If you’re considering starting your own SEO agency or services business, then this post is something you should read first. Or, if you’re wondering what sorts of things agency owners, and honestly any service-based business owner, deals with on the regular (and not so regular), then grab a cup of coffee cause I have a story to tell you in a bit (it’s the last section if you wanna skip the rest).
Why I Have An Agency (and a little about it)
As you may know, I started doing agency stuff back in late 2017 after getting requests for recommendations from readers of this site. Other than mentioning it here from time to time, I promote my agency services exactly zero percent and nowhere at all. If people email me for a recommendation, I mention what my small team can do, but that’s it.
I charge a premium price for the agency services. Full-service SEO and PPC management starts at $5,000/month. Monthly content starts at $3,500/month and link building is over $200/link for guest posts.
I price high for two reasons –
- I don’t really enjoy working with clients, and
- I’ve been doing this for a decade so I know my shit
As a result, income from my agency work made up less than 5% of my overall income last year. I think this is probably because most people who end up on this site arrive via my Fat Joe review and they’re frustrated with navigating the various link building services but they really want Fat Joe pricing. And my guest post outreach service is not cheap, so most people don’t really end up wanting to spend that kind of money for a long period of time.
Affiliate SEO vs Agency SEO
Countless people have given their thoughts in the pros and cons of these two business models, so I won’t rehash all of that.
The main thing here is that with affiliate SEO you don’t have to deal with other people, but with agency SEO you do have to deal with other people and the bullshit that often comes with that.
SEO clients are an interesting bunch – most of them have read up a little on Moz, and as the saying goes, they know just enough to be dangerous. And since the SEO industry has such a shady reputation, most people paying for SEO services are convinced that we’re all snake oil salesmen just waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of them. Not the best foundation for a business relationship, eh?
What’s Really Involved In Running An SEO Agency?
I know that there are a lot of agencies out there who outsource the majority of their work and then just upcharge on that. Well, that’s now how I operate. So, here’s what it’s like for me –
Someone finds my agency site, usually from this blog, and sends me a message letting me know about their site and what service they need for it. I ask questions to gauge what my team can do for them.
This initial email dance usually involves several back and forth sessions that take up at least an hour, often more, of my time. Sometimes it ends in a new business contract, but sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes I realize that it was just a cheap bastard looking for free SEO advice.
When someone decides that they want to work with my team, I spend time creating a service contract for the service. This usually takes me one to two hours because I take this contract very seriously for a few reasons –
- It manages client expectations.
- It sets out clearly definite deliverables while managing expectations so I don’t promise more than we can deliver.
- It shows the client that he/she is legally protected in the event that my team doesn’t live up to the terms of the contract.
- It legally protects me and my team in the event that the client doesn’t want to uphold their end of the contract.
The contract that my team uses also clearly specifies our return policy – “Due to the nature of our work, all payments made are final and non-refundable.”
This is the last line of the contract right above where the client signs it. It is also listed on the agency website.
Once the contract is signed, I create an invoice in Freshbooks and we wait for payment. Once payment comes through, the work starts for my team.
If it’s content that the client has ordered, then I have to write up a project spec sheet with guidelines and get that to my copywriter (I do not write the content for the agency).
If it’s full-service SEO or PPC management, then I take the lead on those projects to ensure that the work is done properly. The projects get spec sheets and guidelines, even though I am the lead on them. This means that I, personally, do most of the work on these.
If it’s link building, then I write up the project spec sheet with guidelines and an initial list of opportunities that I’ve identified as good options. Then, I hand that off to my lead outreacher so that she can get started. Throughout the month, I check in with the project lead and offer up new opportunities that I’ve come across. And we discuss how the link building is going and I step in to help as needed.
Regardless of what type of project we’re working on, we generally spend an average of 20 hours a week on these. Sometimes it’s a little less, and sometimes it’s closer to 40 hrs a week.
Then, once the project is complete I get the details from the project lead to compile the monthly deliverables report to the client. This typically takes me an hour or less.
Sometimes, that’s it and we’re done with the project and the client. Sometimes, the client has pre-paid for a monthly service for several months, so we keep working. Sometimes, the client decides that his expectations did not meet reality, and that’s when you have to deal with angry people.
