• http://boomient.com/ Jim Magary

    Sounds like you may have given out too much free work without a contract. I do free seo audits all the time but they are very topline, and I probably wouldn’t do a powerpoint prez for anybody unless they were on the clock.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com/ George Michie

    David, we’ve certainly had that experience, too. It is frustrating but ultimately you get what you pay for wrt consulting (sometimes less!). We agencies will happily review a big program and tell its managers what we’d do differently, but ideas and execution are two different things. “Make LeBron shoot perimeter jump shots, keep him from penetrating or getting into the post, keep him off the glass.” — all excellent strategic advice. Making it happen is harder. A real consulting arrangement requires the consultants to stick around and be vested in the outcome.

  • http://www.netmagellan.com/ Ash Nallawalla

    I have sharpened my radar for detecting free-loaders over the years and can now hold what looks like a useful conversation but with plenty of confusing contradictions. There appears to be actionable tips, but then I bring in the bit about how the same rule might work differently in different industries or brand seniority. The freeloader gets next to nothing, while the genuine customer is convinced that he had better leave it all to an expert. :)

  • Pete McAllister

    I’ve been through the exact same thing. I did an audit, and provided further snippets of advice via email over the coming weeks. When it became clear that the guy was just baiting free advice I cut it short.

    I couldn’t agree more with the “knowing isn’t doing” argument. As I saw about a month later that he had implemented my advice horribly wrong… and actually created a few big holes in his on-site SEO.

  • Larry Lau

    Great article, this is certainly something most of us has experienced in one shape or another.. Unfortunately, I see this scenario quite often and have learned to remove myself as much as I can from giving “free advice”.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com/ George Michie

    A bit visceral, but I can’t stop chuckling about it.

  • http://www.boastingbiz.com/ Donnie Strompf

    This has happened to us before as well, however the company that contacted us was a direct competitor that stole a bunch of info from us. http://www.boastingbiz.com/blog/seo/case-study/

    Once you realized that the prospect was doing the work himself you could’ve totally misguided them and wasted their time ;)

  • David Rodnitzky

    Yes, there is definitely a fine line here but when a potential client gives you strong signals that they are likely to sign up with you, I feel like it is OK to take a leap of faith and provide a lot of ‘free’ info to demonstrate our worth.

  • David Rodnitzky

    It’s sad that this is a common occurrence. On the SEM side, it really doesn’t happen that much – this was a rare time that it did.

  • David Rodnitzky

    I agree George! Frankly, I’m more than happy to “give away my secrets” to anyone who asks for them because those secrets will be obsolete in six months anyway. That’s the part that free loaders really don’t understand – they get free advice that lasts for a few months and then they are back behind the eight ball again!

  • David Rodnitzky

    Ha ha, that is pretty awesome. Ultimately free advice is worth what someone pays for it!

  • David Rodnitzky

    Wow, that has never happened to me, at least not to my knowledge . . .

  • David Rodnitzky

    Reminds me of the adage: don’t just someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, because then you’ll be a mile away and have their shoes!

  • David Rodnitzky

    There is a sense that online marketing is still DIY but nothing could be further from the truth. You wouldn’t go to a surgeon and then try to give yourself an appendectomy yourself . . .

  • David Rodnitzky

    The challenge is that agencies are very hard to differentiate based on a web site or a proposal so often the only way to really show a client that you are better than the competition is to share knowledge.

  • David Rodnitzky

    Hey Donnie, just read your post – sounds ultra-shady – sorry that happened to you.

    You are building a long-term business the right way and your competitor is out trying to make a quick buck. You’ll prevail in the end!

  • http://boomient.com/ Jim Magary

    If the client is truly huge, they shouldn’t have a problem with compensation for an initial assessment. In the advertising agency business, many companies bill fees for the time they spend pitching a new account… not always, but it can happen.

  • Pat Grady

    I can audit things fairly quickly, what takes time is teaching the prospective client about what I found, which leads to a lengthy discussion about tracking and attribution. Almost half the time, they believe they already “know” their numbers are perfect, and we walk away knowing why they’re failing, as why it will continue long after we took a pass. Audits are a great way to screen prospective agencies (and clients).

  • Pat Grady

    One weird thing we’ve observed time and time again – when they give us a spreadsheet with sales numbers put together, they’ve almost always decided that the numbers are beyond questioning. Like the process of inserting into a spreadsheet somehow validates the numbers. Might just be a sign of entrenched processes (we’re not anti-spreadsheet here!), but it’s so common that we joke about it internally – spreadsheet-itis, excel-itosis. The rigidity and formality of a data container, often doesn’t reflect what’s inside… oh shitake, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover… Mom! You were so right!

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    We’ve all been there.

    Our policy- No “audit” is free.

    We will throw a few general findings and explain that there’s “much that can be improved.” But if they want an audit, we provide services for those.

    We won’t accept access to PPC accounts without a contract.

  • David Rodnitzky

    The SEMRush and SpyFu analogy is interesting but at least in that case I am not intentionally wasting a competitor’s (or vendor’s) time!

