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The Brutal Reality of Generating 6-Figures as an SEO Freelancer with Ryan Darani

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Ryan Darani

Ryan Darani, Search Strategy Director at Rise at Seven

With nearly a decade of experience in the SEO industry, Ryan Darani has become a master of generating organic growth and revenue for a diverse range of clients. Ryan’s journey began in 2011 or 2012 when he transitioned from paid acquisition at an insurance company to the dynamic world of SEO. Throughout his career, he has worn many hats, from agency-side roles to in-house positions with major brands.


Notably, he ran a highly successful freelance SEO consultancy business for three and a half years, focusing primarily on the US, Canada, and the UK. Recently, he transitioned into the role of Search Strategy Director at Rise at Seven.

Ryan has an impressive track record, having generated over $10,000,000 in revenue for his clients in the past five years. His approach is holistic and market-focused, leveraging gaps in the market rather than chasing competitors. This strategy ensures long-term results and avoids the pitfalls of inflated expectations and poor outcomes. He specialises in managing the complete content ecosystem from briefing to publishing, technical SEO, SEO auditing and developer implementation, link acquisition and link strategies, ecommerce CRO auditing and long-term strategies, as well as on-page SEO and internal link optimisation.


Ryan has also built robust processes that turn organic traffic into a significant growth channel, focusing on the entire customer journey to create a content framework that resonates with target audiences.

Ryan has collaborated with a multitude of prestigious clients, including NFL, Aldi, AO, Ann Summers, Etihad, Lloyds Bank, imaware, Curaytor, Creditspring, USARx, and many more. His extensive network of digital professionals is a testament to his ability to supercharge SEO campaigns. For businesses across health, banking, finance, e-commerce, real estate, gaming, gambling and casino, sports, luxury items, and other sectors, Ryan offers unparalleled expertise and proven results.

The Unscripted SEO Interview Podcast with Ryan Darani

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(50 minutes long)

Unscripted SEO Freelancing Q&As with Mark A Preston and Ryan Darani

Who is Ryan Darani, the SEO expert?

For those who don't know me, which I'm sure is many of you, my name is Ryan Darani. I've been in the SEO industry for over a decade, and I'm certain it shows on my face if this is being viewed on video. I've worn many hats throughout my career: I've worked agency-side, in-house with brands, and have successfully run a consultancy business for the past three and a half years, focusing primarily on the US, Canada, and the UK. Recently, I've transitioned back into a search strategy director role at Rise at Seven. That’s essentially the short version of my professional journey.

Can you give us a whirlwind tour of your SEO career, Ryan?

I began my career in SEO around 2011 or 2012, when I was just 18 or 19 years old. It was a bit of a fluke how I got into it. Before venturing into SEO, I worked in paid acquisition for an insurance company, which was my first introduction to SEO or organic search. In terms of changes over the years, I believe everything has changed on the surface, but the core principles remain the same. To the outside world, SEO seems constantly evolving with new trends to follow, but I firmly believe that the fundamentals will always be consistent. If you focus on getting the basics right for an extended period, you will succeed.

Do you think having a background in paid acquisition has significantly helped you in conquering the SEO space?

Absolutely, I think that's a very valid point. The advantage of having worked in paid acquisition is that I can communicate commercially with brands. They understand the concept of dollars in versus dollars out. This is often a blind spot for some SEOs, and I don't mean to generalise, but many struggle to speak in commercial terms. I frequently voice this opinion on Twitter and LinkedIn: if you can discuss dollars and pounds, you'll be a far more effective SEO than if you focus solely on title tags and meta descriptions.

Do you wish that you had learned how to pitch earlier in your career?

Yes, I do. If I could go back 10 years, I wish I had developed that skill from the start. Initially, I wanted to be the cool SEO expert, deeply involved in the technical details. However, I’ve realised that simplicity is often more effective, especially when communicating with clients.

What are your thoughts on the big shiny SEO syndrome, Ryan?

