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Skills, Career Outlook & Tips For Success

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Skills, Career Outlook & Tips For Success

An SEO consultant is a specialist in search engine optimization who works outside of typical contracted employment.

For instance, they may be freelancers who work with their own clients or within an existing team but not as employees.

They might be responsible for a variety of tasks from pitching and closing to contract negotiations, as well as SEO.

And while there are some advantages to having a variety of tasks and the freedom to take on only the projects you want, SEO consulting also has its drawbacks.

This column will help you understand what to expect before choosing a career as an SEO consultant.

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Are SEO Consultants Employed Or Freelance?

In the U.K., the answer gets slightly more complicated. The term “SEO consultant” can also describe the job title of an employed SEO that doesn’t really denote seniority or management responsibilities.

Like “SEO specialist” or “SEO advisor.”

This might also be how freelancers with side hustles and full-time jobs describe themselves.

It does, however, also mean an independent contractor like in the U.S.

Projects vs. Multiple Clients

An SEO consultant might choose to work with their own clients and the only person working on their SEO.

They might also choose to take contracts that embed them within an existing team, like joining as additional support to an enterprise SEO team.

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Running Your Own Business

The key difference between a career as an SEO consultant and any other type of SEO job is that you will be running your own business.

As an independent contractor, you manage your contracts, pitching, and financial/tax obligations.

Essential Skills

What essential skills do you need to be a successful SEO consultant beyond being a good SEO professional?

Below is an overview of the basic skills for thriving as an independent SEO contractor, other than on-page, technical, and off-site SEO.

Budget Management

You may be used to managing a budget in your employed role to make sure clients’ hours were filled or checking profit and loss for your department.

However, additional, unforeseen costs can crop up when working as a freelancer.

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That means you need to be able to manage a budget quickly, or there won’t be enough money left over at the end of each month for you to take home a wage.

There may be ad-hoc costs, such as initial legal advice, and ongoing costs like retaining an accountant.

Any marketing collateral, the cost of hosting and developing a website, those fancy tools we all love to use. You will entirely pay for them.

Without the deep pockets of an agency or brand behind you, all your business expenses will come from the money you have managed to earn as a consultant.

Time Management

Although any job requires a degree of time management, being an SEO consultant means spinning many plates at once.

There is also a lack of structure, support, and resources with an employed role.

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Due to this, time management is an ever more important skill.

There will be immoveable business deadlines like legal and financial requirements and calls with stakeholders that other team members can’t cover in your absence.

Getting your invoices out on time could be most important for your longevity as a consultant.

The amount of admin that you need to find time for will increase. You will need to sort through receipts and update budgeting software.

You will need to submit financial details to make your own payroll. Then there are the emails and meetings.

No matter how many you had as an employed SEO, expect a lot as a consultant.

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To be successful, you will need to be very adept at planning your time.

Pitching And Closing

From marketing your skills to pitching and closing a new client, you will need to be able to manage the entire cycle of winning new work.

There won’t be a business development team supporting you, so you may need to brush up on your persuasive skills.

Although you are an SEO by trade, I can tell you from first-hand experience that few of your business leads will come through your website even if you rank first for “SEO consultant” in your area.

You will also need to become an expert at marketing yourself in other ways.

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That means picking up potential client leads through social media, events, and word of mouth.

Not only will you need to source potential client leads, but you will also need to effectively convert them. That means working on pitch decks, negotiating fees, and securing sign-off.

Contract Negotiations

Although you may have a standard contract template, expect prospective clients to go through it with a fine-tooth comb.

This might also extend to your pricing proposal and service level agreement.

A part of being an SEO contractor is the need to be able to negotiate contracts.

There may be an expectation of a certain level of compromise, especially if you want to work with smaller businesses with limited budgets.

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When looking long-term at the next six to 12 months of your proposed contract, you will need to be able to predict how those compromises might affect your profit and quality of life.

A client may want you to work your proposed hours for less money, which brings down your average rate.

They might also expect you to respond to emails outside of your proposed working hours.

Although it might seem tempting to agree to these altered terms to secure the revenue, but long-term, it might not be beneficial for the growth of your business.

Understanding Of Financial And Legal Responsibilities

Being an SEO consultant means being your own boss, owning your own business, and the excitement and freedom it brings.

However, it also means being solely responsible for ensuring you are in full legal compliance.

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This means understanding which business laws apply to you in your state or country, but also, if you have clients elsewhere in the world, understanding how their laws affect you.

For instance, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) in Europe governs personal data control.

Even if you are not based in Europe, you may be subject to these rules if your clients are.

How you store information about your clients will need to comply with these regulations.

Being a consultant means no one is above you to take on this responsibility.

It’s all yours. You may be able to afford advice from lawyers or accountants to help you make informed decisions, but the ramifications are all on you if they advise you poorly.

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Stakeholder Management

Another essential skill is good stakeholder management.

This includes communicating deadlines, chasing for invoice payments, and ensuring client expectations align.

