The Number 1 Mistake New SEO Consultants Make

After having spent more than a decade in this industry as both an affiliate marketer and a provider of various SEO services, I’ve seen a lot of new folks enter the ranks, with their aim being to become a successful SEO consultant.

oopsAnd as a result, I’ve seen a lot of things done right – and a lot of things done wrong – as they aim to achieve that goal.

Hoping that people can learn from the mistakes myself and my colleagues often see new SEO consultants make when entering the industry, I recently asked a group of successful search engine marketing folks:

“What is the number one mistake you see new consultants in the search engine marketing space make when attempting to build their consulting business?”

Their answers are below:

Rand Fishkin | SEOMoz
randfish“Those attempting to grow a “consulting business” have a far different set of responsibilities/priorities than those simply seeking to be successful individual consultants. The primary one is scalability – that means spreading your brand’s marketing and expertise to a team that can grow, not building up a personal brand that won’t extend to others. One of the biggest reasons I failed to scale a consulting business (many years ago now) was because I didn’t think strategically about scalability and instead focused on personal branding. That was a costly mistake, and had Moz not changed direction to software, it may well have meant that we’d never grown as a consulting business.”
Loren Baker | Search Engine Journal
loren baker“The worst mistake I’ve seen so many new consultants make when they break into the industry is trying to make a name for themselves by spreading controversy, aggressively confronting seasoned professions and sputtering nonsense on Twitter or at conferences.

The worst thing you can do is create a negative first impression within this industry or any other. By alienating others, you will essentially lower your ceiling and growth — because no one forgets a first impression.”
Greg Finn | Cypress North
greg finn“The biggest issue that I have seen by those new to the space is that they stretch themselves too far, thereby providing inferior work. Instead of staffing up & adequately training individuals, many consulting firms tend to simply add clients on-board, overloading work and diluting the output for each client. I would stress that you should work as part of the client’s team, go above and beyond expectations and take care of your current business. Additional business will come naturally and more easily with a better reputation. Personally I would rather have 2 ecstatic clients than 10 unhappy clients; moderation is key.”
Michael Martin | Covario
michael martin“The number one mistake from a business standpoint new search consults often do is not properly protecting themselves legally within their contracts to clients and vendors – a close 2nd would be accurately defining the scope and expectations with the client in a consulting contract.”
Aaron Wall | SEOBook
aaron wall“I think one of the biggest mistakes consultants make is pushing selling too hard & taking on some clients that are not worth having. Running some test sites on the side can provide you with more information about how the algorithms are changing, a free test lab, and the cashflow needed to still do well when consulting requests are light, such that you keep up a stable income and can better price your time at market rates & only work with clients who value your time at or above how your own projects perform.”
Debra Mastaler | Alliance-Link
debra mastaler“They spend too much time focused on building a “reputation” in the SEO community and not enough on securing experience they can use as a sales tool. Think about it this way…if what you’re doing isn’t something you’d add to a resume and hand over in an interview, it’s not something you should be spending a lot of time on. Focus on activities that develop reputation and net experience at the same time.”
Kenny Hyder | Hyder Media
kenny hyder“Too much time spent ‘working’ on things that don’t bring them clients.”
Todd Malicoat | Market Motive
todd malicoat“Most new consultants don’t charge enough. When you decide to work for yourself as a consultant, it is very to easy to forget that you have lots of other responsibilities including accounting, research, health insurance, writing or speaking to drum up new business, and many other responsibilities you didn’t have before. While all this can seem daunting, it’s also very rewarding when you become self sufficient, and start making your own schedule. It’s brutal at first, but if you can make it sustainable and find ways to grow and improve it is immensely rewarding and empowering.

Be sure to charge enough to account for your services to account for these other things, and have a bit saved so you can occasionally break up with a client that suck.

Two of my favorite posts on the topic from Aaron Wall:

Three other bonus tips would be:
1. Make friends, and graciously learn from someone by apprenticing or helping them.

2. Be respectful of the folks that came before you (even the kind of douchey ones). As big as SEO is – it’s still kind of a small world.”
Chris Winfield | BlueGlass
chris winfield“Relying more on what they read (on blogs/Twitter/etc) than on what they do (experiment, test, prove).”
Lee Odden | Top Rank Marketing
lee odden“A lot of new consultants focus on the same things everyone else does. Especially now, it’s important to differentiate by picking one specific thing you’re awesome at and be the king of that thing. Once you gain a client base, you can always diversify. Not being different than the crowd or specific in what you have to offer is a big mistake when developing a consulting business – in my opinion.”
Derek Halpern | Social Triggers
derek halpern“The number one mistake I see consultants make—both NEW and EXPERIENCED—is offering too many services.

