Category Archives for "SEO"

Nov 30

You’ve Been Attacked By A Penguin! Now What?

By Rob Woods | SEO

 

In my previous post (How to Tell if You’ve Been Attacked by a Penguin – Diagnosing Traffic Decreases) I discussed how to tell if you’ve been hit by one of Google’s Penguin updates. Once you’re pretty sure you’ve been affected by Penguin, what do you do next? Well, you could consult a professional. There are many great consultants or agencies that can handle Penguin recovery tasks for you but this kind of work can be very labor intensive (read, expensive).

There are also many services that claim to handle much of the work you. I have to admit that I’m a little skeptical of how well they evaluate the quality of each and every link that you have coming to your site.

Some of these services include:

Again, I have not used any of these services so I can’t comment on how effective they are or their success rate. What I have done, with success, is a mostly manual review of backlinks to a site and then sent requests for link removals to webmasters followed by a link disavow request to Google. Now, there are likely lots of other tools you could use for this, but I’m going to show you my favorites. Disclaimer: I have no financial incentive of any kind to recommend any of these services; they are simply tools that I believe in and have used with success.

Step 1: Assemble a List of Every Link to Your Site

I strongly suggest that you not rely on any one source of links. No one source, not even Google will give you all the links to your site so I use the tools below to research backlinks. I’d also recommend dumping any manual lists of links you have into a spreadsheet. If you’ve ever hired a link builder and they gave you a list of links they built for you, include that list. Essentially what you are trying to build is a list of every possible link to your site.

I export lists of every back link from all the sources below into a single spreadsheet. Essentially you want a single column in Excel of every link you have. It might cost a few bucks but I recommend subscribing for a least a month to all of the below.

And the most important one – LinkResearchTools (we’ll come back to this one in a minute). For now you want to run the “Backlink Profiler” report.

You also want to export all of your backlinks from Google Webmaster Tools. There’s a bit of a trick to this one as many people export the wrong links. You want to go to Google Webmaster Tools, the Search Traffic > Links To Your Site section and under “Who Links Most to Your Site” section click the more link

google-links

After that you don’t want the “Download This Table” button, you want “Download More Sample Links”. This will give you the actual links to your site rather than just a sample of the domains linking it.

google-links-2

OK, after you have assembled your massive list of all the links you have pointing to your site you want to remove any duplicates. I finally found a super easy way to do this in Excel and I can’ believe I did this stuff manually for years (or paid someone to do it).

Put all of your links in one column in Excel and make sure you have a heading in the column. Then it’s a simple as highlighting all of your data including the heading, go to Data > Advanced Filter and “filter in place” making sure to check Unique Records Only and BOOM Excel goes to work removing all duplicates from the list. Note that Excel always keeps the first instance it finds and deletes subsequent ones.

excel-trick

Step 2: Evaluate Your Links

Once you have your list of links this is where I prefer to use one particular tool – LinkResearchTools Link Detox Tool. It’s not perfect but I’ve found it’s about 98% accurate in judging the quality of a link. I’ll have to perhaps go into the intricacies of all the things you can do with this tool in a future post but here’s the basics at least. There may be other tools out there you can use for this but this is the one that I’ve found to be the most effective and efficient.

The first thing you are going to get in your report is an overall ranking of the “riskiness” of your links.

link-detox-risk

This mostly gives you an overall sense of the task ahead of you and the number of links that you may have to request removal for or disavow.

The next thing you’ll see is the full breakdown of the risk or spamminess ratings for every single link pointing to your site. These ratings range everywhere from “Very Low Risk” to “Deadly Risk” and a variety of shades of riskiness in between. I’d recommend looking at any link with a rating of “Moderate – 200” or higher. Note that you can filter or sort this report a ton of different ways and export it to a CSV or even straight to a Google Disavow Links formatted text file.

detox-report

I prefer here to actually export the whole list to a .csv and then set some conditional formatting on the “Risk” column to call out the Moderate, High, Very High, and Deadly Risk. I also add fields to the sheet for tracking my evaluation of the accuracy of the risk rating, when I contacted the webmaster for both a first and second time and what action they took. I’ve attached an example of the template I use, complete with formatting HERE.

