, which is a good thing.
However, it’s not a good thing if the technical side of SEO is ignored.
The technical side forms the foundation of all the other parts of SEO, and without it, your team will struggle to produce results.
That’s why you need a technical SEO expert, often called an SEO analyst.
They’re the ones who understand site architecture and can quickly analyze a site to spot any gaping SEO flaws.
Among other things, they handle things such as:
- load time optimization
- keyword optimization in content (if needed)
- split testing
- internal linking optimization
- implementing rich snippets and “rel” tags
While SEO analysts often have a good range of programming/development skills, they may still work with developers.
For small WordPress sites, analysts can make most of the changes themselves. For a complex, large custom site, you’ll likely need a dedicated developer.
Component #6: Developers
Modern SEO involves great user experience just as much as it involves great content.
In order to make that user experience great, you need a developer who can modify your website.
Again, this might be an area where you hire either a freelancer or a full time developer. There are very few SEOs who also have top notch developing skills.
Finally, a developer also gives you the ability to create different forms of content for your target audience, e.g., tools.
For example, the Quick Sprout tool has attracted thousands of links and generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, which wouldn’t have been possible without a great developer.
Component #7: Account manager
Sometimes, the SEO manager gets overwhelmed.
If that happens often, a new set of responsibilities should be assigned to a member of your SEO team—an account manager.
They’ll handle most of the basic client communication post-sale.
Most importantly, they’ll be generating reports of the work and the results.
If you have your own in-house SEO team (you’re the only client), these reports are still important.
These should be used by the manager to stay on top of all his team members as well as by the team members themselves to understand what results their work is producing.
This alone takes a lot of time off the manager’s plate.
In addition, an account manager’s responsibilities (if it’s a full role) can also include customer support. They’ll be the first line of contact in case of any issues or questions.
Most of the time, they’ll be able to answer those questions, and only when they can’t will they pass off the concerns to the SEO director.
Component #8: Email and social media marketers
Email marketing usually gives businesses the best return on investment (ROI).
Social media is another channel that’s very effective for certain types of niches.
I put these two together because they often overlap, but they can also be done by separate members of your team.
It’s hard to define the roles of an email marketer and a social media marketer. These roles will look very different depending on the SEO team you have.
Both of them need to have some input into your content marketing strategy because that content will be promoted and used in other ways in emails and on social media.
In some cases, it’s possible to have the SEO director take on this role and then assign creating the actual emails and social media posts to copywriters/content creators.
This is another area where you’ll need regular reports to document your progress.
Component #9: Conversion rate optimizers
Last but not least is the conversion rate optimizer (CRO), which is an optional role for an SEO team but a good one to include if possible.
CROs spend their time conducting split tests to optimize processes as much as possible.
This can be crucial if you’re selling your SEO work to clients or upper management.
Because they don’t care much about your actual rankings—they care about the results of those rankings: revenue, profit, and, to a lesser extent, traffic.
Say a page is getting 100 search visitors a day, which converts to 10 email sign-ups and one sale down your conversion funnel.
Let’s call that a 1% conversion rate.
With split testing in a typical situation, you can double or even triple that rate after running several tests.
If you raised your conversion rate on that single page to 3%, you’d triple your profit.
It’s much easier to increase your conversion rate this way than trying to triple your SEO traffic. Better yet, do both.
A CRO isn’t always part of the SEO team. That role is often assigned to a general marketing team member.
That’s because while you’ll want to do some split testing with things like email outreach tactics, most split testing will be done to find ways to improve the process of converting your visitors into customers.
A CRO will need access to all parts of the business, including channels such as email, social media, your blog, your analytics, and your website (to implement split tests).
With tools available these days, a CRO doesn’t have to be a developer or even work with your developer for the most part.
Client Proposal Tips
Now that you know what you need for your SEO team lets discuss client proposals. Why? Because if you can’t close the initial deal then you will fail!
Just because a potential client loves what you have to say, it doesn’t mean they are going to hire you. These days, people are talking to multiple firms and figuring out which one is the best fit for them.
Companies are evaluating every aspect of your pitch… especially your proposal. So if you want to increase your odds of locking in a potential client, you’re going to have to create a great proposal.
So, what should you include in your proposal?
