SEO as a Service [A Definitive Guide]

Grow Your Freelance or Agency Business

Looking to grow your freelance or agency business? Wondering how you can you take your company to the next level this year? Do you like solving problems and creating strong partnerships with your customers? Then consider adding SEO services to your offerings.

Learn how to pitch, price and apply a process to SEO services. The end result is a new line of business and the recurring revenue that comes with it!

Ten years ago, we started an SEO agency called webShine. Over the years, we’ve worked with thousands of businesses — small to large — providing SEO services. Along the way, we developed a unique and streamlined process to pitch, price, and serve our customers — creating a win-win solution for both our clients and our agency.

Freelancers and agencies realized the value of the process we created, so they began asking us to share it. They, too, wanted to offer SEO as a service, and they needed an accessible yet effective way to do that.

Our solution was to create Pathfinder SEO, a guided SEO platform. In it, we compiled our evolving expertise into a guided experience that streamlines the SEO process. We’ve broken SEO into effective, manageable tasks, and give you our roadmap for implementing and managing SEO for any client.

Freelancers and agencies started using this guided approach to service the SEO needs of their clients. Realizing that they had a powerful process they could employ, they started asking us how to sell SEO services. So, we created a roadmap in the form of this guide.

In this definitive guide to SEO as a Service, we will cover:

Introduction: Why add SEO as a service? Why not?

Three Ingredients for Success:

  1. Pitching
  2. Pricing
  3. Process

Frequently Asked Questions

(Please note: This guide is not an introduction to SEO. If you'd like to know how the search engines work and how you can break SEO down into four distinct pillars, consider reading our SEO 101 guide first.)

Introduction: Why add SEO as a service? Why not?

Before embarking on growing your business by offering SEO services, first, pause to ask why you may or may not want to do such a thing. We’ll help.

Why add SEO as a service?

  1. Maintain Relationships – Stay in touch with your clients by establishing an ongoing partnership. Create the opportunity to communicate consistently with your client and learn how their business evolves and grows.
  2. Solve a Problem – Getting found in Google is a nearly universal problem and you can solve it for your clients. They will be grateful!
  3. Win New Business – When you can offer SEO as a service, your sales pitches will be more powerful. By pairing an effective web presence (web design/development services) with increased business for your client (via organic search services), you’ll be able to pitch your ability to solve two problems at once.
  4. Add to Your SEO Arsenal- Site speed, user experience, responsive design… Do these phrases sound familiar? You’re already improving your clients’ search engine results, maybe without even knowing it. But learning to communicate more effectively about the benefits of SEO and adding in some new action items will dramatically increase the value you provide.
  5. Build Recurring Revenue – SEO is a great ongoing add-on service which complements your existing monthly maintenance contracts. You can easily grow your business with this stable and predictable revenue stream.

Why not offer SEO as a service?

Adding a new service to your business is a big commitment. Take the time to do your due diligence by carefully considering the counterarguments.

Here’s why you might shy away from offering SEO services:

  1. Lack of SEO Expertise – The number one reason why freelancers and agencies decide against offering SEO services themselves is perceived lack of expertise. They’re concerned their clients will see through their lack of experience and question the validity of the proposal. We've worked with hundreds of site owners, freelancers and agencies over the years and we've found that you don't have to be an SEO expert to get great SEO results. You simply need an effective, proven process and a coach.
  2. SEO is Overwhelming – It's a commonly echoed sentiment. And it’s true that the search engine algorithms are complicated. There’s a lot of data, and a huge landscape of frequently updated and upgraded tools to keep up with. We've found that if you break SEO down into its component parts (the four pillars of SEO) and take a step by step approach, SEO isn't overwhelming at all.
  3. SEO Changes Too Much – SEO goes through more consistent evolution than it does repeated drastic upheavals. It’s like running a marathon – you want to stay the course and yet always be aware of your surroundings so that you can slightly shift direction if needed. Pathfinder SEO takes a holistic approach which means we’re always paying attention and thinking ahead so we can easily adapt as SEO evolves. We make sure you can take action that’s fruitful in both the short and the long term.

