7 Difficult Client Expectations You WILL Encounter in SEO (And How to Fix Them)

In the course of doing SEO work for clients, a portion of my time is inevitably spent correcting misconceptions and skewed expectations that many clients have. In some cases, these are slight misconceptions based on outdated practices and can be corrected with an authoritative article or two.

Sometimes, the problem is more serious.

If the client’s expectations are so high that they can never be met, then they should never be taken on as a client, regardless of the money involved. Your reputation is at stake. More often, though, clients fail to divulge their expectations during the contracting process and hear only what conforms to their preconceptions. On the other hand, the salesperson may be so anxious to sell that they never see the signs of an impending disconnect.

There are several erroneous expectations of search engine optimization and SEO companies that, if left unidentified and untreated, will ultimately lead to communication breakdowns between SEO and client, distrust, disappointment, and inevitable failure of the campaign. Ideally, these should be identified and rooted out during the sales process — ideally.


Difficult Expectation #1: Speed of Ranking Increases

When SEO is done right, rankings will increase. The speed of the increase is something that the SEO specialist only has so much control over. There are many factors at work that it’s difficult to make good judgments on how long it will take for a keyword to hit a certain page or position, given that there may be others going after similar keywords with more resources to devote.

As a general rule, it’s much easier to jump 10 positions when you’re starting on the 10th page than it is to jump 10 positions when you’re on the 2nd page of results. What’s problematic is when you E-mail to tell a client that some of their main keywords have reached the first page and they respond with expectations of getting those same keywords to the top position within a week. It happens.

There is a timing factor that must be accounted for in SEO and can’t be circumvented. If timing were irrelevant, companies would shovel enough money into SEO during month 1 to get the rankings they want. That’s not how it works.

Difficult Expectation #2: Number of Keywords Targeted

Clients want to rank for everything, but most clients aren’t willing to pay to rank for everything at once. And even when they recognize that their SEO budget leaves them shy of being able to tackle some highly competitive terms, they’ll inevitably try to get them onto the keyword research list.

You have to communicate that increasing the volume of keywords only dilutes the amount of work being done on each keyword. I’ve seen campaigns die a painful, drawn-out death because the keyword list was too broad initially for the amount of time budgeted to spend on the campaign. The end of the initial contract came and all of the keywords were sitting on page 2 or 3, on the cusp of success, but unable to drive the traffic, leads, and revenues needed to justify the expense. Don’t make that mistake. When in doubt, side with a narrow list.

If a client wants you to track and report on keywords (even related terms) that aren’t part of the link-building focus, just say no. It’s hard when they claim to fully recognize that you won’t be working on those keywords, but trust me when I say that you won’t be able to keep a client from becoming emotionally invested in the terms. You’re better off introducing them to ways to track their own rankings using something like the Rank Checker plugin.

Difficult Expectation #3: Quantity of Backlinks

SEO companies should be reporting on the backlinks they’re requesting and successfully building. Clients have come to expect this. But when clients start calculating their “cost per link” and talk about quitting in favor of “cheaper links” from another country, you know there’s a disconnect.

One of the most commonly screwed up expectations is that of link quantity. If SEO success were based solely on the quantity of links built, you can bet that SEO would have a much different look and feel to it – a very robotic, automated look and feel. Search engines would also have a very difficult time trying to serve up relevant content, which is why it doesn’t work like that. Search engines want a natural-looking backlink portfolio, which means a necessary influx of both quantity and quality-driven backlinks.

Also keep in mind that the volume of links built in any given period is likely to fluctuate based on the distribution of link building techniques being used as well as what the site needs at any given time.

Difficult Expectation #4: Quality of Backlinks

If they’re not concerned about quantity, clients are concerned about the quality of backlinks (or most certainly both). This is more than understandable. After all, after the initial on-page optimization, the effort moves almost entirely to the off-page efforts.

What’s not understandable is a client whose SEO campaign is progressing well, who claims that they could have hired someone else who could get them lots of PR 8 and PR 9 .edu and .gov links and wants to know when we’re going to start doing that. I used to think that the reports of this type of client were exaggerated — if only.

The problems with this mentality are several. PageRank is a quality indicator, but not the end goal. SEO companies should be aiming to get as many high-quality, relevant links as possible for the client, but in many cases, the industry is not competitive and doesn’t need those links and the campaign is much more efficient when targeting relevant links with greater flexibility in determining the anchor text. Clients should remember that they’re paying for efficiency and ROI, not links.