When you are a consultant, your stakeholders aren’t just your clients.

They are your accountants, lawyers, suppliers, and other consultants you’re partnering with.

In a larger business, these stakeholders tend to communicate with various team members; the finance department, the CEO, the marketing team, and the account managers.

As a freelancer, you are the only point of contact.

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The needs of a client versus your accountant’s needs are very different, but will both need prioritizing.

Learning to manage a wider range of stakeholders than you’re used to will greatly improve your success as an SEO consultant.

Fitting In With Teams Quickly

You will not be afforded a long onboarding period as an SEO consultant.

You will have to show value to your clients from day one. This can be a tricky skill to develop.

There will be an expectation that you can drive return on investment straight away, although you will need to learn their processes, procedures, product, and industry.

It is not just about understanding the business; you need to get on reasonably well with your new colleagues.

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When working closely with other members of your client’s team, what they think of your work ethic and personality may well impact the length and recurrence of your contract.

Demonstrating ROI

When you join a new company as an employee, you will likely have a probation period – a few weeks to months where the company assesses your fit and competency.

If done well, it will be a time when you can work with your manager to fill any gaps in your knowledge and develop a training plan to make sure you are off to a great start in the company.

As a freelance SEO, you won’t get this.

Instead, you may have a break clause in your contract or simply the option for a client to cancel their recurring monthly contract if they don’t like your work.

A skill you will need to develop early on as an SEO consultant is demonstrating the return on investment of working with you.

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This means understanding exactly what you are expected to deliver and making sure it is reasonable.

From there, you will need to report back on your success against these objectives.

Resilience

PsychologyToday defines resilience as “the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life’s adversities and come back at least as strong as before” and is a skill to cultivate.

Being a consultant can be galling.

One month you might have so much work to do that you wonder when sleep will be an option.

Others, you’re nervously staring at your emails, willing a proposal acceptance to come through.

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Stability in the flow of work you win can be slow to build.

Then, overnight, a global pandemic can cause it all to dry up. One thing you tend to be short on as a contract SEO is certainty.

A vital skill for an SEO consultant is resilience.

Getting back up when a client unexpectedly ends their contract or there is a conflict with a competitor, is challenging.

Even when everything is going well, there will be the ever-present need to chase invoices that are 60 days overdue.

It can sometimes feel like an uphill battle.

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Personal Branding

There is an element of an SEO consultant not only selling their services but also selling the dream of working with them personally.

As a consultant, you will be in a similar position to going for a job interview each time you pitch for work. Your client will need to believe that you are the best candidate for the job.

This may start well in advance of a pitch meeting.

The ideal for many consultants is that they become so well respected in the industry that word of mouth generates leads for them.

Rather than spending a lot of time and energy on marketing, they have clients approaching them.

Some of the most successful SEO consultants have chosen an industry and become experts.

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By doing so, they can choose who they work with and charge fees that reflect the value they bring.

If you are looking to become an SEO consultant, it can help to understand your local market, the needs of the businesses who may work with you, and what you can do to be most attractive to them.

This might mean finding a niche and sticking to it for your market. It might mean going after smaller businesses that need the full range of SEO support.

Whatever you want to achieve as a consultant, you will need to be good at presenting your knowledge, skills, and value beyond the initial meeting with a prospect.

Salary Expectations

You may have a pretty good idea of what salaries look like in your country and region, but what about rates for SEO contractors?

Recently, Search Engine Journal conducted a salary survey looking at data points from the SEO industry.

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The findings for freelance professionals were particularly interesting.

Search Engine Journal found that SEO freelance consultants earned less than $34,000 per annum on average.

The survey respondents who identified themselves as freelancers overwhelmingly had fewer than two years of experience. This will have heavily skewed their earnings.

With this in mind, take the average reported salary of an SEO consultant with a pinch of salt.

Yours may well be higher depending on location, years of experience, and specialisms.

In the U.K., Glassdoor reports that an SEO freelancer can make £31,540 per year (approximately $41,000).

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What you choose to charge per project or per hour will greatly impact how much you take home each year.

You also need to consider how many hours you want to work each week. Together this will help you to identify how much you may be able to earn in a year if your client load is full.

Additional Costs

It is important to remember that you will also need to deduct the costs of running your business from your net earnings.

This may include items from networking group membership to tax and insurance.

Helpful Certifications And Experience

One of the great things about getting into a career in SEO is that there are very low barriers to entry.

There is no university degree you must have or governing body you are expected to be a part of.

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On the flip side, there is little for prospective clients to use to measure how good an SEO you are.

Because of this lack of regulation in the industry, there are no standard certificates or qualifications to prove your competency.

Instead, you may need to demonstrate your expertise to prospective clients in other ways.

Helen Pollitt on selling yourself as an SEO consultant.

Demonstrable Experience

Your most obvious way to denote that you are an expert in your field is by showing your experience.

