I made a mistake. It was a classic SEO blunder. Don’t judge me — it was one that you (and almost every other SEO) has probably made as well.

What did I do? I allowed a client to sign a contract without fully vetting them first. I didn’t ask the right questions, and I wasn’t sure of their prospects for success. A few months and a bit of knowledge and wisdom later, I realized the future for this prospect wasn’t looking so bright.

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As with almost every business that comes to us, we were eager to help them succeed online. We knew what the client needed; but in this case, we failed to fully understand what it was the client wanted – and whether or not we would be able to deliver that.

As we delved into their online marketing campaign, we realized that the client had no real plan for success. They just wanted to “succeed” and expected us to make it happen.

We went about trying to give the client what they needed. Instead of going after the most competitive keywords first, we tried to direct the client toward keywords that had a greater chance of achieving top rankings and delivering high converting traffic. We told them that their new site lacked authority and that we would need to make significant investments in links and social. We tried to work with the client to create a UVP (unique value proposition) that would help them stand out from their competitors.

We spent several months working with the client to help turn their site into one worthy of top search engine rankings. We recommended a blog — which the client put up, posted on thrice, and promptly left to die. We offered blogging support and writing services which the client declined, only to come to us for support when their design team didn’t get the blog installed correctly the first time. We put forth ideas for video and other social content which the client seemed to like, but never made any effort to make happen.

Unfortunately, all our suggestions were falling upon deaf ears. And without client support or buy-in, many of our efforts were for naught.

But this isn’t about that — it’s about my big, fat rookie SEO mistake: I took on a client without knowing what I was getting into. And the rest, as they say, is FUBAR.

I always feel that the best mistakes to learn from are someone else’s. So learn from mine. Here’s how you can avoid an SEO disaster of monumental proportions.

1. Know What You Are Getting Into

When qualifying an SEO client (why should the clients be the only ones doing the qualifying?), remember that if you don’t know what you’re getting into, you’ll have no way to know what needs to be done. SEO isn’t “one size fits all,” and the best strategies are those that are customized for each client’s particular needs.

Most of our proposals go through several drafts as we fine-tune our offerings based on the client’s wants and needs. This process is critical for us, as each revision gives us an opportunity to understand what the client wants and what it will take to give them a marketing campaign that will succeed.

Regardless of how you do it, it’s essential to have a clear grasp of the work the client will require in order for you to build a successful campaign. As can often be the case, the client’s budget simply does not match the requirements. At that point, the SEO must make a decision: do you accept the job knowing that success is less likely, or do you pass on it altogether?

Though an alternative (the sales guys will say “better”) solution is to adjust the campaign according to their budget, that requires readjusting their expectations — which doesn’t always go as you’d hope.

2. Set Proper Expectations

As far as I’m concerned, the leading cause of death of an SEO campaign — the #1 reason that SEOs get fired — is due to misplaced client expectations. The SEO looks at the campaign and thinks, Hey, this is moving right along and we’re right where we expected to be. But the client looks at it and thinks, Where the hell is all my traffic???

Same campaign, same results, just two entirely different ways of looking at it. It’s all about setting and reinforcing expectations all along the way. Obviously, clients want to see results as quickly as possible. And no matter how many times you tell them that SEO is a marathon and not a sprint, they still expect to see something. Soon.

We’ve had clients wonder why they are not getting any traffic from our efforts while we still wait for them to reply to our first emails. The conversation usually goes like this:

Client: Why haven’t we gotten to #1 yet?

SEO: We finished our initial research last week and are waiting for your review before we can move to the next stage.

Client: How much longer will it be?

SEO: Well, once we get your reply, we will [map out the timeline of campaign that the client is already aware of from the proposal].

Client: And then will we see rankings?

SEO: If all of our recommendations are implemented, yes, we should see rankings begin to move up.

Client: When will you get us to #1?

SEO: We don’t rank websites, that’s Google’s job.

No matter how many times we have this conversation, the client still expects to see results before any results are likely. Whether that’s due to timelines, competition or lack of client investment, the client will always expect better results than are possible at the time. The only thing you can do is continue to establish expectations for when and what kind of results will be seen. Keep reinforcing that as often as possible throughout the campaign.

3. Keep The Client Involved

No matter what clients want, good marketing cannot be done without the client’s involvement. There are just too many aspects of a successful online marketing campaign for the client to dump all expectations for success onto the SEO and wash their hands of it.

As much as I like to believe I know all of the “right” keywords, the client must be involved in the keyword research process to ensure we don’t miss opportunities or go off in the wrong direction. If I could implement all aspects of a client’s social media campaign, I would, but engagement always comes best from those that can talk intelligently about the industry. We can provide optimized pages, but the client’s developers must implement them, just as they were approved.

There are many other aspects of a Web marketing campaign that simply require the client’s buy-in, if not outright willingness to take specific actions if they want their optimization campaign to be successful.

Getting clients involved early helps them understand that the marketer is not solely responsible for their success. It’s a team effort and success depends on both parties doing what they are supposed to.