This is where the leg work begins and the part that really does, in my opinion, require an experienced SEO. You need to go through each and every link, and yes that may mean 1000s of links, to judge for yourself if the risk rating is accurate. Why? You simply can’t trust an algorithm, no matter how good it is, to accurately assess the quality of websites (no, that’s not a thinly veiled shot at the Goog). If you haven’t been around SEO for a long time you may not know a good link from a bad at a glance and it’s going to end up taking you forever to assess the links. At any rate, that’s really your next step. You need to do this! You don’t want to be asking for links to be removed if they are OK but the software has rated them as risky. Good links are hard enough to come by; don’t be flushing that value away unless you are pretty sure.

Step 3: Ask for Your Links to Be Removed

So, you’ve rated all your links. What’s next? Unfortunately Google wants to make link disavowal a painful process. Are they doing this because they are mean and petty? Well, no. I get this question a lot and unfortunately the answer is, spammers. If Google made it easy to build tons of crappy links to see if they work to rank a site, and if not, just disavow them and start fresh, spammers would have a field day testing to find the loopholes in Google’s link quality rating. To help prevent that, they make it slow and painful to remove links and they throw in a few curves just to make sure you actually do the work.

The next step is finding contact information for all of the sites for which you want the links removed. You are going to need to contact every single one you can find contact info for and ask (or beg) for the link to be removed. How do you do this? There are a few options: you can manually go to every site and look around for contact info, check the WHOIS info, etc. to find the info if it’s available, or hire a good contractor on a site like ODesk to do this manual work for you, or you can automate. As much as the software Scrapebox has been used for a lot of spammy purposes it’s actually pretty good (and I think a legitimate use) to use it to harvest email addresses for domains. Usually this is used to spam websites in a particular vertical but you can dump your list of domains in and have Scrapebox scrape all those sites for contact emails.

From there you need to contact each and every site to ask for your link to be removed. There are any number of email solutions you can use to send these emails in a relatively automated fashion. One I have been exploring (and will review shortly) is Pitchbox. I’ve only seen a beta version (live version coming very soon) and it allows you to upload a list of email addresses and craft an email campaign that includes dynamically generated emails, tracking of who has responded, and an automated follow up to those that do not respond on the first flight.

Essentially you want to contact each and every site and either get the link removed, or record the website owners response or lack thereof and the date(s) you contacted the owner. Some sites will ask you to pay for link removals. This one is up to you. Some say don’t pay, just record that the site asked for money as the response, and some say go ahead and pay for the webmaster’s time and get the link removed. Please also note that this has created, in a few rare instances, a market for crappy sites to lnk to you on purpose, let you know about the link through a “neutral” third party, then ask you for money when you want the link removed.

Step 4: Beg Google’s Forgiveness (Disavow Your Spammy Links)

You’ve evaluated all your links. You’ve asked for them to be removed. Now what? Well, this is when you can finally ask Google (for the first time) to stop counting the links you don’t want counted against your site. Why do I say the “first” time? Because Google wants to make link disavowal a hard thing to do, they will frequently reject your first request and make you go through the whole requesting removal step two or three times before they actually let you disavow.

One of the keys to success is clearly documenting what you did to ask to get each link removed. The other is actually getting some links removed. That’s one of the primary factors Google looks at to see if you actually did the work – do you have less links now then you did when the Penguin part of the algo flagged your site for lower rankings?

Once you are ready to ask for link disavowal you can do so with the Google Disavow Links Tool. Note that you need to be logged into Google and be the “owner” of the site that you want to disavow for as far as Google Webmaster Tools is concerned. You can see detail instructions of how to format a disavow request here but in essence you want to:

  • Take each link (or domain) that you want to disavow the links for and create a line for it in a .txt file (or an Excel sheet that you will later save as a .txt) and add at least one line of comments preceded by a # character telling Google what you did and when to try to get the links removed
  • Add a line to disavow either the particular link or links you want to disavow or ask to disavow all the links from the entire domain. The entire domain is likely going to be your default here but there will be a few cases where you are either sure you only have a single link from a domain, or where you want to disavow one particular link but leave others. In the case of a single link just paste the whole URL including the http:// into the line following the comment. For the domain include the command “domain:shadyseo.com” where of course shadyseo.com is replaced by the domain. You do not need to disavow subdomains separately, the “domain:” command should cover all links from a top-level domain.

Here’s Google’s example of how a disavow should be formatted

disavow-request

One thing they don’t explicitly mention and which I found through trial and error is that when you are using the “domain:” command to disavow all links from a domain you must use the format “shadyseo.com” not “shadyseo.com/” or the disavow tool with reject your request and let you know there are errors in the file.