Unfortunately, many clients may equate experience with years in the industry. This isn’t always the case.

Experience With Specific Projects

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A consultant may have carried out 20 website migrations during their three years in the industry because they worked at an SEO agency.

Another contractor may have only carried out one during their five years in the industry because they worked in-house for one brand.

A client looking for SEO support for their upcoming website migration might look more favorably at a consultant who has worked for five years in the industry.

They may wrongly believe more years of experience equals better performance.

If you are looking to pitch for a website migration project, as an SEO consultant, you will need to be able to show your specific experience with the facets of SEO the project will rely upon.

Industry-Specific Experience

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Another aspect of your experience you will need to showcase is the industries you have worked in.

For some clients, knowing that their consultant understands their market, consumers and products will be paramount.

If you have worked across various industries, highlight them in your marketing and pitching material.

If you have worked within a limited range of verticals, you can speak more about the depth of experience.

You may benefit from showing that you have a wealth of knowledge about those particular industries that would make your learning curve with a new client quick and minimal.

Enough Experience

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If you have been around the SEO industry for a while, you will likely have come across forums and threads where inexperienced SEO specialists have landed their first client and are now asking veterans how to do SEO.

This is not a situation that you will benefit from being in.

If you manage to land a client whose SEO needs are greater than you can meet, it will likely cause stress on both sides.

As a consultant, you will need to learn to identify the scope of a potential project quickly and decide if you have sufficient knowledge and experience to manage it.

Awards

As mentioned, no governing body oversees SEO practice, which can validate a consultant’s ability to carry out SEO.

However, there are many award shows and programs that serve in some way as a proxy for this.

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The validity of awards is a hotly debated topic in SEO circles.

However, winning one does show that you have been independently judged as carrying out work to a high and impactful standard.

Case Studies

Giving examples of previous work in the form of case studies can help prospective clients to feel confident in your abilities.

It can sometimes be tricky to get sign-off from previous clients to use their data, so you may need to obfuscate it slightly.

Make sure you have permission to share any details, especially if it is from work you did before you became a consultant!

Recommendations And References

Just like you might need to provide for a newly employed role, having referees available to prospective clients can help them to understand what it will be like working with you.

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Having a couple of current or previous clients happy to provide references can benefit a consultant.

Platforms like LinkedIn also allow you to request and receive recommendations that can go a long way to instilling trust in your work.

Additionally, although not as impartial, written recommendations on your own website may help convert prospective clients.

Certifications

Although there is no commonly accepted SEO qualification, several tools, agencies, and organizations offer certification in search.

Choosing to undertake their training and examination to receive a certification might seem redundant if you have been in the industry for many years, but it can help prove that your knowledge is current and your understanding reaches a standard.

Additionally, certifications in adjacent areas like analytics, data science, and programming can all help to demonstrate your particular skill set.

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Consider certifications in specific SEO and analytics-focused tools.

These can show clients you can use their tool-stack without additional training.

Who Hires SEO Consultants And Why?

There are many types of organizations that would contract SEO consultants. It may be their only SEO resource or to complement an existing team or roster of freelancers.

Small Businesses

Small businesses that can’t afford their own internal resource will often reach out to SEO consultants.

SEO consultants often have lower overheads than agencies and may be cheaper to work with. This can be an appealing alternative to cash-strapped organizations.

Rounding Out A Team

Brands with an existing SEO team may use contractors to bolster their resources or fill a specific skill gap.

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For instance, a brand looking to appear in Google Discovery for the first time may want outside advice on how best to do that if their internal team has no experience with it.

Filling A Temporary Gap

There may be a need to increase resources during busier seasons or to cover an extended leave of existing employees.

If an employee leaves the organization, a consultant might fill the gap while hiring a replacement.

Whitelabel

Some agencies may not have SEO provisions but want to partner with a consultant to offer that service to existing clients.

They may also want to test the water of how adding SEO to their services will work before hiring an employee to cover it.

Consultants can offer support without the cost of hiring, training, and employee benefits.

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Assisting Agencies

Similar to brands that require temporary help in busier seasons, agencies might require an additional person in their team to bridge employee leave, skills gaps or to consult on specific industry projects.

Agencies can often offer repeat work for consultants for this reason.

Support With Hiring

A very niche project you might find yourself available to do as an SEO consultant is that of hiring support.

So rather than filling a skills gap yourself, you may be a consultant on the hiring of employed SEO professionals.

For organizations with no, or very junior, SEO teams, it can be difficult for the hiring manager to know enough about SEO to make a wise decision.

Consultants can bring their expertise to the recruitment process.

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They might also recommend a job description, review CVs, and even conduct interviews.

Setting Up A Department

Along with helping with recruitment, SEO contractors might also help create a department from scratch.

This can be the case when a team is needed, but hiring talent at a senior level is proving difficult or too slow.

The SEO contractor might help create the department and potentially lead it until a permanent senior hire.