Difficult Expectation #5: Amount of Traffic

Clients really like to see site traffic increases that correspond to ranking increases, and as an SEO, this is one of the easiest things to guarantee. Where clients get disappointed is when they’ve gone through the trouble to make projections about how much traffic will come from their rankings based on search volumes and calculate click-through and it doesn’t happen. Very rarely will a client’s own projected traffic be exceeded by the actual results. The truth is that whether you’re at #1 or #21, it just doesn’t happen. Charts like those shown below (2006 data from AOL) create an opiate-like sense of secure predictability for SEO clients that inevitably turns into a pipe dream.
















If a client wants to know why they’re not getting more traffic from the SEO campaign, compared with what they “should” be getting, there are numerous explanations. Searchers may not click off the results page. There may be a listing on the results page that takes a larger than predicted share of click-through. The client’s website is less than 100% relevant for the search term. These are all frequent occurrences.

Difficult Expectation #6: Number of Leads

From an SEO’s point of view, the basic objective of a campaign is to increase relevant keyword rankings, which should result in site traffic, which should result in leads, which should result in sales, which should result in enough profit to justify the campaign expense. There are a lot of “shoulds” in there. Often, clients don’t internalize all of the possible failure points, not to mention the fractions involved. All they internalize is that SEO will get their phones ringing and their pockets lined.

SEOs work with what they have. If there’s no data to suggest which keywords will result in conversions, then they do their best. Before doing SEO, it’s often worth doing PPC for a few weeks to determine whether the site has enough conversion power for the traffic brought in, and which keywords send traffic with the highest purchase intention. It may very well be that the website does not make a good enough case for lead generation or purchase. That’s not an SEO problem. That’s a conversion problem. (Although the SEO expert should know enough to tell you that your conversion funnel has issues)

Even when leads start coming in from organic search, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality. One client thought that all the leads from organic search were junk. That’s because he was in a commoditized industry where people start at the top of the search results and work their way down to find a company that will take their case. The leads he was getting at the time, because of his placement low on page 1, were from those who had already contacted and been rejected by several other firms, so the client insisted that the leads were bad and that the campaign was failing. That just meant he needed to change his expectations about how soon he would start seeing the payoff. Occasionally clients don’t accept that, or think it’s the SEO’s fault.

Difficult Expectation #7: Client Impact on Success

An SEO campaign without a client’s dedicated investment of time and attention will inevitably fail, regardless of who’s running the show. Clients often don’t understand just how critical they are to the success of their own campaign, even while they’re hiring someone else to do the job.

Be wary of any client whose entire marketing budget is in SEO. It’s a sign of desperation. Be wary of a client who calls frequently to tell you about drops in traffic from one day to the next or finds very insignificant things to complain about. It suggests that they have more than enough time to spare that could be devoted to their own business, but that they would rather micromanage their consultants than aid their own progress.

In some cases, you can put these clients to work doing social media, content creation, blogging, link building, etc. They just need to be directed. This may be outside the scope of your SEO work, but it helps the campaign and it sure beats losing patience with an overbearing client. A micromanaging client who refuses to redirect some of their surplus time toward aiding the SEO efforts doesn’t know how to run their own business. The best clients are those who ask, “What can I be doing to help?”

On the flip side, a client who can’t be reached for updates, who takes forever to respond to E-mails, development requests, etc. can be just as poisonous. This can set back the SEO campaign by weeks and sometimes months, with mediocre results and a client who doesn’t even have a remote possibility of becoming a loyal customer. The client needs to understand their own importance.

I Love Working With Clients – No, Seriously

I have some amazing clients and I love working with them and becoming friends and seeing their success. Even those with difficult expectations to meet are some of my favorite people to work with, so you should be sure to separate your feelings for the people you work with from the ideas they have. You can’t always plan on what a client already thinks about SEO and what to expect from it. You’ll always be surprised. But you can anticipate which faulty expectations are likely to implode your success and client relationships, and then take corrective steps to ensure a fulfilling client relationship and a successful campaign.

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31 Comments

  1. AJ Wilcox says

    Seriously awesome post, Scott. I loved the video! Managing client perceptions is seriously the most important thing in SEO. You might create rockin’ results, and if the client expected more, your work will go unappreciated.