I am very guilty of this, but we all fall victim to shiny object syndrome, don’t we? Whether it’s buying another domain we’ll never use or subscribing to a new tool that duplicates the function of one we already have, we’re always searching for the next silver bullet, which simply doesn’t exist. As soon as you take a step back and realise you’re likely on the right track but just getting distracted, you’ll improve.

What was the reality of growing your own freelance SEO business?

The reality is that the image of success portrayed on social media is often a facade. People showcase their best selves, hiding the challenges they face. I've tried to be as honest as possible about the sacrifices required to achieve success, which varies for everyone. It could be financial, career-oriented, or family-related, but there will always be trade-offs. For me, building my business meant less time with my fiancée, family, and friends. I missed out on holidays, occasions, parties, and even Christmases because I was wholly focused on growing my business. I dedicated 150 percent of myself every day, which was exhausting. People often desire the end result—earning £10,000 or £20,000 a month—but are not willing to invest the 200, 300, or even 500 hours needed to become proficient in one area, such as landing clients. This misconception is often perpetuated by course sellers and social media, creating an unrealistic standard of quick success, which rarely involves any long-term sustainability or respect.

What piece of advice would you give to an SEO who is thinking of going freelance?

Trust me, if I could play golf every afternoon, my handicap would be much lower. But that’s just not the reality, at least not for me and not for most of the highly successful people I know. They dedicate their lives to their work, with everything else being secondary. Their primary focus is on self-improvement, learning how to sell better, productising their services, winning clients, and presenting themselves in a way that resonates with clients. You could be the best SEO in the world and know everything inside out, but if you can't communicate effectively with clients, it means nothing. Such individuals often excel as A or B players at an agency or brand, but they frequently struggle to survive as freelancers.

What has been your biggest learning curve throughout the journey?

The biggest challenge by far has been my ability, or rather my lack of ability, to delegate. I'm sure you've experienced the same, and you've likely seen it many times: trying to do everything yourself because you're afraid to let go, or you think it will cut into your profits. It took me a good 18 months to realise that there are tasks I simply couldn't handle all the time. This could be someone helping with emails or managing your calendar, not necessarily doing the work for you but organising your life better. Delegating was a significant learning curve and required a mindset shift. Initially, I had a low-budget mindset, but once I realised that investing a bit of money into help would free me up to focus on more critical tasks—like securing new business or speaking at conferences—it made a huge difference. As the old saying goes, you can get stuck working in the business rather than on it. Delegating definitely helped free me up.

Has Craig Campbell been one of your personal mentors?

Yes, Craig has been a mentor to me from the early stages and continues to be to this day. He has been like a voice of reason. I met Craig about four and a half years ago when I was employed by an agency. I flew out to Amsterdam to meet him, having never met him in real life before. It was a completely spontaneous and random experience. Craig's greatest strength is helping people see that there is more behind the curtain. He helped me realise that all it takes is action to pursue something or the belief that there is more to achieve.

What are your thoughts on being open and adaptable to change?

I believe it's a paradox. The answers for those seeking success are often right in front of them, but they either think it can't be that easy or simple. The process involves being consistent and doing the hard work all the time—that’s the secret. Some people don't believe it, while others believe it but lack the determination to execute it. If someone told you that you could become a millionaire in three years but had to sacrifice the next three years of your life, most people would hesitate and give up. It's about having the right mindset and understanding that not everyone has the endurance. Those who don’t want to commit should accept that reality instead of fooling themselves, as it’s not healthy to think, "I want this, but only if it’s easy."

What challenges have you faced as an SEO freelancer?

If I had a filming crew with me from day one through the first 18 months of building my business, you’d see tears, temper tantrums, panic, anxiety, and sleepless nights. Building a business is exciting and fun, but it’s also incredibly pressurised, and everything stops with you. If people don’t pay or decide to quit, it’s your problem. There’s no one to hide behind or save you. I wish this picture was painted more clearly online. It's not always about being on the beach with a laptop and a cocktail. While those moments might happen, the deeper reality is dealing with constant fires, hard situations, difficult conversations, and never being able to switch off. I wish more people saw that side.