Considerations For Becoming An SEO Consultant

Ultimately, there is a lot to consider when moving from employed to contract work. It can be an exciting and liberating move, but it also risks.

No Boss

When you become an SEO consultant, you will trade the structure of a corporate world for the freedom of being independent.

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That includes no longer having a manager.

Pros:

  • You are the boss! You get to make decisions that previously would be gatekept by your employer or more senior team members. Now, you are free to make those decisions yourself.
  • There is no one to disagree with your decisions or to say “no” to them. If you think something is worth trying, you do not need to get sign-off from a superior.

Cons:

  • You now have lots of bosses. It’s been said that moving to freelance means going from one boss to every client and stakeholder, essentially being your boss. They can still say no to you. You have more freedom to walk away from the project, but ultimately, you will need to concede sometimes if you want to earn money.

Legal And Financial Implications

You will need to follow laws, taxes to pay, and additional costs to being a consultant that you will need to be aware of.

All of this may affect your finances.

Pros:

  • Any money you make is for you to decide what to do with. The harder and smarter you work, the more you can be rewarded financially. No paying for your boss’s Tesla!
  • You have the freedom to be generous with your money. Your business can offer discounts for charities and free training for schools.

Cons:

  • All legal and financial obligations fall to you. The cost of non-compliance can be high both financially and on your time.
  • Getting the right advice can be costly. You may need to use the services of accountants, tax advisors, and lawyers.

Pick And Choose Projects

SEO consultants have much greater freedom to decide who they want to work with and on what projects.

Pros:

  • As an SEO consultant, there is more freedom to choose who you want to work with and what projects you want to work on. If you don’t enjoy a particular client set-up or disagree with the industry they are in, you can turn down the offer to pitch. This isn’t usually the case when you are working agency-side, for instance, where you might be expected to work with whichever client you are assigned.

Cons:

  • Being rigid in choosing who you work with and what you work on might be more challenging if you struggle to find clients. When employed in-house, you can choose the industry and the company set-up that suits you. In some agencies, you may be allowed to turn down work in certain industries you disagree with. Picking and choosing your projects as a consultant could mean not bringing in enough revenue on occasions.

Helen Pollitt on the freedom and drawbacks of being an independent SEO consultant.

Pitch For Work

You will have to develop your own business pipeline, including generating leads and ultimately converting them. This will likely mean pitching and contract negotiation.

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Pros:

  • You won’t be in the situation again where someone has sold “the moon on a stick” and expects you to deliver it. You will be fully aware of your time, resources, and ability limitations and can pitch for work that fits that.
  • There should be greater freedom to showcase your abilities and demonstrate how you can help a prospective client.

Cons:

  • Not everyone enjoys the pitching process. It can be nerve-wracking and distracts from SEO execution’s day job. It’s not for everyone.
  • It can take time to put together winning proposals. They are necessary to keep work coming in but have to balance with the time requirements for actually completing client work.

Set Your Own Fee

Although dictated mainly by the type of client you want to work with and the market you are operating in, you will get to decide how much you charge.

Pros:

  • There may be greater autonomy to decide how much you want to charge for your work. You can essentially set your own salary as long as you can win the work to support it.
  • You can choose exactly how many hours and what work you are willing to do for that fee.

Cons:

  • It’s hard to get the pricing right. You may be tempted to charge what your last agency did for your time, but in reality, SEO consultants may struggle to charge high fees when they first set out unless they have good case studies and examples to back up the quality of their work.
  • Figuring out what to charge and what type of client you will need to sustain can be a bit of trial and error. Some leads may think you are over-priced; others may have been willing to pay more if asked for it.

Benefits

Depending on where you are working, the difference in employment rights for the employed and what you are entitled to as an independent contractor might be vastly different.

Beyond the legal rights you may be granted as an employed SEO, there are also likely additional benefits offered by your employer.

Pros:

  • You have greater freedom to choose the benefits that best fit your lifestyle. You can choose a medical insurance plan that works for your health needs. You can decide if the positives of having a company car outweigh the tax implications of one.

Cons:

  • You will not be automatically entitled to statutory holiday, sick leave, or other benefits afforded by your government to employed workers.
  • Maintaining the standard of living that you had as an employed SEO might be difficult once you go freelance. If you relied on your company’s great dental plan or loved the training budget, becoming a consultant might take some adjustment.

You Only Get Paid If You Issue Invoices

There are no “pros” for this one.

It’s essentially one of the most challenging aspects of being an SEO consultant.

If you can’t work for some reason, such as illness or holiday, you will not be able to bill for work. If you don’t bill for work, then you won’t get paid.

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Unlike employment which may still pay you if you can’t work, that will not be something you get as a freelance SEO consultant.

If you can’t send out invoices, or worse, you do, but they don’t get paid, you may struggle to make your own payroll.

Conclusions

SEO consultants’ day-to-day working lives may look very similar to employed SEO experts in terms of work.