Continue going through each and every link flagged in your sheet for removal for each link. This is another task that you can possibly farm out to a less expensive worker through a site like ODesk, as long as you trust them and are pretty thorough with doing QA on the work they provide.

After you are sure you have your disavow request correctly formatted (if working in Excel make sure to save it as a .txt file) you can submit the request to the Google Disavow Links Tool.

The next question I usually get is – how do I know if my request has been accepted? Well, in many cases you will never know for sure. If you received a notification in Google Webmaster Tools that a Manual Action was taken against your site, submit a Reconsideration Request at this time. Google will usually, but not always, send you a response when they have reviewed your request and let you know if it was accepted or if you need to go back and do more work removing links. If there was no manual action aimed at your links, they will usually tell you that too. Unfortunately if you had no message in GWT and you were likely affected by an algorithmic adjustment to your rankings from the Penguin part of the algo, you will likely never get a response from Google if your link disavow request is accepted. All you can do at this point is watch your Google organic traffic daily. If you see a sudden positive spike with no other explanation, you can assume they accepted and the part of the algo depressing your rankings no longer affects you.

How long does it take for Google to look at my request?

Again, unfortunately, that depends. After chatting with a bunch of my colleagues and from my own experience, it can take anywhere from about ten days to three months. If you don’t see any movement after that, try try again.

Oh, and by the way, don’t expect to bounce back all the way to your previous rankings and traffic. If before you had 10,000 links and Google now counts 8,000 of those as spammy, removing those links should eliminate the “penalty” affecting your site but if you successfully remove or disavow them, you’re only going to come back to where you would have ranked with the 2000 good ones in the first place. I have seen link profiles where I’d recommend getting rid of or disavowing 99% of the incoming links so that means essentially that site needs to start from scratch, as if it essentially has almost no links and is starting almost as a new site.

See now wasn’t that easy. Nothing to doing link removal and disavows, right? 🙂

The Future

Unfortunately for many sites Penguin is here to stay and I suspect it will only continue to get better at detecting the kinds of links Google does not want you to build. What links are those? Really any link built just (or even mostly) for SEO is one Google does not like. If they had their way NONE of them would count, and they are going to keep working to find them and discount or penalize them.

If you have not been hit by Penguin DO NOT BE COMPLACENT! Ask anyone building links for you what they are doing. Get second and third opinions on whether those tactics are sustainable. Just because you haven’t been hit yet does not mean you won’t! At the outset estimates were that the algo would allow up to about 80% “bad” links and penalize those above that. The estimate is now 50%. Ask yourself what happens when that changes to 40% or 20%… How sure are you your links are 80-90% the kind of links Google “likes”?

I know that if your site has been around a while and has used the types of link building that worked in 2003 or 2006 or 2009 it feels like a lot of wasted money and effort to now do a ton of work to get rid of those links, but if you don’t start working on it now, how soon until you get attacked by a Penguin?

Get on it!

 

Nov 25

How to Tell if You’ve Been Attacked by a Penguin – Diagnosing Traffic Decreases

By Rob Woods | SEO

What is Penguin?

5910081368_72018745b3

There has been a lot of talk in the SEO world about “Penguin” since Google turned the industry on its head in April of 2012. Penguin was an algorithm update where Google finally made a major move toward enforcing some of the linking standards they had been preaching about for years. There have since been two iterations of that update and another major release dubbed Penguin 2.0 on May 22, 2013. You can see a history of these changes, and indeed all of Google’s algorithm changes at Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History Why are these dates important? We will get to that in just a minute (below).

At their heart the Penguin updates were substantial changes in the way Google ranks sites based on the sites they have linking to them. For years Google has been preaching to “just build good sites” to such a degree that it’s become almost an inside joke in the SEO marketing discipline. At the heart of ranking well in the search engines however has always been what links you have pointed at your site. The number of links, the quality of the links, the power of those links, and the anchor text of those links.

For years site owners have gone out and acquired links that helped their SEO and organic traffic but which Google really didn’t want to count as a “vote” that your site was a good site. The worst penalty most sites got (unless they were truly “black hat”) was that getting those links was a waste of time and money, but no longer with Penguin. Now those links can actually “hurt” you. You may not even know that it’s happening as in most cases the Penguin updates are an algorithm change, not an overt manual penalty. In most cases all you’ll see is your traffic drop and you may not know why.