Would you say that being able to communicate effectively is an essential skill for any SEO freelancer?

Absolutely. The leap from being an in-house SEO, particularly if you're in the middle tier of an organisation, to running your own business is tremendous. People often underestimate the importance of having difficult conversations with big clients who are investing their money. You need to mitigate risk, negotiate, handle conflicts, and liaise with multiple agencies and stakeholders. It gets tricky, whereas in an agency or brand, you usually have layers of people protecting you from some of these issues. Once that protection is gone, it’s a real shock. I think aspiring freelancers should learn those skills first and become comfortable in challenging situations. This might mean volunteering to participate in uncomfortable renewal meetings with difficult clients at your current job. By learning to navigate these situations, you'll be better prepared to handle difficult conversations with your own clients.

If you were to sum up the state of the SEO industry at present in one sentence, what would it be?

'Delusionally frictioned'. To unpack that delicately, I've been in the industry for a long time, as have you. The divisiveness in SEO has always troubled me. There’s an assumption that if you follow Google’s guidelines or align with the so-called white hat side of the industry, you’re an enemy to those who don’t. This leads to a battle of egos, with people believing they are superior because their methods worked while others' did not. Recent developments like AI overviews, SGEs, and the HCU have exacerbated this division. Some people panic, claiming SEO is in decline and jobs are plateauing, while others report making more money than ever. This distasteful divide, perpetuated by Google, is not being recognised for what it is, and it blows my mind.

Do you think that SEO impact equals making money for your clients?

Exactly. The equation is straightforward: if it makes money, continue doing it. There’s a moral argument about the tactics used, but as long as you’re not harming anyone or doing anything illegal, if you’re just going against Google’s guidelines and it works, so be it—the risk is yours. Experience plays a significant role here. When transitioning from an agency to your own business, it’s different because it’s your money at stake. You need to test strategies to ensure they won’t waste your funds. As an SEO, you should test thoroughly to avoid burning your clients' money or putting them in a sticky situation. There’s a difference between black hat SEO and bad SEO. The tactics are irrelevant; bad SEO, even if white hat, is still bad SEO.

Do you think there is a disconnect within some SEOs towards money-based ROI because it’s not their own money they are playing with?

Absolutely. If anyone takes anything actionable from this podcast, it should be to play with your own money and see how it feels. Whether you launch an online shop to sell candles or something else, the risk is on your own pockets. Once you start thinking about return on investment, profit, and resource allocation, you gain a much clearer perspective. This allows you to strip away unnecessary fluff and focus on the simple cash-in versus cash-out equation. Is this action going to earn me money or put my money at risk? If it’s the latter, don’t do it. If it’s the former, go ahead. That’s how I would view things.

What do you think of SEOs who present a plan that won't provide any ROI until many months down the line?

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this problem repeatedly. SEOs often have a great deal of pride, which is usually accompanied by ego. For instance, when I was consulting for various clients, if SEO was only going to yield minimal returns in the first three months, I would divert the budget elsewhere. It’s as simple as that. If I’ve been employed to do a job, and that means giving 60% of my budget to the paid team to generate leads while waiting for SEO to bear fruit, then I must do that. You can’t tell a client, “Your contract is for six months, and you’ll see returns in month five.” That’s an uncomfortable position, leading to difficult conversations with clients about what you’re doing with their money.

Should SEOs who cannot provide an ROI within 12 months find a different career?

Yes, they probably should. This ties back to what you mentioned earlier—they’ve never been in a situation where their own money is at stake. For them, a 12-month ROI might seem like a great return for a finance site. However, a commercial leader would think, “Do I spend 12 months and £100,000 with an SEO to get this return, or do I invest the same amount in paid advertising and get four times my money back quickly?” SEOs need to remember that such commercial considerations are always in the minds of business leaders.

