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SEO 32 min read February 21, 2023

How to Start a Successful SEO Agency: Ultimate Guide

How to Start an SEO Agency: Ultimate Guide
Анастасия Сотула
Alex Birkett
Co-Founder of Omniscient Digital

For anyone planning to launch or grow an online business, SEO is not just an option—it is a necessity.

To emphasize that, a report by Borrell Associates showed that businesses spend about $79 billion on SEO services. They all want visibility on Google, and many of them are vying for the #1 spot. Also, according to insights shared by Gaps, SEO agencies earn up to $18 million in annual revenue and as much as $85,000 per month.

If you’re looking to start an SEO company, you’ve made the right choice. In this article, we’ll break down the essential things you need to know about how to start an SEO agency.

We’ll cover everything from core SEO services and building processes to overcoming challenges, marketing your agency, and retaining clients. 

What Does An SEO Agency Do?

An SEO agency specializes in helping other businesses rank better in organic search engine results.

The primary goal of an SEO agency is to increasingly drive organic traffic to its clients' websites by implementing effective search engine optimization strategies such as on-page optimization, content marketing, and link building.

A single freelancer who offers consultations or executes SEO projects for different clients is not an agency. A formal SEO agency is structured for scalability and must include an in-house team of experts specializing in different areas of SEO. An agency is also structured to include various departments that handle sales, finance, and client success.

Unlike typical digital marketing agencies that offer full-service packages, including web design, web development, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, and email marketing services, an SEO agency is niche-focused on providing organic search marketing services.

What Do Businesses Expect When Engaging The Services Of An SEO Agency?

5-star reviews of fifteen top SEO companies on Clutch revealed that businesses looking to engage the services of an SEO agency have varying goals. These include improving organic search presence, improving keyword rankings, significantly increasing site domain rating, and generating inbound customers.

As a result, they look to hire an SEO agency that can help them achieve these goals.

To start an SEO agency, you must have the capacity and expertise to meet these deliverables:

4 Basics You Must Know Before You Start 

When researching how to start an SEO agency, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the ton of information you have to consume.

Yes, you want to know everything about picking your niche, pricing your services, creating winning proposals, and landing clients. However, before getting into all that, there are four basic things you need to have a firm grasp on if you want to make it big in this $80 billion dollar industry.

SEO is a long-term commitment that requires effective planning, a documented strategy, and efficient execution, as well as a solid understanding of key strategies.

Mastering these four pillars will help you better manage projects and people while delivering results that delight clients and keep them coming back.

1. Content Operations

Content is an essential part of SEO. To ensure that your agency can produce effective content at scale, you need to set up a system that defines how you implement strategy and manage all the people involved in the content lifecycle.

This system will guide your team and drive execution. It is the combination of the people, processes, and technology required to plan, publish, distribute, monitor, measure, and report on content performance.

With this, you can create a clear roadmap for execution, including all the people working with you, what tasks they’re in charge of, the workflow for each project, and the tech tools required to build the system for your operations and run projects efficiently.

Let’s break down the core elements.

People:

People are the fuel for your engine. Without them, you can’t go far. This means that for your system to run smoothly, you need to hire the right people and manage them effectively.

As you build your team and a reliable network of specialists to whom you can outsource, make sure their roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. Also, avoid overlaps, as one person doing too many things will only lead to burnout and eventually weaken your system.

Processes:

With team roles outlined and assigned, it’s time to create workflows for fundamental tasks to ensure that everything is repeatable.

Imagine you want to launch a link-building campaign. What does the process look like listed out step-by-step? Who are the people responsible for each task in the workflow? Document these processes using templates, guides and checklists.

Also, ensure that the documentation of each process is easily accessible to the people who work with you. This will help them complete tasks without friction, collaborate seamlessly as a unit and produce better content faster.

Technology:

These are the tools used to run your operations, manage team members and complete project tasks.

You can choose a central operations hub like Google Workspace, Asana, or Notion for your overall project management system. Then add on other tools like Google Docs for collaborative writing, Clearscope for optimizing articles, Google Drive for content asset management and Zapier for automation.

For executing essential SEO tasks like keyword research, domain and link analysis, rank tracking, technical site audits and reporting, we highly recommend Serpstat.

