Research is always the first step! Decide what niche you want to focus upon… ideally, one which is not heavily populated. In this case, it’s better to be the large fish in a small pond, than the small fish in a large pond!
Know the Competition
Analyzing the competition on the search engines will help you to identify those areas of professional services that are in high demand, with little competition. Those are usually the areas in which you can most quickly establish a prominent presence.
From there, you can extend your reach to encompass a wider area, building upon that stature.
Set Up Your Plan
Lay out a plan, identifying the ultimate and intermediate goals, and the tasks to be undertaken to get you there. Establish milestones by which you can gauge your progress.
You should do this for your own SEO efforts, as well as for the benefit of your clients. Examining those areas in which you failed to achieve an intermediate goal or milestone will afford you insight as to the causes.
Be Clear to your Client
Explain clearly to your client what the intended tasks, goals and milestones are to be, and by what metric they’ll be measured. Begin the actual project with a written agreement, agreed to by both parties, that fully describes the responsibilities of each party, so as to avoid conflicts later.
Avoid Empty Promises
The results of SEO services cannot be guaranteed 100%, but they can be measured. There are, however, many variables that are beyond the SEO’s control.
Attempting to bill your work on an hourly basis is not wise, at least until you have a track record to justify it. It’s usually better to bill per task, with achieved milestones being the metric.
The Best Approach
Given the foregoing, a wise approach might be the following:
- Divide your selected keyword and keyword phrase into two groups. The first, comprised of those with relatively low competition, can offer you the quickest results. The second, highly competitive words and phrases, will take longer, but once achieved, may offer you the greatest overall benefit.
- Once your client has seen that you can achieve massive improvements with the low competition terms, your credibility will be greater, and they will be more willing to allocate more time and money for even greater results.
- Your pricing for on-page and site structure optimization should typically be based upon the site size and intricacy. You should consider the amount of time and expertise level you’ll be putting forth, as well as your competition’s pricing.
- Off-page SEO costs depend more upon keyword competition, which means that you may be incurring additional expenses when chasing the more competitive terms. It is common for SEO companies to price various aspects of off-page SEO, by unit, such as a given dollar amount per inbound link from a blog, article or press release, or a directory listing. This allows you to bill incrementally, and easily adjust for changing requirements.
- Don’t be afraid to collaborate with other SEOs. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and if your client requires some service that is outside your current capability, you always have the option of subcontracting that portion out to another professional with more expertise in that area, or with more support staff available.
Major Factor: Service Quality
The quality of the end result is the most important factor, and it’s possible that sharing the project may ensure you of an ongoing contract.
Most SEO companies bid their projects for a six or twelve month term. If the optimization project is well done, maintenance efforts are considerably less demanding than at the outset. Your pricing should reflect that, if you value a long term relationship with your client.
Emailing a monthly automatically generated report requires very little effort on your part, and does little to foster such a relationship.
It’s much better that you provide the client with the quality of service that will assure you of a long term client, and a glowing recommendation to their acquaintances. All else being equal, it is ultimately the client’s perception of value of your services, that will be the deciding factor.
Three years ago, Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz, wrote a blog post that still makes good sense. It also gives some good examples of different SEO billing styles.