However, there are often additional complexities beyond SEO activity that can make it a scary prospect for some.

Taking the plunge into the freelance SEO world can be liberating, however. There is greater freedom in choosing what you want to do and when.

Some choose to dip their toe in consultancy work on the side of their regular job (if allowed by their employer).

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This can help with the learning curve of running a business while in the safety of employment.

You may have no intention of leaving employment, but it is always good to keep an eye on the market. You may not want to be an SEO consultant yourself but need to hire one.

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How We Built A Strong $10 Million Agency: A Proven Framework

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How We Built A Strong $10 Million Agency: A Proven Framework

Building a successful agency can be a daunting task in today’s ever-evolving space. Do you know the secrets to succeeding with yours?

Watch this informative, on-demand webinar, where link building expert Jon Ball reveals the closely guarded secrets that have propelled Page One Power to become a highly successful $10 million agency.

You’ll learn:

  • The foundational principles on which to build your business to succeed.
  • The importance of delegation, market positioning, and staffing.
  • More proven lessons learned from 14 years of experience.

With Jon, we’ll provide you with actionable insights that you can use to take your business to the next level, using foundational principles that have contributed to Page One Power’s success.

If you’re looking to establish yourself as a successful entrepreneur or grow your agency in the constantly evolving world of SEO, this webinar is for you.

Learn the secrets of establishing a thriving agency in an increasingly competitive SEO space.

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View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

Join Us For Our Next Webinar!

How An Enterprise Digital PR Firm Earns 100’s Of Links In 30 Days

Join us as we explore how to scale the very time-consuming and complicated process of earning links from digital PR, with proven case studies showing how you can earn hundreds of links in 30 days.

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SEO Woe or a Load of Baloney?

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SEO Woe or a Load of Baloney?

Toxic backlinks are links that some SEO tools say could hurt your website’s Google rankings. The implication is that you should disavow them to keep your site safe.

But there’s some disagreement and confusion among SEOs as to whether “toxic” links are actually a thing and what, if anything, you should do about them. 

If you believe Google’s John Mueller, they’re not: 

Yet, according to my poll, the majority (just!) of SEOs think they are: 

So… what’s the deal here? Are toxic backlinks actually a thing? Are they hurting your site? And if so, what should you be doing about them? 

Before we can answer those questions, we need to understand the terminology… 

Every website has some spammy backlinks that just don’t make sense. But that doesn’t necessarily make them manipulative or “toxic.”

For example, here are a couple of obviously spammy links to our site: 

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Example of spammy links, via Ahrefs' Site ExplorerExample of spammy links, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

We didn’t build or buy either of these, so they’re not “manipulative” by definition. They’re just low-quality links we’ve attracted over time because the internet is rife with spammers. 

If you study Google’s link spam documentation carefully, you’ll see that, in theory, these aren’t the kind of spammy links they have a problem with. They warn only against the ill effects of spam links intended to manipulate rankings. 

Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages. Any links that are intended to manipulate rankings in Google Search results may be considered link spam. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site. 

Here are the examples Google gives of these manipulative links: 

What Google says are manipulative linksWhat Google says are manipulative links

As for “toxic backlinks,” this is just a term made up by certain SEO tools to describe backlinks they think could hurt your rankings based on several so-called “markers.”

Key takeaway

  • Spammy links are low-quality links that every site attracts through no fault of their own. 
  • Manipulative links are links built or bought solely to improve Google rankings. 
  • Toxic links are links that certain SEO tools say could hurt your website’s rankings. 

If you asked this question before September 2016, the answer would have likely been “yes.”

So what changed? 

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Penguin 4.0.

With this algorithm update, Google switched from demoting pages to a system that tries to ignore bad links.

Penguin is now more granular. Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site. 

Since then, Google’s stance has been that you can ignore spammy backlinks. 

If you’re seeing individual links that pop up and you say, “oh this looks like a spammer dropped the link” or whatever, I would completely ignore those. […] because these spammy links happen to every website and Google’s system has seen them so many times over the years that we’re very good at just ignoring them. 

John MuellerJohn Mueller

But is this true? Is Google really as good at ignoring low-level spam as we’re made to believe? 

Judging by my colleague Chris’s recent poll on LinkedIn, a good chunk of SEOs (38%) don’t think so, as they’re still disavowing them. 

Most SEOs either disavow or do nothing about spammy backlinksMost SEOs either disavow or do nothing about spammy backlinks

Does that mean they’re right to do so? Not necessarily. It just means they don’t fully trust Google that they won’t do any harm. They’re being careful. 

Personally, the person I trust most to answer this question in 2024 is Dr. Marie Haynes. I don’t think anyone’s done more research into this than her. She’s spent well over a decade working to understand Google’s search algorithms and auditing link profiles on behalf of business owners. 

Now, the interesting part of that statement (and why I actually trust her!) is the obvious conflict of interest. Until fairly recently, she made her living selling link audit and disavow file creation services—and for a pretty hefty sum at that! 

