Scaling SEO Services
I was recently directed to post by Chris Brogan titled Scaling Yourself. In the article Chris described various approaches to focusing on the important tasks and ignoring time wasters. While I don't think what he described is truly scaling since he's simply doing less in the same amount of time rather than doing more in the same amount of time, his thoughts prompted me to think about scaling as it applies to SEO work.
Although different SEO consultants and agencies can take different paths as they grow and become successful, I think many probable start of with the "just get it done" mentality. At the beginning it's all about learning and showing success regardless of the amount of time it takes. And so 60 hour weeks are the norm. Eventually enough work comes along that hiring new employees is the seemingly obvious way to deal with the workload. And so the lone consultant forms a company and small companies become bigger. And that's when things get interesting.
Around this time of growth, it starts to dawn on people that they know what to do and so their attention turns to how to do it better and therefore more profitably.
Hire Junior Employees
This is a common approach and one used by all types of consulting companies. Experienced employees are able to increase the number of projects they can handle by delegating tasks to more junior employees. The key to success here is to have the expert remain closely connected to the project so that the end results are equivalent to what the expert would've achieved on his own. Eventually this approach hits a plateau though as there are only so many people that someone can manage before that person is unable to remain sufficiently connected to the project causing performance to decrease.
Outsource to Lower Cost Regions
The outsourcing trend (both offshore and onshore) is something I've experienced first hand. There was a period of time where I thought pretty much all software and web development would be outsourced. Fortunately that fear was never realized as people learned that it just doesn't make sense to outsource everything. However, I've seen and read about SEO companies outsourcing some of their work such including reporting and link building in an effort to scale.
The problem here is that the more separated the outsourcee is from the outsourcer, the more time and effort is required to get the outsourcee to do things correctly. So if company A hires SEO company B who in turn outsources to low cost company C, the chances of a disconnect between A and C are quite high. Sure, anyone can build links, but how do you properly explain what a good link is when there are a lot of subjective factors swirling around the brand? My experience has shown that outsourcing to low cost regions gets you EXACTLY what you asked for and not necessarily what you actually WANTED. This means you have to be very, very careful to cover all of the nuances that you normally take for granted when the work is being done by a co-worker two desks down from yours.
I'm particularly interested in the automation side of things. SEO is full of many tedious and repetitive tasks that readily lend themselves to automation. Extracting tags from web pages, initial link target gathering, checking redirects, reporting, and implementation verification are all good candidates for automation. While it's true that it can take a significant time investment to build the necessary tools, these tools can pay for themselves quite quickly since they can easily shave hours, if not days, off of certain tasks. And that savings is multiplied by every user and every project meaning that SEOs on the team can focus on more high-value activities. However, eventually the maximum benefit is reached as some tasks truly require human analysis.
SEO Training and Community
Last on my list of ways to scale SEO services is the idea of training others. In the traditional sense this means a classroom setting where one or more teachers teaches many students. Pulling together the necessary training materials can take a long time, but once they're done they can be re-used over and over again. This potentially allows you to extract greater profit than from actually doing SEO for different sites where much of what you do is unique to each site.
An even better approach is training via an online community. A good example of this approach is what SEOmoz does. They have built a community around a blog, reports, and user-generated content that they can charge for premium training materials and tools. These items are created once and re-used for each new premium member. Every new sign-up brings with it higher and higher profit margin and requires next to no additional time from the SEOmoz team (ignoring the Q&A service they provide).