So. If you are reading this because your organic search engine traffic took a sudden hit, and you don’t know why here’s a few things you can do to see if you may have been attacked by a Penguin.

Check Your Google Webmaster Tools

If you don’t (heaven-forbid) have GWT set up, you may be out of luck here but at any rate if you don’t go out as soon as you finish this article and get it done! If you have it set up you might, just might, have a message in there noting that there is a problem.

These can come in two varieties, a Site Message or a message about a Manual Action.

For Site Messages you simply login in to Google Webmaster Tools, click on the site you are concerned about and click the Site Messages link on the left nav bar.

site-message

If you see a message like this, you may have been hit by Penguin.

unnatural-links

You can also check the relatively new (as of the time of the writing of this post) Manual Actions link. You can find this one under the Search Traffic section of your GWT

manual-action

If you have a message like the one above and clicking it leads to one like this…

unnatural-links-manual-action

You may have a Penguin problem. In fact in this case your problem has gone beyond just an algorithm update and Google has put a specific action (usually a ranking penalty of some kind) against your domain or part of your domain.

Usually it’s not going to be that easy though. You are going to have to infer that something happened. In that case your analytics are going to be your best bet for diagnosing the issue. Now you can check your organic traffic by going to Google Analytics and going to Traffic Sources -> Sources -> Search -> Organic, looking at your traffic patterns, and comparing them to the aforementioned Moz Google Algorithm Change History and seeing if you can see a correlation between a big traffic drop and the date of a Penguin update.

However…

There is an easier way. A lovely company called Barracuda Digital has created a tool which mashes up your Google Analytics organic traffic data with Moz’s history of algo updates. It really helps diagnose any issues around traffic and Google updates, particularly the Panda and Penguin updates and thus is called the Panguin Tool.

It’s a great tool for diagnosing this stuff and it lets you slice and dice data by date, landing page, keyword, etc. You do have to give the tool temporary access to view your analytics data however. The best part though is the graphical overlay of Google’s updates with your traffic and the ability to click on any update to find out more about what was behind it.

With this site, for example we have a good indication that it may have been hit by Penguin 1.2 though there were other updates near the same time. Often you are going to be in a “best guess” scenario as to whether you got hit by Penguin.

penguin-example-1

Other methods of diagnosing Penguin issues are more complex. If you have some SEO knowledge then you can do some back link analysis with really any of the top link research tools such as:

Looking at this link data really does require some in depth SEO knowledge to analyze the quality of your backlinks and you may need to get an experienced SEO consultant involved at this point. If you are willing to invest in a starter membership for one or more of these tools however two quick checks you can do are to analyze your anchor text (the words in the text links) pointing to your site, and the overall quality of your link profile.

Anchor Text

One dead giveaway to Google on the quality and naturalness of your link profile is your anchor text. For a link profile that has been built organically through naturally promoting your business (Google’s ideal scenario) most of the links pointing to your site will be “branded” links. These are links which are generally some version of your brand or your domain. A small portion might be “money” keywords which are the keyword you really want to rank for such as your products or product categories.

If your anchor text profile looks like this:

anchor-text

Actual example from Moz’s Open Site Explorer actual keywords hidden to protect the “semi” innocent

…you likely have been hit by Panda, or you are going to be in the future. This kind of profile SCREAMS to Google that you have built your links solely for ranking in the search engines and not just because people love your site and your company.

Link Quality

This is generally much harder to diagnose. Usually looking at a link profile can take years of experience to analyze manually to judge the “quality” and trustworthiness of the sites linking to you. An experienced SEO can usually tell with seconds whether a link is from a “good” site but I know from experience that many many site owners just don’t know a good link from a bad.

There is one tool I like to use for an at-a-glance health check and that is LinkResearchTools’ Link Detox Report. This is a paid service but a starter membership is less that $150/mo. You can run the report and get a quick health rating from Low Risk to Deadly Risk.

If your rating looks like this, you likely have been hit, or you are going to be in the future.

lrt

Actual example from LinkResearchTools’ Link Detox Report

Find Out What has Been Done Before

OK, on this one you may not know. You might have walked into a bad situation and not have been dealing with the site in question for long. You may not know what that “SEO” company you hired three years ago did to build links for you. At least ask all the sources you have what kinds of link building have been done, some may even fess up that they used less than the highest quality link building techniques. If your site has been around a long time at some point you or your SEO have used some of these techniques. If you’ve done things like the below you may be in trouble.