Content teams need technology to function and get work done, so ensure you choose the right tools that can serve you long-term. 

2.On-page SEO

You can’t tap into the full potential of SEO without having strong on-page optimization.

Websites that appear in the top five organic results get up to 67.60% of all clicks, but with Google constantly changing its ranking algorithms, it will be tough to snag those top coveted spots if you don’t know how to implement on-page optimization effectively.

On-page SEO helps search engines understand the content of a webpage and determine if it's relevant to a user’s search query. It also helps people find your content and determine if it is worth clicking on.

To improve organic ranking, there are three main on-page factors you can optimize: content, website architecture, and HTML.

Content:

One of the simplest ways to boost website traffic is by publishing high-quality content. But it’s not enough to just publish content. You must also ensure that the content matches the search queries of its target audience.

Optimizing content for search involves selecting keywords that align with the search intent of your client’s audience, linking to relevant internal and external content, and incorporating SEO best practices without falling into traps—like keyword stuffing—that are sure to get your client’s website demoted.

Website architecture:

When visitors leave a website after only a few seconds, that typically tells search engines that the website is lacking. Good website architecture prevents this.

By structuring pages hierarchically, creating an XML sitemap, using simple URLs, and maintaining an easy-to-understand internal linking model, you can reduce bounce rates, improve user experience, and ensure search engines can effectively crawl the site.

HTML:

This is the code that provides search engines with the information to display in search results and provides context on the relevancy of a website.

With HTML, you can optimize title tags, heading tags, and meta descriptions which positively impact click-through rates. Adding alt tags to images and geotagging for local SEO can also help the site appear in more relevant results.

3. Technical SEO

Technical optimization makes it easy for search engines to crawl and index your site. It is a part of on-page SEO and includes both HTML and website architecture, as mentioned above.

Other technical requirements that are important for a website to rank high on search engines include using SSL to provide an extra layer of security between servers and web browsers, using schema markups to improve SERP snippets, ensuring the website is responsive across all devices, mobile friendly and that pages load quickly.

It is also important that the site is registered on Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster tools, which can help you monitor site performance and identify issues early on. 

4. Off-page SEO

Attracting relevant visitors to a website without paid advertising isn’t a walk in the park. Neither is building a reputable online presence for multiple clients.

Unlike on-page SEO which gives you full control over everything from text and metadata to media content and HTML code, off-page SEO relies largely on your industry influence and ability to secure mentions, reviews, features, and backlinks from other credible websites.

Essentially, this strategy focuses on tactics executed outside your client’s website that result in a higher organic ranking. If you’re looking to create an effective off-page SEO strategy for clients, here are a few effective methods to consider: 

  • Reaching out to industry influencers who publish similar content to your client;
  • Contributing meaningfully to conversations on forums like Reddit and Quora;
  • Utilizing Google My Business to improve local SEO ranking;
  • Running a guest blogging campaign featuring experts within your client’s company;
  • Leveraging social media like LinkedIn and Twitter to engage audiences and drive traffic to client websites; 

Ideally, your on-page and technical SEO should be top-notch before you launch your off-page SEO strategy.

When executing your off-page strategy, make sure to diversify your backlink sources and occasionally check your client’s backlink profile to ensure there aren’t any spammy sites that could negatively affect their SERP level.

    Challenges Of Building An SEO Agency

    The SEO industry is extremely lucrative, but also highly competitive and relatively unpredictable—no thanks to ever-changing algorithms that cause tactics that work one day to become obsolete the next.

    Making a name for your agency and meeting your revenue goals will depend on your ability to understand these challenges and tackle them like a pro.

    1. Service Differentiation

    There are thousands of agencies out there that offer SEO services. Some have many years of experience and tons of high-profile clients under their belts.

    If you want to attract and close clients, it’s not enough to just outline your packages and talk about the plethora of services you offer. You need to present proof and results to show that you can deliver on your promises while also maintaining an outstanding relationship with clients.

    In his teaching about generic competitive strategies, Harvard professor Michael Porter points out that a firm that uniquely positions itself to meet the needs widely valued by buyers in an industry will be rewarded for its uniqueness with a premium price.

