If you're starting an SEO business, brace yourself for some fierce competition.
There are over 191,000 SEO and online marketing consulting businesses in the U.S. alone, and their number has been increasing at an average rate of 17.2% since 2018.
This tells us two things.
First, the demand for SEO services keeps growing, so there's room to take your piece of the cake. And second, you'll need to roll up your sleeves and figure out how to rise above the crowd.
To give you a leg up, we'll show you how to start an SEO business from scratch. Our 12-step guide dives into all the necessary details, so let's start with the most obvious requirement:
1. Master SEO
Before you can start charging for SEO services, you must become a trusted expert.
SEO has evolved into an entire ecosystem of practices, so you need to stay on top of all relevant trends and keep honing your skills ongoingly.
Google makes important changes to the search algorithm several times a year.
Some of them are known as "core updates," and you should keep track of them to ensure your service offerings don't leave out anything important.
Other algorithm changes are minor, but it still doesn't hurt to be familiar with them.
The simplest way to ensure no changes pass you by is to check the Google Search Status Dashboard regularly.
It lists all notable updates in reverse-chronological order, so visit the dashboard every month or two for a quick overview.
Of course, you can and should also follow industry news from reputable outlets, such as:
When it comes to building your SEO skills, you can find countless SEO courses and programs worth investing in.
If you need a starting point, you can check out:
2. Identify your target market
To build a successful SEO business, you must know the importance of niching down.
Trying to be a jack of all trades is bound to backfire, as you'll disperse your SEO company across a bunch of unrelated industries and won't be seen as a go-to option in any of them.
Besides, doing SEO for a law firm is vastly different from serving a healthcare provider or an e-commerce business.
While the general SEO practices might be similar regardless of your chosen industry, specific tactics and strategies can vary greatly depending on your niche.
This isn't to say you can't succeed as a general SEO consultant or service provider; it only means you should start with a niche you know and/or are passionate about, as this will make it easier to draw in your initial clients.
You can then branch out and sell SEO services to a wider audience.
Besides personal interests, the main factors for choosing your target market are:
- Demographics—Connecting with a younger audience requires a different marketing toolset and tactics than attracting more mature clients. The same goes for gender, location, and other attributes, so define your ideal client persona.
- Budget—Do you want to provide SEO services that don't break the bank, or will you focus on high-end clientele? This is an important question because there's typically a trade-off; you'll either have a higher number of lower-paying clients or a smaller group of exclusive ones.
- Competition—Some industries are more saturated than others. For example, e-commerce SEO has been around for a long time, so it might get harder to get your foot through the door. On the other hand, industries like AI and renewable energy are relatively young, so there aren't many SEO agencies focused on them.
3. Create your offer
Once you've found your target audience, it's time to decide what your offer will look like.
Ideally, you'll have several packages and tiers for clients with differing budgets and needs.
Some SEO clients will only need you to publish a few SEO-friendly content pieces, while others might need an entire overhaul of their website.
To accommodate these differences, you'll need to figure out two things:
- Which pricing model(s) you want to adopt
- How to structure your SEO service packages
When it comes to pricing models, you can choose from many options, most notably:
- Hourly rates—Your client pays you for the number of hours spent on a project. This model offers transparency, but it can be hard to predict how much time you'll need to complete a project.
- Project-based pricing—The cost is fixed according to the services you'll provide. Your client gets more certainty, but there's not much flexibility to buffer any unexpected issues or additional efforts.
- Output-based pricing—You get paid according to the results you provide. Clients often find this model highly appealing because it ensures their investment pays off, but your SEO agency might face scope creep if you need to do more work than expected to generate the desired results.
No pricing model is universally the best—it all comes down to the alignment between your offer and the client's needs.
As for your service packages, you can create them based on the types of SEO you offer; for example:
- On-page SEO—Keyword research and optimization, meta optimization, internal linking, etc.
