The idea for this post has two sources. The first was a post on SEOmoz about someone's failed attempt to get quotes for SEO. In light of that firestorm, I was asked if I would write a blog post about how potential clients should approach SEO companies they are looking to do business with. A few days later, while reading David Ogilvy's classic Ogilvy on Advertising, I came across the chapter which is an "open letter to a client in search of an agency." This post is modeled after (stolen from?) that.

Sir or Madam,

If you have decided to hire a new SEO firm or consultant, permit me to suggest a simple way to go about it.

Don't delegate the selection to a secretary, webmaster, your IT department or a low-level employee. They usually get it wrong. Do it yourself.

Start by looking at search results. No, not searches for "SEO" or "Search Engine Optimization company." Those don't produce quality leads so most SEO agencies don't bother trying to rank for them. Instead, look at sites that rank in the search results and then find out who does their search engine optimization and online marketing.

Read articles on SEO and make note of the authors that you find most knowledgeable and helpful. Talk to them, find out if they do SEO or who they recommend. Get recommendations.

By this time you have a short list. Research each company yourself. Read through their websites not just the testimonials page. Look to see if their knowledge and experience in SEO is clear.

Call and talk to the head of each agency and their head SEO (it may be the same person, that's OK.) Make sure the chemistry and communication between you and them is good. You'll be working together for a long time so make sure you're a good fit.

Don't worry about meeting the whole team. Each agency is different and you may or may not be working directly with anyone else. Not all SEOs are good with customer interaction and you have no real way of judging the talent of an individual. Good SEO is the result of the everyone working together, not just that of an individual.

Ask each agency to provide you with client references. Not printed materials, but phone numbers of current clients that you can call and talk to. Find out if the SEO has improved the overall success of their business, not just improved search engine rankings. Pick the consultant or firm that you feel has the best record of success and is most likely to help you grow your business.

Ask for a quote. If you get a stock cost of services then you've got the wrong company. If you get a price range, pursue it further. If you get a customized quote but it falls out of your budget range, consider it anyway. Find out what services the company will be engaged in while marketing your website and the cost/benefit of each.

Don't haggle over price only over the specific services provided (cost will change as services change.) Its entirely possible that the SEO company can reduce their fees by trimming services such as social media marketing, link building, content development, etc. You can always add those back in later if they are determined to be necessary for the success of your campaign. If you haggle over cost then you'll likely come up on the short end in the long run. You can also ask for the same amount of work be performed over a longer period of time. This will create a slower path to improved performance, but will fit your budget better without cutting essential services.

Insist on a twelve-month contract. SEO takes time to implement and to see the results. The larger the site, and the more keywords there are to target, the more work needs to be done. SEOs can cram everything into a few months, but the up front cost will be extremely high. Longer contracts give both you and the SEO more security and reduce the pressure of having unwarranted expectations that cannot be met.

Now that you have your SEO firm or consultant, are you going to get the best out of them? Clients get the SEO they deserve. Some clients tie their SEO's hands by disagreeing with most change recommendations. Others use up all their account time keeping the SEO on the phone "discussing" the account. Some clients slow the process by not responding to the SEOs queries and requests. Others are an absolute dream to work for, responding promptly, providing feedback as needed and letting the SEO do their thing. There is nothing wrong calling your SEO provider if it helps the SEO campaign progress, but too many "updates" slow the process to a crawl.

Anybody can perform their own SEO based on an article they once read somewhere. It takes a genius to leave the SEO alone to do their work and implement the changes they request. I had one client rewrite all the copy we fixed. He believed his audience was too sophisticated for calls to action. He's wrong.

Give your SEO access to your website analytics data as well as all sales and conversion data. This will help them assess performance (real performance, not rankings) of their optimization efforts. It will also help them steer the optimization efforts into the most profitable direction.

Give your SEO a single point of contact, and make sure it is someone who has the power to make decisions. Too often SEO recommendations are shot down by someone who is not involved in the process and has very little understanding of why the recommendation was made. These people can include VPs, web developers and IT staff. I have found that web developers are often the least knowledgeable about SEO but can be the biggest hindrance to it's success. They don't want anybody telling them that their product needs to be fixed. It's too bad, because it does.