Well, you probably already know the basics such as: what you are offering, scope of work, price, and terms and conditions. But that’s not enough. Here’s what else you need to include:
Customize your template
You can templatize your proposals, but they need to be custom. If you just use a ton of filler text and add in the client URL here and there, clients will quickly notice it and feel that you won’t put much effort into their campaigns.
Just think about it: if you were too lazy to create a custom proposal, what’s going to happen when it comes to doing the harder work?
One of the simplest ways to make a proposal seem customized is to modify your template design. You can do this by adding the customer’s logo or even creating a unique title slide.
You have to assume that your proposal is going to be passed around, maybe to a manager or even another co-worker. They may not be up to date with what’s happening or why your SEO firm is so great. So, make sure you include:
- A corporate bio – a paragraph or two about your firm and why it’s great. From your company philosophy to your culture, show your true colors in your bio. Make it stand out. Don’t just write something generic like telling them how you guys are the best SEO firm as every firm will make that claim.
- Logos – show off some of the clients you work with or have worked with in the past. The bigger the logos you can put in, there the better. If small companies see that big companies trust you, it’s very likely that they will trust you too.
Just because a potential client came to you for SEO, it doesn’t mean that their only problem is that they don’t rank well on Google. In this section of the proposal, you need to tear down the client’s site and list everything that is wrong.
Your list shouldn’t be strictly related to SEO. You should list everything you can find that is wrong. Show examples, URLs, and even screenshots in this section.
Lets assume for a minute that NeilPatel.com was a potential client for you, and you were creating a proposal for what you could do for the site. Here are some things you could break down in the problem section:
- Site depth – currently the site only contains one page that has content. If you are looking for more search engine traffic, you should consider adding multiple pages. If you can’t add multiple pages with detailed content, consider adding a blog, where you can share valuable marketing information. If you decide to go with a blog, consider the URL neilpatel.com/blog.
- Case studies – you currently have empty case study pages on neilpatel.com. You either need to finish the case studies or consider removing them. I recommend that you keep them as it provides social proof. When writing them, make sure you include the problem, solution, results and especially a list of everything you did. If you are unsure of what this looks like, check out the Harvard Business Review as they write detailed case studies.
- Load time – search engines look at the load time of your website. The better your load time, the higher you are more likely to rank. If you look at Google’s PageSpeed, it shows that you have a score of 70 out of 100. Consider leveraging browser caching, optimizing your images, combining images into CSS sprites and optimizing the order of your styles and scripts.
- A/B testing – you should consider running split tests on neilpatel.com if you haven’t already. If your primary goal is to get consulting leads, you should try a variation in which the form fields are above the fold. Currently, the copy is really long, and a user has to scroll to the bottom of your website to see the form fields.
If you look at the above 4 points, you’ll see that I get into a lot of details. If I were creating a real proposal, I would create at least 15 to 20 points and included screenshots.
The solutions to the problems you stated can’t be generic. You need to be so detailed with your solutions that the client can just take that information and implement it without even hiring you.
I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but 99% of clients will be too lazy to implement your changes without you. Instead, they will feel that the easier route would be to just pay you to do it for them. For that reason, you need to be as detailed as possible as giving without holding back builds trust.
Again, if I were creating a real proposal, I would provide the following potential solutions to the 4 problems above:
- Create a blog – start a blog on neilpatel.com/blog and give away free information on how companies can market themselves through content marketing. A few sample post ideas are: how to create a powerful blog post in less than two hours, how to market your content through social media, and how to convert blog readers into customers. When writing blog posts, follow these guidelines.
- Finish your case studies – consider writing detailed case studies such as this one. Including a video or text-based testimonial(s) from your client(s) will help your case studies seem more legitimate. I would also recommend that you include calls to action throughout your case studies.
- W3 Total Cache – I see that neilpatel.com is running on WordPress, which has plugins that can help improve your load time. With the W3 Total Cache plugin, you can improve your Google PageSpeed score. The best part about the plugin is that it doesn’t require a developer.
- Run split tests – through Qualaroo, you can survey your visitors and find out why they aren’t converting into leads. Once you get that data, you can then modify your design and run A/B tests. A simple test could be moving your form fields above the fold. You can also try adding Bounce Exchange to your site, which should help boost your lead count by 10 to 20%.