  • Blog Networks
  • Link Rings
  • Reciprocal Links
  • Tons of blog commenting (especially on unrelated blogs)
  • Guest Blogging on unrelated sites
  • Building many links with exact keyword anchor text
  • Article marketing
  • Tons of press releases no one cares about
  • Paid links
  • Lots of low quality web directory submissions
  • Forum spam
  • Sitewide footer or blogroll links

What next?

So you think you have indeed been bitten by a Penguin; what can you do about it? First, if you are still building links in any of the above ways or building them just to get search rankings STOP. Ask your SEO consultants, agencies, or in-housers for a detailed list of everything they are doing to get you links. Insist if you have to. I’ve actually had a client whose former agency refused to show the links they were building – that’s a huge red flag.

Next, get a second opinion. Find an experienced SEO and ask them for their opinion. You may be too close to the situation to be objective about just why you built those links and whether they are really all that bad. If all concerned agree that you have a Penguin problem you are going to have to deal with it, and sooner is better than later.

The obvious solution is to hire an SEO consultant or agency versed in doing link clean-ups. There are quite a few good ones out there and they are going to be able to either guide you through the process of cleaning up your links and begging Google’s forgiveness, or doing it for you.

If you really want to tackle a link clean up yourself there are several useful tools out there you can use, and I’ll tackle Do It Yourself Link Clean Ups in my next post.

Have any other tips for diagnosing Penguin problems? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

 

Nov 14

24 Things You Need to Know Before Becoming A Consultant

By Rob Woods | Personal , SEO

Eight months ago I lost my job. It was, in retrospect, something I should have seen coming. I was managing marketing for a highly seasonal website (blackfriday.com) where the owner/CEO didn’t really believe in spending a lot of people resources or money on marketing. Although I had learned a lot about parts of the online world I didn’t know about previously I was coming to a place where there was little new for me to learn and no real potential for advancement. Regardless, we can get comfortable in a good paying job with good benefits and where we like the people we work with. I didn’t really see it coming, or didn’t want to.

So, I was out on my own. What was I going to do now? Look for another job? Great senior online marketing jobs are few and far between in Vancouver, BC and I wasn’t willing to move. I had already turned down some great offers elsewhere. I could look for an SEO only position in Vancouver, but those don’t pay so well. Hmmmm. I had done some consulting on the side for a few years at both of my last in-house jobs. Could I do this full time?

I decided to dive in to consulting after a brief period of unemployment and enjoying not going to the office every day (a 1 ½ hour commute each way). These are some of my random thoughts and tips on what to think about before you get started. If you have the choice to time when you start consulting, work on this stuff first and your launch will go a lot smoother.

If this is tl;dr at least skim the headings!

Ease Yourself into It

If you can manage it, get yourself a client or two BEFORE you leave your day job. It will ease the financial worry of “Yikes, I now have $0 income. How do I pay my mortgage? Do I need to take anything that comes along that pays?”

Trick Your Body & Mind into Thinking You Are Still Working a Day Job

This one was a weird one that I hadn’t expected. After 20 years of getting up, showering, driving/taking the train to work, and walking up to the actual office I had conditioned myself to that morning routine. It was a gradual transition into work mode. I even found myself mentally preparing myself to be “work” Rob as I approached the office. Going abruptly from that to rolling out of bed, grabbing a coffee, and walking 40’ to the office didn’t let me mentally change into work mode. At first I still had to get up, get showered and dressed in work clothes, leave the house (even just to walk around the block), and come back in straight to the office (my den) to get ready to work. Now of course I have slowly moved to the ability to do the work-at-home thing of occasionally wearing sweats all day, not shaving for three days, and showering sometime before dinner.

Do Not Over-promise

You will want to do this. I struggled with this and still do. Be pessimistic about timelines. You’ll want to promise everyone the moon and the stars. These are new customers you are getting and you need them to pay your bills so you’ll want to bend over backwards for them. Until you are really confident in your ability to produce work, unde-rpromise. Otherwise you’ll end up working days, nights, weekends, holidays, and still breaking your promises.