Do you think SEOs who have only worked on big brand SEO in agencies realise they are not as skilled as they thought once they go freelance?

Yes, and it’s a tough truth to face because it seems almost hypocritical. There is a significant difference between agency SEOs and those who work independently. Let me clarify: this doesn’t apply to everyone, but my experience suggests that many agency SEOs are not fully prepared for the freelance world. For instance, if an SEO joins an agency and is assigned to Healthline, all they might do is produce content for Healthline. That’s not really SEO; it’s leveraging someone else’s hard work and claiming it as your own. When you start from scratch with a £5,000 budget from a mid-sized brand, you can’t do the same things. You need to know what types of links to get, where to get them, what type of content to produce, the expected return on that content, and the cost of content production. You must think about every penny. The difference lies in the tactics and resources between agency SEOs and freelance SEOs. It’s not that one is less skilled, but the latter is more commercially savvy and adept at managing money.

How important is it for SEOs to have and grow their own sites?

100% essential. You can apply this logic to anything. If I go to the gym every day and diet, achieving 10 percent body fat and abs, versus someone who has the money for liposuction, the results might look the same, but one has definitely cheated. It’s the same with using a brand’s authority. You’re leveraging their brand power, which is a shortcut. Starting your own projects, managing them, and seeing the return on investment teaches you the true effort involved. Many projects I’ve undertaken didn’t work out, but they were invaluable learning experiences. Equally, many successful projects were guided by previous failures. Without this balance, you’re unlikely to become a truly proficient SEO. If you see failures as the end or successes as ultimate victories, you’ll either give up too soon or become complacent.

Why did you decide to get an agency job at Rise at Seven when you were running your own successful freelance business?

Over the last three years, my primary motivation was money. When I started freelancing, I wanted to earn a lot of money and didn’t care how I achieved it. Everything else—health, connections, the bigger purpose—took a back seat. However, I realised that financial success alone wouldn’t bring fulfilment. I had more money than I ever needed but felt no different or happier. Freelancing can be very isolating; you don’t have daily interactions with colleagues, and for me, living in a remote area, there weren’t many like-minded people to interact with. Social situations became unfulfilling because all I wanted to discuss was my business, which wasn’t of interest to my friends and family.

About a year and a half ago, I started consulting for Rise at Seven. It was a refreshing change from isolation to a vibrant, culturally rich environment. Around that time, I fell out of love with freelancing—the headaches, the constant pressure, being the client’s punching bag. I wanted more time with my wife, my dog, family, and friends. Financial success doesn’t define you as a person. If you start a business and it fails or you stop enjoying it, there’s no rule that says you can’t change direction. I could have hidden the fact that I went back to agency life, but I chose to be open about it. I no longer care what people think of me, and it’s a healthy mindset to adopt.

Did you find it a bit of a culture shock going to work at such a high-energy agency?

Yes, it was a shock. Rise at Seven is full of high-energy, high-impact people, which was quite different from freelancing on my own, where I didn’t need to be high energy. Being thrown into that environment was a bit overwhelming at first. However, it has been incredibly beneficial. Running your own business is fantastic, but you inevitably miss out on certain aspects due to its size. At Rise at Seven, I’ve been exposed to different sides of the business—operational aspects, resource allocation, and utilisation levels—things I might have expected to learn much later in my career. It’s been a positive experience overall. Carrie and I have always been aligned on where the industry is heading and its origins, which has been incredibly positive. So, while it was a shock, it was also a pleasant one.

Are the clients you work with at Rise at Seven big brand names?

Some of them, yes, are very much enterprise-level brands. However, due to Rise’s position in the market, we also work with slightly smaller, underdog brands that might have secured seed funding or have reasonably sized budgets but can’t deploy them like an enterprise company would. The majority are larger brands, which is quite nice for me. It means I’m not stuck in the weeds; instead, I can observe and oversee performance, noticing things I might miss if I were heavily involved in the day-to-day tasks.