The thought is this: “I don’t want to lose out on potential customers, so I’ll offer anything and everything.” However, what happens is this: people see that they’re unspecialized and go after someone who is.

But what about agencies who offer several services? How do they pull it off?

Well, they’ve likely been doing it for a while. When people just start out, they’ve got to build their business, and the best way to do that is to specialize and become known as the BEST at one particular service.

Then, after they build that authority, they can expand, mainly because they’ll be able to take advantage of the Halo Effect (people see people with one positive trait, and assume other, unrelated traits are positive too).”
Brad Geddes | BGTheory
brad geddes“The number one mistake is easy: Not charging enough. Work from value based consulting fees to make sure you are getting paid for the value you are delivering. Of course, the second most common mistake is overcharging and overstating your value. You must know what you bring to the client so that at the end of the engagement, you are both happy, successful, and making money.”

What do YOU see being done wrong by new consultants? Speak up in the comments. :)

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Sugarrae runs on the Genesis Framework

Genesis Framework

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  1. Thanks for such a great group of experts and actionable comments. I teach and consult on Internet Marketing based on a decade of success of, my main business.

    I have recently launched as a training and resource website as well as expanded my marketing and client recruitment. It has been challenging and I have been spread thin. I have experience, recommendations and crazy skills on my side but I only have so many hours in a day even with a talented team around me. Thanks for saving me some time avoiding dumb mistakes.

    BTW, I particularly liked the comment about charging too little. As I switched away from a steady stream of referrals and moved into business development I need to charge more to keep the ship afloat. I have made up for higher rates by diversifying skills across a team of lower paid specialists. Same quality but less expensive to train my staff and simply review reports.

    Thanks again for a fine read.

  2. Nice post indeed! I have often seen examples of the combined answer from Loren Baker and Chris Winfield: Relying on info written by other SEOs trying to make a name by writing controversial articles. Unfortunately, this also applies to some clients, which just makes the job so much harder.

  3. Awesome question to get answered Rae! I agree with everything that was said in the article and would like to add one as well….A big mistake I see new (and even some experienced) SEO’s make is using paid clients as their testing grounds. I HATE this and know it happens a lot.

  4. Some great points, Totally agree with Chris from Bluegrass, where you see newbie’s just reading and absorbing everything on the net, good and bad. But when it comes to action, there’s nothing there.

  5. Taking on clients then not paying enough attention to them.

    In my experience you can do the best job in the world for a client but if communication is poor then they might often not appreciate the results that are bein achieved or the work that is going on behind the scenes. Similarly it may take a while to get the results they need, but with regular feedback and good communication, the good clients will be a lot more patient.

  6. Great read here. Really enjoyed the insights. Wish I would have read it years ago but definitely some actionable items to take into 2012.

    Thanks again. Will keep the charging what your worth, specializing at what you do best instead of trying to be an end all be all, and continuing to test a major focus to grow the business.

  7. There are many ways to doing it wrong.

    The classic one in SEO is the texting of the website.
    Many of my clients want to rank high on words that don´t even in there website. And there former consultant had said it was no problem, and just made the title tag an enumeration of keywords and expecting that would do the trick ;o)

  8. That was a cool post! Another mistake is constant change. I see some consultants constantly changing their offerings, repackaging… This mostly comes when starting something without a clear plan of what you want to do. My mistake was to think people will come to me, things changed when i targeted who i want to work with/for, and just went for it! Cheers

  9. I’ve seen and coached some recent SEO consultants and their biggest problem was trying to know EVERYTHING. Instead of breaking down their core competencies and offering packages that made sense, were achievable, and brought both parties value.

    Also don’t be a douche on Twitter / blogs / or conferences… This is still a pretty small industry. I’ve heard stories of newb’s pissing off seasoned pro’s only to have that seasoned pro rank for their name hours later… ;)

  10. One mistake that I found myself making historically is letting unengaged clients hold you back. It’s easy to do the minimum for someone who sends you a check each month then doesn’t respond to your emails, but you’re not going to grow your skillset that way. Break up with them or do the work on something cool then ask them to sign off once it’s about ready to launch.

  11. I have no desire to be a SEO Consultant, any more than a ‘Social Media Expert’, but, I find this post enlightening and interesting. Great input from various points of view.

  12. Great post; solid advice from experts in the field. Greg Finn’s post in particular resonates with me the strongest and is something I can personally relate to in my own field. It’s not worth spreading yourself too thin in an effort to get as many clients as possible – this is a typical rookie mistake and one I’ve made myself in the past. You’ll be much more successful in the long term if you limit yourself to a smaller number of clients with whom you build a strong working relationship and can hand in your best work every single time.