Three Ingredients for Success: Pitch, Pricing & Process

If you want to successfully launch a new service offering, you’ll want to focus on the pitch, your pricing, and a process to deliver the service. We call these “The Three Ps.”

Just as there are many ways to design and develop a website, there are a lot of ways you could approach the three Ps. In this guide, we will share what has worked well for our business. We welcome feedback from your experience as you implement these tips.

The First Ingredient: The Pitch - How to Sell SEO Services

As a web designer or developer, you likely already have a standard sales process. As you begin to offer SEO services, focus on these three tips to a successful pitch:

  1. Ask the Right Questions
  2. Avoid Industry Jargon
  3. Set Clear Expectations

Pitch Tip #1 — Ask the Right Questions

Start your pitch by asking, not telling. There are two important questions we ask all prospects right away:

Question 1: How have you approached SEO in the past?

This simple question is a great way to start the conversation. Listen carefully to your prospect's response. What you hear will be loaded with valuable information, including:

— Importance: How valued SEO has been to date within the prospect’s organization?
— Experience: How experienced is your potential customer? What language do they use when talking about SEO? If they’re chatting about “Google Analytics” and “Google Search Console,” for example, you can assume they are reasonably well versed. If, however, they reference SEO as “sea-oh” instead of S-E-O, then you know their experience is limited.
— Expectations: Does the prospect have reasonable expectations? Is their desired timeline for results in line with the long-term investment that successful SEO requires?
— People: Who are the team members involved in marketing and sales within the organization? What roles do they play? Who is the decision maker? Who will be your primary point of contact?

Once you’ve noted the answers to the above, ask some follow-up questions and take a deeper dive into each of the topics.

Question 2: What would your business look like if Google sent you twice as much traffic as you get today?

Move from selling “SEO” to selling the arrival at the desired destination. Instead of pitching the prospect all the reasons traffic growth “should” matter, let the prospect pitch you with their own vision. As your prospect paints a picture of what business will look like when they “arrive,” you'll notice their excitement growing. Learn more about the specific value your prospect places on growth. Then, show your prospect that you don't just care about short-term growth, but you care about their business's future.

Pitch Tip #2 — Avoid Industry Jargon

Have you ever gone to the doctor with a problem only to be given a diagnosis in words you couldn't understand? It's a common experience to be spoken to by a physician in words that mean nothing to you. How would that make you feel? Confused? Alienated? Frustrated?

Using industry jargon is also a common trap for SEO professionals. In the beginning, search engine optimization was often a back-office initiative. Meaning that, for better or worse, services were shrouded as magical and sold under the pretense that SEO was too complicated for mere mortals.

Prospects were made to believe there was no way they could ever understand SEO, let alone do it themselves. SEO professionals further perpetuated this stereotype by using phrases like “XML sitemap” and “301 redirects,” which baffled their prospects and customers. These prospects felt backed into a corner as if signing on the dotted line was their only option.

In today's world, this story has changed for the better! SEO is now a collaborative endeavor. This collaborative approach must begin during the sales process.

Your prospects will feel your value when they walk away from a discovery conversation having clearly understood your pitch. The best way to create that understanding is by consciously using simple and straightforward “everyday” language. Avoid industry jargon in all communications – emails, calls, meetings, and even in the final proposal.

The phrases below represent words that “mean something” within the SEO industry. They are part of our common vocabulary (or will become part). But, they likely mean little to our prospects.

SEO Jargon

Any time you are tempted to use one of these phrases, consider a substitute with real-world meaning:

— Instead of “SEO”, try “Getting Found in Search”
— Instead of “XML Sitemap,” try “Your Website's Resume”
— Instead of “Featured Snippet,” try “Being Featured Above #1”
— Instead of “Link Building,” try “Building Authority Online via your Professional Relationships”

If you find these helpful, read more of our tips for communicating with SEO clients.

Pitch Tip #3 — Set Clear Expectations

It's important to set clear expectations throughout the sales process. This includes:

Set Collaboration Expectations: SEO is collaborative; to succeed in helping a business build expertise, authority, and trust online, you and your client will need to work together. After all, your client's industry expertise really matters. From the very beginning, your prospect needs to understand — and approve of — what their involvement will look like.