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Pricing from Marie's link audit services page in March 2023Pricing from Marie's link audit services page in March 2023
Pricing from Marie’s link audit services page in March 2023

Clearly, it would be good news for Marie if Google were still terrible at ignoring spammy backlinks because she could sell more link audits! 

Yet, these days, she no longer appears to offer such services. In fact, she’s actually been warning folks against the need to disavow low-quality, spammy backlinks for a few years. 

Here’s a quote from a 2022 blog post of hers:

While there is no harm in disavowing low quality spammy links, it likely does not help improve rankings. We believe that Google’s algorithms are already ignoring these links. […]. When we do see improvements these days after disavowing, it is always in sites where we have disavowed links that were purposely made for SEO and very little else. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

It’s clear that Marie is being cautious with her words here. But overall, her opinion after digging into this for many years seems to be that, yes, Google is now pretty good at ignoring most low-quality spammy links. 

Does that mean they’re perfect? No. But it does mean that worrying about obvious low-quality link spam is probably a waste of time for most people.

If you’re buying or building the types of links that Google class as “link spam” then, yes, they can absolutely hurt your rankings.

But before you panic about that link exchange you did with your best friend’s wife’s brother, Google is likely looking for patterns of manipulation here. In other words, manipulative link profiles rather than manipulative individual links: 

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Danny Richman, founder of Richman SEO Training, agrees: 

Here’s a bit more context from Danny: 

As for Marie Haynes, she echoes a similar sentiment in this post. She states that manual actions aside, she would only recommend a client disavow links if they have “a very large number of links that [they] feel the webspam team would consider to be ‘manipulative.’ ”

In these cases, Google often slaps the worst offenders with an unnatural links manual action. If you get one of those, that’s Google telling you, “Hey… you’re being demoted in search because we think you’ve been trying to game the system with manipulative links.” 

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But this doesn’t have to happen for manipulative links to be a problem. It’s possible for Google to algorithmically demote a site if they detect a large volume of spammy and manipulative links, at least according to John Mueller.

If we see a very strong pattern [of spammy links] there, then it can happen that our algorithms say well, we really have kind of lost trust with this website and at the moment based on the bigger picture on the web, we kind of need to be more on almost a conservative side when it comes to to understanding this website’s content and ranking it in the search results. And then you can see kind of a drop in the visibility there. 

John MuellerJohn Mueller

Either way, the point remains: it’s patterns of manipulation that are likely to hurt rankings. There’s very little chance that you need to worry about the odd potentially dodgy link here and there. 

While it might be tempting to use an SEO tool that finds “toxic backlinks” for you, I’d seriously urge you to reconsider. Trusting these can do more harm than good. Way more. 

Just look at this unfortunate Redditor’s reply to John Mueller: 

Someone on Reddit's traffic tanked 60% after disavowing "toxic" backlinks in one SEO toolSomeone on Reddit's traffic tanked 60% after disavowing "toxic" backlinks in one SEO tool
A 60% drop in traffic! That’s no joke! 

Even if this is an extreme case, worrying about these links likely only wastes time because, according to Marie Haynes, they’re rarely truly toxic: 

I find that the truly toxic links…the ones that could have the potential to harm your site algorithmically (although you’d have to really overdo it, as I’ll describe below), are rarely returned by an SEO tool. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

Sam McRoberts, CEO of VUVU Marketing, seems to agree: 

So… how do you find truly toxic backlinks that are likely to be hurting your site? 

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The truth? You might not even need to look for them. If you haven’t built or bought links that Google considers link spam at any reasonable scale, chances are you’re good. 

If you’re not confident about that, do a manual backlink audit with a tool like Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

The Anchors report is a good starting point if you’ve never done this. It shows you the words and phrases people use when linking to you. If they look unnatural or over-optimized (lots of exact matches of keywords you’re trying to rank for), that could be a sign you have paid or other links intended to manipulate rankings. 

Example of keyword-rich anchors, which are often a sign of paid backlinksExample of keyword-rich anchors, which are often a sign of paid backlinks

If things look fishy there, use the Backlinks report to dig deeper and check the context of those links. It’s usually quite easy to spot paid and unnatural ones. 

The Backlinks report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer showing the context of the backlinkThe Backlinks report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer showing the context of the backlink

Just remember that you’re looking for patterns of unnatural links, not just one or two. 

WARNING

If you’re not 100% sure what you’re looking for when doing a backlink audit, hire someone who knows what they’re doing. You need to be confident that the links are truly “toxic.”

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If you have a manual action for unnatural links or a bunch of what you believe to be truly toxic backlinks, yes. Google’s advice is to disavow them (assuming you can’t get the links removed). 

You should disavow backlinks only if: 

You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, 

AND

The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site. 