  13. Very interesting post. I am at the beginning stages of contemplating becoming an SEO consultant, however, the time and effort that needs to be put into just one site on a continual basis absolutely overwhelmes me. It is a hot topic right now and I do love the entire process, but I don’t know how a 1 man shop can have multiple clients and perform solid SEO and SEM on their websites…

  14. Love that you pulled together so many people’s opinions, it’s really interesting to see the overlaps. Thanks for another super-useful article!

  15. I believe the number one mistake that SEO consultants make is not educating their customers as to all of the different methods that can be utilized to obtain the customers own stated goals. I believe that SEO consultants in general spend to much of their focus on the importance of SEO on a theoretical plane and not enough on the practical aspects.

    I feel so strongly about these ideas, that I am not willing to even “truly call myself an SEO consultant” primarily because my main goals as a former print media advertising space salesman is the more simple concept of driving traffic to the clients websites, improving their Alexa ratings, and generally making the customers websites more visible in very crowded, competitive and ever growing world wide web.

    Stephen C. Sanders
    Social -Low Cost Solutions For Newly Developed Websites

  16. I’ve been dabbing more into SEO services.

    As a holistic web designer, I’ve taken an holistic approach. Do heavy planning, have a strategy for the business, create the website for the right UX, develop the right content, and make sure the coding is optimized.

    The right content focused and developed will bring the right traffic, interaction and experience you want.

    And analytics will answer these questions.

  17. Great post at a critical juncture in our own business.

    Despite jumping to #1 for “seattle seo” 8 months after we opened our doors and having plenty of “potential clients” contact us, it definitely wasn’t as easy as 1, 2, 3.

    We suffered from what Aaron Wall and Todd Malicoat mentioned this past year+ in our consultancy. We didn’t know how to say “no” to a few we probably should of said “no” to which ended up taking up too much of our time and we failed to help them in the end anyway. Like Todd said, “Most new consultants don’t charge enough,” which was very true for us and we almost went out of business because of it.

    At one point, we thought we were going to expand to every city, but we took a few steps back and have been trying to build back up properly utilizing a lot of what many here have said. I wish we would of found this post earlier, but then again, we probably wouldn’t have learned as much without our failures either.

    Appreciate the post!

  18. I think one of the biggest mistakes Seo consultants make is a derivative of two factors:
    1. Trying to do every kind of work.
    2. Not focusing on your strong sides.

    What I mean is: that many seo consultants try to take on extra work in all fields of competition without focusing on the seo field they are the best at.

    Here’s an example of what I mean:
    If you needed financial advice on your taxes, would you hire a financial merger and acquisitions consultant? or a financial tax consultant? a tax consultant is the right answer!

    The same goes for Seo consultants depending on their work experience. They should only give consulting services in their field of expertise.

  19. This was a perfect post to start the year, and crowdsourcing the answers via big name SEOs was a fantastic idea and ensured good linking to the post. :-) Where is the Sugarrae response though? I would love to hear your advice too.

    I like Rand’s advice about scale and being careful not to go overboard with personal branding. I feel that if you want to go from consultant to consulting company then this is key, and difficult. Because chances are you’ve been working on your personal brand for years and now you have to think differently. Of course something that Rand did not mention is that you still have to keep your personal brand going too. The brand “Rand Fishkin” has carried SEOmoz for a long time and without that it would have been tough, if not impossible, for the firm to grow. So it goes both ways.

  20. The biggest mistake they make is

    1. Trying to rank their own sites for terms like seo – seo company – seo expert – etc etc instead of working hard to get client results which lead to referrals

    2. Bulls+++ing potential clients with over promises “we can make you rank number 1″ which of course no one can actually promise (well maybe Matt Cutts!) and all is does is turn what is a professional skilled industry into a hated one compared with estate agents, snake oil and con artists.

    3. Not actually learn any SEO what so ever and just offer the services, I see this a lot with design agencies and freelance developers, they see £££ signs and have read a few ebooks and think its a quick route to cash, you can basically loop back round to my point 2. here, but also add in that the years of trust they have built up with their clients has dispersed along with their business.

  21. Two things I can add:
    – Not speaking the language of their clients (being too much into the industry jargon, that is)
    – Pushing your own site in a way that shouts SPAM all across – try explaining that to potential clients or industry peers

  22. Todd Malicoat’s response reminds me of great advice I received a few years ago from, of all people, a client of mine. Todd talked about making sure you charge enough to cover all of your expenses. While I believe Todd makes a great point, I believe you can take that advice to another level and think of it this way: “Never underestimate your value.”

    My client told me that move people underestimate the value that they deliver. She told me to raise my rates because what I had to offer was of far greater value than what I was charging.

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