Will they need to create a weekly or monthly blog post? How will they be involved in link building? At Pathfinder SEO, we often break down the distribution of efforts by telling our clients, “We can execute on 80% of the scope of work interdependently. We're going to need your collaboration for the other 20%.” The exact percentages depend on what type of SEO arrangement we are pitching — more to follow on this in the pricing and process section.

Set a Timeline for Results: The most frequently asked question during the sales process is, “When will I see results?” SEO is a long-term investment that pays dividends down the road. But how far down the road? Be sure to be transparent and discuss this up front so that after just one month of SEO services, your client isn't complaining about not yet being #1 for an extremely competitive keyword. Google itself says that you typically need at least four months to a year to help a business implement improvements and then see potential benefits.

Set Specific Next Steps: What do you need from your prospect to be able to deliver a proposal? Do you like to look at a prospect’s Google Analytics? Do you need to take a look at their current content management system? Be sure you always clearly communicate who is responsible for what deliverables for the next steps. Specify when the prospect can expect to receive a proposal. Most importantly, follow through with delivering the proposal on time as that sets the tone with how respectful you are of timelines.

The Pitch: A Summary

If you succeed in these three aspects of your pitch, you'll be miles ahead of the competition:

  1. Ask the Right Questions
  2. Avoid Industry Jargon
  3. Set Clear Expectations

The Second Ingredient: Pricing - How to Price SEO Services

SEO Pricing Models

The first ingredient of pricing is a pricing model. SEO services are typically sold with one of the following arrangements:

  1. One-time
  2. Monthly
  3. One-time + Monthly

1. One-time

We rarely see one-time SEO services lead to a strong return on investment. If we liken SEO to a marathon, then a one-time project is a sprint-and-stop approach to tackling the 26 miles. It is neither efficient nor effective.

SEO evolves. So too does your customer's business.

One-time projects are often selected for budget reasons — a customer may not want to commit to another monthly expense. The original intention may be for you to jump-start  a client’s results with a one-time project, and then your client may intend to continue with the monthly effort – content expansion, link building, getting reviews in Google Maps, etc.

But there’s a (good, in our experience) chance that your client’s efforts will peter out, which will lead to a call six to twelve months later with complaints about the lack of results from your work. Avoid this trap by coaching the prospect during your pitch. Clearly explain why a one-time investment in SEO is less than ideal or perhaps not even an option.

2. Monthly

The best way to approach a long-term endeavor like SEO is with a steady, methodical approach. A monthly investment also creates an ongoing partnership between you and the customer, whereby you apply consistent effort while remaining nimble enough to adapt to the inevitable and continual evolution of both the search engines and your customer's business.

Take, for example, the launch of a new product within an organization. Often, SEO is an afterthought, considered only after the launch has fallen flat. If you’re instead talking to your client each month about their business and web presence, you would have learned of the launch with enough advance notice to create and recommend a strategy, collaborate and ultimately succeed.

Are you encountering resistance? Your prospect may have one or two main concerns as it relates to monthly services:

Deliverable Concerns: Will you truly deliver every month? The SEO industry, sadly, is rife with stories of customers being deceived by agencies collecting a monthly fee without delivering any ROI return. You may need to overcome preconceived notions that all SEO's operate according to a fraudulent business plan.

Overcome these concerns with clear communication at the outset. Will your proposal include details regarding deliverables for the first three to six months? How will you communicate what was accomplished and what is in the roadmap for the coming month? Will your agreement require a long- term commitment from the prospect, or can they go month-to-month?

Expense Concerns: We are all faced with recurring expenses. Your prospect may be concerned about adding another line item to their monthly costs. Can you justify the additional expense for your client? Connect the dots by using case studies and examples of previous successes that will show them the value of their investment.

3. One-time + Monthly

We have found that a combination of a one-time project followed by a commitment to monthly services seems to be an effective model for some prospects. The one-time project at the outset allows you to jump-start your efforts by focusing on foundational aspects of SEO. (At Pathfinder SEO, these foundational action items are in our SEO Checklist.) We often call the completion of these foundational items an “SEO Set Up,” which is a great way to kickstart a campaign.