Don’t Overestimate Your Productivity

Similar to “Do Not Over-promise”. Be realistic with yourself about how much you can get done. If you aren’t used to working at home, there will be distractions. There are also the thousand other things that need to get done to start running a business, setting up bank accounts and invoicing, getting an accountant, buying your own laptop, setting up the place you will work, buying office supplies, etc. All of these things take away from that eight hours you thought you could work today.

Reach Out To Your Contacts

This is a biggie. The first step is of course having contacts. If you are a comfy inhouse marketer and you think you don’t really need to network, think again. If you needed a reason to go to conferences, offer others help with no quid pro quo, participate in social media, go to meetups and “hang out” on Google, this is it. Unless you have an ironclad marketing plan and a budget to go with it most of your new clients are going to come from referrals.

So far with one possible exception ALL of my clients (and there are some pretty damn good ones) have come from some awesome industry folks who were either too busy or not the best fit for a given client. You do have to actually let your contacts know you are looking however. Use social, email, phone, DMs, PMs, etc. to let people know you are looking, what your strengths are, and what you see as the best clients for you. By the same token, when you get leads that aren’t right for you, keep the karma flowing by passing them along.

Stay Positive

You are going to get disappointed, worried, depressed, scared, and possibly even lonely. You no longer have a support system at work. You have no one to ask for advice or share the blame/glory. You may even be going from a fun, collegial, community work atmosphere to working all day by yourself in a private office (or your kitchen). Find ways to keep your goals in mind, to interact with people, and to relax. Take a walk. Get a massage. Find somewhere to co-work. Have a glass of wine (you can do that now, you work for yourself).

Have a Slush Fund / Be Patient

If you are good at what you do and you have a great network, the work will come but it might not come at first. You are going to have some lean months, especially at the start. Have enough set aside, if you can manage it to pay all your bills for three months. If you get a few contracts that reserve will start stretching to four, six, etc. months. Having this fund and knowing it’s for building your business will allow you to feel less stressed, spend more time on building the business, and help prevent rash decisions like taking on clients/contracts you shouldn’t.

Don’t Take Small Clients Unless You Really Have To

This may sound a bit harsh but small clients take just as much work (or more) than big clients. It may not seem like this makes sense, but it’s true. That client that can only pay you a grand per month is going to have all the same questions, needs, and difficulties as the one who can pay you five grand. When you are starting out you will want to take the small ones to get things rolling. Do it if you have to, but try to quote on a limited time engagement. Ask yourself – if I had enough of this kind of client to pay my bills, would I be happy with that, or would I be working 100 hours per week?

Take Clients Who Already Know Something (If You Can)

This can be a tough one. Clients who really know nothing about the area you are consulting for are the ones who likely need you most, but they are also a LOT more work. Whether they just don’t understand, or are eager to learn, they are going to take a ton more of your time teaching, and less actually doing, unless of course training and teaching is what you offer. If a client already knows the basics you can spend less time explaining definitions and why you are doing something and just get down to the business of getting results. They are also a lot more likely to be able to actually implement your recommendations.

istock_000008771613xsmallStick To Your Guns On Pricing

This is one where I failed. Find out what others charge who have your level of ability. You might want to start a bit below them but don’t drop your drawers on price. At first you may be tempted to take that contract at a low price to get things started. You’ll end up regretting it and resenting the time you spend on it compared to the contracts that pay you twice as much.

Admit Where Your Talents Don’t Lie

If you are really good at SEO, don’t take PPC work. If you are really good at content creation, don’t take on a link building contract. The work will come. Stick to what you can be awesome at (and get great reviews for and referrals from). Don’t try to stretch into something you are “just OK” at just to get a paycheck.

You WILL Be Interrupted

(8 hours working never = 8 hours of billing) If you are billing by the hour, never start the day thinking I’m going to work for 8 hours and that will fulfill the 8 hours of work for this contract. The phone rings, someone pings you on Skype, the dog needs a walk, fifteen emails come in that need an answer. I’d estimate that initially you’ll be working 4-6 hours for every one you can bill to a client. After 2-3 months I was more like 1:1 and now I’m probably billing a 2-3 of hours of client work for every hour of “something” else.

Don’t Get Distracted Until You Are Established

Experienced consultants with a good client base and a feel for how much they can get accomplished in a day are the ones you see tweeting that they are going to the beach for the afternoon, working at the coffee shop, taking a break to mow the lawn, or cook up a five course meal in the middle of the day. There will be a ton of things you can do because you now work for yourself but in this phase should you be doing those, or focusing on building your consultancy? The lawn can always get mowed later. Or tomorrow.