Scope and deliverables
In this section, you should tell the client what you are going to do for them. Further, break it down into multiple plans.
The first plan should be for only what the client requested, and the price should be somewhere in their budget range. Make sure you break down all of the things you will do within this plan. The more detailed you can be, the better.
You should also include one or two more plans that contain more than what the client requested… these plans should be more expensive. In these plans, you should offer to solve all of the problems you pointed out in the proposal. Again, be very detailed on what you are offering here.
Lastly, in all plans you should add a timeline of when you are going to complete each action item in each of your plans. In addition, you need to specify whether the client will receive monthly reports or calls.
The large consulting companies typically throw associates onto new accounts. If you are a boutique SEO agency, make it clear that experienced people are going to be working on the account.
You can show this by adding an area detailing who is going to be working on the account. Make sure to include that person’s bio, backing up his/her experience. Keep the bio short and to the point. For example, I would use this as mine:
Neil Patel is the co-founder of 2 Internet companies: Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics. Through his entrepreneurial career he has helped large corporations such as Amazon, AOL, GM, HP and Viacom make more money from the web. By the age of 21 not only was he named one of the top influencers on the web according to the Wall Street Journal, but he was also named one of the top entrepreneurs in the nation by Entrepreneur Magazine. He has also been recognized as a top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 30 by President Obama.
As I mentioned earlier, you have to assume that your proposal is going to be passed around. You can’t assume that the person reading it knows about your firm or you. For this reason, you always want to include case studies at the very end of your proposal.
I typically like including case studies that are relevant to the proposal I am creating. So, if I were creating an SEO proposal for an ecommerce company, I would include an ecommerce case study.
Each case study should be no longer than one page. It should include what you did, the results, a testimonial, and it should be easy to skim. Ideally, you want include two to three case studies with every proposal you send out.
If you follow everything that I mentioned above, you’ll increase your odds of closing a deal. I myself used to create generic proposals, and I had a low closing rate. Once I followed the above steps, I boosted my closing rate by almost 3x.
The one thing you can also add that I didn’t mention above, as it’s tough to add, is rough estimates on the results that you are projecting to provide.
The 6 Skills All SEOs Need to Have
There’s no university degree for SEO.
Yet, you’re expected to know a lot about many different things. This is why it’s so tough to define what a great SEO is.
In most professional situations, knowing SEO alone is no longer enough. You also need to have your fair share of marketing, business, and PR skills.
While some of these skills are luxuries, I’ve identified six things that all good SEOs need to possess.
1. Great SEOs know how to get consistent results
As an SEO you know you can’t guarantee that a specific keyword will rank #1—certainly not 100% of the time.
For some reason, statements like that have led people to think that SEO is blind luck.
This line of thinking is completely false.
Yes, there is some variance in SEO. Some content will rank better than expected. Some will rank worse.
But in the long run, the SEOs who know what they’re doing will always succeed when it comes to the only thing that matters—targeted search engine traffic.
Put an experienced SEO up against a total beginner, and I can predict with great certainty which one will have more organic search traffic in six months.
Quality SEOs don’t rely on luck.
How SEOs get consistent results
When SEOs begin working on a site, whether it’s their own or client’s, they don’t just randomly build links to it or target the first keyword they think of.
Instead, they use their own proven system.
A system is composed of processes for doing different tasks. The more defined they are, the more consistent the results are.
SEOs need to have proven systems for all aspects of SEO. That’s the only way to ensure that all important factors are considered and that the best SEO strategy is chosen for a particular site.
In addition, systems are even more important for freelance SEOs. If you have a defined strategy, it’s much easier to explain to a client what you plan to do.
You can create processes for many things, but let’s go over the essential ones for most SEO.
Key process #1: Onboarding a client
No two clients are exactly the same, but you should have a defined overall process for starting your work with a new client.
If you’re working on your own site, pretend that you are your own client.
The main thing you need to do here is find a way to set client expectations.
Studies have shown that people are terrible at predicting their own success. We habitually overestimate our own assets and abilities.
Your first job is to educate your client and tell them what to expect from your work.
