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7 Business Models to Consider in the Game of Search

Want to start your SEO agency? Find out which of these SEO business models is right for you.

7 Business Models to Consider in the Game of Search | SEJ

Did you know that search is the leading driver of traffic to websites (300% more so than social media)? As such, companies are recognizing the importance of keyword optimization and a well-ranked website for their businesses lead generation and ROI.

Search engine optimization, or SEO, gives businesses and individuals alike the ability to control their destiny in search rankings—so long as the rules established by heavies like Google and Bing are followed and websites are maintained accordingly. It’s no surprise, then, that SEO experts are in top demand.

As an SEO professional, though, how do you decide which business model to follow?

7 Business Models to Consider in the Game of Search | SEJ

With the vast size of the internet, the ever-changing search algorithms used to rank sites, and the growing number of professionals in the field, it’s a very important question to consider. You know the beginning of any good optimization begins with amending the structure and content of the website so it will play well with the search engines.

But then, there is the ongoing maintenance websites require in order to keep up with changing rules and trends, not to mention additional marketing tactics needed to support an SEO-friendly website. Do you take it all on or do you specialize? Do you work for others or for yourself? There’s a lot to consider here, whether you’re just starting out in the SEO game or looking to make a change.

The first important step is in recognizing what kind of person you are and what you want out of your career. Understanding that will put you on the right track to finding the type of SEO business model that fits you best. 

1. In-House SEO

Who is this for?

For the SEO professional seeking a stable, full-time position with one company. Your focus would be on managing and maintaining their SEO. Consider:

  • You would work for one company and would handle their SEO exclusively.
  • All the strategy and implementation would be handled by you—SEO for this one company is your sole responsibility.
  • You’d be working for a company who already understands the importance of optimized web assets, so you wouldn’t have to continually sell your services or even the concept of SEO.
  • You wouldn’t have to worry about all that comes along with managing your own business.
  • This is a great starting place for any SEO professional who wants the time and support to learn, practice, and really hone their skills.

Who is this not for?

For the SEO professional looking for variety in work, freedom to control their own schedule, and the ability to grow in their career. Consider:

  • When you work for a single employer, you specialize only on them, so if you’re not 100% absolutely thrilled or devoted to their industry or product set, this could get boring.
  • The potential for upward mobility when you work as an SEO expert for one company is practically non-existent, so you better love your job.

2. Agency SEO

Who is this for?

For the SEO professional not interested in going into business on their own, but who still wants a mix of clients and work to play around with. Consider:

  • This is similar to working in-house for a single company, except that all of your work would come through the agency so you would not have to worry about managing your own business.
  • There would be a lot of variety in the type of work you do and the type of clients you work with.
  • The agency would be wholly dedicated to SEO and agency, so you’d be working with a team of people who do what you do, who want to teach you more about SEO trends and best practices, and can support you.
  • This is another great place to start if you’re looking for an education in SEO with a stable workload to pay the bills while you do so.

Who is this not for?

For the SEO professional not interested in long hours, high stress, and dealing with finicky client tastes. Consider:

  • When you work for an agency, you’re taking on work by the project so you’ve got to be top of your game all the time, for whatever request that comes in.
  • Speaking of projects, this also means you work on your clients’ time and within the budget they’ve determined. The stress that comes with competing priorities and demanding clients can be too much at times. Your time will not be your own.
  • If you’re not interested in helping the agency (and yourself) build a recurring revenue stream by selling your one-off clients on continued services, skip this.

3. SEO Consultant

Who is this for?

For the SEO professional who wants a lot of variety in their work, but values their independence. Consider:

  • Much like the Agency SEO who gets to work with a variety of clients and job requests, the independent consultant has a chance to experience the full gamut of SEO services.
  • You would be in business with yourself, so you make all the rules and can take on whichever type of projects you prefer—site audits, on-page SEO, link-building, local SEO, PPC management, general marketing strategy, etc.
  • There is an opportunity for a huge return on your investment since there is very little overhead.
  • As an independent consultant, you get to build your own brand and run your own SEO services company, the way you think is best.

