Over the years I’ve seen quite a few Requests for Proposal from companies seeking to buy SEO services. If your RFP is not written well, it hinders the SEO firm’s ability to understand and define your needs and to scope and price your project. This in turn leads to a disconnect in expectations for both parties. A lousy RFP can discourage a busy SEO firm from even responding—a very unfortunate outcome, since it takes the best firms out of the running.
Many companies intuitively “know” what they want but are challenged structurally to “ask” for it in a way that is clear, succinct, informative, and constructive. If written properly, an RFP will facilitate the sales process and ensure that everyone involved on both sides gets to a shared understanding of what the purpose, requirements, scope, and structure of the intended engagement are. By following a few, key steps in the beginning of the RFP process, you will be able to rest easy, knowing that you are going to get what your company wants in the way that is best for you.
Step One: Nominate a “point person” for the engagement
One of the most challenging concepts for any large company with multiple working parts is to determine what the “end goal” of the engagement is. Often, marketing departments may voice different wants and needs than an IT department; even though they may be asking for the same thing semantically, they are not using the right language to communicate what they are looking for. Every successful project needs a champion who is invested in that project’s success and can pull together the disparate groups who have a stake in the outcome or a role to play. Without that person at the helm, the project will struggle. By nominating that champion as the SEO firm’s “point person” even before you send out your RFP, you will ensure the steady flow of information throughout the process so that internal and external expectations are met.
Step Two: Define “needs” and “wants” using a decision matrix
RFP recipients will understand that you aren’t the SEO expert, and therefore you aren’t going to be able to adequately define the scope of your desired SEO engagement. As the saying goes: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Just try to be reasonable when formulating your needs and wants and recognize that the RFP recipient may actually know what you need more than you do.
In addition to disclosing to the SEO firm the basics such as your objectives, your site’s “conversion” event (e.g., online purchase, newsletter subscription, whitepaper download, etc.), target audience, constraints, and so forth, in all fairness you will also need to clearly spell out the criteria for which you will evaluate the SEO firm’s suitability. This means you will need to define these criteria—in advance. None of this “going with your gut” nonsense!
SEO firms know the selection process is usually governed by gut feel, and so any RFP recipient without a preexisting relationship with you is automatically inclined not to respond because they know the deck is stacked against them. This is exacerbated the more SEO firms you send the RFP to. You can allay this concern by candidly sharing with the firm your biases and clearly defined criteria by which you will be evaluating them. This will be mapped out into in a decision matrix, which is simply a chart listing the attributes you are looking for in the SEO firm, a weighting factor for each attribute, a score from 0 to 10 for each, and the weighted score (e.g., the score multiplied by the weighting factor). The weighted scores are added together to arrive at a total score.
Judging criteria that are both quantitative and qualitative brings objectivity into a subjective process, which will aid you in managing expectations internally. And by sharing your list of criteria along with the weighting factors with the RFP recipients, you increase the likelihood—as well as caliber—of responses.
Step Three: Define your success metrics
Now that you’ve identified what you are looking for in an SEO firm, it’s important to let the SEO firms know how you will measure the success of the engagement. Some firms, like ours, can report on SEO health metrics well beyond just rankings (e.g., page yield, keyword yield), thus facilitating troubleshooting and reviews of program performance. Others will rely heavily on your own analytics package to track the program’s success. For example, you might pose the question internally, “What are our Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?” SEO firms often use KPIs to prove the value of the services that they provide; online retailers often get caught up with conversion, a metric that isn’t really under the SEO firm’s control. If you aren’t sure which KPIs your company would like to use, I often recommend baking that request into the RFP, stating something like, “Do you offer monthly program performance reviews indicating the program’s growth? If so, please elaborate on the deliverables of such reviews.”
Step Four: Prepare to disclose all known influencing factors
An SEO firm can easily examine your existing website—the “on-page” factors (title tags, navigation, HTML)—to gauge project scope. But there are other factors that will influence your rankings during the engagement, some of which won’t be immediately obvious or known to the RFP recipient without prior disclosure. Does your company have other domain names, subdomains, or microsites? Is a massive redesign of your website in the works? Do you employ a third party for your site’s internal search, and if so, who is it? By disclosing as much information as possible, you spare the SEO firm the time and expense of discovering these things on their own.
Step Five: Provide an Estimated Timeline and Budget for Project Completion One of the biggest deterrents in any RFP is the confusion over when a project should be completed and how much it might cost. A company hiring an SEO firm may not know how much time it takes to complete something like an SEO audit, but they may have pressing, internal matters that require a specific deadline. Retail sites may want to schedule new launches around a particular theme or season; for example, if you want your site launched in time for back-to-school, be sure to write that into your proposal. Not only will an expected deadline save your company time looking for an appropriate firm, but it also serves as a professional courtesy to the SEO firms you are querying.
Budgets often coincide with a project deadline depending upon how your company conducts its business. Our firm recommends assessing a budget based on the “range” of services; i.e. instead of saying the project absolutely has to cost $X, you are willing to spend within a range from $X to $X. Budgets may or may not be included as part of the RFP, and there are benefits (and drawbacks) to both approaches. Even if you do not provide an SEO firm with your budget in the RFP, we recommend determining a budget beforehand regardless, because the money you are willing to spend will help you determine a target ROI.
A sample RFP document outline
Now that you’ve gathered the above information for your RFP, you’re ready to sit down and write it. There are several different ways that you can structure an RFP; here is a brief outline.
- Section One: Summary and overview. This section is where you will introduce the challenge you are having and provide your SEO firm with an overview of the rest of the RFP. I also recommend outlining “how” you would like SEO firms to respond to your RFP. Think of this section as an “Executive Summary” where you will provide the highlights of the RFP without the technical details.
- Section Two: Technical summary. Often, SEO firms need gritty details to determine how they can best help you. In the technical summary, this is where you will provide key pieces of information relevant to your project, like technical requirements, description of technical issues with the project, your site’s current platform, etc. The technical summary might originate from your IT department, as this section is often for an SEO firm’s programmers and delivery team.
- Section Three: Administration & management. By describing who will be involved in the project on your end and what the timeline is for completion, you are finalizing the framework of the project.
- Section Four: Project expectations & delivery. If you’ve done your homework, this should be the easiest section to write. From outlining your evaluation criteria to outlining what monthly deliverables or training you would like to receive to assessing your KPIs, this section helps an SEO firm determine their cost to complete your project, as well as their suitability.
RFPs can be pretty daunting to write, but if you really think about it there are several benefits to creating one. Not only will your company uncover and identify potential barriers to project success, you’ll also facilitate great internal communication, develop better budgets, and identify what types of SEO firms you’ll want to work with.
When you write an RFP, keep in mind that the purpose of an RFP is to hire an expert SEO firm that will propose what their recommended actions are for your company’s website(s) to achieve the greatest chance for success. Sometimes, an SEO firm’s feedback highlights other potential issues that you may not have considered, which may change the scope of your project entirely. If you really don’t know what the best solution is for your web properties and only have a vague idea, you can submit a Request for Information (RFI) that is typically not contractually binding but allows you to ask questions about an SEO firm’s products and services.
Stephan Spencer is founder and president of Netconcepts, a 12-year-old web agency specializing in search engine optimized ecommerce. He writes for several publications and blogs at Scatterings. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.