    • Scott Cowley says

      Thanks, AJ. Client perceptions are what make or break a campaign. Occasionally, I get a client whose expectations are SO low that it really throws me off because they don’t expect more. I think that’s what SEO heaven is like – clients who don’t care at all about traffic or conversions and have easy keywords. Only in my dreams…

      • Gary M says

        I agree, it’s pretty sweet when you have a client who doesn’t hassle you on traffic, conversions, and rankings and have easy keywords. But I find with those clients, you lack the challenge to keep improving link building efforts and the client feedback to continue innovating the campaign and keep you on your toes.

        Sometimes it’s those really needy, really analytical clients that keep me growing as an SEO professional.

  2. Tola says

    Great post Scott, really enjoyed reading this cos I’ve actually come across some of these issues in my short time in SEO. Currently, I’m facing #2 – got this client who has tons of keywords but doesn’t have the budget to back it up. Still working on them though, wish me luck! :)

    • Scott Cowley says

      Good luck, Tola. One of the best things you can do is to give your client options and let them make the hard decisions. “If you want to add that keyword, we’re going to need to take the emphasis off of two other ones…” If you’ve already dug a pit for yourself, you can make a compelling case for a change in strategy by showing the slow movement in rankings over a few months and proposing that the client narrow their focus to see quicker increases on a few keywords, which will lead to bigger ROI.

  3. Rob Bromilow says

    There are a lot of “shoulds” and “coulds” in SEO but one thing remains constant and that is that anyone in SEO wants their clients to succeed as much as they do. It is an investment for everyone and people work tirelessly working out how to achieve that page 1/position 1 listing.

  4. Boson says

    Great post generalize the tough expectation from different clients, but i do understand them as from a business perspective, who doesn’t want to maximum profits, pay less and want more. also clients don;t know too much REALLY SEO Principles so they keep thinking/believing what they guess so. sometimes i just want to say RIGHT, why don;t you do by yourself then….:->

    • Scott Cowley says

      I once had a client who had too much time on his hands. I sent him over a list of directories where he could submit his site. He said it was the most frustrating 2 hours he has ever experienced, and it seems to have increased his understanding of what we’re doing for his site and why he’s paying someone else to do it, instead of doing it himself. Look for opportunities to give clients a “taste of your world” and it will usually be a good learning experience for them.

  5. Sean McColgan says

    Managing expectations is the key.

    @Cijo 100% agree this is how we roll now for every client who require SEO services. PPC testing first – providing real analysis of keywords / onsite conversions. From this data we then develop our SEO campaigns – always iterating and testing out new keywords.

    Difficult Expectation #2 is a classic. How many time have you ranked for agreed keyphrases then client comes back to you demanding more key phrases for the same price :)

  6. Zarko says

    I feel you :(

    I don’t think I had at least one client that didn’t show at least two or more of these signs.

    Well, I’m looking forward to the day when I will get a client who understand patience and is committed to how work.

  7. Tom Shivers says

    Great stuff Scott! I run into #7 a lot, especially with businesses who are new to SEO – it’s the “but I’m paying you for that” mentality, and I often don’t hear that until we’re a month or two in (grrrrr). Btw, good video.

    • Scott Cowley says

      Appreciate the comment, Tom. The one-sided relationship can occasionally work, (and only if the reason is that the client truly is busy) but only when the strategy and objectives are clearly defined and when the client is at minimum available to approve recommendations and get them implemented. Otherwise, it’s really frustrating – I agree.

  8. Nuttakorn says

    For the client expectations, we should have set up the project timeline and deliverables that will let client see the progression, for the result update, we can let client see which one is quick win or long term that we can deliver the expectation from clients. For the metrics to use, it will be varied depends on the objects.

  9. Amanda Freeman says

    Great post. I can see this from an in-house team of a company that a. doesn’t understand that SEO needs budget at all, and b. thinks that SEO can replace PPC spend within a couple of weeks of the website going live (for hugely competitive keywords! )

    ARG! Im tearing my hair out!

    • Scott Cowley says

      Those sound like huge challenges, Amanda. Even though SEO can technically replace much of the results driven by PPC, rarely does this make sense, as long as the ROI from PPC is still positive. I have yet to see SEO completely replace PPC traffic levels. In the end, it’s all a question of margins and ROI. If both SEO and PPC work, then keep both. But you can’t treat both with the same base expectations. Don’t lose all your hair!

  10. Scott Cowley says

    Good points, Cijo. How would you suggest doing some initial PPC to aid SEO? Run the campaign for a certain period of time, or gather a certain amount of site visits?