The initial kickstart is then followed by a monthly engagement to consistently improve on the new foundation. We’ve found that requiring a 3-6 month commitment following the one-time project is necessary for the best results. As noted, one-time SEO is neither effective nor long-term. A one-time project is really just meant to jumpstart your efforts by moving several months worth of effort into a shorter time frame. And once things get rolling, it’s not possible to maintain a campaign’s momentum without ongoing attention.

Offering Tiers of Services

With a pricing model in hand, we can create tiers of services. We have found that offering three different tiers is comprehensive while remaining straightforward. Each tier accomplishes one of the following goals:

Awareness: The first tier of service is for those wondering, “How do I get started?” It is an introductory level of service where you’re providing the business with a monthly report, ongoing communications and training, and a very small list of actionable tasks each month. Often with awareness plans, we are asking the client to take on most of the heavy lifting. For example, we may suggest specific blog posts based on our keyword research, but the client actually drafts and publishes all content.

Action: The second tier of service is for those asking, “How do I get results?” With the mid-level plan, you continue to provide monthly reports, ongoing communications, and training, but inject more specific customized action items. The client is still part of the collaboration, but you too will take on tasks. In the content example from the previous tier, you might suggest blog post topics and then provide outlines for the longer posts based on your keyword research. The client may draft the copy based on your outline, and then you would publish, optimize, and promote the post.

Acceleration: The top tier of service is for those wondering, “How do I get next year's results this year?”This is a tier for a business ready to move faster. With an acceleration plan, you are providing the same services as the second tier. But in order to accelerate results, you’re moving several initiatives forward in parallel every month. You may be working on technical SEO action items while simultaneously creating new content and link building.

Pricing by Competition/Industry

Pricing model and tiers of service established, we now need to establish base prices for each tier. The right price depends on the competition within the industry space. You may break down your pricing model as follows:

Businesses with local competition and low advertising spend. Ie, local businesses. Business landscapes with some large players and medium ad spend. Ie, travel. Businesses with high competition and high spend. Ie, insurance, manufacturing, technology.
Awareness $300/mo $500/mo $1,500/mo
Action $625/mo $1,250/mo $3,000/mo
Accelerative $1,250/mo $2,500/mo $5,000/mo +++

Pricing Your Value, Not Your Hours

As you create your pricing, it’s important to price your value, not your hours. Your value may include:

— Your past experience with SEO.
— Your in-depth knowledge of a client’s business, audience, and website.
— Your ability to determine what will have the most impact and to follow through with action.
— The unique process you contribute.

The value you provide doesn’t have to be experience if you’re just getting started with SEO. Your value may be one or more of the others (or even items not on this list!). What is most essential is that the prospect understands your value before you present your pricing.

That being said, it’s important to stop in the beginning and make sure your pricing at least covers your hourly rate + expenses. For example, you’ll want to do some basic math to subtract your costs from your price points — Costs might be SEO software, coaching, or anything you need to fully deliver the service. Then, divide by your desired hourly rate.

Make sure your time estimates are in line with the actual commitment the service will require. For example, you may factor in:

Monthly Reporting: The time to prepare a monthly report and deliver it to the customer.
Communications: Calls and meetings.
Action Items: How much task-oriented work you will be doing on behalf of the customer.

More to follow on these items under process.

You’ll know your pricing and pitch were successful when the prospect walks away feeling that your value exceeds your price.

The Third Ingredient: Process - How to Deliver SEO Services

You nailed the pitch and pricing. Your prospect signed the agreement and now you need to deliver exceptional service and results. What will that look like? First and foremost, you need to follow a standard process.

Our SEO process includes the following delivered each and every month:

Reporting

Communication & Collaboration

Action Items

Reporting

A monthly recap of results is a must. Your customer cares about broader business objectives — growing revenue, generating leads, building brand exposure, etc. Your monthly report needs to clearly define how your SEO campaign affects those objectives.

Google provides three tools that are invaluable for monthly reporting:

— Google Analytics
— Google Search Console
— Google My Business

These tools are free for all and are the best starting point for creating monthly reports.