If they understand that it could take months to start seeing results, they won’t get frustrated and take it out on you when the leads don’t start pouring in right away.
You also need to let the client know your general strategy and work process.
Too many SEOs ignore customer service altogether and only communicate with their clients once every month or two.
Depending on the client, this can be terrible. They just paid you a decent sum of money, and they want to know what it’s going to produce. So, tell them.
After the first few conversations, you want your client to feel confident that you will do the work you promised and keep them apprised of the results at certain time periods.
If you are your own client, the same applies to you. Make your initial predictions, and then cut them in half to keep them realistic. This will help you avoid disappointment and frustration in the future.
Additionally, just because you are working on your own site doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a defined SEO work plan. You need one to keep yourself accountable and make sure that every part of SEO is covered.
Key process #2: Asset evaluation
The first thing you should do with any new site is to evaluate what you’re dealing with.
In most cases, you should compile a complete report of all the site’s content, backlinks, search traffic, and rankings before you begin your work.
This is important for two reasons:
- It makes comparisons easy – Everyone has unreliable memories. You won’t want to claim that your work doubled your client’s traffic only to hear them say, “I don’t think so. It was always that good.”
- It will help form your strategy – You should design an SEO strategy for each individual site. Depending on the existing assets, you may have the option of using different techniques in your strategy.
You might choose to complete your asset evaluation process before fully onboarding a client. That way you could show them some of your research and give them some idea of why you’re planning to do certain things.
Key process #3: Keyword research and evaluation
While keywords may be dying a slow death, they’re still useful and relevant.
There are tons of different ways to conduct keyword research. It’s important that you break down your processes as much as possible.
Pretend that you will one day have to hand off this task to a junior intern or some other inexperienced hire. Make it as simple as possible so that you get consistent results.
A very basic keyword research process might look like this:
1. Extract keywords from competitors:
- Make a list of 10 top competitors
- Put each domain into Google’s Keyword Planner
- Download and compile all results into a spreadsheet
2. Get keyword suggestions from tools:
- Generate a list of 10 high volume (>2,000 searches per month) searches from the Keyword Planner
- Enter these keywords into (insert tool here) (e.g., SEMrush)
- Download and record results
3. Check keyword competition:
- Compile all keywords at this stage
- Filter out any with fewer than 50 monthly searches
- Run keywords through (insert competition analyzer here)
- Remove high competition keywords
- Manually check remaining keywords and evaluate competition
That’s just a very basic hypothetical example, but it gives you an idea of what these processes should look like. Essentially, they’re detailed checklists with instructions.
Key process #4: Link building tactics
You will need processes for all the main areas of SEO.
This includes on-page SEO, technical SEO, and off-page SEO (link building).
One of the easiest ways to evaluate SEO’s experience is to ask them how many tactics they have tested.
Not all SEO tactics are created equal. Some are better than others.
Some improve rankings more than others, and some apply to more industries than others.
However, no SEO tactic is perfect.
Many beginner SEOs will find one SEO tactic that works for their own site in a particular niche and immediately think that they are an expert in SEO.
However, not all tactics work in all industries. In addition, as tactics become more popular, they lose effectiveness. Infographics as a link building technique is about half as effective as it used to be a few years ago.
Think of tactics as tools.
A master carpenter doesn’t use the blueprints for a chair to build a table. He has a variety of blueprints for different situations.
A great SEO is always testing different SEO tactics to find out which ones are effective and when to use them for best results (niche and situation).
Key process #5: Reporting procedures
A final process that all SEOs should create, in one form or another, is a process for reporting results. Again, this is still important even if you’re working on your own site.
The first thing that a report does is it sums up your work in a concise, easy-to-understand format.
If you’re working for a client, it’s important for them to know that they can expect a report every so often (usually once or twice a month).
Don’t change the format and layout often. You want them to know what to expect in your report.
That’s the main reason for creating a report, but it has a useful secondary function.
By its nature, a report will require you to quantify your results:
- what work was done
- how many links were obtained
- how much search traffic grew
- user metrics
- and so on…
Although you shouldn’t be testing tactics for the first time when working on a client’s site, that doesn’t mean you can’t refine your techniques.
Results are your opportunity to determine your return on investment (ROI) and to look for ways to improve the effectiveness of your techniques.