Set Up Your Systems and Forms

You are going to need a ton of things that you don’t have: a quote form, an invoice form, an audit template, a how-to guide, etc. These are going to take time to set up. Remember above where you are working 4-6 hours for every 1 you can bill the client? This is why. If you have the option take the time to get all this set up before you start focusing on client work.

There are lots of good web services that can help make your life easier, more portable, and more device agnostic. Some of my favorites are:

QuoteRoller: QuoteRoller is a great web app which allows you to create quote templates and track the success of your quotes. It’s great for cutting down the amount of time you use creating new quotes and integrates with a bunch of other services, including FreshBooks (below). With FreshBooks you can push a client from QuoteRoller straight into the FreshBooks system and instantly turn a quote into an invoice. (Hat tip to Rhea for the heads up on this one).

FreshBooks: FreshBooks is a great cloud based app for doing all of your small business accounting and invoicing. I really like the ability to track time spent per project/client and with one click turn all outstanding hours worked into an invoice. It also does automated invoicing for recurring engagements. Freshbooks also has a full suite of mobile apps so you can do your billing and accounting on the run.

EvernoteI really like Evernote for capturing all of my notes about a client in one place. It can do a ton of other stuff but having one central location where you put all your contacts, info, links, to dos, notes, etc. for one client so you know where to look for it or search for it is a godsend when you have multiple clients. This also has both web and mobile apps.

TrelloThis is a great web and mobile app for project management. It has a really easy to use interface, it’s free, and you can grant clients various levels of access to each project.

Odesk: Odesk is a great place to outsource labor intensive tasks like web research or cleansing and organizing data. I’ve used them quite a bit and am actually using them for some virtual assistant tasks as well.

Web Banking / Mobile Banking: You are going to be super busy setting up your business so you don’t want to be wasting time running to the bank constantly. Get web and mobile banking set up so it’s easy to pay bills, transfer payments to your account, move money around, etc. Get one, if you can, with the ability to photograph and deposit checks remotely to save running to the bank each time a client pays you.

LastPassI never thought I’d need a password saving app until I realized that because I have numerous clients, I know not only have a ton of apps I use to manage them, I also have several Google accounts to log in and out of, several CMS systems, a bunch of blogs and social accounts, different analytics programs, affiliate programs, AdWords, AdSense, and so on, and so on. Save yourself what totals to HOURS of looking up passwords and get a password saving app like this (thanks to Michael Gray for the tip on this one).

Talk To Your Accountant

Find out what kind of company structure makes the most sense for you. Figure out how much you need to set aside to pay your taxes and actually set that aside in a separate account. Don’t touch it unless you are starving. Find out what you can write off as a deduction and track that through the year. Keep a running total of your expenses, don’t wait for next April to figure it out. Keep projections of how much you think your total income and expenses will be for the year. Enter those in a tax return prep software and update from time to time. Do you still have enough set aside?

Talk To Your Banker

Figure out what accounts you need. Do they need to be separate from your personal accounts? Can you access them via the web and mobile apps? Now that you are on your own how much do you need to set aside for your retirement? Get all the info for your bank accounts so customers can pay via direct deposit or electronic transfer if possible. Trust me on this last one, you can use Paypal but they take 3% or so off the top for transferring money to your bank. That doesn’t seem like much but if you bill $60,000 this year they are taking $1800 of the top. Keep as much of that in your pocket as you can.

Know Your Expenses and Bill Accordingly

You are going to have costs that you didn’t have working inhouse. Health insurance, retirement savings, disability insurance, that $99 / month Moz membership work used to pay for, that conference they used to send you to. SEO tools alone cost me over $500/mo that I wasn’t spending before. Don’t forget about those paid vacations you don’t get anymore. Want to take a vacation? That’s time you aren’t able to bill. Do you skip vacations or do you have enough set aside you can afford not to bill for a week or two? My rule is that you need to bill the same per hour, if you are billing 40 hours/week, as you used to make inhouse in $1000s. Used to make $80,000? You need to bill at least $80 at 40 hours/week x 50 weeks to have about the same lifestyle. Want to only work 20 hours / week? You now need to bill $160 / hour.

