In my 12+ years of working in SEO I have sold SEO to hundreds of clients, and along the way I’ve learned a thing or two that might help you get new SEO clients. The businesses I’ve worked with range from small and medium-sized businesses to some of the world's biggest brands, and while every client is unique, I have found that there are a number of commonalities in the approach to winning and retaining SEO clients.
In this guide I will share some of my best advice for how to win SEO clients.
While writing this article, I asked my network on Twitter for their thoughts. To date, the tweet has over 90 comments with some amazing advice. Check out the twitter thread on how to win SEO clients, but many of the best insights (not all!) have been incorporated here.
If you are just starting to sell SEO services, or you’re looking to build your book of business further, you have two paths you can choose. One approach is to hunt whales, the other is to hunt rabbits.
While my mentor and I have gone back and forth about the benefits of each approach, in many cases you have little choice but to start small. If you are looking to build larger and larger Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR), you’ll need to target bigger clients eventually, but that comes later.
Identifying and signing clients with lower budgets but great potential is often easier than landing larger accounts, especially if your agency does not yet have a strong reputation. Building a reputation is key to landing bigger accounts, so think of this as the foundation to your future business success.
Places to find small-business clients:
- Your local Chamber of Commerce
- Local marketing meetups
- Talking with business owners where you do business
- Talking with friends, family, and anyone else who will listen. Tell them what you do.
- Semrush's agency tools
Do Great Work
While it seems obvious, one of the biggest things my team and I have done to grow the business and sell more SEO is to do outstanding work. While results are key, there’s more to ‘great work’ than just that. Becoming a true partner to the businesses you work with is key to building trust.
Clients want a strategic partner but also a doer. With SEO there is much uncertainty about what works so you have to come out very confident in your recommendations.— Luca Tagliaferro (@lucatag2015) April 21, 2022
Carrie Rose has successfully built a successful and lucrative agency in very little time. Her tip for us is to focus on strategy. While execution is also critical, this is sage advice to start with strategy first not tactics.
Focus on strategy not execution. Clients want strategic partners right now especially with SEO - start by selling in seo strategy project and you’re already positioning you as their long term agency partner— Carrie Rose (@CarrieRosePR) April 20, 2022
One of the best ways I have found to be seen as a partner is to lean in on education. Mike Ginely provides a great tip around how you should think about this. While we hope that the client will always need or want to work with you, the bar should be “teach them like they will no longer need you one day.”
In teaching clients like that, I have found that no one has ever said “We learned so much about SEO from you, we now are going to cancel so we can just do it ourselves.” In my experience, people always still need help, even if they have developed a strong command of SEO as a discipline.
Teach them like they will no longer need you one day.— Mike Ginley (@mikeginleyseo) April 20, 2022
Helps build trust, helps build knowledge. Both will help overall success of the website and partnership.
Once you have demonstrated yourself to be a good partner, you’ll be amazed by how many referrals will come in through your existing clients. You should aim to do the kind of SEO work people can’t help but talk about to their peers and friends. This will lead to more introductions and more clients.
If you are not confident in your ability to get results for clients, consider investing in some training, attending conferences and meetups, and listening to podcasts, etc. Do anything you can to immerse yourself in SEO.
In doing great work you also enable yourself to execute one of the most important strategies in getting referral business. ASK. While it seems stupidly simple, many people never bother to ask their existing happy clients if they know anyone who may benefit from their services.
Clients may assume you are too busy, not accepting new clients, or they just have 300 other things on their mind other than helping you build your business, but when asked many are more than happy to make introductions. Do this at least annually, if not more often.
Do great work for your existing clients, and they'll not only stick around, but they'll sell you to other business owners.— Erin Jones (@ErinJones) April 20, 2022
There's no greater sales tool than taking great care of your existing clients and helping them increase their visibility online and revenue as a result.
Building an agency partner network can lead to an important turning point for an agency. Strategic partnerships can produce some of the biggest numbers of 0s in your bank account. The key here goes back to doing great work so that your partners feel comfortable referring business to you. Additionally it’s important to hold up your end of the deal and compensate your partners in a timely manner.
