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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 In some cases, these are slight misconceptions based on outdated practices and can be corrected with an authoritative article or two.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.