    Essentially, the value your agency is uniquely positioned to provide will determine its profitability.

    So, how do you demonstrate your unique value and separate yourself from the competition?

    Define who you want to serve

    When starting out, it is advisable to hyper-focus on a niche and an ideal customer. This makes it easy to learn about and accurately define your target audience.

    Rankings.io for example is an SEO agency for personal injury lawyers and law firms while Markitors positions itself as the SEO Marketing Company For Small Businesses.

    Potential clients will typically be looking for agencies that understand their business or industry. Making them feel seen when describing your service offering will help you win them over a lot faster.

    This also means that you can potentially rank for relevant, high-ROI search phrases that match what your target clients are searching for. 

    Identify your unique selling proposition

    With a solid understanding of your ideal customer, you can now define how your agency will solve the challenges target clients are currently facing.

    For each service you choose to offer, think about how you can make it significantly different from what competitors offer. How will the work you do impact your client's bottom line?

    Choose tools that amplify your efforts

    In SEO, using the right tools can help you execute projects more efficiently, streamline your processes, and deliver better results.

    Using the right tools can also demonstrate to clients that you are willing to invest in results and industry-standard premium services.  

    2. Branding Differentiation

    What do you want your agency to be known for? This is a good question to start with if you want to build a strong brand in this saturated industry.

    You don’t want to be just another agency that offers SEO services. Unfortunately, this is the trap that a lot of agencies fall into. They don’t work on developing the brand mission, voice, and values to establish an emotional connection with potential clients.

    Brand strategists will tell you, “a brand is a promise.” It’s the expectation you’ve set for yourself in the eyes of clients.

    If you want to build a sustainable brand and a strong community of recurring clients, take the following steps:

    By defining your core vision, voice, values, and aligning your team to your purpose, you’ll be able to position your brand to attract attention and stand out.

    3. Industry Changes

    Many search marketers say they struggle to keep up with changes to Google’s algorithm. One inbound marketing specialist shared that she’s seen a 20% drop in organic traffic across all clients at her agency since March.

    Over the years, new updates and ranking factors have been introduced that require a constant change in SEO strategy for agencies that want their clients to stay ahead of the competition.

    The bar is consistently being raised, and the goal post shifts frequently. Every few months, your team will need to review the ranking factors that improve SEO performance metrics and upgrade services and tools accordingly.

    4. Long Sales Cycle

    Between sourcing leads and closing deals, there are several hurdles you’ll have to cross to get clients for your agency.

    It can take weeks to months to close a single SEO client, particularly because prospects will always have objections. They might be skeptical about whether the financial investment will be worth it. They’ll want to know how long it will take to get them to rank in the top ten results or if SEO efforts will generate sales fast.

    Understanding the entire sales process and doing what is required to make prospects feel like they are getting value instead of just being sold to can cut the cycle short for you and your team.

    “Consultative selling is the way to go,” says Rob Andrews, VP of Operations at PosiRank. He recommends that at initial contact, you should aim to understand your prospect's intentions by seeking permission to do a quick analysis of their website from an SEO perspective.

    Don’t offer something that will take too much effort on your part but aim to be helpful by sharing your findings and offering to give recommendations through a paid audit.

    As you progress through stages after the initial contact, work on deeply understanding your prospects’ industry and their goals, then align your offer to their objectives.

    Driving business to your agency can be a slow process initially and requires patience. It takes time to develop strong relationships and understand what appeals to decision-makers. Having a defined repeatable sales process and a motivated sales team, studying your prospect's industry, and learning their pain points will reduce the challenges you’ll face to close a sale. 

    5. Talent Sourcing

    There’s a shortage of ‘qualified’ SEO talent, and finding the right people to join the team full-time is a common challenge for agency founders. Anyone with significant SEO experience will cost a pretty penny which your lean budget may not be able to accommodate when you’re just getting off the ground.

    With limited resources, one smart option is to outsource tasks like link building and content writing, while keeping other core functions like strategy, outreach, and reporting to internal teams.

    There are many agencies with teams that hire freelancers on an ad hoc basis. This keeps them running till they can recruit and retain excellent talent in-house. However, managing a fleet of freelancers comes with its challenges and you may need to set up processes and relevant training to help them work better.