The referral partner arrangement industry standard is for the business owner to pay the referrer 10% on the first year of services. Having strategic partners opens up two potential revenue streams, one from them referring clients to you, and a lesser one in that you can do the same for them.
Warning: Choose and vet your partners very carefully. You are attaching your name to work you have no control over.
Some potential partners for SEO agencies include:
- Web design agencies
- Fractional CMOs
- Paid media agencies
- Creative agencies
- Smaller or larger SEO agencies that do not take clients in your “sweet spot”
- Technology / tool companies
Build a target list of people you want to work with and reach out to them to see if you can discuss your capabilities with them.
Get Listed in SEO Agency Directory Websites
Listing your agency on one of the many agency directory sites can be an easy way to passively generate some lead flow. While some of these sites are honestly not worth the time, others can be a powerful tool. When listing your agency on these sites, be sure to fill out as much detail as you can.
If you can get some of your clients to leave you reviews on these platforms it can go a very long way in helping to land new SEO clients.
Some of the sites I have used are:
- Agency Spotter
- Digital Agency Network
- The Manifest
- Semrush.com’s Partner Directory
While not something I have had a tremendous amount of success with myself, LinkedIn outreach can be an effective way to connect with new potential SEO clients. Many of us have received annoying and spammy- feeling outreach on LinkedIn so the key here is to be authentic, useful, and most of all, not spammy.
Some of the most meaningful client relationships I have had came from a cold email. As surprising as that may be, I am here to tell you that this approach can indeed work well. With that said, it can also lead to lots of meetings that go nowhere, so if you plan to utilize this approach, I recommend that you ensure you have a good process for quickly qualifying or disqualifying your leads so as to not waste your time.
Develop Unique Capabilities & Differentiators
According to IBIS World, There are 6,139 Digital Advertising Agencies businesses in the US as of 2022, which is an increase of 12% from 2021. Globally there are 3,020,000 people with SEO in their title or work experience on Linkedin.
The ability to communicate “why you” is a big part of landing a client. One way that Stella Rising differentiates itself is by utilizing the unique capabilities brought to us through the technology we use on our client accounts.
Two of the biggest technical innovations in the past couple years have been SEO testing tools like SplitSignal, as well as a tool called PageImprove that enables us to implement changes on the fly through a browser extension when CMS access is not possible. These two tools have greatly enhanced our capabilities and proven to be a key differentiator during a number of new business conversations.
Both of these tools are in Beta right now with Semrush which means you can test them out for your agency and clients for FREE! Head over to each page to sign up for the beta now.
In addition to strong tech, our agency differentiates itself by our industry focus on beauty, CPG, and health & wellness. The old saying goes “there’s riches in niches,” and while cliche, it's as true as true can be.
Pro Tip: Build “industries we serve” pages for your agency website and talk about what you do specifically to help businesses in these industries. Our beauty SEO page has led to some great clients and conversations.
Participate in the Community and Build Thought Leadership
It comes as no surprise that being seen as a thought leader can be a meaningful source of new leads. What may be surprising to you is that to be a thought leader, you don’t necessarily need to be at the front of the pack.
Sharing insights on Reddit or other forums can also build credibility and a reputation for being helpful. Both qualities potential clients look for. Some of the biggest names in SEO today like Marie Haynes got their start simply helping to answer questions for people in forums.
Places to Engage in Thought Leadership & Community Participation:
- Your own agency blog
- Guest posting on relevant industry blogs
Perfect the Pitch
Having a sound pitch process is key to winning pitches. While this is super obvious, I have heard from and seen proposals from a number of agencies or contractors that totally miss the mark.
Key Aspects of a Well Done Pitch:
- Talk about who you or your agency is and help to establish authority
- Have a defined approach to SEO with a roadmap of activities
- Clearly define each of your capabilities
- Clearly state the work you’ll be doing, and the expected outcome of that work. I’m not saying you should quantify exact metrics, but you should give some indication of how long it will take to see impact.
- Outline your plan for SEO implementation. Optimizations suggested but never made can’t produce results.
TIP: Use PageImprove if your client is on a CMS that is tough to use or if their development team has a large backlog of changes.