Now, you’ll need to bring the data from all three sources together into a standard report. Here are a couple options to make this easy:

Google Data Studio: Create custom, interactive dashboards for your clients via the Google Data Studio (GDS). GDS syncs directly with Google Analytics and Google Search Console. You can also utilize a third-party integration via Supermetrics to pull in data from Google My Business and more.

SEO Software: Many SEO software platforms support monthly reporting. For example, MozPro and SEMRush allow you to create custom monthly reports. Pathfinder SEO also features monthly reports which your SEO coach sends each month along with helpful, custom insights. These reports come ready to share with your customers.

Communication & Collaboration

Reporting facilitates communication and collaboration. (The foundation of SEO is collaboration, which requires ongoing communication.) We have found that communicating with a client twice a month seems to be the most effective.

Here are our suggestions for those two monthly touch points:

Touch Point 1: Email
Start each month with the monthly report, attached to a personalized email. Stay away from automation here. Here’s an example email template:

Hi [Client Name],

Happy Spring! Attached is your[Month] SEO report. The website recorded [x] sessions from organic search in [Month], a [y]% increase compared to last [Month]. Revenue was strong with $[z] of transactions in [Month], an [a]% increase compared to last year.

Organic search continues to be the top performing channel and contributed to [b]% of the total site traffic!

Last month we focused our attention on link building. Our goal is to leverage your professional relationships into a network of links online that build your business’s authority online. Thank you for your help coordinating with [partner] to secure a link from their sponsor's page. That is a valuable win for the long run.

This month, we're focusing our attention on building expertise online. We noticed that one of your older blog posts [URL] is getting exposure for some great keywords such as [keyword]. We’d like to capitalize on this further by expanding this post from 500 words to 2,000 words. I’ll share a proposed outline for the content expansion so that [Name] can focus on the copy.

Looking forward to our standing monthly call on Monday, [Month] [Date].

Best,
[Your Name]

The monthly email should include an executive overview of results, a recap of what was accomplished last month and why, and a plan/explanation of this month’s strategy. Lastly ( and most importantly), you should confirm your monthly meeting date and time (or reach out to schedule that call, if one isn’t already on the books).

Touch Point 2: Meeting
The second touch point each month should be a call or in-person meeting. If collaborating remotely, we have found Zoom to be an easy conference tool that allows for both video conferencing and screen sharing. During the monthly meeting, we review the monthly report and focus heavily on action items. What are you working on this month on behalf of the client? What do you need the client to focus on?

Action Items

Too often, SEO campaigns are filled with gathering research and conducting audits, but lack definitive actions that will actually move the needle. In addition to strategy, you need to continually focus on tactical action items.

How much action you plan depends on the tier of service selected:

Awareness: The first tier of service is for clients wondering, “How do I get started?” Therefore, action items will be limited. For example, if you are focusing on building your client’s expertise via content marketing, then your role may be in creating the topics, then training your client on how to create complete content. The client will be responsible for the actions of writing, editing, and publishing the content.

Action: The second tier of service is for those asking, “How do I get results?” An upgrade to the example above may be that you both suggest blog post topics and provide outlines for the longer posts, based on keyword research you’ve completed. The client would draft copy based on your outline, then you would take on publishing, optimizing, and promoting the post for your client.

Accelerative: The top tier of service is for those wondering, “How do I get next year's results this year?” With an accelerative plan, you’re providing the second tier actions, but you’re also focusing on several monthly initiatives at the same time. For example, you may be working on action items within technical SEO at the same time as working on new content and link building

As an example, let’s take the pricing models of One-time and Monthly and break down specific potential action items for each.