  11. Scott Cowley says

    Thanks, Jen! I’ve seen instances where there’s really nothing that can help their conversion either – the product or service is truly inferior, priced too highly, not helpful enough, etc. The site looks good, but nothing from PPC or SEO is converting. There’s no easy way to break that kind of news to a client.

  12. Gareth Rees says

    All very real points raised Scott, and something I come across on a daily level too. I always try to discover client expectations from the start just to see if we’re in the same ballpark. I find it’s always the clients who understand the process have a more realistic idea of their goals.

    • Scott Cowley says

      Thanks for commenting Gareth. It’s always easier to take care of things up-front, but often the client holds their cards “close to the vest” and their real expectations start trickling in partway through the campaign. They don’t realize that they’ll be much more successful by being on the same page as the SEO from start-to-finish.

  13. Mike Glover says

    Scott…you have brought up some GREAT points on managing client relationships. Although my SEO business is new, I am not new to SEO, nor am I new to the business world. So, this article struck a chord with me becuase it reminded me of my favortie saying in business…”Under promise and Over deliver”. If you do that, you will almost always satisfy even the most demanding clients. Nothing is better than finishing a project with a completely satisfied customer who recieved a value packed product or service and who you know, is coming back to you if they need more!

  14. Garious says

    I totally agree with all the points you presented here. Sometimes, clients don’t know what exactly is the reason for doing SEO. It’s just part of building your brand on the Web. There’s also conversion rate optimization and social media. In the end, if your traffic doesn’t convert to your brand advocates, you’re missing the point of having a strategy in the first place.

  15. Sidra Condron says

    This is great insight, Scott. It really resonates and helps to open our eyes to the frustrations you face every day. I especially appreciate Difficult Expectation #1.

    We’re trying to combat that (on behalf of SEOs) in our new Recon Files reports with a system that evens out the reporting on related keywords in a group. The idea is to keep the attenion on a class of keywords instead of letting one rogue keyword get too much attention.

    Seeing the feedback from your perspective helps us know that we are on the right track. It also gives us some new food for thought with the other difficult expectations.

  16. Monica says

    Great tips! Every SEO should reiterate, even if it seems counter-intuitive, that SEO does not equal sales. You need a great website, be well placed in your industry to meet demands and expectations and a very targeted team to make sure you get the most out of SEO. In relation to #2, another good way to deal with massive keyword lists is to have a ‘primary target’ – based on research and clients expectations but keep a ‘secondary target’ list that is changeable through seasonal trends and what actually drives sales using Google Analytics. Good tip about running PPC ads too.

  17. kumar ramabhadran says

    Yes, problems do come. But you can reduce it by the way I do it normally. I prepare my SEO work checklist with more than 100 parameters for every website. The checklist actually lists the errors/improvement areas along with

    1. Priority of tasks
    2. Time frame to get the task done
    3. Cost for doing the task
    4. Average time for the benefits to show

    By this me and client always knows what to expect and when

  18. Rebecca Hollingsworth says

    Your spot on here! I think many SEO comsultants now are realising that the emphasis on backlinks needs to be quality over quantity which can be hard to get across to a client if they have come from an SEO company who would build tons of poor links.

    I find addressing all of these points from the start helps to diffuse the issues coming up.

  19. Andrew Eades says

    Scott,
    Good article that probably resonates with many SEOs! My company works mainly with small businesses, many of which don't realize the art of taking 'baby steps' to ranking for the keywords they would like. Clients want to rank for the broad phrases associated with their products or services.
    What I've started to do is present new clients with a list of potential keywords, based on my initial research of their market. I don't show them the numbers, but try and help them pick keywords that really describe their products/services. This process helps them feel good about the keywords we will be targeting, because they know they will get visitors who actually want what they have to offer.
    Cheers!

  20. Charlie says

    I agree with most of the points raised here but not with point #3. For the two companies I`ve worked for I have never reported on the actual links that we create. I believe this is information that is not necessary for our customers to know. For one, they could start requesting every last detail which takes time and in a time driven business that is counter-productive and two, we are the experts and this would only encourage customers to get involved and ask questions which would need overcomplicated explanations in order to explain the answers to them. I don`t want to come across as a professional snob but it`s critical that the experts do their job and gain the results for the customers. Ultimately they are paying for a service from you. However, I consider any linking opportunities I create as intellectual property and wouldn`t divulge this anyway.

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