- Have a section of your presentation that is dedicated to showcasing your work with strong case studies that speak to your target audience
In general your pitch process should be broken up into two, maybe three calls. The first call should be a discovery call that is pretty much all them talking and you taking in the information you need to craft a relevant proposal.
Caroline Posma provides some great advice about how you should think about your first call with an SEO prospect.
Be genuinely interested in their business and genuinely motivated to help them grow organically.— Carolina Posma (@carolinaposma) April 20, 2022
A sales call is about them, not you. Don't just pitch. Do your best to understand their business, their problems.
Already provide value, for example by doing a quick site audit.
During your discovery call, make sure to ask questions about their other marketing efforts. Do they have dev resources? Do they use a PR agency? What are they doing for paid media? All of these can provide opportunities for you to be more impactful in their business.
The second call is where you showcase your capabilities and your findings if you’ve done a free audit.
Offer a Free Initial SEO Audit
There are lots of SEOs and agency leaders that are staunchly opposed to doing any type of free work. While I understand valuing one’s own time, I think that this is a missed opportunity for many—especially for those just starting out.
Clients need to understand the opportunities at hand before they’ll feel comfortable paying for anything. This is one of the many reasons the free audit approach works. One of the more valuable bits of advice my mentor has given me around this is the saying “make em sick, then make em better.” What this really means is show them things that are not as they should be, but then show them clearly how you will fix them.
Tammy Wood agrees that offering free quick wins is a win win for everyone!
Quick Wins- immediate gratification prior to charging. Why? Because I've obviously looked through the site, and the knowledge may help them - whether hired or not.— Tammy Wood (@crazywoody) April 20, 2022
Offering a free audit also shows the client the depth and breadth of your capabilities and experience. A boilerplate capabilities deck has a hard time doing that, but an audit you can execute in 2 hours can do a fantastic job of demonstrating a command of the material.
If you can then explain it to the client in a way they can understand, you are also demonstrating the potential for a fruitful partnership where you explain the things they do not understand, and then help them to see how much good will come from making needed changes.If you can’t get clients on board with changes they need to make to their site, you may have a hard time showing the impact of your work.
When it comes to your audit, think of ways you can teach the prospect new things about their market. This is a great idea that came from Chris Green.
Teach them something about their market they're not aware of. Be generous with your time and speak with confidence.— Chris Green (@chrisgreenseo) April 20, 2022
Another way to be generous with potential clients even if you don’t offer a full audit, is to provide answers in a transparent way. Ryan Huser has a great tip on this.
Show them how you work! If they have a question about a SERP, query data, or backlinks, I'll frequently just pull up SEMRush or another tool on screen share and let them see the process. Don't worry about giving away the "secret sauce", they're trying to hire help for a reason.— Ryan Huser (@thebigguyry) April 20, 2022
Christina LeVasseur provided a great tip for an engaging and interactive part of her free initial audits or client training that involves showing them a SERP and asking them to pick their favorite or the one they would click.
No surprise here that most of the time clients do not pick their own page! This underpins the importance of the work we do that clients often misunderstand.
You mean like this? Lol https://t.co/ldhheBJ4Mf— Christina LeVasseur (Brodzky) (@cbrodzky) April 20, 2022
Grant Simmons and many other people in the thread provide some great insight into leveraging competitive insights to help clients understand the need for SEO.
Closing: Highlight where competition is eating their lunch aligned with low-hanging fruit. Give reasonable expectation of expected outcomes.— Grant Simmons (@simmonet) April 21, 2022
Retaining: Demonstrate effort & that you met or exceeded outcomes you predicted.
Strategically rinse & repeat where opportunities exist.
Oliver Sessions gave three great tips that can broadly apply to new business conversations but fit well into the context of the audit. I’ll admit, this one is hard to follow. Don’t use jargon! We all know what a canonical is, but does the client? And if they do, do they care?
Speak in terms they can understand, and speak of things they care about. Business results are more important to them than noindex tags and canonicals.
Remember, also, to be respectful of the client’s current SEO and the employees involved. Don’t come in with guns blazing saying how horrid their site is—you may be offending the very person whose buy in you need.