We’ll follow Pathfinder SEO’s guided process:

One-time Pricing Model Example Action Items

  1. SEO 101 - Teach your clients how the search engines work and break down SEO into four pillars.
  2. Get Ready - Get organized with your website login, Google Analytics and Google Search Console access, and SEO wiring in place (for example, the Yoast SEO plugin in WordPress).
  3. Google Analytics - If your client doesn’t have Google Analytics, now is the time to set it up. If they do, review the configuration to make sure they have goals defined.
  4. Google Search Console - Monitor, maintain and troubleshoot your client’s website in Google’s search results with the Google Search Console.
  5. Keyword Research – Understand your customer's audience and the phrases they search for in Google. Start tracking keyword rankings.
  6. XML Sitemap & Robots.txt - Ensure the search engines have a seamless experience when crawling and indexing your client’s website.
  7. Secure & Mobile Friendly - Double-check to make sure your client’s website is HTTPS and mobile-friendly.
  8. Site Speed - Assess the current site speed and take action to speed it up where possible.
  9. Page Titles & Meta Descriptions - Put your best foot forward in the search results with great page titles and meta descriptions.
  10. On-Site SEO - Make sure your client’s website is sending search engines the right signals through alternative text, headers, and internal links.
  11. Content Review - Best-in-class content propels your client’s website to the first page of the search results. Assess the current content and map future content.
  12. Competition - Get an edge on the competition by knowing their strengths and weaknesses.

Monthly Pricing Model Example Action Items

On a monthly plan, we have found value in creating a focus area for the action items each month. Here’s an example:

Month 1 - Local Search: Go through a process to dial in your client’s local business presence. Our 3-step process looks like this:

3 Step Process for Local Search

Month 2 - Link Building: Introduce your client to link building via professional relationships. Work with your client to create a list of tactics and targets. Take action and get your first new link.

Month 3 - Create New Content: Return to the work done in step 11 of the one-time project above — a content review. Create a new piece of content or rework an existing piece. Our goal this month is to build expertise online by sharing more.

No matter what pricing model you settle on, Pathfinder SEO can help you easily identify the most impactful action items to execute for your clients on a monthly basis. When you sign up, your dedicated SEO coach will train you on how to identify the best action items to focus your efforts on every month.

Final Thoughts - Pitch, Pricing & Process

Great job! You have learned how to pitch, price and apply a process to SEO services! Share your experiences with us on Twitter or via email.

Frequently Asked Questions

What SEO software will I need?

We often see freelancers and agencies sign up for too many SEO softwares. In addition to shouldering mounting monthly costs, they also face data overload i.e. analysis paralysis. Instead of taking action, they get paralyzed by data and warnings.

Instead, take the time to review the best-in-class SEO software on the market and weigh the pros and cons of each. We like MozPro and SEMRush as enterprise-level software (for more robust campaigns with big data needs). Both options provide valuable data.

Pathfinder SEO takes a different approach to SEO software. We call our solution a “Guided SEO Platform.” We include the elements of the software you need — keyword research, rank tracking, and monthly reporting. Then, we layer in a dedicated SEO coach and a proven SEO process for you to follow. Most of our subscribers use Pathfinder SEO instead of traditional SEO software like MozPro or SEMRush, while others use us alongside one of those tools.

What if a client has a bad month in the results?

If you are concerned by the performance of a keyword, webpage, or the overall results, the best thing you can do is communicate this concern clearly and directly to your client. Be transparent; don’t hide bad results. Note what you found and do your best to define a specific why: Was the bad month the beginning of a trend for the worse, or was there just a bit of volatility in the data? Then, continue to follow up and make sure any clients concerns are being heard and addressed, rather than ignored

There are also elements of SEO that are beyond your control. For example, if a client is in a market that is shrinking, you’ll likely have less search volume than during the previous time period. Thus, you may be gaining in search visibility (rankings), yet seeing less overall traffic. A Pathfinder SEO coach can help you identify those items beyond your control. Alternatively, you can stay up with SEO news and best practices to ensure you have a firm grip on what is in your control and what is not.

Can I really do this?

Yes! You don’t have to be an SEO expert to offer SEO as a service. You just need a process and a willingness to do the work. A coach helps as well — check out our guided SEO coaching program to learn more.

Lindsay Halsey

Lindsay Halsey

Lindsay Halsey is a co-founder of Pathfinder SEO. She has over 10 years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. Lindsay focuses on teaching business owners and freelancers how to get found in Google, Yahoo, and Bing via a guided approach to SEO. Stay in touch on Twitter - @linds_halsey.