2. At the top level, tools matter
Most SEOs approach tools all wrong.
Most beginner SEOs look for tools that will do all the work for them. (Hint: that’s never going to happen.)
Tools can make your life easier, but their effectiveness depends on who’s using them.
And as a beginner, you don’t know enough for tools to be useful.
However, as you get more experienced, you will recognize situations where tools can save you time and money. And the better you get, the more your time is worth, and the more important tools become.
Eventually, you may build your own custom tools because none of the public tools are quite good enough.
But let’s slow down for a second. You don’t need to be an expert for tools to be useful as long as you have some experience with SEO and you have a strategy. Then, you can find tools that can help you accomplish that strategy.
Since SEOs need to do many different things, you will eventually compile an arsenal of different tools.
It will likely include tools for:
- comprehensive keyword research and competition analysis
- influencer outreach
- social media
- sales (possibly)
- reporting to client
- email marketing
Typically, modern SEOs do more than just straight SEO. Most SEO firms have rebranded themselves as marketing firms with an emphasis on SEO.
In this section, I’ll go over a few tools in each area that are good for beginner to intermediate SEOs.
Keyword research and competition analysis tools
These tools will help you automate finding keywords and evaluating their competition.
I’ve already mentioned SEMrush, but there are many other great options such as TermExplorer and Moz’s keyword difficulty tool.
Modern SEO involves a lot of relationship building. Reaching out to site owners and contributors is a necessary part of building relationships and eventually getting links.
Outreach tools such as BuzzStream will help you find email contacts more efficiently, saving you several hours per month.
In addition, you can use free Gmail plugins, such as Streak, built specifically for outreach.
Social media marketing tools
Most marketing plans (which SEOs may be involved in) now include social media marketing.
There are many social media marketing tools that will shave hours off your work per week.
SEO reporting tools
I’ve already mentioned the importance of having a process for reporting SEO results.
Email marketing tools
Another area of marketing that has crept into the SEO domain is email marketing.
3. Sandboxes are where magic begins
Architects that design giant skyscrapers don’t begin with skyscrapers.
They practice their craft on smaller, simpler buildings first.
And way before that, they build castles in sandboxes as children.
As an SEO, you don’t just start working on a site that gets hundreds of thousands of visitors per month right away. You start with smaller sites and work your way up.
In most cases, these are your own sites—your own “sandboxes” to play in.
Since we lack modeling software that architects have, the only way to see what does and doesn’t work in SEO is to test.
All good SEOs routinely test what is and isn’t working, or they have someone that does it for them (an individual or a private community).
Once you get a good grip on basic SEO (i.e., which factors really matter), you can start testing individual techniques.
And when you find techniques that work, you can keep tweaking and testing them to make them even better. Then, you’ll have something to use that no one else does.
If you’re brand new to testing, here’s a basic overview of what you need to do…
Step #1 – Pick a factor to test: All tests begin with a hypothesis. You should be able to say:
I think, if I do X, it will result in Y.
For example, you may want to determine if Google+ shares have an effect on rankings for new sites.
Your hypothesis is:
I think more Google+ shares will increase my site’s rankings.
Step #2 – Determine a significant sample size: In a controlled test, like split-testing an offer to visitors, you can easily calculate what sample size you will need (how many visitors will need to visit each version).
If your sample isn’t big enough, from a statistical standpoint, you can’t be confident that the conclusions you are drawing are correct.
However, search engine results operate in a very different environment.
In theory, if more shares improve rankings, it should work every single time. There might be some variance in how fast Google picks them up, but for the most part, rankings should increase.
So, while you definitely need a sample size of more than one page or one site, and more is better, most of the time you only need two to four sites to get a reasonable result.
The more important the factor is, the bigger the sample size should be.
Step #3 – Break your sample size into a control group and a test group: The difficult aspect to account for in your testing is the fact that there are many different ranking factors.
You could test a factor on two different sites and get totally different results because the sites have different SEO metrics.
The more sites you add to your test, the less likely this will matter.
That being said, try to run the test on sites that are as similar as possible (same domain authorities, same internal links to test page, etc.).
You’ll need to have a control group (no Google+ shares) and a test group (with Google+ shares).