- Off-page SEO—Link building, social media, branded mentions, etc.
- Technical SEO—XML sitemaps, site speed, mobile-friendliness, etc.
- Local SEO—Google Business Profile optimization, reviews, local keyword research, etc.
Of course, your clients might need a mix of services from different packages, so you can create custom proposals based on their needs and the site audit you might do during the initial consultation.
4. Hire an SEO team
Your SEO business might be a one-person show in the beginning, but as you attract clients and start scaling up, you most likely won't be able to do all the work yourself.
Besides, you'll need time and energy to focus on growth and work on your business instead of working in it.
As your SEO agency grows, you can start expanding your team by partnering with contractors before moving on to full-time employees.
This gives you more flexibility until your client base and workflow are more predictable.
You can also combine the two options by hiring full-time SEO professionals for recurring projects and outsourcing resource-intensive tasks like link building to contractors.
In any case, you can look for SEO experts in many places, such as:
- Freelancing platforms like Upwork or Fiverr (particularly good for finding contractors)
- Job boards and platforms like Indeed or ProBlogger
The SEO industry is full of talent, so you should have no trouble building your team.
The main challenge is finding the optimal number of employees/contractors to ensure you don't burn through your budget.
Luckily, there's a simple rule of thumb to follow here—break down your SEO efforts into tasks, and estimate the time needed to complete them.
Then, divide the estimated time by 30 or 40 (depending on how many working hours you'll have in a week) to find the number of people necessary for each task.
Of course, you might not get a perfectly precise number, especially in the beginning until you've completed a few projects and can create better estimates.
As your business solidifies and you start noticing project patterns, determining the size of your team will be much easier.
5. Build internal resources
As your SEO knowledge grows, you'll want to structure it into an extensive library of resources.
This makes it easier to pass your skills on to your team and make sure everyone's on the same page.
Start by developing a rich SEO toolkit that encompasses all the platforms and standard operating procedures (SOPs) you rely on to complete projects.
At the very least, you'll use analytics tools such as:
As your service offerings evolve, you'll likely add more digital marketing and tracking tools, so gather them all in one place and make sure that every team member has access to the ones they need to do their part.
Search engine optimization changes all the time, so don't set aside and forget the knowledge you've gathered by the time your business is up and running.
Keep educating yourself through courses, articles, case studies, and similar resources.
Create a knowledge hub where you maintain a swipe file of the most useful and interesting ones, and encourage your team to contribute to it.
6. Offer free services
Everyone loves freebies, but they give your business another major benefit—letting you showcase your SEO expertise.
A complimentary SEO audit can go a long way toward positioning you as a trusted expert in the eyes of prospective clients, so it can be a start of a fruitful relationship.
If you don't feel compelled to offer SEO audits for free, think about it this way—you spend a couple of hours doing free work, which can result in months of paid work for a new client.
It goes without saying that this investment can pay off handsomely.
Besides, this is standard practice among SEO companies, particularly those that are just starting out.
A lack of useful freebies can put you at a significant disadvantage and make it harder to get your SEO business off the ground.
An SEO audit isn't the only thing you can offer for free.
You can also do keyword research to show your prospect new ranking opportunities, which will entice them to work with you.
Or you can review the client's GBP page and suggest improvements that will result in more traffic or conversions.
Whatever you do, the point of a free service is to strike a balance—you want to provide enough value to get a potential client excited about your services while still leaving them wanting more.
Luckily, the scope of an average SEO project is more than wide enough to let you do this.
7. SEO your website
If you're running a search engine optimization business, you must show clients you know what you're doing.
And what better way to do this than to nail your own SEO strategy and rank your business high in search engines?
Working on your website also gives you a chance to hone your SEO skills and perfect your services.
If you do it right, you can even be your own case study and use the site as proof of what you can do for clients.
To reap these benefits, follow the same practices you'd use for client work.
Create a rich blog that will not only serve as a go-to source of information but also help you rank for all the right keywords.
