Clients: Ask the Wrong Questions, They Do


Sometimes we care about the wrong things, especially when it comes to an SEO audit, or link building. We’ve trusted the wrong company and been burned, or heard enough war stories that we’re super cautious about who we’re going to get into bed with for our search marketing needs. How do you find an SEO consultant you can trust? More often than not you’re asking the wrong questions and stumbling on the self-proclaimed “best SEO companies,” but missing the real experts. Michael Cottam brings us a guest post on the five questions you should NOT be asking your potential SEO agency.

penguinlightsaberI’m frequently running into new prospective clients who’ve embraced the dark side of SEO. It’s like they’ve begun their Jedi training under Lord Vader, instead of Yoda. Then like Anakin Skywalker, they got their arm cut off by a penguin (take another look at Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, and tell me I’m wrong).

So they come to me wary, wanting to ask all the right questions so that their next SEO expert doesn’t cause them to get their other arm lopped off too. But, their understanding of SEO from their previous consultant–master of the Dark Side–has them asking all the wrong questions.

Here’s my list of my 5 least favorite pre-engagement questions from potential clients who are recovering from a past SEO relationship gone bad.

1) “Can you show me an example of an SEO audit you did for another customer?”

Two words: client confidentiality. If you use a real document from a past client, you’re going to have to redact much of it.


You really don’t want to share even a checklist, because if you’re like me, you’ve compiled your list from a number of sources and ideas over the years, and it’s your intellectual property. You can also pretty much guarantee that anything you share with a client prior to an engagement is going to be shared with the other consultants as the client tries to gauge who’s the best (“here’s what this other consultant said…what do YOU think?”).

You can counter this by saying:

Your best practices list is your intellectual property, and the recommendations you made for any other client is their intellectual property. Share with them a testimonial from a client for whom the site audit recommendations had a substantial impact on their site traffic and/or conversions instead.

2) “Do you have a list of keywords you recommend based on your research?”

image courtesy Keith Williamson

image courtesy Keith Williamson

Keep in mind where this came from: their last SEO company provided them with a list of the top 3,000 target keywords they should focus on, along with 19 unintelligible metrics for each keyword. And just because they didn’t understand it in the slightest (nor did their last SEO company), this doesn’t mean the sheer weight of the document didn’t impress them.

Keyword research is an important and non-trivial part of any good SEO campaign. It’s more than just the search volumes; it’s the mix of that plus seeing what KINDS of results (organic, local, local universal, shopping, video, image, news, etc.) show for each term, combined with how competitive the term is in each of those kinds of results that figure highly on page one.

If you’re going do it for free as part of your quote, you’re either a fool, or you probably haven’t done enough research. And don’t think you can provide that for free up front and make it up in the overall bid. I’ve had multiple clients take another company’s keyword research from their quote and hand it to me, telling me they don’t need me to do that bit because they’ve already got it… here you go. I’d redo it anyway, because I don’t trust that the other company looks at all the factors I look at.

Your answer, then?

Keyword Research is a critical part of any SEO analysis, and it should be beyond the scope of what can be done in an initial quote. It’s worth explaining a bit about the importance of competitive analysis when choosing your targets.

3) “Can you give me a quote for monthly SEO services that guarantee top rankings for the most highly searched terms for our industry?”

Guarantee: the 4-letter word of the SEO industry.

First, there’s no reasonable guarantee in this business; there’s always a competitor or two (or ten) out there who’s hired someone as good as you to do the same thing for their client.

Second, the client here has been taught the wrong goal: rankings are a FACTOR for online success, but there is more to rankings than that:

  • Conversion–Is your presence in the SERPs translating to traffic? Is what’s showing in your headline (i.e. page title) and excerpt (i.e. meta description) compelling?
  • Do you have rich snippets appearing?
  • Are you getting the author’s photo to appear via rel=author? This is worth an increase in click-through rate of 30% to as much as 150% or more
  • Once the user clicks through, do they convert into a customer? Or bounce back to the SERPs and click on your competitor?

Third, the opportunity for the client might not be in getting traffic from the most highly-searched terms: their opportunity for more traffic, conversions, etc. might be in the long-tail. For instance, by tuning their templates that generate their 10,000 product pages, instead of their home page, they could increase traffic. The question the client SHOULD be asking is more along the lines of something like this:

“What would it cost to grow my online sales by x%, and how long do you think it would take to get there?”

You’re not going to be able to guarantee anything, but a quick look at their link profile, the search volumes for a few obvious terms, and the link profiles of those companies in the top spots on page one today is enough to give you an idea whether their goal is realistic (easy or hard). This will also tell you if their goals are achievable by quick on-page fixes or a long-term online marketing and link building grind.

I actually had a client who came to me, ready to spend a respectable amount on search marketing, but every single term I could come up with for their product came up with virtually no measurable search volume AND the competition was intense. The client was up against big-box stores with a physical presence. It seems that while it was a reasonably common and popular product, it wasn’t one people were buying or even researching online. It was something people buy in-person, where they can touch and feel it. I had to advise them NOT to use my SEO services (or anyone else’s), but to spend their money on more traditional marketing and presence in brick-and-mortar retailers. Perhaps I missed some brilliant off-the-wall search term… and if some other SEO consultant discovers it and leads them to success, well, certainly they deserve the “win” and I should hang my tail in shame.