Have a New Client Onboarding Package

Have everything you need to start working with the client ready to go. Include any questions on the background and history of what they and/or other consultants have done in the past. Ask for the access you need and explain how they go about granting it. Include your payment routing info. Ask for contact info for anyone you need to deal with. Getting this information piecemeal can be a “death of a thousand cuts” to your productivity every time you have to ask for it, wait, get it (maybe), ask for the next.

For example for an SEO consultant this may be:

  • History of the site including former vendors, consultants, rebulilds, redirects, etc.
  • Access to Google and Bing Webmaster Tools
  • Access to analytics
  • Admin access to social media accounts
  • Access to other reporting tools or project management tools
  • Contact info for the hosting company, development team or vendor, writers, social media interns, web designers, etc.

Don’t Split Your Time

If you have several clients stopping and starting work for different projects can eat up a ton of time. It takes your brain a while to change gears, especially if you are used to focusing on a single project at a time inhouse. Work full days on a single project if you can. If you are working about 20 hours / month with a client don’t make it one hour per day every day. Compact it into three full days, or five half days. Set the expectation with the client that you won’t be working on their stuff every single day, unless they are your only client.

Set Expectations for Working Hours

If you answer client calls or emails in the evening and on weekends they will EXPECT you to be available evenings and weekends. Set the standards early. Let them know that outside of emergencies you work 8 am – 5 pm, Mon – Fri. Let them know you look at email two or three times per day and it may take several hours for you to respond. If you need to work outside those hours (and who doesn’t occasionally) schedule emails you write in the evening to send at open of business tomorrow or those you send on Sunday to go out Monday. Many mail clients have a scheduling feature. If you use Gmail checkout the Boomerang plugin for this.

Think About Finding A Partner

Working alone is tough. There’s no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to offer an alternate opinion, and the only skill set the business has is yours. A partner can help by complimenting your skill set and by sharing some of the stress and uncertainty. Now, of course, with a partner you also have less autonomy and you need to find twice as many clients. If you are good at doing the actual work and not lead gen find someone who is the reverse. Hate to travel and speak at conferences? Maybe you can find a partner who loves it. Suck at bookkeeping? Maybe they are great with numbers.

The other thing that can be tough working on your own is the solitude. If you can’t work in a noisy environment and need a quiet place you may find yourself locked in a room, by yourself, interacting with no one you aren’t actually related to, for days on end. Having a partner around can alleviate that without having to actually work at the local coffee house.

Be Prepared for Travel

This is one I didn’t really expect but a lot of clients seem to want to meet you in person or have you work inhouse for a few days, meet the team, etc. First, set the expectation as to whether you can travel or not. If you are a single parent with no support system let clients know as part of the quote that travel is not an option. Second, agree on the ground rules for who covers what expenses. Do they cover air, hotel, parking at the airport, food, taxis, car rentals, etc. Be clear about this before you book your travel. Third, set the expectation that if you travel, that’s a part of your work for them. If you have to spend 8 hours in airports and on planes that counts as you working for a day because you can’t work effectively for other clients as you travel. Last, be realistic about how much work for other clients you can get done while you travel.

It’s great to plan to work in the evenings until the client invites you put for dinner and drinks or you realize you are burnt out after working 10 hours that day with the client already (he says as he writes this post a week late, at 38,000 feet, on a plane between Dallas and Vancouver after being on the road 9 of the last 11 days).

Get Paid With Money

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Credit: AMagill

This may seem obvious but I’ve had several offers to work for equity, or to work for a share of future profits, or a share of profits if we can just get this site out of the penalty. Don’t do it. You may be tempted. You’re just starting out so you aren’t that busy. You need anything you can get because you don’t have a lot of contracts yet. You know someone who worked for equity and made out like a bandit. Just say no. These deals rarely work out and if they do it’s at some time far in the future. You are going to dump a ton of time on these projects that you could have spent doing the things to attract new clients with real actual money.

Trust Your Gut

Overall if there is one thing that I’ve learned so far it’s that if you have doubts about a deal, if it just somehow feels like it’s not the right fit for you, that it could go sideways, that it’s going to be more a pain than it’s worth, trust your gut instinct. You’ll be right far more than you are wrong. Take the projects that are right, that are with quality clients, and not just the ones that will pay your bills because you are scared something else won’t come along. Don’t settle.

There you have some of the things I’ve learned in the trenches the last eight months. I don’t claim to be an expert though. Have some tips or advise for budding consultants? It would be great if you could share them in the comments!