4. Know When To Cut Your Losses

SEOs never want to hear the words, “you’re fired” from an unhappy client. Sometimes, however, it’s the client that needs to fear hearing those words from their SEO. When the SEO knows the client is standing in their own way of success, the smart SEO will tell them it’s time to part ways. It doesn’t have to be ugly, or get nasty, it can simply be a conversation that says, “I don’t think we’re the right team.”

Being willing to fire a client can often be the wakeup call the client needs. If you get them to understand that you’re willing to walk away from thousands of dollars in fees because you don’t think you will ever meet the client’s expectations, the client might begin to listen and be more proactive. You might, in fact, get them to understand the expectations and get them more involved in the process.

But, that’s not always the case, and sometimes you just have to walk away. Better to let a client go, knowing you’ll be able to spend your resources on other clients than continue to bust your butt trying to make a client happy, knowing they never will be. Just walk away and move on to the next better challenge.

Avoiding A Disaster Of Monumental Proportions

Nobody wants to be in unhappy situations. Not the SEO, nor the client. But sometimes this is inevitable. The more you can do to prevent these situations, the better off both you and the client will be in the long run.

Looking ahead, you can head off these situations early and avoid a disaster of monumental proportions. As a wise Web marketer, you need to be able to spot a potentially losing situation before you get into it. Otherwise, you leave yourself open for all the baggage that comes with a disgruntled client that is looking for a place to point the blame.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO

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About The Author: is president of Pole Position Marketing, a leading online marketing strategy company established in 1998 and currently based in Canton, Ohio.

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  • http://www.springboardmarketing.com/ Billy McAllister

    Stoney,

    This is probably my favorite posts I’ve reads in months. I’ve only been in the industry for a little over 2 years, but all these scenarios/mistakes you mentioned above are something we’ve experienced. Let’s be honest, we often hit the mark in search marketing campaign but, sometimes, budgets just don’t allow for much success to formulate. Combined with improper expectations the relationship seems to sour quickly. At the end of the day, improper expectations really just take the fun out of the entire campaign.

    Really great post. Thank you for having the courage to put yourself out there and admit some of your faults.

  • http://space-wolves-grey.blogspot.co.uk/ Adam

    I’m feeling the pain of this right now. I’m an in house SEO and only discovered a lot of problems with the business 2 months after joining. Without going into too much detail, the entire online business depends on Google rankings. No social. No email marketing. 100% rankings. And we don’t see the fruit of link building work until Christmas.

    It’s a tough gig. And I wish I’d asked a lot more questions in the second interview!

  • sarah bentall

    This is interesting. In my experience, clients don’t want to get involved in deciding what their keywords should be, it’s too much detail for them and they don’t have the time. They just want us to get on with it. They also don’t have time to read the reports we send them. We devised a snapshot report which was a 2-page graphical representation of key SEO results and they don’t read that either. Then we designed a colourful table with about 6 key performance indicators on it that show progress to date, this can be inserted directly into the email we send them, but they don’t read that either. I have one client we’ve been working with for nearly 9 month and he’s never once approved or commented on the key search term list I gave him at the start, except he rang up one day about a month ago to say he’d been talking to a friend of his who thought he ought to be ranking for a certain keyword. That word wasn’t mentioned on their site anywhere. Maybe we’ve just got the wrong clients?

  • http://www.seoagencysydney.com.au/ virginia

    OMG! What a great search marketing (SEO) post. I see this all the time with my clients. I am at the stage where I provide full marketing support as my background comes from old school marketing. Right now If the client is not willing to become involved, I have concerns about working with them. We can provide the traffic to their site, but if the site is not compelling then no SEO is going to work for them. I guess we can sell them a website in the end…sometimes! I also offered free blog writing services to one client, no response. Thanks for this post +Stoney deGeyter

  • Stoney deGeyter

    LOL, Unfortunately that’s typical of many people when they start looking into a site. Yet, all the questions in the world still won’t tell you everything you’ll find once you start diggint in!

  • Stoney deGeyter

    Thanks Billy! I’ve been doing this for 15 years and we are still dealing with the expectation gap. We’ve found that education on expectations is an ongoing process for the life of working with the client.

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

    Superb Stoney, sage veteran advice. With Enterprise clients a key question in the discovery process is also: “will you have the IT resources and buy-in to implement technical recommendations?” SEO crosses many department boundaries and if you don’t have some degree of confidence that the client actually has the clout to make changes in all those areas, disappointment is almost inevitable. “Why haven’t results improved?” “…um, because you haven’t done any of the stuff we suggested?”

  • OIRMS

    Geez Stoney D how did you get into my head? I was just drafting a post centered on this very topic. We recently ran into this same situation but we decided to take the loss and just severe ties. Needless to say I learned a valuable lesson as a result and will be taking the points you made to heart, especially the vetting process. I’ve never read any of your posts before but will be looking out for them. Have a great weekend everyone!

