Clients: Ask the Wrong Questions, They Do

February 15, 2013
By Michael Cottam in SEO

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 best 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.


Why Journalists Need To Stop Resenting SEO

on Sep 24 by Lisa Barone

Whether you’re an SEO, a journalist, or someone who fancies themselves both (holla!), I’d encourage you to read Nikki Usher’s…

Social Media
Social Media

How To Attract 55 Million Eyes In Just 4 Hours [pictures]

on Jan 25 by Lisa Barone

Perhaps the one thing that unites SEOs, content marketers and anyone with a Web site is that we all want…

Online Marketing
Online Marketing

The Web Needs Journalism Programs, Not Sarah Lacy

on Apr 9 by Lisa Barone

It’s 2009. We’ve reached an era where poverty should not exist, where every child should go to bed with a…

^Back to Top