  • David Rodnitzky

    I always prefer to look right in the AdWords account (assuming they have conversion tracking set up). I agree that Excel sheets often only give you some of the information to diagnose problems.

  • David Rodnitzky

    Wow, that seems extreme to me. I would estimate that about 50% of the audits I do result in a new relationship, and of the 50% that don’t, perhaps 5% or less are freeloaders. The other 45% simply decide to go with another agency or the audit results suggest that they really don’t need to make a change anyway!

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    I had no choice though. It’s already tough enough squeezing billable hours out of what we’re doing all day.. ;)

    We simply just were not making more money as a result of free audits. Even if they only took a few hours.

    My doctor doesn’t give me a free physical. Auto dealers don’t give free oil changes, unless I buy a car from them.

    All of our business is referral-based. So when we ask for a fee for an initial audit, most people don’t balk.

    Some of our clients pay us to do seasonal or frequent PPC account “optimizations.” I believe a service is devalued if it was given away for free at some point.

  • Andrew Goodman

    The good news is, we all belong to a tight conspiracy that can control search results, Quality Scores, and the weather. I think that company is in a heap of trouble.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com/ George Michie

    D-Rod, you’ve clearly touched a nerve. I used to dream about organizing a vendor-only blacklist of companies (really it’s the people in the companies not the companies themselves) that you should never work with as a vendor under any circumstance. If we all banded together and refused to work with jerks perhaps we’d succeed in modifying their behavior. I know, I know, it would never work, but I can dream, right?

  • http://www.davidnrothwell.com/ David Rothwell

    Great article David!

    The proverbial “poison chalice”.

    I would venture to suggest that when this company come back to you in some period of time you would you would cheerfully inform them “Thanks, but no thanks”.

    I’d bet they would be an absolute nightmare to manage.

  • http://www.LeadDiscovery.com/ Jerry Nordstrom

    I know we all feel your pain here David. I think all of us have been burned and over the years developed some tactics to minimize this occurrence.

    Here are a couple of mine:

    We provide an outline of the review process and type of report we will provide upfront before charging. I personal ask them directly, will this be enough information to make a decision. If they push hard for more tactical details then my radar starts to go off. We try to set the expectation that we will be giving the client an audit of possible outcomes without much detail on the tactics.

    In the initial meeting I determine the level of internal staffing, get names and research the players on LinkedIn – Is there someone in-house ready and capable of implementing your plans? If so, be ultra careful to give only top line info.

    Get a one on one with the developer/marketer – Start to talk tech and you can normally pull out long term plans from them that the execs won’t give you.

    Examples of Presentation Data:
    We have found 24 significant opportunities in your PPC campaigns in regards to keyword sets and device targeting strategies that could yield you a 25% increase in traffic and based on current conversion rates an x number of new sales.

    We estimate that with a change in your social media tool set content distribution and editorial management can be reduced by 15%.

    We have identified 4 strategies to deal with your high bounce rates for x product page(s). We project a decrease of 60% in your bounce rate.

    Red flag questions:
    Continuous questions about hourly rates for this or that service – The client is always concerned about cost, but should be keenly focused on their return with timeline. Who really cares about the hourly rate, can you get it done in a timely fashion and deliver on your promises of a return.

    Any detailed questions regarding your staffing strategy.

    Can you develop a strategy of what you would do if you win the contract?

  • David Rodnitzky

    I watched an Aryan Nation video in high school that suggested that my religion (maybe yours too) controlled the weather. I never seemed to master that power sadly.

  • David Rodnitzky

    Yeah, the problem is that its the people not the companies (though sometimes, it is the company, especially if they keep hiring the wrong types of people!). I like to just think that people who forsake long-term relationships for short-term gain end up winning the battle and losing the war. At least that’s how I stop myself from getting angry about those people!

  • David Rodnitzky

    Yes David, I agree. After I figured out their M.O., I erased them from my CRM!

  • David Rodnitzky

    Thanks for the detailed comment Jerry. I definitely agree with you about people getting obsessed with price. Good agencies win business based on the value they provide, not on charging the lowest price. If someone is comparing agencies solely on price, I will usually refer them to one of the many agencies out there that charge $1000/mo but have a client to account manager ratio of 100:1.

    I also like to tell people two analogies. First, if you were going to jump out of an airplane, would you chose your parachute based on which one had the lowest price? Second, if you were accused of murder, would you pay Johnny Cochran $1000/hr or would you hire a recent law school grad at $25/hr?

  • http://www.seokairos.com/ Ray Hrach

    Absolutely. Discovery and exploratory conversations are free, but we charge for problem solving. If you’re delivering value, people will happily pay your fee.

  • Pierre Mobian

    I chuckled at Ash’s comment as this is exaclty how I conduct interviews with unknown prospects, even though better put in words in his own way. Donnie’s story is scarier though, as it implies serious wasted time, deception and even legal implications in terms or copyrighted material. Hard to not feel like firing the NegativeSEO machine against such despicable practices, especially when you feel Google does nothing to help sort out the pirated contents ! Keep up the good mood though, SEO remains a field where great clients can be found, and I like nothing more than help a business boom and get repeat customers as we often do once they see what we’re capable of.