Is your main role to create the strategy for your team to implement?

Yes, exactly. My role is to devise the strategy, whether it's single or multi-platform. I ensure the strategy is feasible for the channel teams responsible for its execution. If we deploy a strategy and need to adjust performance, I hold myself accountable for those changes. When comparing agency and freelance SEO, strategy is crucial. In an agency, various channels can support or obscure SEO efforts, but as a freelancer, the strategy is paramount. You need to achieve quick rewards and know when to pivot and focus on different performance areas.

What would you say are the main differences between working with an unknown brand versus a very successful brand?

The biggest difference is likely maturity and market positioning. Underdog brands often have a mindset of wanting to emulate the big market leaders, which usually leads to some form of copycat strategy. This approach rarely works as it’s not thoroughly thought out. These brands are often very excited and fresh, with seed funding ready to take on the world. In contrast, big mature brands are well-aligned with the market and consumer behaviour but tend to move slowly. They don’t see trends as quickly as underdog brands, which gives the latter an advantage. However, established brands, with their deeper pockets, can quickly reclaim market share once they react.

What are your thoughts on some SEOs saying that it's just about big brand domination these days?

I think if you’re an SEO and that’s your mindset, you’re in the wrong career. If you believe there is only one route to market, you need to consider trying something else.

Have you ever found that your suggestions never get implemented due to the red tape and hierarchy of working with big brands?

Yes, absolutely. Big brands often approach you looking to execute something, but it might not happen for another six months. I once did a piece of work in January or February, and it was for something planned for the start of 2025, because they have so much to get through first. It's usually entangled in red tape, with a centralised budget that people are competing for, and higher priority business issues. SEO and PR are rarely in the top three priorities, making execution slow and drawn out. This provides a significant opportunity for underdog brands. With the right guidance, they can deploy their budget more effectively and capture market share much quicker.

What do freelancers and smaller agency owners need to do to drive new clients?

The issue is that many freelancers and small agency owners rely heavily on word of mouth and referrals for lead generation, which works until it doesn’t. These streams can dry up quickly. Freelancers, in particular, often don’t invest in advertising or marketing. They assume clients will immediately come knocking, which isn’t the case. I’ve spent nearly £50,000 of my own money on equipment, courses, advertising, flights, and conferences to network and increase my visibility. If you don’t invest in yourself, why would anyone else invest in you? There are only a few ways to win new clients: cold outreach, personalised outreach, cold emails, or inbound leads. If you’re doing none of these, you won’t get clients. If one method doesn’t work, try another. You must keep trying until something sticks.

What are your thoughts on SEOs who leave their job to go freelance and end up providing a white-label service to agencies?

In my opinion, this shows a lack of business acumen and a failure to invest in themselves to understand what it takes to build a business. If you're not cut out for it, I would actively advise against it. Try something else, like starting a side hustle or an e-commerce shop online that you can work on during weekends. Whether it makes money or not, if you have bills to pay—let's say, a £2,000 expense every month—and you don’t know how to secure business, you’ll likely end up working for low pay without knowing how to escape that cycle, or worse, your venture could fail, severely damaging your confidence. It's better to learn these skills before starting your business.

What is the biggest piece of advice you can give to an SEO freelancer?

Specifically for freelancers, the one thing I would emphasise is that making a million pounds is cool, but making money on your own terms for the rest of your life is even cooler. Don’t focus on shortcuts or listen to gurus and course sellers. Instead, figure out how to sustainably generate income every month for the rest of your life. That’s the truly impressive goal. Go and figure that out.

What conversations would you like to have and where can people find you, Ryan?

You can find me on LinkedIn or Twitter. On Twitter, my handle is @SearchForRyan, and on LinkedIn, it's simply Ryan Darani. I’d love to have more conversations with people who want to build sustainable, realistic businesses, especially those unsure of their market position, how to position themselves, personal branding, or lead generation. I’m all ears for anything along those lines.

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