An SEO consultant is a specialist in search engine optimization who works outside of typical contracted employment.
For instance, they may be freelancers who work with their own clients or within an existing team but not as employees.
They might be responsible for a variety of tasks from pitching and closing to contract negotiations, as well as SEO.
And while there are some advantages to having a variety of tasks and the freedom to take on only the projects you want, SEO consulting also has its drawbacks.
This column will help you understand what to expect before choosing a career as an SEO consultant.
Are SEO Consultants Employed Or Freelance?
In the U.K., the answer gets slightly more complicated. The term “SEO consultant” can also describe the job title of an employed SEO that doesn’t really denote seniority or management responsibilities.
Like “SEO specialist” or “SEO advisor.”
This might also be how freelancers with side hustles and full-time jobs describe themselves.
It does, however, also mean an independent contractor like in the U.S.
Projects vs. Multiple Clients
An SEO consultant might choose to work with their own clients and the only person working on their SEO.
They might also choose to take contracts that embed them within an existing team, like joining as additional support to an enterprise SEO team.
Running Your Own Business
The key difference between a career as an SEO consultant and any other type of SEO job is that you will be running your own business.
As an independent contractor, you manage your contracts, pitching, and financial/tax obligations.
What essential skills do you need to be a successful SEO consultant beyond being a good SEO professional?
Below is an overview of the basic skills for thriving as an independent SEO contractor, other than on-page, technical, and off-site SEO.
You may be used to managing a budget in your employed role to make sure clients’ hours were filled or checking profit and loss for your department.
However, additional, unforeseen costs can crop up when working as a freelancer.
That means you need to be able to manage a budget quickly, or there won’t be enough money left over at the end of each month for you to take home a wage.
There may be ad-hoc costs, such as initial legal advice, and ongoing costs like retaining an accountant.
Any marketing collateral, the cost of hosting and developing a website, those fancy tools we all love to use. You will entirely pay for them.
Without the deep pockets of an agency or brand behind you, all your business expenses will come from the money you have managed to earn as a consultant.
Although any job requires a degree of time management, being an SEO consultant means spinning many plates at once.
There is also a lack of structure, support, and resources with an employed role.
Due to this, time management is an ever more important skill.
There will be immoveable business deadlines like legal and financial requirements and calls with stakeholders that other team members can’t cover in your absence.
Getting your invoices out on time could be most important for your longevity as a consultant.
The amount of admin that you need to find time for will increase. You will need to sort through receipts and update budgeting software.
You will need to submit financial details to make your own payroll. Then there are the emails and meetings.
No matter how many you had as an employed SEO, expect a lot as a consultant.
To be successful, you will need to be very adept at planning your time.
Pitching And Closing
From marketing your skills to pitching and closing a new client, you will need to be able to manage the entire cycle of winning new work.
There won’t be a business development team supporting you, so you may need to brush up on your persuasive skills.
Although you are an SEO by trade, I can tell you from first-hand experience that few of your business leads will come through your website even if you rank first for “SEO consultant” in your area.
You will also need to become an expert at marketing yourself in other ways.
That means picking up potential client leads through social media, events, and word of mouth.
Not only will you need to source potential client leads, but you will also need to effectively convert them. That means working on pitch decks, negotiating fees, and securing sign-off.
Although you may have a standard contract template, expect prospective clients to go through it with a fine-tooth comb.
This might also extend to your pricing proposal and service level agreement.
A part of being an SEO contractor is the need to be able to negotiate contracts.
There may be an expectation of a certain level of compromise, especially if you want to work with smaller businesses with limited budgets.
When looking long-term at the next six to 12 months of your proposed contract, you will need to be able to predict how those compromises might affect your profit and quality of life.
A client may want you to work your proposed hours for less money, which brings down your average rate.
They might also expect you to respond to emails outside of your proposed working hours.
Although it might seem tempting to agree to these altered terms to secure the revenue, but long-term, it might not be beneficial for the growth of your business.
Understanding Of Financial And Legal Responsibilities
Being an SEO consultant means being your own boss, owning your own business, and the excitement and freedom it brings.
However, it also means being solely responsible for ensuring you are in full legal compliance.
This means understanding which business laws apply to you in your state or country, but also, if you have clients elsewhere in the world, understanding how their laws affect you.
For instance, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) in Europe governs personal data control.
Even if you are not based in Europe, you may be subject to these rules if your clients are.
How you store information about your clients will need to comply with these regulations.
Being a consultant means no one is above you to take on this responsibility.
It’s all yours. You may be able to afford advice from lawyers or accountants to help you make informed decisions, but the ramifications are all on you if they advise you poorly.
Another essential skill is good stakeholder management.
This includes communicating deadlines, chasing for invoice payments, and ensuring client expectations align.
When you are a consultant, your stakeholders aren’t just your clients.
