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Are You Giving Away Free SEO Advice?

Mark Jackson
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One reason I write this column is to help the average Joe understand SEO. I truly want to help more people understand the art and science of search engine optimization so they'll be more willing to put budget toward it.

It's difficult to buy anything you don't understand. And SEO is quite complex in many ways.

Paid search is easy to get involved with -- just open an account, grab a credit card, and start writing some ads and directing traffic. Certainly, doing paid search in a professional manner takes training and time. But any marketer of any size understands the concept of paying per click.

SEO has so many factors to take into consideration. It can take quite a while for the average marketer to gain a solid understanding of everything that's involved. Those who are good at SEO have been involved in many projects, over a number of years, and have -- through trial and error, and reading/studying for countless hours -- gained an understanding of the elements that go into a successful SEO effort.

With that said, I have one issue with my passion for being transparent.

Free SEO Advice

Every quarter, I ask readers to submit their Web sites for me to do a quick SEO Web site review and offer up some actionable tips/advice for what they could do to improve their presence in the major search engines. I do this in such a way as to hopefully hit upon some takeaways that all readers can learn from. One thing that inevitably happens is that more people send me messages asking that I provide an analysis -- not as part of my column, just some free advice.

On top of that, the bigger question is how a SEO company can protect themselves from "bottom feeders" who put out a SEO request for proposal only to get firms to provide free advice.

Reader Feedback Welcome

When a SEO company is putting together a proposal, they should consider the unique circumstances of each individual project in order to draft a scope of work. They should consider how the prospect will measure success (traffic/rankings/sales/leads), which keywords the prospect is most interested in targeting, the competitive nature of those keywords, the staff available on the prospect's team to assist with the efforts, and addressing specific needs for the efforts to be successful.

This is where I have an issue and would love your feedback below.

When I put together a proposal, I try to be transparent. When I find areas that will need to be addressed, I bring these concerns up with a prospect so we can discuss whether their teams will be onboard with making the necessary modifications. You must do this in advance of any agreements being signed or any checks being cut, because they're at the root -- many times -- as to whether our SEO efforts will be successful.

This doesn't happen often, but there have been times when a prospect has taken these discussions and implemented the changes with no interest in ever outsourcing the work. They were merely fishing for free SEO advice.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

I want to prepare prospects for the necessary work that will go into the SEO effort. I also need to protect my IP/Knowledge.

Here's a great analogy: A lady calls a plumber to her house because a severe leak is ruining her floors. The plumber comes out, takes a look at the situation, pulls out a wrench and whacks a pipe. Leak stops. The plumber hands the lady a bill for $1,000.

"How can this be $1,000?" the lady asks. "Well, it's $100 for me to come out here and consult with you on the issue," the plumber explains. "It's $900 for me knowing exactly where to hit that pipe to stop the leak."

A lot of what a search engine optimizer brings to a project is "what they know." It's taken that optimizer a lot of time, study, and practice.

There are numerous examples I could point to where one hour's worth of work for a SEO could equate to thousands of dollars, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars, worth of traffic to a Web site each month. So, when you hear that a good SEO costs $1,000 per hour, do you say, "That's crazy!" or, "What a bargain!"?

Case in Point

I was approached recently by an agency that had built a Web site for a new high-definition DVD technology firm. I can't identify them by name, so let's call them "Glue-Spray."

This agency had built the Web site in Flash and had, from an SEO perspective, messed this thing up just about as badly as anyone could. Apparently "Glue-Spray" had asked the agency why the Web site wasn't ranking well in the search engines. The call I received was pretty urgent. They needed this fixed, and they needed this fixed now.

It would have been very easy for me to send them an agreement and start charging by the hour (in hindsight, this is what I should have done). Instead, the agency had mentioned that they wanted to establish a long-term relationship with the right firm, to work not only on this project but others that the agency might have.

They assured me that we would be working together. We just needed to hammer out the details of the engagement.

Because I trusted this agency ("Glue-Spray" is a pretty large company, so I felt pretty good about the possibility of working with some high-integrity folks), I shared with them the items that we would need to address in order for us to be successful. I asked that they get back with me to let me know if we would be able to implement the recommendations.

After they failed to respond to several of my e-mails and voicemails, I finally received an e-mail from my contact at the agency: "We're implementing the changes/recommendations on our end. Once this is done, I will let you know thanks!"

Mind you, here's an e-mail that they sent me one month prior: "What are the first steps you'd like to do? What was the amount we agreed upon for six months again?"

Bottom Line

I want to hear how other SEO agencies handle this. You know that you should be discussing the items that will need to be addressed for the SEO efforts to be successful, but by doing so you also run the risk of people taking your knowledge and implementing on their own.

Certainly, there's still a good chance that they'll screw up getting the recommendations implemented. But, how do we walk that fine line? Transparency is good, but our knowledge is what we sell.

Thoughts?

Would you like Mark Jackson to review your Web site in his next SEO Site Review? If so, contact Mark. Make sure to include your Web site address, the keywords you're focused on, competitor URLs that you've noticed ranking organically for the keywords that you're targeting, and what staff you have (if any) to assist you with your efforts.


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