4) “How many links are you going to build for me per month and what will it cost per link?”

To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi: These are not the links you’re looking for.

And if this is how you’re going to measure your SEO success, I can tell you what it’s going to cost you–80% of your traffic from a Penguin penalty. When it comes to Google spotting buckets of cheap, easy-to-get links, let’s just say this: the Death Star is fully operational.


A better question might be:

“What kinds of links are you going to get for me, and what’s the cost in time and money like for each of those kinds of links?”

Your answer will involve different kinds of outreach, content-creation effort, sponsorships/donations to charities, a real PR campaign that inspires real reporters/bloggers to write about specific important things the client has done, etc.

In fact, any question that starts with “Can you guarantee…”–well, this is like asking a quarterback if he can guarantee that they’ll win the Super Bowl before signing his contract. You can’t guarantee anything. The client’s competitors are engaging with other search marketers, and some of them may be even more talented than you are.

When faced with this question, I like to respond that I’ll guarantee to do my┬ábest to grow their business at a reasonable cost, and like the quarterback, I can point to my past successes as a likely indicator of success with my new “team.”

So, to answer this:

Of course, you can price your services any way you’d like. The key is to get the client to understand that a more meaningful way to measure your impact is going to be in things like new customers, revenue, and traffic. Most importantly you want them to understand that rankings are merely one factor in a much bigger equation.

5) “Do you do pay-for-performance? We want to structure the contract in such a way that we only pay if we get results.”

In principle, this isn’t unreasonable or really all that problematic, but we all know that in general it takes a fair bit of time to see results for most of the SEO tactics we employ. Occasionally we’ll have a client with a rockin’ backlink profile, and all we have to do is tweak some page titles and some internal anchor text here and there, and within a month we’re golden. For the majority of sites, the results are going to come from things that take months: content generation that THEN needs to be promoted, and THEN develops links that will start taking effect a month after that.

If your cash flow allows it, offering the client a 10-20% holdback on the invoices until traffic rises X% from the start of the project is a way to give that client an assurance that you’re confident in your abilities, and have some skin in the game. Be aware of the risks here though. Anything from an algorithm change by Google, or significant progress by their competitors, or a late effect of some shady link building by their last SEO company could bite you back there in that dark place under your Jedi robes.

If you offer a hold-back based on performance, you need to be prepared to lose that portion of the invoice for factors that are truly beyond your control. As Yoda says: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”

Stepping Back A Bit

As you deal with questions like this from prospective clients, you need to remember that the clients have been CONDITIONED by their past experiences. They’re used to easy wins from (relatively) cheap tricks. And, they’re probably thinking that they’ve just been burned by someone with the same job title you have. You may very well be in a situation where you’re never going to make them really happy, and the job is more trouble and stress for you and your team than it’s worth.

Your Comments

  • john andrews

    Hmmm. and the flip side is equally interesting: what SEO consultants answer when asked questions:

    Q: How much will it cost me to improve my rankings?
    A: How much are you willing to spend?

    Q: Can you make the necessary changes, so I don’t have to hire a web dev company to do it?
    A: What’s your budget?

    Q: What will it take to get me top rankings, like my competitor X?
    A: How much money do you have?

    Q: How long will it take to achieve results?
    A: What kind of spend are we talking about here?

    For the situations you profiled, I’d recommend passing on the client (or refer to someone trying to get started). Those shopping for free and discount services are not worthy of the attention to educate.

    For the situation I profiled, I recommend passing on the SEO consultant. A consultant who can’t or is unwilling to discuss what they can do for you without knowing your budget or willingness to spend, is not a match (at best) and a risky option (a scammer at worst).

    Much better to start working with someone who knows what they can do and what it will cost, than someone with dollar signs for pupils and a primary interest in finding “whales”. Similarly, a potential client who knows you “do X for Y” is a potential customer, and you can try and close a deal.

  • Michael Cottam

    Good points, John. From the consultant side, a big % of clients who are asking these kinds of questions cannot be “turned” away from the Dark Side, and really nothing you can do for them will make them happy. But I have several really good clients who HAVE made the transition and we’re doing well together, growing their businesses, recovering from penalties, etc. But there sure are ones that you need to just walk away from. I definitely have had some where I DIDN’T walk away, but SHOULD HAVE!

    And the situation you profiled–what the consultant really should be doing is getting the client to understand that their SEO spend is really going to be like a traditional advertising spend, and then working with them to find the balance between their budget, results, etc.