They are your accountants, lawyers, suppliers, and other consultants you’re partnering with.
In a larger business, these stakeholders tend to communicate with various team members; the finance department, the CEO, the marketing team, and the account managers.
As a freelancer, you are the only point of contact.
The needs of a client versus your accountant’s needs are very different, but will both need prioritizing.
Learning to manage a wider range of stakeholders than you’re used to will greatly improve your success as an SEO consultant.
Fitting In With Teams Quickly
You will not be afforded a long onboarding period as an SEO consultant.
You will have to show value to your clients from day one. This can be a tricky skill to develop.
There will be an expectation that you can drive return on investment straight away, although you will need to learn their processes, procedures, product, and industry.
It is not just about understanding the business; you need to get on reasonably well with your new colleagues.
When working closely with other members of your client’s team, what they think of your work ethic and personality may well impact the length and recurrence of your contract.
When you join a new company as an employee, you will likely have a probation period – a few weeks to months where the company assesses your fit and competency.
If done well, it will be a time when you can work with your manager to fill any gaps in your knowledge and develop a training plan to make sure you are off to a great start in the company.
As a freelance SEO, you won’t get this.
Instead, you may have a break clause in your contract or simply the option for a client to cancel their recurring monthly contract if they don’t like your work.
A skill you will need to develop early on as an SEO consultant is demonstrating the return on investment of working with you.
This means understanding exactly what you are expected to deliver and making sure it is reasonable.
From there, you will need to report back on your success against these objectives.
PsychologyToday defines resilience as “the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life’s adversities and come back at least as strong as before” and is a skill to cultivate.
Being a consultant can be galling.
One month you might have so much work to do that you wonder when sleep will be an option.
Others, you’re nervously staring at your emails, willing a proposal acceptance to come through.
Stability in the flow of work you win can be slow to build.
Then, overnight, a global pandemic can cause it all to dry up. One thing you tend to be short on as a contract SEO is certainty.
A vital skill for an SEO consultant is resilience.
Getting back up when a client unexpectedly ends their contract or there is a conflict with a competitor, is challenging.
Even when everything is going well, there will be the ever-present need to chase invoices that are 60 days overdue.
It can sometimes feel like an uphill battle.
There is an element of an SEO consultant not only selling their services but also selling the dream of working with them personally.
As a consultant, you will be in a similar position to going for a job interview each time you pitch for work. Your client will need to believe that you are the best candidate for the job.
This may start well in advance of a pitch meeting.
The ideal for many consultants is that they become so well respected in the industry that word of mouth generates leads for them.
Rather than spending a lot of time and energy on marketing, they have clients approaching them.
Some of the most successful SEO consultants have chosen an industry and become experts.
By doing so, they can choose who they work with and charge fees that reflect the value they bring.
If you are looking to become an SEO consultant, it can help to understand your local market, the needs of the businesses who may work with you, and what you can do to be most attractive to them.
This might mean finding a niche and sticking to it for your market. It might mean going after smaller businesses that need the full range of SEO support.
Whatever you want to achieve as a consultant, you will need to be good at presenting your knowledge, skills, and value beyond the initial meeting with a prospect.
You may have a pretty good idea of what salaries look like in your country and region, but what about rates for SEO contractors?
Recently, Search Engine Journal conducted a salary survey looking at data points from the SEO industry.
The findings for freelance professionals were particularly interesting.
Search Engine Journal found that SEO freelance consultants earned less than $34,000 per annum on average.
The survey respondents who identified themselves as freelancers overwhelmingly had fewer than two years of experience. This will have heavily skewed their earnings.
With this in mind, take the average reported salary of an SEO consultant with a pinch of salt.
Yours may well be higher depending on location, years of experience, and specialisms.
In the U.K., Glassdoor reports that an SEO freelancer can make £31,540 per year (approximately $41,000).
What you choose to charge per project or per hour will greatly impact how much you take home each year.
You also need to consider how many hours you want to work each week. Together this will help you to identify how much you may be able to earn in a year if your client load is full.
It is important to remember that you will also need to deduct the costs of running your business from your net earnings.
This may include items from networking group membership to tax and insurance.
Helpful Certifications And Experience
One of the great things about getting into a career in SEO is that there are very low barriers to entry.
There is no university degree you must have or governing body you are expected to be a part of.
On the flip side, there is little for prospective clients to use to measure how good an SEO you are.
Because of this lack of regulation in the industry, there are no standard certificates or qualifications to prove your competency.
Instead, you may need to demonstrate your expertise to prospective clients in other ways.
Your most obvious way to denote that you are an expert in your field is by showing your experience.
Unfortunately, many clients may equate experience with years in the industry. This isn’t always the case.
Experience With Specific Projects
A consultant may have carried out 20 website migrations during their three years in the industry because they worked at an SEO agency.