This way, you can become a thought leader and supercharge your inbound marketing efforts.
If you're doing local SEO, make sure your business shows up in the Google Map Pack.
Show clients what their GBP page should (and could) look like if they sign up to work with you.
8. Leverage case studies and testimonials
Social proof is the lifeblood of sales and conversions.
Because customers are becoming increasingly skeptical of ads.
According to a report by Kantar Media, they're the least trusted source of information about a product or service.
By contrast, recommendations from friends and family are the most trustworthy alongside reviews.
While you may not get a client's friend or family member to recommend you—at least in the beginning until you get some word of mouth going—you can do the next best thing and publish real-life testimonials and success stories.
The whole reason someone might hesitate to work with you is that they're not sure if they'll get the results they're looking for.
Testimonials eliminate this doubt by showing that success is more than possible, increasing a prospect's confidence in you.
Now, you may find yourself in a catch-22 situation while your SEO business is still new—you might struggle to find clients without testimonials, which you can't get if you don't have clients.
The best way around this is to offer your first few clients a discount, or even free services in exchange for a testimonial.
You might sacrifice the bottom line a bit in the beginning, but this is a fair price to pay for testimonials that can keep generating new clients in the long run, so it's more than worth it.
Besides testimonials, make sure to include some case studies demonstrating client success.
Don't hesitate to showcase your achievements, as your competitors sure won't.
9. Prospect everywhere
Prospective customers are all around you both online and offline, so you should cast a wide net through various internet marketing strategies and traditional efforts.
Facebook and Google ads are an excellent starting point, as they can draw eyes to your website that will leverage other tactics to attract clients and convert them,such as:
- High-quality content
- Freebies (whitepapers, books, and other lead magnets)
- Testimonials and case studies
You should also take full advantage of social media platforms to boost your online presence.
Your posts should educate the audience and spark conversations to position you as an authority.
The specific platforms will depend on your target audience, but you'll want to be on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn at the very least.
An often overlooked prospecting strategy is partnering with digital marketing agencies and other SEO companies that provide complementary services.
Of course, you won't do it with direct competitors, but if your core offering is off-page SEO, you can benefit greatly from teaming up with SEO businesses offering other services like on-page or technical SEO.
This way, you can create a fruitful win-win—your partner company can expand its service scope, and you get new clients without too much effort.
If all else fails, you always have cold outreach as one of the most well-known prospecting strategies.
Its main downside is that it can take a while to work because it's largely a numbers game, and it's more laborious than inbound marketing strategies.
Still, cold outreach is a good way to draw in clients that might be unaware of SEO services.
10. Communicate with clients
Effective client communication is the backbone of a successful SEO business.
Due to the nature of search engines, your services won't yield overnight results, no matter how good you are.
That's why you must maintain a clear communication channel and keep your client posted on everything you do for them.
Once you've attracted a client, prioritize their pain points to see how your services can help.
A quick SEO audit using Google Analytics and Google Search Console should tell you everything you need to know, but make sure to also ask your client about their goals.
Remember to make practical, even conservative promises.
It's better to make a modest promise and overdeliver than let your client down by failing to meet their expectations.
Many clients don't understand how SEO works and might expect a lot from the get-go, and it's your job to explain what's realistic in a given timeframe.
As you kick off the project, make sure to establish regular touchpoints. Y
ou can do so through SEO reports or monthly meetings that will keep the client updated on all the progress you've made.
This can do wonders for client satisfaction and benefit your business in many ways.
According to a Netomi report, 77% of customers believe great customer service is essential for generating business and building brand loyalty, so make sure that your clients feel valued.
11. Manage Your SEO Business
Establishing your SEO business is the easy part—the real challenge lies in managing it wisely so that it survives the initial trial by fire and reaches the point of stability.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, half of small businesses don't make it past the fifth year, so you should do everything in your power to stay in the other half.