In this case, you’ll create a new page targeting a keyword (lower competition will make the results clearer later on) on all sites in the experiment.
In phase 1, you’ll just have to wait. See where the rankings initially pop up and settle after a few weeks.
Once they have, you’d get your Google+ shares to your test group pages (however you planned to do that).
Step #4 – Analyze the results and draw conclusions: After giving the test enough time to run, which can be anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on what you’re testing, you can look at the results.
If you see that results in both groups slowly crept up a bit or stayed the same, you can conclude that the shares had no significant effect on the rankings.
However, if you see that most of your test pages increased their rankings much more than those in the control group, you could conclude that the shares you got did in fact improve the rankings.
As you start testing, you’ll understand why my example was a bit simplistic. But once you get the basics, you can learn how to set up better tests.
4. Learn, or get left behind
If you weren’t around in the field of SEO 10 years ago, you missed out on some things.
Those were the times when keyword stuffing, along with basic blog comment links and forum links, could make sites rank for competitive terms.
If you used any of those tactics now, you’d be penalized in a heartbeat.
Like most fields, SEO is always evolving.
Which means that SEOs should also always be improving their knowledge and skillset.
But they don’t always. You occasionally come across an SEO who is still talking about Page Rank and building forum links as if it’s some kind of a secret.
SEO is a fast moving industry, and you can easily fall behind if you’re not careful.
Testing, like I outlined above, will go a long way to keep you ahead of the curve. In addition, you can learn about how the field is advancing through other sources.
I’ll outline the main areas that you should stay updated on.
Area #1 – SEO news
SEO changes in a few different ways. One of the driving forces of the SEO evolution is search engines. As they get better at providing results to searchers, it gets more difficult to manipulate those results.
Any major search engine change is reported on the main SEO news sites.
If you’re not up to date, you might get caught off guard by something like the mobile-friendly update.
If your client calls you panicking about something, you need to know why it happened and how to fix it beforehand.
Even if your current clients aren’t affected, a change to the search engine results could impact future clients.
Area #2 – SEO tactics
Link building has undergone one of the biggest transformations in SEO. Instead of using automated tools to create thousands of low-quality backlinks for you, you have to earn your backlinks these days.
That being said, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to earn links. Here is a list of just some of them.
As I mentioned before, new tactics are always the most effective. As more and more people start using them, they become less effective.
For example, when infographics were new, everyone was blown away by them (“They’re so pretty!”). But now, everyone who owns a site receives several infographics with requests for links every week. The novelty has worn off.
New tactics, or improvements to old ones, are typically created in private. Then, they make their way through forums and blogs.
So, while you should keep testing things on your own, your time and resources are limited. That’s why you should follow blogs that focus on SEO tactics. Here are a few to get started:
- Quick Sprout (duh!)
- Rand Fishkin’s blog
- Copyblogger (some SEO content)
- Authority Hacker
- Matthew Barby
Area #3 – Marketing education
I told you earlier that most SEO agencies have turned towards digital marketing, which is actually a pretty exciting change in my opinion.
Instead of just working off-site, modern SEOs get to be involved with marketing strategies and other parts of the business.
Digital marketing is a big topic, which can be split into two main types of marketing:
- Inbound marketing – You create content that will attract links and visitors.
- Outbound marketing – You use advertising to get people to your site.
And within those two types of marketing, there are many other types of marketing.
There are too many good marketing blogs for me to list here. But here are a few from different areas to get you started:
- Content marketing – Content Marketing Institute
- Inbound marketing – HubSpot blog
- Social media marketing – Social Media Examiner
- Conversion rate optimization – ConversionXL
- Paid advertising – PPC Hero
5. Don’t ignore the human element of SEO
Depending on how old you are, you might already know the importance of networking.
This is most evident in colleges and universities.
Some students don’t get high grades but still end up with great jobs when they graduate because they know the right people, and those people like them.
Alternatively, some students ace every course but have terrible people skills and end up with mediocre jobs upon graduation.
Having all the SEO knowledge and knowing SEO tactics isn’t enough. You also need to have a minimum degree of “people skills.”