If you have an angry or upset client after the deliverables, then you end up spending hours responding to emails. I personally handle 100% of these because, after all, I’m the boss here. It doesn’t matter who completed the work, because at the end of the day it’s all my responsibility.
So, that’s the basics on how I run things with my small team.
Why A Contract Is Important For SEO Services & Agencies
I mentioned earlier why having a solid contract is important to me as an agency owner, and the truth is that they are important for anyone running a service-based business like an SEO agency or a SEO services business.
For Month-to-Month Services
As someone offering SEO services, I think there are a few reasons that you need a solid contract –
- to make sure you don’t lose the money you made just because someone isn’t happy with your work
- to cover your butt and manage expectations (i.e. SEO takes a long time to see results)
If you look around at some agencies websites and service contract, then you’ll start to notice that they all tend to mention some variation of the same thing …. like this from Reefer Digital:
“We provide a customized and bespoke service involving substantial human labor. We, therefore, do not offer refunds to our core SEO services after they have begun.”
It’s super basic and anyone offering any type of month-to-month service that does not require a commitment needs something like this when bringing on new clients.
For Monthly Retainer Services
It’s super common in SEO to have monthly retainer services where a client pays for 6-12 months of SEO service up front. Sometimes, agencies don’t make clients pre-pay for all those months up front, but they do require a service commitment for that time period via the contract.
When you’re dealing with this sort of time and financial commitment, you 100% need a good contract or you’re fucked.
In addition to buyer’s remorse, you could end up with a client who doesn’t understand how long SEO takes or who just doesn’t want to keep paying when the initial results are slow.
And if you run your agency like I do, then you’re making decisions in month one (labor, expenses, etc.) based on the fact that you have secured this work for the next X number of months. So, you can’t just have people up and leave before they are supposed to because you might have already put in more than one month of labor or turned down a new client based on having no space for them due to this contract with the client who now wants to leave.
And that brings me to the story that I promised you earlier.
When A Good Client Goes Bad And Wants To Pretend They Didn’t Sign A Contract
While I’ve had some problem clients in the past, I’m currently dealing with what has become the worst client situation that I’ve ever had to deal with while running my agency. If you’re considering running an agency, then keep reading to see the sorts of scenarios you may have to deal with at some point.
In February I got an email from someone interested in guest post link building. I exchanged a few emails with this guy, who I’ll call “Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract” to protect his privacy.
I explained how we work, what types of links I like to see for my personal sites and that I try to do the same for clients, and how I like to use more generic anchor text when possible. He told me that he was considering other agencies, so I wished him luck. Then, the next day he hired us on a 15 links/month for six months contract, which we require full pre-payment on.
The reason that the 6-month contract has to be pre-paid is because work on the project is done slightly differently than we do on a month-to-month one. We front load a lot of the outreach to ensure that not only to we come as close as possible to meeting that first deliverables deadline, but also so that we can get an idea of how much we’re going to be spending on a per-link basis (i.e. will the guest post articles be short or over 1,000 words in this niche? can we negotiate low/free placement or is there is high cost? etc.). Then, we’ll be able to make better decisions in later months so that we can maybe get some of those several hundred $$$ each links that are so common in personal finance. Having a pre-paid contract like this also lets us turn down new client requests to focus on our current workload (if we’re at capacity, or close to it).
So, Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract wanted to pay by Bitcoin (unless I wanted to wait a month) and I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to accept that as payment. While I’m cool with cryptocurrency, I had some reservations about some rando from India sending it to me cause you just never know about people’s intentions (*I should have listened to this doubt I was feeling). After thinking it over for some time, I went ahead and took the payment.
He ended up paying most of the charge with Bitcoin on February 20th and just over $1800 via PayPal. Then, he sent over 5 URLs and 7 anchor text keywords.
Then, he added me to his Google Search Console account and asked me to go through all of the links in Search Console and all the major backlink tools to compile a list of all the sites linking to him so that we didn’t duplicate anything. This isn’t something we include in our service, but since he pre-paid for six months of work, we went ahead and did this for him…there were over 400 links in the spreadsheet that we had to go through and it took several hours.
Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract’s site is in the personal finance niche, and if you’ve ever worked in it then you already know how challenging link building in that niche is if you’re not working with a mega budget. But, my team excels at finding creative angles for building links in any niche (like wedding/relationship blogs would be a great opportunity in PF most of the time), so we got to work.
I pulled together a list of shoulder niche ideas (with sites), added that to the list of URLs and anchor text keywords and passed it off to my head outreacher.
Over the course of the first month on this project, we managed to score some links on sites that don’t normally offer guest posts, which we were really excited about landing for the client. And we identified some additional awesome opportunities that we decided to hold off on until a later month since they have high placement costs – if we could score a low per-link cost during the early months, then we’d able to afford those higher links in a later month.
When the time rolled around to submit month one’s deliverables, we were a few links short (as expected).
It normally takes 6-8 weeks to secure 15 links during month one – as the months progress and we are able to work ahead of schedule, we’re usually better able to get those links all by the month’s end. But, this was month one, so we didn’t have all 15 links yet.
Still, we were excited to have found those sites that don’t typically host guest posts. That excitement was short-lived.
Not only did Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract insult our work by accusing us of using PBNs, he critiqued the format of the guest posts, and complained that none of the sites were personal finance sites.
Then, there was another insult, ouch, and a request for a refund and for us to stop so that he could do the work on his own.
While the opinion of Fat Joe’s links being better than anyone’s gave me the lols, I didn’t see much humor in the demand to not argue and just give Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract what he wanted.
You see, Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract actually did sign that contract he didn’t want to talk about. That contract is legally binding and states that he is entitled to zero refund. And since he wasn’t coerced into signing it, or nothing fraudulent caused him to sign it, then it’s totally a legally binding document.
So, legally I was within my rights to deny the refund and offer to either continue with the agreed upon work or stop working, as requested, while still denying the refund. However, after talking it over with my business parter and some other agency owners, I decided to let him break the contract and give Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract some of his money back after assessing a cancellation fee and the fee for one month of service.
You’d think someone who wasn’t legally entitled to a single cent of their money back would actually be thankful that they got any of it back. Well, not Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract.
At this point I began to wonder if there was some remorse on the client’s part about using bitcoin considering it had increased in value a bit. And maybe the real motivator here was to get it back, including those gains. And someone I talked to wondered if this was some sort of money laundering scheme. I don’t know if it was related to either of those things, but it doesn’t really matter since the fact remains there is a signed contract.
Yup, Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract thought he could just up and break a legal contract and then turn around and call someone “unethical” who let him break said contract with a cancellation fee.
And hey, he thinks that time spent on it doesn’t cost me anything anyways!
Then, the next thing he sent me was a PayPal invoice for the remainder of what he thinks he is owed. Yes, seriously. And in the same email he threatened to tell the interwebs about my links (that have coincidentally increased traffic) and reminded me he thinks cancellation fees are unethical.
So, there it is – sometimes you can find sites with over 10K monthly visits that don’t regularly give out guest posts, but they just won’t meet client expectations. And, they’ll try to get out of contracts they signed and send you more angry emails when you give them more than they’re legally entitled to – when you should really be getting an email that says “Thanks for giving me some of my money back even though I signed a contract stating I knew that there were no refunds once I paid you.”
I think the saddest thing about this whole scenario is that Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract has a relatively new site with basically no traffic and since we started building links for the site, traffic has seen a nice boost.
It could’ve been a nice traffic growth chart after six months of work on it. Instead, our work has stopped and my time has been spent responding to angry emails from Mr. Don’t Talk About The Contract and writing up this post to refer people to once he starts telling his story on the interwebs, which I expect will conveniently leave out the bit about the legally binding contract.
tl;dr Affiliate links can’t send you angry emails where you have to deal with bullshit instead of getting shit done; or don’t start an agency unless you thrive on bullshit.
Hey, I’m Shawna. I make a living working from my laptop in places like London, Sydney, Dubai, Rome, Oslo, Bangkok, Las Vegas, Barcelona, and Amsterdam. I share how I do some of that on this website.