Who is this not for?

For the SEO professional who doesn’t want to maintain their own business, who wants as little responsibility as possible, and who expects to have a lot of success right away. Consider:

  • As an independent consultant, you’ll be responsible for the costs of running your own business as well as all the regular upkeep that comes along with it.
  • Building a client base and recurring revenue is going to be difficult if you are not already a well-established name in SEO.
  • Since larger businesses are able to invest in full-time, in-house SEO support, the need for a consultant really isn’t there unless you offer some service that is hard to find and high in demand. The bulk of your business is going to be driven by small companies who don’t know what to do with their SEO, can’t afford to bring on a full-time dedicated team member, and want to just purchase random services from you as needed.
  • Since you’re most likely working with companies who don’t fully understand what you do, there’s a good chance you may be left with the blame (and the bill) if something doesn’t work as expected.

The rest of these business models below do tend to fall in line with independent consultancy, although they each focus on a specific niche which is why they’re laid out independently here for consideration:

4. Rental SEO

Who is this for?

For the SEO professional who likes the idea of flipping websites—not much different from flipping houses, where one would buy a home at a low price and sell high; or would buy a home in need of work, invest the time and money to fix it up, and then sell for a profit. Consider:

  • While you are an independent consultant of sorts, you’re not offering any specific services to businesses. You’re in the business of offering a product (a website) that a business can rent from you.
  • If you consider yourself more of a designer and writer than a salesman, then the idea of renting out websites of your own creation and careful planning is a very attractive option.
  • Like with a house or apartment, you’ll receive a payment based on whatever you prefer—and based on how much you think that particular business can afford. One standard flat rental fee or pay-per-performance? Up to you.
  • These websites are not created for a specific business. They are created for a very specific, profitable niche and, most likely, in a specific geographic area. So if one of your clients bails, you can find another similar type of client to rent to and replace the revenue.

Who is this not for?

For the SEO professional not willing to take the time (or who can’t afford to) build a website and, in turn, sell it. Consider:

  • The initial work of building and optimizing the site can take some time and you’ve got to make sure you get it right—from the keywords to the domain name, as well as the target vertical and metropolitan area. If your website isn’t getting top search results, you won’t have a solid asset to sell to any business.
  • Since you’re not building the website for a specific client, it can also take quite some time to find the right one to sell it to.
  • Chances are you also will have to work on building multiple websites simultaneously as well as on an ongoing basis if you expect to run a strictly Rental SEO business model.

5. Affiliate/Display SEO

Who is this for?

For the SEO professional who likes the rental SEO model, but doesn’t want to have to sell their website to anyone. Consider:

  • Unlike with Rental SEOs, the key difference with Affiliate/Display SEO is that you’re not selling your website to another business to use. The website is built with the intention of displaying affiliate ads in the site content which you would then, in turn, make commission off of whenever visitors click on the ads or purchase the products.
  • With this model, you would have all the benefits of working on your own, building a fully optimized site, and then not having to scramble to rent your site to someone else.

Who is this not for?

For the SEO professional who wants to build websites, but doesn’t want to take the time to create genuine and unique content for each. Consider:

  • This business model can be a bit risky based on the quality of websites you build (and the time you invest to create and maintain the content).
  • Search engines may not take too kindly to a website built as a thinly veiled attempt to sell ads, so you would really need to provide each of your websites with solid, unique content worth reading and following.
  • In order to maintain a business model like this, you would need to keep your business as diversified as possible with websites covering a range of industries and utilizing different strategies for each.
  • Chances are, if you’re in the business of affiliate/display SEO, you’re going to need to supplement your income with other SEO offerings just to play it safe.

6. SEO to SEO

Who is this for?