    6. Customer Budget & Expectations

    In SEO, it’s hard to predict the future. You can’t guarantee first-page ranking, how much time it will take to get specific results, or how much your clients will have to spend over a given period.

    The ROI on SEO significantly depends on the client’s willingness to invest and your team’s ability to iterate and improve strategies implemented over time.

    However, many prospects with low budgets and high expectations will come knocking on your door asking for guarantees which could lead you to overpromise and underdeliver.

    If you can provide proof of the results you’ve delivered in the past, great. If not, you’ll need to educate your clients on the due process to get real SEO results. Manage their expectations by reminding them that it takes time and it will be impossible to jump to #1 without following due protocol and investing in experts.

    When it comes to discussing budget or cost breakdown, walk them through your process and leave them to decide how much they are willing to invest depending on their type of business and the results they are expecting. However, you can make a recommendation based on the average you know a similar business to theirs would typically spend on SEO as well as your goals for revenue growth.

    Have a minimum budget that you can’t go below. For a new agency, that could be somewhere between $500 to $1000 per month for each client. Your job at this stage is to convince prospects to invest and let them know if their budget isn’t realistic.

    Lastly, make sure all teams are aligned on service offerings. Don’t let your sales team promise what your SEO team cannot deliver.

    How To Start An SEO Agency

    Before starting an SEO agency, you must have significant experience or proof of the kind of results you can deliver. Having previous experience at an agency or as a consultant, and being able to rank your agency website for multiple keywords will be instrumental in your journey as an SEO agency founder.

    In addition to having the knowledge and experience, you should be prepared to learn how to manage clients, communicate effectively and show up actively on social media sites.

    Every SEO agency has its own strategy for getting clients, meeting deliverables, and building scalable processes. But rather than spending months trying to figure things out, we’ve broken down the key stages of starting your agency with input from different founders who have up to 10 years of experience in building and scaling their own agencies.

    1. Get Your First Clients 

    Finding the first few clients for your agency will require a healthy dose of networking and the ability to demonstrate the benefits of your services at any given time.

    Mazen Aloul, the founder of WebQuest, an SEO-only agency based in Dubai said that she spent “a considerable amount of time at local business networking events meeting business owners and listening to their pain points when it comes to their online presence.” She was able to land her first clients after demonstrating the benefits of local SEO to them and offering a few free trials to prove that the strategy worked.

    Another approach that experienced founders recommend is to look within your industry or network and identify people you can partner with. Jamie Irwin was able to bootstrap Straight Up Search during the pandemic and went from 0 to 35 clients in less than 18 months by partnering with a local agency.

    “It was a crucial method of growth for us in the early years,” says James Taylor, an SEO consultant. “The best thing we ever did was reach out to development agencies in our network and offer a referral fee for work they passed over to us.”

    When you’re starting out, it is most likely that your first client will come through someone you know, also known as referral marketing. Before you dive into paid marketing options, look for clients within your network, do a great job for them and use those results to create case studies that will win you more clients.

    2. Market Your Services

    If you’re going to launch an SEO agency, then it makes perfect sense that one of your top marketing strategies should be search engine optimization. Do the work to get your agency website ranking for selected keywords and start attracting inbound leads.

    While working on your website SEO, get active on social media like Twitter and LinkedIn. Publish helpful content so you can start to build authority while providing value to potential clients.

    You’ll need to really put yourself out there and focus on a specific nice if you want to build up your client list fast. Here are options you can explore to build awareness and drive qualified leads to your agency.

    • Do your own SEO: Follow best practices for technical, on-page, and off-page SEO to ensure that your website meets current SEO standards. Be strategic with publishing SEO articles, running outreach campaigns, and guest posting on authoritative industry sites. Doing this will improve your discoverability and help you gain significant traction.
    • Get active on social media: You can use social media to build awareness and find clients. How? Connect with businesses within your niche, share useful content, participate in conversations and offer value through free workshops or audits. Then, collect emails and nurture those relationships with an effective sales funnel.
    • Send targeted cold emails: If you’ve been able to strengthen your brand through social media, strong website SEO, and at least one satisfied client, you can successfully win clients through cold emailing. Identify businesses you believe will benefit from your services, craft an email pitch to address their pain points, offer a solution, and establish a basis for trust. 