  • Stoney deGeyter

    You’re welcome! That’s always a concern for us moving forward with a new client. How much buy-in will they have and how involved will they be in the process. We recently had a client reject some of our usability recommendations because they think we only know SEO (and someone is telling them their site is perfect as-is).They don’t get that 1) we know our stuff and 2) this goes hand-in-hand with good rankings. Heck, run some tests and prove us wrong. I love to be wrong!!!! :)

  • Stoney deGeyter

    Totally right. They have to have the people to implement the technical side of SEO that gets into areas that we don’t handle (programming, etc.). There’s lots to so and the SEO can’t do it all.

  • Stoney deGeyter

    Yes, I know everything you’re doing. Thanks for the blog post idea… keep them coming! j/k. It’s fun when you realize other people are in the same boat as you. Misery loves company… but we love getting out of problems together even more!

  • Stoney deGeyter

    That’s pretty typical for a lot of our clients as well. We go through those approval processes on keywords, but they are based on our recommendations. Sometimes clients have comments and sometimes they don’t. We at least give them the chance. Same for optimized content. We give them a chance to edit or reject. But every now and again you get a client that only responds when they think something is wrong. Problem is… something has been wrong. They have not been responding!

  • Pat Grady

    Recent PPC prospect, currently running at 0.3x ROAS, told me he wanted me, if hired, to aim for 20.0x. Point being, this article doesn’t just apply to SEO. :-)

  • Stoney deGeyter

    Very true Pat. It’s just good marketing sense all the way around. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • http://www.springboardmarketing.com/ Billy McAllister

    I hear you, Adam. Just acquired a client for a local search marketing campaign. However, we did not discover until later that the client often hangs up on people when he does not want/need the business and has even forced some people to tears on the phone (according to several reviews). It comes back to the “help us, help you” mentality. If we want to win local, we can’t have people you hung up on and yelled at writing negative reviews. Had we known this beforehand, not necessarily someone we’d like to associate with (or work with!).

    In order to avoid these problems in the future, we’ve been actively working to create a lengthy discovery process. Before we engage, we need to know what your clients think of your brand, what your employees think of your brand and what the internet thinks of your brand. We’ll then develop deliverables and either say A) Here’s our strategy and plan to move forward or B) We don’t see this as a good fit, but here’s our strategy and plan for you to have.

    The situation you have on your hands is very scary. To have a client who depends on rankings to keep their business afloat must be extremely stressful. Best of luck with that!

  • http://www.springboardmarketing.com/ Billy McAllister

    ^^ This discovery process may sound basic, but we’re an 8-person start-up that began in 2011. Like everyone else, we’re learning as we go.

  • http://www.springboardmarketing.com/ Billy McAllister

    If there were a list that would honestly address every questions to avoid pitfalls, it would grow like a to-do list anyway. Not to mention the client does not have time to fill it out thoroughly and who can blame them.

  • http://www.seoimr.com/ Steve Sharp

    I can relate to this article and I’m sure if we all put our collective minds together we could go on and on. My mantra is I’m always looking for 5 more good clients. Wish I knew how to find them.

  • http://www.seoagencysydney.com.au/ virginia

    Yes really Stoney!! I’m thinking about leveraging some of the data from the online ‘marketing experiments’ guys as its science for them. Only thing is a lot of their info and videos as soooo long! I’ll pass something along once i start looking properly. Virginia

  • drneelesh

    Loved the post. And learned a few things.

  • Erik
  • Myron_Rosmarin

    Printing this out and hanging it on my wall. May force myself to re-read this every morning. Great post Stoney!

  • http://web-tasks.com/home/pricing Small Business SEO

    Thanks for the informative blogs…

  • http://www.otriadmarketing.com/ Christopher Skyi

    “We tried to work with the client to create a UVP (unique value proposition) that would help them stand out from their competitors.”

    This is absolutely the most difficult thing to get clients to do. To the extent they fail to do this (and no one can do it but them) is the extent any marketing effort, SEO or otherwise, will fail.

    Second, and highly correlated with a failure to work on their UVP, is the expectation that marketing, SEO or otherwise, should “deliver” fast results independent of the client’s business model, clarity of thinking about what they have to uniquely offer, and — frankly — independent of any consideration of whether they are any good at what they claim do to (relative to their competitors).

    “Bad” clients/businesses focus only on the prize (ranking, money) — they don’t value what it take to earn the prize. Like the frat boy who blows off classes all semester and then a few days before the final exam expects a tutor to give him everything he needs to get that “A” he now so desperately needs.

    Sometimes the client/business is just lazy and they don’t feel like doing the hard work of communicating their value to their potential customers. Sometimes the client/business just sucks at what they do (maybe they were never any good or maybe now they’re just tired of, and they don’t care about, what they’re doing but they don’t know what else to do). In either case they tend to look to SEO to “save them,” and more often than not, they need saving “right now.”

  • Noah Parks

    Great Post Stoney, If only all of the customers out their would trust and listen to the advice we give them. Its hard sometimes trying to help them understand the certain things they need. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • http://www.techeditz.com/ Ellen Partal

    LOVED THIS!! My mantra is “I can’t want it more than they do” I just keep saying it as I walk away. I had a client tell me “I don’t care about analytic and reporting, I just want some good traffic and the phone ringing”.
    Thank you for this great article.

 

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