Another contractor may have only carried out one during their five years in the industry because they worked in-house for one brand.
A client looking for SEO support for their upcoming website migration might look more favorably at a consultant who has worked for five years in the industry.
They may wrongly believe more years of experience equals better performance.
If you are looking to pitch for a website migration project, as an SEO consultant, you will need to be able to show your specific experience with the facets of SEO the project will rely upon.
Another aspect of your experience you will need to showcase is the industries you have worked in.
For some clients, knowing that their consultant understands their market, consumers and products will be paramount.
If you have worked across various industries, highlight them in your marketing and pitching material.
If you have worked within a limited range of verticals, you can speak more about the depth of experience.
You may benefit from showing that you have a wealth of knowledge about those particular industries that would make your learning curve with a new client quick and minimal.
If you have been around the SEO industry for a while, you will likely have come across forums and threads where inexperienced SEO specialists have landed their first client and are now asking veterans how to do SEO.
This is not a situation that you will benefit from being in.
If you manage to land a client whose SEO needs are greater than you can meet, it will likely cause stress on both sides.
As a consultant, you will need to learn to identify the scope of a potential project quickly and decide if you have sufficient knowledge and experience to manage it.
As mentioned, no governing body oversees SEO practice, which can validate a consultant’s ability to carry out SEO.
However, there are many award shows and programs that serve in some way as a proxy for this.
The validity of awards is a hotly debated topic in SEO circles.
However, winning one does show that you have been independently judged as carrying out work to a high and impactful standard.
Giving examples of previous work in the form of case studies can help prospective clients to feel confident in your abilities.
It can sometimes be tricky to get sign-off from previous clients to use their data, so you may need to obfuscate it slightly.
Make sure you have permission to share any details, especially if it is from work you did before you became a consultant!
Recommendations And References
Just like you might need to provide for a newly employed role, having referees available to prospective clients can help them to understand what it will be like working with you.
Having a couple of current or previous clients happy to provide references can benefit a consultant.
Platforms like LinkedIn also allow you to request and receive recommendations that can go a long way to instilling trust in your work.
Additionally, although not as impartial, written recommendations on your own website may help convert prospective clients.
Although there is no commonly accepted SEO qualification, several tools, agencies, and organizations offer certification in search.
Choosing to undertake their training and examination to receive a certification might seem redundant if you have been in the industry for many years, but it can help prove that your knowledge is current and your understanding reaches a standard.
Additionally, certifications in adjacent areas like analytics, data science, and programming can all help to demonstrate your particular skill set.
Consider certifications in specific SEO and analytics-focused tools.
These can show clients you can use their tool-stack without additional training.
Who Hires SEO Consultants And Why?
There are many types of organizations that would contract SEO consultants. It may be their only SEO resource or to complement an existing team or roster of freelancers.
Small businesses that can’t afford their own internal resource will often reach out to SEO consultants.
SEO consultants often have lower overheads than agencies and may be cheaper to work with. This can be an appealing alternative to cash-strapped organizations.
Rounding Out A Team
Brands with an existing SEO team may use contractors to bolster their resources or fill a specific skill gap.
For instance, a brand looking to appear in Google Discovery for the first time may want outside advice on how best to do that if their internal team has no experience with it.
Filling A Temporary Gap
There may be a need to increase resources during busier seasons or to cover an extended leave of existing employees.
If an employee leaves the organization, a consultant might fill the gap while hiring a replacement.
Some agencies may not have SEO provisions but want to partner with a consultant to offer that service to existing clients.
They may also want to test the water of how adding SEO to their services will work before hiring an employee to cover it.
Consultants can offer support without the cost of hiring, training, and employee benefits.
Similar to brands that require temporary help in busier seasons, agencies might require an additional person in their team to bridge employee leave, skills gaps or to consult on specific industry projects.
Agencies can often offer repeat work for consultants for this reason.
Support With Hiring
A very niche project you might find yourself available to do as an SEO consultant is that of hiring support.
So rather than filling a skills gap yourself, you may be a consultant on the hiring of employed SEO professionals.
For organizations with no, or very junior, SEO teams, it can be difficult for the hiring manager to know enough about SEO to make a wise decision.
Consultants can bring their expertise to the recruitment process.
They might also recommend a job description, review CVs, and even conduct interviews.
Setting Up A Department
Along with helping with recruitment, SEO contractors might also help create a department from scratch.
This can be the case when a team is needed, but hiring talent at a senior level is proving difficult or too slow.
The SEO contractor might help create the department and potentially lead it until a permanent senior hire.
Considerations For Becoming An SEO Consultant
Ultimately, there is a lot to consider when moving from employed to contract work. It can be an exciting and liberating move, but it also risks.
When you become an SEO consultant, you will trade the structure of a corporate world for the freedom of being independent.
