This is going to be a bit of a ramble so I apologize in advance. TL;DR at the bottom.
I've been working on SEO for a few years now. I work primarily with small business owners and I'm almost at my wits end.
My very first client who I've worked with for 5 years now (back when I just did social media posting and blog editing), grew from 5k visitors a month to a peak of 150k visitors in a single month (2 years later). Granted, this client provides a local product/service so while she likes the traffic and inquiries from people out of the area, overall, the traffic isn't directly contributing to her bottom line (local SEO is though). Although, the extra traffic means more newsletter subscribers so that we can improve our ad targeting.
The point is, she's great and it made me think I could work with other small business owners even if they could only pay $400 – $500 / month.
It turns out, they either can't or won't pay even that much.
I have yet to find a single small business owner who had the budget or work ethic of that first client. I would give this client content ideas, keywords to use, and she would follow through. The rest? I've tried everything to get them to take action. I've asked them to just record themselves talking so that I can create an article and they'll say that it's a great idea but then NEVER do it. I literally just talked with a client with whom I suggested this to 2 years ago and we basically had the same conversation we did back then.
I also CONSTANTLY hear excuses about how they have so little money because of all the money they just spent publishing their book, or because they don't get enough business, or because they're renovating a bathroom. The worst ones are clients who "can't believe" an average SEO charges $75 – $150/hr (significantly more than I charge).
So, they'll go to Fiverr and pay $10 for 100k of "totally real organic visitors" without telling me. Then, I'll notice thousands of site visitors on their analytics data with 0 time on page and 100% bounce rate. When I ask them about it and tell them it's a waste of money they'll insist it's legit because the person they hired had 5-stars and Fiverr "vets" these people.
I thought things would turn around when I got hired as a freelancer by a moderate size agency. The owner told me he was going to slowly introduce me to over a dozen of their small business clients, but the owner never really gave me direction because he was traveling so much. So, I figured I'd do what I do for any other of my first time clients.
Make sure Google Analytics and Search Console are installed
Make sure the robots.txt file wasn't blocking any crawlers
Plug their sites into an SEO tool and see what changes could be done (lack of headings, missing meta descriptions, missing image alt text, redirect chains, etc.).
I found myself explaining to his other staff the importance of GSC, or how to fix redirect chains. Only when they asked, I never emailed them out of the blue because I didn't want to step on anyone's toes.
Despite the lack of direction I felt like I was getting the ball rolling. I'd found things that hadn't been addressed and the other staff members were now aware of this.
Then, I was let go. I was given two reasons:
The owner was MIA too often with travel plans to get me up to speed on all the clients.
He wanted someone with more agency experience.
So, that was that.
I make about 2k a month now, 1/3 of which comes from my lone big client (they're a nonprofit though so they have budgetary restrictions) and I just can't do this indefinitely.
I've put in a lot of time studying this stuff but I honestly can't even tell if I'm any good at it anymore because I've had two "success" stories since I've started. My first client and the nonprofit.
I'm thinking maybe I should work for an agency for the additional experience, but the thought of entering that space sounds terrible to me.
Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Alternatively, we can share our client stories and vent a bit. I once had a client ask me to make his already published tweet to his 12 followers go viral. When is Twitter going to install the "Viral" button?
TL;DR: I've worked with small businesses the last 4 years and I've only been able to help my first client due to the rest having a budget that averages out to $250/month. I'm wondering if I'm any good, how I should go about getting larger clients, or if I should just apply to an agency and work full time.