It comes up all the time in SEO:
- when you’re asking influencers and site owners for links
- when you’re interacting with your readers
- when you’re training interns, freelancers, or support staff on what you need done
I’m not saying that you need to be extremely outgoing and likeable to be a successful SEO, but you can’t be completely unlikeable either.
If speaking isn’t your strong suit, that’s not a problem. Most SEO work is done online, in text.
For example, if you’re training someone to write guest posts for you or a client, you need to be able to communicate your ideas clearly in a guide.
A great example of that is Boost Blog Traffic’s guest posting guidelines:
They spell out what they’re looking for, and they tell you how you can make it work for both you and them.
There are a variety of ways to learn communication and social skills, but here are three books that are must reads for people in just about any field.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People. This book, written by Dale Carnegie, should be mandatory reading in all schools. He breaks down how to connect with people and often does it in the context of sales, which is particularly useful in many aspects of SEO.
- Influence – the Psychology of Persuasion. This legendary book is all about persuasion. It addresses the question: how do you get people to do what you want them to do? There are obvious implications for SEO. When you’re asking for a link, guest posting opportunity, or any other favor, you want to be as persuasive as possible. In addition, if you’re helping with sales, knowing how to influence buyers is necessary. While there are some quick “hacks” in the book, it’s not really about tricking people. It’s about framing your request in such a way that it would make sense for someone to want to help you.
- The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism: Almost all leaders are charismatic. While most think that charisma is something people are born with, this book proves that it is a learned trait.
Being charismatic will help you acquire clients and will help you feel more comfortable in a variety of social settings.
Finally, in case you’re not a fan of reading books, here’s a great post by Ramit Sethi on how to make small talk and advanced social skills. He breaks down a video interview to show you how you can learn to be more skilled in social situations.
6. Code isn’t just for nerds
This last skill—coding—is arguably the most intimidating.
HTML and CSS: By far the simplest place to start, if you haven’t already, is HTML and CSS.
HTML contains all the structure of every web page, while CSS applies styling (formatting) to the page to make it look nice.
As a modern SEO, you will inevitably need to edit webpages on a regular basis, and HTML and CSS is how you do that.
You could, of course, hire someone to do it for you, but you’ll waste a ton of time waiting around for them to do it if it’s something very simple that you could do yourself.
Start learning HTML and CSS with these resources:
PHP: The final piece of the puzzle is PHP. This is a back-end programming language widely used on the web, even if it might not be the best language.
In particular, you might recognize PHP because it forms the back-end of WordPress. It’s the language used to automatically add new posts to your blog pages, for example.
When you’re looking to modify a theme or fix an issue with a plugin, knowing some PHP will come in handy. Instead of waiting around for a developer, you can make the necessary simple fixes.
Here are two good resources for learning PHP:
Keep in mind that you don’t need to be an expert with these four types of code—I’m not.
What is important is that you understand where and how each of them is used on a basic level. It only takes a few days (or a few weeks/month if you do it only in your spare time) to get to this level.
7 Habits of Highly Effective SEOs
After being in the SEO space for over 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting thousands of SEOs. And just like in any industry, only a small percentage of them are actually successful.
So, it hit me. Why are some of these SEOs good at what they do, while others aren’t? After thinking about it for a while, I realized that it came down to these 7 habits.
1. Effective SEOs practice it
It’s not hard to become an SEO. You can read about it online; you can buy a few books; and within weeks, you’ll have the lingo down. At that point, you can probably approach a few sites and tell them what they are doing wrong. But at the end of the day, does that mean you’re a good SEO?
If you want to get good at SEO, you have to practice it, and not just on client sites. Create your own sites, build your own links and track your rankings. As you learn what works for your website, you’ll get better at helping other people with their SEO.
The search world is constantly changing, and it’s impossible to stay up-to-date by just reading industry news. You have no choice but to practice it as that will give you a better understanding of how you need to adjust your approach to rank higher.
2. Effective SEOs take risks
You have to push the envelope! If you knew how many times I’ve got banned from or penalized by Google and Yahoo for pushing the envelope, you’d be shocked.
By no means am I saying that you should do anything unethical or break Google’s policies, but what I am saying is that you have to learn to be aggressive.