Marie Haynes advises the same: 

There are two situations where we will recommend to our clients a thorough link audit followed by filing a disavow: 

  1. The site has a manual action for unnatural links in GSC. 
  2. The site has a very large number of links that we feel the webspam team would consider to be “manipulative”.
Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

If you just have a bunch of spammy backlinks that most sites naturally attract or the odd paid backlink, probably not. Google probably ignores most, if not all, of these links, so disavowing them is likely a waste of time. 

While there is no harm in disavowing these links other than the time spent analyzing them, there is likely no benefit either. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

But what about negative SEO?

Being the victim of a negative SEO attack is indeed the possible exception here. This is when a competitor sends a load of spammy or toxic backlinks your way to try to get your site penalized. 

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Google remains adamant that it basically never works, but it really comes down to what you believe. 

[I’ve] looked at hundreds of supposed cases of negative SEO, but none have actually been the real reason a website was hurt. […] While it’s easier to blame negative SEO, typically the culprit of a traffic drop is something else you don’t know about–perhaps an algorithm update or an issue with their website. 

Gary IllyesGary Illyes

If you see a traffic drop after an influx of backlinks in Site Explorer, I’d say that it’s at least worth a bit more investigation. 

Site with traffic drop coinciding with an influx of backlinksSite with traffic drop coinciding with an influx of backlinks
This site experienced a traffic drop coinciding with an influx of referring domains. Maybe there’s benefit to disavowing here… and maybe it’s something else!

As Gary said above, something else could be to blame—but you never know. There’s always a chance that Google’s algorithms rule it was you who built or bought those backlinks to try to manipulate rankings and penalize you for it. 

If you just found a bunch of so-called “toxic backlinks” in an SEO tool, probably not. Again, most of these are probably just link spam Google already ignores. 

Here’s yet another quote from Marie Haynes backing this up: 

While there is probably no harm in disavowing [links reported as toxic in SEO tools], you are not likely to see any improvement as a result. Disavowing is meant for sites trying to remove a manual action and for those who have been actively building links for the purpose of improving rankings. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

There’s also the risk that you could end up disavowing links that are actually helping you… 

Patrick showed further evidence that this can absolutely happen when he experimented with disavowing links to the Ahrefs blog. Traffic dipped, then went back up after he removed the disavow. 

The impact of disavowing links to the Ahrefs blogThe impact of disavowing links to the Ahrefs blog

Final thoughts

“Toxic backlinks” is a term made up by certain SEO tools to scare you. That’s not to say bad links can’t hurt your site. They absolutely can. But fortunately for most site owners, it’s rarely a problem worth worrying all that much about. 

Got questions? Disagree? Ping me on Twitter X.

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On-Page SEO Checklist for 2024: A Comprehensive Guide

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On-Page SEO Checklist 2024

On-Page SEO Checklist 2024

Want to make your pages rank high on Google? You won’t be able to do that if you don’t know where or how to start your on-page SEO — and with each Google update, this pillar of SEO gets more and more complicated. To keep you updated with the best and most relevant practices when it comes to this aspect of your website, I have prepared an on-page SEO checklist for 2024. 

On-Page SEO Factors

On-page SEO, in simple terms, is all the ways you can optimize your website take place on your website. Tweaking certain elements of your pages can enable them to climb very quickly up the ranks when done right. These elements include essentially everything you can see on your webpage, like its title tags, headers, and images.

Webmaster’s Note: This is part two of our SEO checklist series. Part one covers our technical SEO checklist, so go back if you haven’t seen that yet. I also do deep dives into other aspects of on-page SEO in other articles, like the best content strategy for SEO, how to hack on-page factors, and ways to dominate niche keywords in your industry.

1. Identify Your Target Keyword

This is where any SEO effort should start. Identify which basic keywords you would like each page to rank for. From there, you can expand into common phrases, questions, and related words people use to find pages like yours through keyword research. 

Key Aspects of Keyword Optimization:

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  • Keyword Research: Identifying the right keywords that your target audience is searching for.
  • Keyword Placement: Sensibly incorporating keywords in titles, headings, the first paragraph, and throughout the content.
  • Searcher Intent: Catering to why someone is performing a search, whether it’s to find information, make a purchase, etc.

Effective keyword optimization allows you to create pages that best meet user intent. This boosts your chances of ranking highly for your chosen keywords. 

Using a Keyword Research Tool for On-Page SEOUsing a Keyword Research Tool for On-Page SEO

I have longer guides on the types of keywords you should look at, and another on how to do keyword research you can follow for this step.

2. High-Quality Content Creation

Quality content is the keystone of on-page SEO. It is, after all, fundamental to the selling point of Google — which is that it is the go-to place to find answers to your questions. It’s why Google pushes Helpful Content Updates every so often.

So, your content must meet Google’s standards of quality in order to make it to the top. To do that, your content must be authoritative, valuable to the reader, and deliver on the promises made by your meta tags and headings.

What Constitutes Quality Content:

  • Originality: Your content must be unique and offer fresh insights.
  • Relevancy: It should align with your target user’s intent and be updated regularly.
  • Engagement: Content must encourage users to spend time on your site and interact with your offerings.