    3. Build Processes & Iterate On Services

    In order to maintain consistency, deliver great results for clients and achieve month-on-month growth, you need to establish processes that guide client onboarding, people management, and campaign execution.

    You can also decide to launch with a few notable services that you can deliver excellently, create a standard agreement for new clients and use Serpstat to manage your SEO campaigns seamlessly.

    When onboarding clients, kick off by getting to know their business and internal marketing team, then run SEO audits and keyword/competitor analysis before getting into content modeling, production, optimization ,and reporting.

    Joy Hawkins, founder at SterlingSky shared that she built processes for everything from testing to implementation and tracking progress. “That’s super important as your agency grows, to make sure [everyone is] aligned,” she says. “While we do love our processes, we aren’t held hostage by [them] and make sure to update them as the industry changes.”

    4. Hire A Team To Scale Out Services

    When you’re running a new agency, you will get to a point when you realize that it’s time for an upgrade. But you can’t open your doors to new clients or expand your services without making plans to scale effectively.

    This will be the best time to refill your talent pool because you want to ensure you have enough hands on deck so no one is overworked and underperforming.

    Many agencies at this stage opt to either hire more people in-house or outsource to experts. You can do both so long as client budgets and your revenue give room to do that.

    Whichever you decide, make sure to hire people who are not just experienced, but also reliable and committed to delivering excellent work. 

    5. Build Your Moat

    A moat is the leverage you have over competitors and what protects you from them. While you’re starting from the ground up, you want to make sure that you can continue to thrive and maintain a competitive advantage as you scale.

    Building a moat around your business will strengthen your brand, help you earn customer loyalty and make it tough for other companies to compete with you.

    Your moat can be a secret approach to getting consistent results or building unshakeable authority in a particular niche.

    For Google, its moat is the search engine algorithm that no one can replicate, while for HubSpot, the moat is its content engine.

    Take the time to research and identify what your moat can be, then go ahead and build it.

    6. Optimize, Rinse & Repeat

    When you’re finally up and running, it’s time to monitor performance and identify areas of improvement. You want to be able to measure impact and ensure you’re delivering results to clients.

    Also considering that search algorithms are constantly being updated, it is crucial to stay aware of the changes and adjust your strategy accordingly.

    The content and business processes you build will serve you well at this stage.
    As competition and algorithms constantly change, it is essential to regularly revisit pages and the content we are creating to make sure they are performing to the best of their ability and according to Google’s specific needs.

    Additional Tips To Retain Clients

    You already know that the number one way to retain clients is to consistently meet and exceed their expectations. If you can help them achieve their goals, chances are high that they will stick around.

    However, two other equally important things can help nurture your relationship with clients. 

    Communication

    Most of your clients won’t be SEO experts, so communicating with them should involve less jargon and more simplified language. If you’re proposing a strategy, break down what it involves as well as the potential benefits.

    Be easy to reach and responsive at all times, have a primary tool for communication, always be open to feedback and remain both transparent and flexible. The value of good communication is that it builds trust and that’s exactly what needs especially in your early days.

    Reporting 

    This is how you communicate the value you have achieved over a period of time. Most agencies share reports monthly, but feel free to customize them based on your conversation with clients.

    Keep your reports focused on specific goals and deliverables that they care about. Create visuals to communicate your insights from the data and explain how it’s all connected. Make sure that all of this is summarized in a simple and easy-to-understand document that they can reference at a later date. 

    Use Serpstat to track all of your SEO results

    SEO is a highly competitive industry and the most successful agencies are those that leverage their expertise and technology to remain ahead of the curve.

    With Serpstat’s SEO platform for agencies, you can manage client projects with automated tasks, generate reports faster and monitor employees in real time. Find out how Serpstat can meet your agency’s needs.

    Are you looking for an all-in-one SEO, PPC and Content Marketing platform for your agency?

    Sign up for a free personal demo of the service, and our experts will guide you through the platform, and help you determine if Serpstat is the right fit for your needs.

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