If you’re aggressive with your sites, you’ll quickly learn what helps boost rankings and what doesn’t. For example, you already know that white hat link building increases rankings. But did you know that if you build links at a slow and steady pace, you can outrank someone who builds the same type of links fast?
If I weren’t aggressive with my link building, I would have never learned that. So, don’t be afraid to push the envelope.
3. Effective SEOs build relationships
People knew me in the SEO space for leveraging social media sites to build links. I was the first SEO to really leverage sites like Digg, StumbleUpon and Delicious. I was so good at it that at one point I had a 75% success rate of getting on the Digg’s homepage. To top it off, I was a top 100 user.
How did I do this? Well, it wasn’t because I knew these social sites better than anyone else; instead, I just networked my way to the top.
By building relationships with other users on these sites, I was able to learn the ins and outs. That’s what helped me succeed.
Whether you are trying to get better at an on-page SEO or link building, you should never stop networking. The more relationships you build, the better off you are. For example, I built a relationship with a blogger two years ago, who now guest-writes on over forty popular blogs.
Because of our relationship, he links to me from these blogs when appropriate, and I don’t even have to pay him a penny to do this. He just does it because we are friends now.
4. Effective SEOs are creative
SEO isn’t new. Everyone does it, and there isn’t much that’s a secret these days. But the people who do really well tend to be the ones who are creative as it gives them a huge advantage.
Do you remember Mingle 2? The dating site that got bought out by Just Say Hi?
The SEO guy behind it, Matt Inman, was able to get Mingle 2 to become a popular dating site because he leveraged quizzes. Users loved these quizzes so much that after taking them, they would embed their score onto the site’s blog.
Matt is also the guy behind The Oatmeal. That site has a ton of SEO juice because Matt is creative when it comes to link building. Whether it’s quizzes, comics or anything else he can think of, Matt prefers to do SEO using creativity.
If you are creative, leverage it. It gives you a head start, but you have to move fast as competitors will catch onto your creative tactics sooner or later.
5. Effective SEOs are analytical
Being able to rank keywords is one thing, but knowing what to rank for is quite another. If you don’t know what to rank for, you’re out of luck. The last thing you want to do is spend your efforts on getting rankings for a keyword that doesn’t increase your revenue.
From being good at keyword research to tracking conversions and even optimizing landing pages, good SEOs know it’s not all about traffic. It’s all about increasing revenue.
Don’t focus 100% of your time on just building traffic. Learn about web analytics and focus on maximizing revenue. And stop there: track everything you can possibly track. From your competitors’ rankings to what they are doing, the more data you have, the better you will be at making decisions.
6. Effective SEOs use multiple tactics
SEOs have a tendency to find one thing that helps boost rankings, and that’s all they leverage. Whether it’s an on-site SEO change that really helps or one link building method, don’t get caught up with one tactic even if it works.
When I first started, I got caught up with the tactic of reciprocal linking. My rankings skyrocketed, and after a year of me doing it, search engines caught onto it, and my rankings plummeted.
After that, I focused my efforts on building all page links from high authority sites. This worked well and my rankings went up, but search engines also caught onto this.
The point I am trying to make is that you can’t rely on one tactic to achieve high rankings. You have to diversify because SEO is a constant game of cat and mouse even if you are using ethical tactics.
7. Effective SEOs never rely on SEO
I know this may sound weird, but an effective SEO knows that you can’t just rely on SEO. For example, the Panda update hit some sites even though they had good content. A lot of these sites repaired Panda-inflicted damage, but it shows that you can’t rely just on SEO.
If you are trying to increase your traffic, you should consider trying banner advertising, email marketing, pay-per-click ads, and anything else you can think of. This will help you diversify the channels that are driving you income, so if something happens to your organic search traffic, you’ll still be able to survive.
SEO is great, but you need to learn other marketing skills. I myself started as an SEO, but these days I get most of my traffic through business development deals.
Using all of the methods I covered above, I was able to build a business that did well into the seven figures a year in revenue and millions of dollars in profit.
The one thing to keep in mind is that my agency actually provided results. From getting companies to rank in the top three results for terms like “credit cards” and “life insurance” to helping boost their sales, we provided a positive return on investment.
If you do everything I mentioned above but fail to provide results as an SEO agency, you won’t be in business for long.