1. Don't step on toes. They've haven't come to an agency to be put down. Likely they've done a lot right, and just need new ideas.— Oliver Sissons (@sissons_oliver) April 21, 2022
2. Avoid jargon. No need to know every title/canonical tag you'll check.
3. Tie previous results to real business growth (sales, revenue & leads).
Lastly, leverage the physiological principle of fear of loss. Fear of loss is a much greater motivator than the promise of something gained. Is the potential SEO client doing some spammy stuff? Tell them about it and the risks associated.
JP Sherman wants you to know that fear will keep them in line!—In a good way, of course!
Demonstrate Your Plan for Implementation
Audits are great and SEO optimizations have the power to change a business, but without a solid plan for implementation nothing comes of it. This is why when we speak to clients about the next steps we always touch on how we support implementation. The ability to offer faster SEO results is a huge advantage.
For some clients you may have direct access to their CMS. In many cases you may be dealing with a website that is custom built or has a complex proprietary CMS that makes implementing even the most basic changes a challenge. Or you may find that changes are usually made by a development team or technical marketer whose backlog is such that your changes could be on hold for months.
This is where PageImprove can not only help you win business by having it in your tool belt, but also can help you to retain business by allowing you to easily implement your recommendations yourself. PageImprove is a simple Chrome browser extension that allows you to make instant, indexable, reversible website changes with no developers required!
I discuss this in detail in our Guide to SEO Implementation so if this sounds like an area you want to learn more about I recommend checking out that post.
Build a Business Case With Forecasting
SEO forecasting can be an immensely powerful tool in helping to build a business case for the investment in SEO. I recently did a webinar where I peel back the curtain on exactly how I build a business case for clients that we are either pitching or working with at Stella Rising. Check out our StellaVision episode “Understanding and Forecasting the ROI of SEO” to learn more.
Give them an estimate of growth, where you think you can take them if they partner with you and follow your plan and suggestions. You don't have to make bold claims of number 1 rankings, but at least target some kind of tangible growth in the areas you're focusing on.— Martin McGarry (@seomcgarry) April 20, 2022
Leverage Competitive Benchmarking
People at different levels of an organization have different goals and different motivators. C-suite and sometimes directors and other leaders are often highly motivated by competitive insights. In some of our audits we create competitive score cards where we grade the status of competing websites for technical SEO, on-page, off-site and their performance.
Ways to NOT Get SEO Clients
In writing this post, I not only pulled from my own experience but did a bit of research into what the community is saying. Here are some of the worst takes on how to land SEO clients I have seen from around the web, and why I think they are awful ideas.
One thing you should never do is write a check your mouth can’t cash, and any sort of guarantee in SEO is exactly that. Savvy SEOs and even clients know there is no way to predict algorithm changes, whether a client will implement changes, or whether or not a competitor will out-invest you in SEO efforts. For your own mental health and for the wellbeing of your client relationships, don’t be that SEO that makes bold promises you can’t keep.
This one will make you the laughing stock of Twitter. At least one of the top ranking resources for “How to get SEO clients” recommends that you get a “Google Partners” badge, because you know…SEO and PPC are the same right? Wrong!
Doing this will only make it seem like you are trying to deceive clients. For those that don’t get it, you are just taking advantage of their lack of industry knowledge and karma will get you one way or another. Don’t do this if you want to build relationships with credible partners and clients.
Retaining SEO Clients
As a bonus, here are 6 ways you can help to retain all those new clients you’ll be getting. We’ll cover this in more detail in my next post, “How to Retain SEO Clients for Years to Come”
- Build strong relationships
- Be a partner, not a vendor
- GSD—get stuff done (including optimization implementation when needed)
- Get great results
- Prove the value of your work in business terms, not keywords
- Have a robust standard operating procedure
Conclusion: Time to Go Get Some Clients
Winning SEO clients isn’t always easy, but with the right approach you can greatly improve your close rate. From the basics like “do great work” and “start small,” through proven, but often overlooked items such as “develop your differentiation” and “work with agency partners,” you’re well on your way to gaining new clients.
Go beyond the expected by outlining how you’ll enable implementation of changes using a tool like PageImprove and by offering value throughout the sales process. These are the methods that have built Stella Rising into a nationally-recognized marketing and media services agency, and it can do the same for you.