For the SEO professional who has a wealth of knowledge and the time to give back to the SEO community. Consider:

  • If you have a great reputation for your work in the SEO field and have been running a well-established business for some time, consider giving back to your peers.
  • You can offer up whatever you think the SEO community of professionals would find valuable: services, products, or education.
  • As this is strictly SEO to SEO, you could skip working with companies that need SEO altogether and just focus on being an SEO specialist that helps other SEO professionals.

Who is this not for?

For the SEO professional who is not well-established in their career. Consider:

  • SEO professionals are looking for support from other SEOs—so long as they’re offering something that they can’t do on their own. If you haven’t already spent an exorbitant amount of time establishing yourself as a well-respected and trusted thought leader and expert, you may find it difficult to sell your services.
  • If your focus is on helping SEOs fill in the gaps in their portfolio, you would need to offer up something truly unique and in high demand. Again, this takes a lot of time to establish yourself as such.

7. SEO Software

Who is this for?

For the SEO professional who enjoys web development and wants to give businesses the power of automation. Consider:

  • This is the ultimate holy grail for many SEO professionals: build a product, try out a simple paid launch, and turn it into a massively successful software company.
  • In this business model, your focus isn’t on building websites or optimizing links on websites for your clients. The focus is on the development of tools for businesses.
  • Your ultimate end-goal with building software is to create a tool that enables companies to manage some SEO on their own. You’re empowering them to take control of it, save money, increase efficiency, and take back time to focus on their core business.

Who is this not for?

For the SEO professional who doesn’t have the time (or doesn’t want to invest it) in developing their own product. Consider:

  • Much like with the Rental and Affiliate SEO business models, you’ve got to be willing to invest the time in creating your own product. If you can’t afford to take the time, you’ll need to consider selling your SEO consultant services on the side until your software is ready.
  • With any product like this, there is always the potential issue of finding people to buy your product.
  • This is your product, so you’ll manage the launch and will need to manage the sales of it (at least at first) until the software is a well-known brand people can seek out on their own.
  • As with any software, there is going to be a learning curve—especially with the smaller mom-and-pop shops run by older generations who don’t understand technology all that well. Patience in guiding and training your clients is a must.

For the SEO professional who wants to try a little bit of everything, there’s nothing that says you need to stick to just one business model. Consider mixing and matching the different types of models based on what you want, where you’re at in terms of professional growth, and what you need in order to fill in the gaps.

Once you’ve made up your mind on which model is right for you, there are a number of factors you should consider to help you determine how to run your business. For instance:

  1. Do you need more experience or education before striking out on your own?
  2. Do you have plans to continue your education and research to stay up on current trends and keep your business adaptable?
  3. Do you want to focus on the surface level of SEO or on the more strategic side that delves further into market research?
  4. Do you want to be an established partner of the SEO professional community or do you want to remain the lone wolf?
  5. Is your own website SEO-optimized and top-ranked?
  6. What is your business philosophy—more white hat than black hat? Maybe a little bit of both (gray hat)?
  7. What are your weak spots? Are you going to offer them in your portfolio of services or seek assistance from other SEOs to supplement your offerings?
  8. Where will you find your first client? Are you willing to work with a start-up company to gain some experience while allowing you to contribute to a business that could hugely profit from your assistance? Or will you focus only on the big dogs?
  9. Have you established a set of realistic and achievable goals for your business with specific timelines?


Remember, the key in any business is to develop a clearly defined niche—one that will help you gain easy access to a particular segment of the market or put you in high demand with businesses that need your special skill set. When it comes to SEO, it pays to specialize once you’ve made the decision to strike out on your own.

Since it’s your job to enable businesses to tap into the 75% of users who only view the first page of search results, you need to make sure you’ve got your skills nailed down properly so you can help those in your niche make a huge splash.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Bloomua/
In-post Photo: Rawpixel/

Category Careers
Albert Costill Writer

Albert Costill is a co-founder of and a freelance writer who has written for brands like and Search ...

7 Business Models to Consider in the Game of Search

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