  • Mike Feiman

    This is so typical. Do you know why SEO has such a bad rep? Because they are completely unwilling to do the following:

    1) Provide an actual gameplan
    2) Provide a timeline
    3) Provide a basis for measuring success
    4) Set goals and milestones that they will be held to
    5) Provide a reasonable amount of transparency

    If I’m interviewing an SEO firm I will absolutely ask the question of “how are you going to go about optimizing my site”. If the firm tries to run any sort of “can’t go into specifics” BS, it’s time to end the discussion.

    Companies get burned by SEOs because they don’t force the SEO firm to tell them exactly what they’re going to do from an SEO perspective. As we’ve seen, even SEOs with sterling reputations have taken part in shady tactics like link buying.

    It’s not voodoo, so SEOs need to stop treating it as such. Responding to questions with dodges doesn’t earn you customers. Telling clients that they’re “asking the wrong questions” doesn’t earn customers. All it does is create a cloud of mistrust.

    Clients aren’t looking for guarantees. They’re looking for honesty and transparency.

    • Michael Cottam

      You’re right, Mike. But to clarify, I’d say that answering their questions by trying to show a past client’s audit document is the wrong approach. Instead, I prefer to talk about the keyword research process, and talk about having a checklist of best practices I go through, and then talk about taking the results of the keyword research and tuning the site and specific pages for the terms that show the most promise.

      And in this day and age, I agree that you need to be upfront about link buying, crappy link-gaining tactics, etc., and explain (a) why those are risky and should be avoided, and (b) give some examples of the kinds of link-building that you recommend.

      But I’ll disagree about clients not looking for guarantees–I’m hearing many of them specifically ask for that up front. And so my point there is that they SHOULDN’T be asking for guarantees…and you need to educate them as to why that’s not the question they should be asking.

  • Leo

    Loved this. One question I’m surprised you didn’t include: “How long will it take you to put us in the No. 1 position for all of our favorite keywords?” Maybe I’m too old and people have stopped asking that one.

  • Nick Nelson

    SEO is one of the few industries where it’s not yet “seller beware” – in the old days, when you walked into a car dealership – the sales guy automatically knew more than you did about the cars on that lot. With CarFax, KBB and everything else – more often than not, the buyer is walking in with more research than that sales guy.

    SEO Marketers still ultimately know the process infinitely better than the customer will. The customer thinks pay-for-performance, keyword research and top rankings in Google is fair to ask for. Why? Because another bad SEO told them so.

    So I guess my point is, you need to tell stories and explain to the client why these things are bad..not simply walk away.

    I think these questions should be your FAVORITE. It shows that the clients engaged and knows the importance of SEO. That’s step 1.

    • Michael Cottam

      Interesting perspective Nick…I like it and agree with you. In my experience, more than half of clients in this position can be “won over” to doing things the right way, and taking the time to do so helps cement the client’s understanding of your real value vs. their past SEO consultants.

      Unfortunately I’m seeing maybe 30-40% of prospective clients in this position unwilling to accept what I’m telling them. And that’s either a reflection on my communication/presentation skills, or the client is simply not ready to accept that there are very few “quick & cheap & dirty” wins these days.

      Typically if they’ve just lost a modest chunk of traffic due to Panda factors, often they’re looking for the magic bullet to get them back where they were. If they’ve suffered a major slaughtering from Penguin, and 80% of their traffic is gone, and Google has manually penalized them as well, then there’s usually enough signs for them to wake up and see that I might have a point :-).

  • Amie

    Thanks Michael, I can definitely relate to this post and as an SEO provider I have been asked the exact questions countless times. Search Engine Optimisation is a tricky service and is best implemented by getting to know each website personally before questions can be answered honestly. Like you mentioned, the tactics used to increase rankings of each site will depend on goals of the site and the site’s competition, to name but a few.

  • grace morris

    I want to weep while reading this while thinking about the client I have to hear this from week after week.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    This is so true. That’s why a big part of our own content marketing efforts is focused on informing prospects about the correct process, formula, etc. I’ve found that if prospects have been reading out blog for awhile, they have less questions and the questions that they do have are appropriate.

    • Michael Cottam

      Ahhhh…if only all prospective clients would read…I actually got a request from someone this week where they asked about my rates (which is listed right above the contact form they used) and my portfolio (which there’s a link to on every page of the site). Sigh. But I do totally agree with you, those who take the time to look at the sites of the people they’re inquiring with are way better qualified. Too often I get a request that’s clearly been copied and pasted into my contact form…and a dozen others.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    This is so true. That’s why a big part of our own content marketing efforts is focused on informing prospects about the correct process, formula, etc. I’ve found that if prospects have been reading our blog for awhile, they have less questions and the questions that they do have are appropriate.

  • Todd Mumford

    We have had lots of success using a blank SEO Audit for clients pre-engagement. Many times it seems that they want to see what is a “fair amount of work”. The problem is there is nothing to measure one SEO Audit to, and good SEO like everything else is the world is mostly qualitative and not quantitative.

  • Ross Hill

    I’ve on the look out for a good seo provider and i’m not going to lie I had many of these questions lined up ready for the interviews. I think this post really cleared some stuff up for me and will help me approach those interviews with a much better perspective!. From someone on the “other side” thanks for the great article.