That includes no longer having a manager.
- You are the boss! You get to make decisions that previously would be gatekept by your employer or more senior team members. Now, you are free to make those decisions yourself.
- There is no one to disagree with your decisions or to say “no” to them. If you think something is worth trying, you do not need to get sign-off from a superior.
- You now have lots of bosses. It’s been said that moving to freelance means going from one boss to every client and stakeholder, essentially being your boss. They can still say no to you. You have more freedom to walk away from the project, but ultimately, you will need to concede sometimes if you want to earn money.
Legal And Financial Implications
You will need to follow laws, taxes to pay, and additional costs to being a consultant that you will need to be aware of.
All of this may affect your finances.
- Any money you make is for you to decide what to do with. The harder and smarter you work, the more you can be rewarded financially. No paying for your boss’s Tesla!
- You have the freedom to be generous with your money. Your business can offer discounts for charities and free training for schools.
- All legal and financial obligations fall to you. The cost of non-compliance can be high both financially and on your time.
- Getting the right advice can be costly. You may need to use the services of accountants, tax advisors, and lawyers.
Pick And Choose Projects
SEO consultants have much greater freedom to decide who they want to work with and on what projects.
- As an SEO consultant, there is more freedom to choose who you want to work with and what projects you want to work on. If you don’t enjoy a particular client set-up or disagree with the industry they are in, you can turn down the offer to pitch. This isn’t usually the case when you are working agency-side, for instance, where you might be expected to work with whichever client you are assigned.
- Being rigid in choosing who you work with and what you work on might be more challenging if you struggle to find clients. When employed in-house, you can choose the industry and the company set-up that suits you. In some agencies, you may be allowed to turn down work in certain industries you disagree with. Picking and choosing your projects as a consultant could mean not bringing in enough revenue on occasions.
Pitch For Work
You will have to develop your own business pipeline, including generating leads and ultimately converting them. This will likely mean pitching and contract negotiation.
- You won’t be in the situation again where someone has sold “the moon on a stick” and expects you to deliver it. You will be fully aware of your time, resources, and ability limitations and can pitch for work that fits that.
- There should be greater freedom to showcase your abilities and demonstrate how you can help a prospective client.
- Not everyone enjoys the pitching process. It can be nerve-wracking and distracts from SEO execution’s day job. It’s not for everyone.
- It can take time to put together winning proposals. They are necessary to keep work coming in but have to balance with the time requirements for actually completing client work.
Set Your Own Fee
Although dictated mainly by the type of client you want to work with and the market you are operating in, you will get to decide how much you charge.
- There may be greater autonomy to decide how much you want to charge for your work. You can essentially set your own salary as long as you can win the work to support it.
- You can choose exactly how many hours and what work you are willing to do for that fee.
- It’s hard to get the pricing right. You may be tempted to charge what your last agency did for your time, but in reality, SEO consultants may struggle to charge high fees when they first set out unless they have good case studies and examples to back up the quality of their work.
- Figuring out what to charge and what type of client you will need to sustain can be a bit of trial and error. Some leads may think you are over-priced; others may have been willing to pay more if asked for it.
Depending on where you are working, the difference in employment rights for the employed and what you are entitled to as an independent contractor might be vastly different.
Beyond the legal rights you may be granted as an employed SEO, there are also likely additional benefits offered by your employer.
- You have greater freedom to choose the benefits that best fit your lifestyle. You can choose a medical insurance plan that works for your health needs. You can decide if the positives of having a company car outweigh the tax implications of one.
- You will not be automatically entitled to statutory holiday, sick leave, or other benefits afforded by your government to employed workers.
- Maintaining the standard of living that you had as an employed SEO might be difficult once you go freelance. If you relied on your company’s great dental plan or loved the training budget, becoming a consultant might take some adjustment.
You Only Get Paid If You Issue Invoices
There are no “pros” for this one.
It’s essentially one of the most challenging aspects of being an SEO consultant.
If you can’t work for some reason, such as illness or holiday, you will not be able to bill for work. If you don’t bill for work, then you won’t get paid.
Unlike employment which may still pay you if you can’t work, that will not be something you get as a freelance SEO consultant.
If you can’t send out invoices, or worse, you do, but they don’t get paid, you may struggle to make your own payroll.
SEO consultants’ day-to-day working lives may look very similar to employed SEO experts in terms of work.
However, there are often additional complexities beyond SEO activity that can make it a scary prospect for some.
Taking the plunge into the freelance SEO world can be liberating, however. There is greater freedom in choosing what you want to do and when.
Some choose to dip their toe in consultancy work on the side of their regular job (if allowed by their employer).
This can help with the learning curve of running a business while in the safety of employment.
You may have no intention of leaving employment, but it is always good to keep an eye on the market. You may not want to be an SEO consultant yourself but need to hire one.
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