Setting Expectations for Search Engine Optimization

How many SEOs have suffered because of unrealistic expectations from clients? Sure, there are times when an aggressive commissioned salesperson can get you into situations that are difficult to overcome. But, how many of you actually spent the time before any agreement was signed and before a check was cut to have a very frank and sincere discussion with your client about what they can expect from your efforts?

Not just the "rah rah...SEO rocks!" discussion. The one that involves telling a client how much work is truly involved on their part, as well as the agency's, in making the effort a success.

How many times, when it came time to renew an agreement, did the client forget about all of that and tell you that they were disappointed in the program? This is what just happened to me.

Case Study

Twelve months ago, a client approached my company. The client told me that they had enough cash to last another six months, but then their business was in serious jeopardy of going out of business. They had read my columns, and felt like they needed a SEO expert to help save their business.

As I do with all prospects, we discussed expectations. I told them candidly that we would make recommendations for additional content, but it was up to their team to generate the content (we would edit for SEO purposes). The monthly fees were $6,000 per month and based upon a 12-month agreement.

These fees are about average for firms that provide our level of service. I realize that rates will fluctuate wildly among firms and individuals (I've seen monthly rates from $150 to $20,000).

My company did exactly what our agreement said that we would do, and more. We:

  • Optimized their on-page elements (title tags, description tags, headers, internal linking, content, sitemap, etc.).
  • Introduced them to blogging.
  • Promoted their blog through pretty extensive social media marketing.
  • Obtained many high quality links for their Web site.
  • Gave them a design refresh to help with conversion rates, and only asked that they either pay us to develop this, or that they use another resource to do the actual Web development (they never implemented).
  • Ensured that their analytics were tracking everything correctly from the beginning and set up Google Webmaster Tools correctly.

Flash Forward to Today

"We are very disappointed in your services," the client tells us. "We know that you know the industry. We are only asking, 'Why didn't you do what's necessary for us?'"

My immediate thought was, "You have got to be kidding me."

We increased their organic search traffic by more than 1,700 percent. I can't be as precise with the increase in backlinks (we didn't have Google Webmaster Tools installed at the very beginning), but if you looked at the number of backlinks indexed in Google at the beginning of our engagement via the [link:www.example.com” operator, you would have seen 31 backlinks indexed in Google. Today, Google Webmaster Tools shows more than 1,200 backlinks.

The client actually said that we've done "nothing" to move them up in the rankings or to generate links to their Web site.

"If we've done nothing, as you say, then how do you explain the 1,700 percent increase in organic search traffic?" I had to ask.

"Well, we wrote all of the content," they said.

Well, of course they did. We told them they would have to do that before signing an agreement and before any checks were cut. We also optimized all of that content.

Not to mention, we also introduced them to blogging and promoted your posts. That 1,700 percent increase in organic traffic doesn't even include the amount of traffic that they received from our promotion of their blog posts through our extensive social media marketing efforts.

We Haven't Done Our Job? What?

How can they say that they're "nowhere" in the search results?

Their answer: "We are not ranking for our two most important keyword phrases."

Oh. My. God.

The keyword phrases they referred to are extremely competitive. Web sites that buy a huge amount of links dominate the rankings for these phrases. We estimate that these Web sites are spending anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000 per month in link buys.

Also, these sites have had thousands of pages of content for quite some time. Our client had fewer than 100 pages indexed when we started.

For one of the two "most important keywords," the conversion rate was 8.70 percent when we had it ranking (it was number four for a few weeks and then bounced away; we expect it to return, with more work). So, I'm not denying the value of this keyword. It's a "head" keyword and has a significant number of searches performed against it.

However, the other "long tail" keywords are converting, too (anywhere from 0 percent, as many keywords will do, to 33.33 percent). There's also something to be said for the added exposure and the increase in direct traffic (people typing in their branded keywords or company name to find them).

To our client's credit, they did what we recommended. They aggressively added content. Without their assistance seeing things through, our efforts wouldn't have been successful.

Measuring Success

I'm sharing this with you, dear readers, because I'm certain that many of you have faced similar circumstances. It's very possible (likely?) that we won't be working with this client much longer (if we can't get on the same page).

To me, if you help a company who was on their way out of business, to now expanding and opening another office, that's success. Their investment was worth every penny, and then some.

Last April, they had just over 4,000 organic search visits for the month. In February, they had more than 54,000 organic search visits. From February 13 to March 15, they received 63,814 visits via organic search. Their average CPC (when they were doing PPC) was $2 per click.

I won't argue about the precise value comparison, but 50,000 times $2 equals $100,000. Some might say that $6,000 per month is starting to look really cheap. And, this isn't "crap" traffic. As I said, their business is growing.

I welcome every SEO out there to post comments below with your thoughts on this column. Have you had similar experiences? Perhaps I'll even direct my (former?) client to this piece.

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About the author

Mark Jackson, President and CEO of Vizion Interactive, a search engine optimization company. Mark joined the interactive marketing fray in early 2000. His journey began with Lycos/Wired Digital and then AOL/Time Warner. After having witnessed the bubble burst and its lingering effects on stability on the job front (learning that working for a "large company" does not guarantee you a position, no matter your job performance), Mark established an interactive marketing agency and has cultivated it into one of the most respected search engine optimization firms in the United States.

Vizion Interactive was founded on the premise that honesty, integrity, and transparency forge the pillars that strong partnerships should be based upon. Vizion Interactive is a full service interactive marketing agency, specializing in search engine optimization, search engine marketing/PPC management, SEO friendly Web design/development, social media marketing, and other leading edge interactive marketing services, including being one of the first 50 beta testers of Google TV.

Mark is a board member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association (DFWSEM) and a member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Interactive Marketing Association (DFWIMA) and is a regular speaker at the SES and Pubcon conferences.

Mark received a BA in Journalism/Advertising from The University of Texas at Arlington in 1993 and spent several years in traditional marketing (radio, television, and print) prior to venturing into all things "Web."

Read more of Mark Jackson's columns at ClickZ.