To make this happen, don't set and forget your business plan.
Revisit it regularly to see where you stand and determine if any changes are needed.
Keep your plan flexible to account for the ever-changing SEO landscape, as your business will need to evolve and adapt to new circumstances continuously.
You must also get your finances in order and stay on top of them at all times.
Set up different payment methods, open multicurrency accounts, and make sure to keep close track of your cash flow.
Some business owners decide to outsource this task to an accountant, but this is only a good idea if you understand that you're outsourcing the function, but not the responsibility.
It's still your business, so nobody should have a firmer grasp of your business' finances than you.
Finally, clients come and go, and there's no way around it.
As important as it is to onboard a client properly, you should know how to offboard them when the time comes.
Simply stopping your operations isn't the best way to do it, as it might burn the bridge you'll need later on.
Proper offboarding showcases professionalism and can do wonders for your reputation and referrals, increasing the sustainability of your business.
If you're not sure how to offboard SEO clients, consider these tips:
- Thank the client for their business and discuss all the results you've helped them achieve
- Hint at the possibility of future re-engagements through additional services they might find valuable
- Offer to mention them in your newsletters—doing so gives them exposure, lets you leverage them as a case study, and keeps the relationship alive
- Consider a parting corporate gift that will end your partnership on a positive note
12. Scale your business
Once you've built a solid foundation for your business, it's time to consider different growth paths.
You shouldn't wait too long because you might find yourself in a situation where you need to reject new clients due to a lack of capacity.
There are several ways to scale your operations, most notably:
- Productizing your SEO services
- Market expansion
- Partnerships and collaboration
There's no one-size-fits-all solution here—you'll make the decision based on your niche, client base, network, and other circumstances.
When your SEO business is ready to grow, you can use the following strategies to ensure proper financial support and infrastructure that will allow it to do so:
- Build a referral network—One of the most effective ways to attract clients is to run a referral program. You gain a client effortlessly, pay a commission, and keep scaling without extensive involvement on your part.
- Upsell your service—The "Would you like fries with that?" approach is an excelllent way to your bottom line. You can include more services as add-ons on top of your main offering so that each sale has a higher dollar value.
- Increase your prices—As your business positions itself on the market, don't hesitate to charge more. Doing so lets you invest in your team, marketing materials, and other resources you need to scale without interruptions.
- Niche down—Scaling your SEO business doesn't always mean branching out to different industries. You can go the opposite direction and drill into a specific niche to become a go-to SEO expert and leverage increased demand with a limited supply.
Types of SEO businesses you can set up
Here are some of the most common business types offering SEO services you can start.
The agency model is highly scalable because you can offer a range of services (keyword research, content marketing and creation, on-page optimization, etc.).
The main downside is that an agency might take longer to set up because you need to:
- Set up an extensive framework
- Hire employees
- Systemize your operations
Still, if you're willing to be patient and make the necessary investments, an SEO agency can pay off multifold.
Being an SEO consultant is an excellent way to break into the market without hefty investments. You can provide consulting services on a project basis or work ongoingly with a client.
While you'll have lots of flexibility, you'll also be the one doing all the work.
If you want to scale or expand your client base, you might need to transition into a different business structure with time.
This often happens to consultants who make a name for themselves, so be ready to expand when the time comes.
If you don't want to work with clients directly, you can create an SEO product to sell instead.
There are numerous SaaS (Software as a Service) solutions in the SEO space, so you'll need to differentiate your product to find your place in the market.
Note that building an SEO platform doesn't happen overnight, so you should be comfortable with delayed gratification.
If you're in a position where you can put in the work without immediate returns, an SEO product might be a better option than selling SEO services and involving yourself in them because it's a more hands-off model.
SEO white label provider
If you're not ready to establish and build your own brand, you can provide SEO services under someone else's as a white label provider.
This means an existing SEO company outsources a specific service to you, most likely because they don't offer such services in-house.