Creating content that exceeds user expectations can dramatically bolster your SEO as it can directly affect user engagement metrics and boost the credibility of your site. 

Webmaster’s Note: Beyond making sure all new content is high-quality, however, is ensuring all of your existing content is also up to par. I’ll be covering that in part four of this series, so keep an eye out for that. 

3. URL Structure

URLs are not only a ranking factor but also enhance the user experience when structured logically. 

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Features of an Effective URL Structure:

  • Concise and Descriptive: A URL should be concise and explain your page content. No stop words.
  • Keyword Inclusion: A relevant keyword can enhance a URL’s performance.
  • Use Hyphens instead of Underscores: Conventional use dictates using hyphens to separate words.

A clear URL helps users and search engines make sense of the page’s content before they even reach it.

Here’s an example of a bad URL slug. 

Example of Bad URL StructureExample of Bad URL Structure

And here’s an example of a good, optimized one.

Example of Good URL StructureExample of Good URL Structure

4. Title Tag and Headings

I find that certain practices for these two elements give the most benefit to a page’s SEO. 

Best Practices for Title Tag and Heading Optimization:

  • Use a Keyword-First Approach: Place keywords first in your title tag, as uninterrupted by stop-words as possible.
  • Keep it Simple: Title tags should be concise to ensure the entire tag is displayed on the SERPs.
  • Same Keyword, Different Phrasing: Use the same keyword in your title tag and heading 1. However, use different phrasing or wording for each. 
  • Insert Related Keywords: Do this for your heading 2, 3, and so on, where it makes sense.
  • Avoid Duplicates: Use different title tags and headings for every unique page.

4. Meta Tags Enhancement

Meta tags, such as the meta description, serve as a brief pitch to users on search engine results pages. Other meta tags, like your image alt text and links, provide important context to both the user and crawlbot.

Tips for Enhanced Meta Tags:

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  • Compelling Copy: Write title tags and meta descriptions that accurately summarize the page content and entice clicks.
  • Keyword Usage: Try to insert target keywords and/or related keywords effectively in your meta descriptions, and within the limit.
  • Uniqueness: Each page should have unique meta tags. 
  • Be Descriptive: Your image alt text should not only include a related keyword but should also adequately describe what is seen on the image. 
  • Add internal and external links: Semantic search means Google can use the links in your pages to gain a better understanding of its content. Always add relevant internal links, and only include external links from trusted websites. 
  • Use Noindex Robots Meta Tag: Add this to prevent any pages with thin content, or pages with little value and no intent from appearing in the SERPs.
  • Use rel=”canonical” Link Tag: Use this for any duplicate pages you have on your website. Doing this can help you control which version of the page gets indexed and ranks for your targeted keywords. 
  • Set your Open Graph Meta Tags: This will let you optimize how your pages look when they’re shared on social media.
  • Set your Viewport Meta Tag: This configures how your pages are scaled and displayed on different devices and platforms, which is important for user experience (more on that later). 

To get the most out of your SEO, don’t neglect this part of your on-page SEO checklist. The small tweaks here can add up to the big picture. 

Well-crafted meta tags have the potential to increase click-through rates, boost your visibility on organic search and image search, enhance user experience, and also distribute link equity throughout your pages. All these contribute to how well your page ranks. 

5. Internal Linking

Internal linking spreads link equity throughout your site and can help search engines discover new pages. Always link back to pillar content, or other high-value content on your website. 

Benefits of Strategic Internal Linking:

  • Navigation: They guide users through other relevant pages on your website.
  • Page Authority: Anchor text can help to convey what the linked-to page is about, which can aid in ranking for those terms.
  • User Time on Site: Providing relevant links can keep users engaged on your site for longer periods.

Good internal linking can significantly increase your engagement rates and contribute to building a robust site architecture. I have a separate post on how to build topical authority through internal linking you can check out.

6. User Experience (UX)

User experience affects on-page SEO because search engines favor websites that provide a positive user experience.

UX Factors to Consider in Your Website Design:

  • Mobile-Friendliness: The site must perform well across all devices — but especially on mobile-view, as most users use Google through their phones.
  • Ease of Use: The site should be navigable and logical in its layout. Navigation bars and other menus should be intuitive and prioritize the most important pages of your website.
  • Page Speed: Pages should load quickly to reduce bounce rates. Follow this guide to site speed optimization for this point.

As UX becomes an even more important ranking factor, I find it is necessary to add to this on-page SEO checklist. Sites that deliver a high-quality user experience will dominate search engine results pages.

Key Takeaway

Mastering this pillar of SEO is crucial for achieving high rankings on Google, and staying updated with evolving best practices is essential. But with every update, what works best changes. 

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My 2024 on-page SEO checklist provides basically the most up-to-date practices for the elements on your website. Follow it, and you should be able to boost your website’s authority, credibility, and long-term SEO performance.

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