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What I’ve learned by starting a digital consulting business

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I’ve just launched a new consultancy website, Path Digital Services & Consulting, as of February 2018. This post explores on-the-job learnings in the past few years of SEO for agencies and small business clients alike.

After a year and change as an independent digital consultant based in Chicago, a few years prior to that as a hired gun freelancing for e-commerce businesses, startups, and agencies from Melbourne to Milwaukee — and a past life in the corporate world as a content strategist and writer — I’ve seen so many differing perspectives on what website “success” means (and what role SEO has in that, especially) that it’s led me to believe the biggest key to a well-executed website project win is simply to clearly define expectations upfront. Starting with a well-laid out proposal and clearly communicated goals can only help you exceed expectations overall in the client-consultant relationship.

So what should I expect as a client or consultant before initiating a website project?

It’s a simple question, but you’d be surprised how many massive web projects — entire website migrations — pick up momentum and launch without enough planning and foresight. (In hindsight, I wish every client I’d had as a freelancer had asked this question.)

seo consultant meeting
A successful client relationship starts by simply asking the right questions.

As a “lowest common denominator,” defining project launch expectations on the digital consultant side starts with…

• What are the client’s specific business objectives overall? (“Make more money” is always an underlying one; “gain a better understanding of my performance in the search market vs. competitor websites” is better)
• How am I expected (if hired) to meet them? (“Identify new opportunities for targeting business-critical keywords and improve in specific search positions”; “develop a content marketing plan with X posts/month”; “target engagement metrics X, Y and increase paths to conversion sitewide”)
• What do they expect to be delivered? (Think transparency, e.g., strategy and specific documents explained in detail)
• How do we contain project scope? (Hint: deliverables, process management, total cost estimate should ALWAYS be agreed to upfront)

If I could boil down my consulting process to anything, it’s transparency. You shouldn’t assume clients aren’t interested in technical details — what an .XML sitemap does, for example — or care about the specifics of the service you provide them. Some do care about the “how,” and want to pick up SEO for themselves.

Having an effective plan of attack based on defined business goals and agreed to in a comprehensive scope of work document… it sounds like more (unpaid) work, but trust me, it makes your life easier. And both you and your client happier.

Why would a client hire me and not an agency (or cheap freelancer labor)?

Good question. Don’t agency have more resources, brainpower and experience? None of that is to be taken for granted, actually — not even more resources, unless your target clients will equate “resources” with SEO tools you somehow can’t acquire yourself. Although some business decision-makers might be more comfortable putting an agency on retainer (with regular presentations to remind their bosses what they’re paying for), in my experience you can gain just as much if not more knowledge, expertise and insight in SEO by striking out on your own.

Why is that, you ask?

For one, working for yourself keeps your work process lean and your skillset adaptable. An ability to adapt and think on your feet, in an industry that demands you do, is fostered by the self-accountability it takes to work independently in a digital profession.

Think about how an agency would pitch and close a new client: everyone with a website has website needs, whether they know it yet or not, and you can do the same with less flash, but a level of personalization and attention to detail that the bigger guys just aren’t able to offer (they have too many clients).

Guess which approach most businesses — or the ones you want to work with, at least — will prefer?

That doesn’t mean that as an independent consultant I compete with agencies; in fact, it’s the opposite. I do some contracting work with a digital agency now to offer technical SEO expertise to their e-commerce clients, and I think this type of arrangement where there’s a knowledge “trade-off” can be very mutually beneficial.

What should I watch for when hiring an SEO professional?

Back to the client perspective: let’s take the current SEO state of things as case in point. In 2020 no one thinks that trying to “game the system” with outdated techniques (blackhat SEO) is a sound or long-term business approach… and yet this work still gets done for businesses even today because it’s misrepresented and misunderstood upfront.

As I mention on my SEO consulting page, if you’ve gotten to the point as a business where you recognize you need some SEO work done, but aren’t sure how to go about it, some warning signs you should watch out for include candidates who aren’t transparent about…

• What they include in their services
• Their past work
• Client feedback

In some ways, SEO is fundamentally simpler than it appears at first glance — after all, it’s just one of many valued digital services that professionals from freelancers to agencies can provide — but it’s arguably understood the least. The big picture’s often missing. I’ll run into large e-commerce sites, even, that have paid for SEO “snake oil” promising to instantly boost their ranking (with a shortsighted or zero explanation of how), and were left in a hole with organic presence that’s tough to climb out of.

Part of what I think ethical SEO means, with a single monopolistic entity (ahem, Google) making all the rules, is striving to make a client’s digital presence inherently more valuable and accessible to those users who should be finding their business in organic search.

SEO can border or overlap with branding, social media, content, PR… even website development and design. But as a business owner, if you understand anything about this digital service, understand that SEO best practices in 2018 prioritize your users first — and search engines as a result. Google has said this in more ways than one, and it by all indications their algorithms are increasingly emphasize engaging content and a great user experience. Even as the far and away leader in the field (for now), it still benefits Google to encourage innovation with a better end product, rewarding things like “brand signals” vs. engaging in techniques like throttling or internet slow lanes – what an old-fashioned ISP might do 🙁 .

And innovation is what the web’s still all about.

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