It's also cost-effective for an SEO agency to do this, so everybody wins—they have an expert handling a project they can't complete, and you get SEO clients somewhat passively.
On the flip side, this means you're not investing in your own brand and business, so making a name for yourself might be tougher.
Your SEO company or consultancy doesn't need to only work with clients—you can pass your knowledge on to other aspiring SEO experts and turn this into a sizeable stream of income.
There are numerous ways to do this, most notably:
- Group or one-on-one coaching
- Webinars and workshops
Note that this opportunity will only open once you've positioned yourself as an expert. You need credibility and quite a reputation to ensure people trust you as a reliable source of information.
SEO content agency
High-quality content is among the key aspects of SEO, so it's entirely possible to build a full-fledged business around it.
If you're not interested in providing other SEO services, you can specialize in content creation and offer blog posts, web copy, product descriptions, and so on.
If you plan on going down this route, make sure to step up your on-page SEO game, as even the best content won't do much unless you know how to rank it.
Local SEO company
Many small business owners are unaware of how beneficial local SEO campaigns can be.
You can offer to improve their GBP page, work on their reviews, drive more organic search traffic to their businesses, and provide many other benefits that will translate into more customers.
Note that educating local clients on the value of SEO might take a while, though, especially if they run traditional brick-and-mortar businesses and aren't familiar with the online space, so arm yourself with patience.
Is starting an SEO business worth it?
The current SEO landscape looks promising to starting an SEO business. Over the last year alone, the market grew by $12.01 billion (from $62.75 billion in 2022 to $74.76 billion in 2023). This means a lot of money is still being poured into the industry, so there's room for new businesses.
According to last year's Atrios research, the search volume for queries like "SEO agency" and "SEO consultant" saw a consistent increase from 2016 to 2022
Of course, this doesn't mean that every SEO business that steps into the market will thrive.
You'll need to overcome quite a few challenges before you can reap the rewards, such as:
- Finding clients
- Hiring the right people
This is why you might need to wait a bit before seeing any returns, especially if you choose a more comprehensive business structure like an SEO agency.
While you might see the results relatively quickly as an independent consultant, a full-fledged business might take between a few months and a couple of years to generate the desired results.
- With so many SEO businesses currently on the market, you need to put in quite some effort to position yourself properly and ensure the long-term viability of your venture.
- The first step toward building a thriving business is to master SEO and invest in the necessary tools and processes. Stay on top of all the emerging trends and Google's changes to the search algorithm so that you can keep updating your SEO services accordingly.
- You shouldn't try to serve everyone, as doing so will make you spread yourself too thin. Identify your target clients based on demographic factors, budget, and industry where you believe you can make the biggest difference.
- When creating your SEO proposal and service scope, decide on the pricing model and types of SEO that align your goals with your knowledge and interests. Make sure to also factor in the demand for specific services in your chosen niche.
- As your business gets off the ground, you may need a team and a clear system you'll follow while completing projects. Work out the number of team members you need based on the hours needed to complete the work, and remember to build internal resources that your team will have access to.
- To attract your first clients, nail down your own SEO and consider offering free services that will compel someone to sign up for the paid ones. Leverage your initial work through case studies and testimonials to build trust in your niche and draw in new clients.
- Managing and scaling your SEO business requires proper planning and tracking. Figure out the direction in which you want your business to go in the long run, and make sure you have the necessary financial support and infrastructure to enable growth.
- You can start various types of SEO businesses—an agency, consultancy, product, and so on. Each business model has its ups and downs, so consider what would work best based on your current circumstances; you can always shift to another model if it makes sense.
The path to a successful SEO business might not be easy, but the reward is well worth going through the steps you saw here.
Choose your preferred services, business model, and clients wisely, as getting it right from the get-go lets you avoid costly course changes later on.
SEO isn't going anywhere, and there's plenty of room for new businesses to thrive, so be patient and stick it out until you see the results.