If you do have to reject recommendations, be sure to investigate it first. Too many recommendations are shot down because someone doesn't feel it's necessary, when in fact it is critical to the optimization process. Yes, some recommendations are lower priority than others and some will cost money to implement. Reject a recommendation only after you have discussed the reasoning, urgency and impact with the SEO. Then you can reject it with full knowledge of the potential result. Never reject a recommendation because a developer says it can't be done. It can be done, but perhaps just not by them.

I have one client that has gone through three different development companies since we started working for them. None of their developers have liked me. People don't often like those that point out their flaws. I also have clients where the developers are quick to work with me on any and all recommendations. We don't always do it my way, or their way but together we develop solutions that work for everyone. Those are often our most successful clients.

There is a convention that SEO firms should never have more than one client in a particular industry. When we work for a site selling kids winter clothes, we are not supposed to work for a site that also sells kids clothes for all seasons. It sounds simple but its impracticable.

Suppose our client sells kids winter clothes and another that sells winter clothes and snowboards for adults only. Then one year the snowboard shop starts selling clothes and gear for kids while the clothes shop starts selling kids snowboards. Do we have to fire one of these clients, and if so which one? The one that was with us longer or the one that pays more? I see no conflict when optimizing two or even three sites in the exact same industry. Often what is learned on one site can benefit the other, and vice versa. After all, there are ten top 10 positions. But even still, it's likely that the keywords being targeted will vary. And where there is some overlap, one site may rank slightly higher with one keyword and the other will rank slightly higher on another. You are competing for business, not rankings, and the visitor will click the other top ranked spots regardless of who optimized them.

I'd think twice about demanding exclusion. If the SEO improves your business, then that is all you need to care about. On the other hand, if the SEO gets a better paying client in your industry, you may be the one that gets fired.

Stoney deGeyter

P.S. If your budget is too small to interest a good agency, find one that offers hourly consulting. Good advice is worth a few hundred dollars an hour and you won't have any long-term commitments.

October 20, 2009

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.


Stoney da stoner :) You linked the firestorm link to the wrong SEOMoz aricle. I think you meant to link to this one bud

Instead of the one you linked to

Nicely put Stoney. The only point I might quibble with is the 12-month contract. In my experience clients fall into 3 broad categories:

1. Those who have no experience w/ SEO & don't know what they are going to get
2. Those who have had a bad experience w/ a previous SEO firm
3. Those who have prioritized SEO as part of their strategy and have a good understanding of the investment it will take to succeed

In my experience #3 is the only one the 12 month contract is right for. #1 & #2 need a shorter term engagement to build up the confidence that SEO can work for them. That shorter term engagement can lead to a longer term relationship, but at the start a long term deal is probably not going to be enthusiastically received by them.

BLAST! Background, you're right. Thanks for the heads up... all fixed.

Andrew, I get where you're coming from but if the prospective client does their research properly then #1 and 2 from your list are moot. The problem is that those going in looking for a shorter-term contract are more likely to fall into category #1 which means they don't care enough to learn what they need to learn and tend to make poor clients to begin with. Plus they are then more likely to feel burned because their expectations are not aligned with reality. SEO is a long-term effort those going in looking for the quick fix are more likely to want to ditch after a few months instead of waiting for all the efforts to show their fruit.

I kind *of* disagree with your point about not delegating to the low-level employees, at times those are the only ones who get 'web'. Instead the statement should be made about how qualified folks should be driving these campaigns. *Not the folks who have no clue what web can achieve and can be easily impressed.*

I often have to teach the folks at agencies on how to do it properly and luckily I have enough power to call the shots, but, I do bounce the ideas off the whiz kids and have been proven wrong many times.

From Agency perspective, your note makes sense because it serves the purpose. However, at the end of it, if result's dont speak for themselves, then long term or short term contract wouldn't work.

These are my opinions and don't reflect my employer.

Stoney, I partially disagree on one point about ranking for "SEO company" while I have found that the vast majority of the leads are not great, we scored one client who found us that way, and since then they have gone on to refer us to 6 jobs we've landed. I wouldn't trade our rankings for anything in the world.

I am also pushing to get rid of the 12 month thing, its a barrier, and we give all clients out clauses anyway. So we are considering getting rid of the 12 month requirement. While it puts more pressure on us to explain things and educate I think the barriers it lowers more than compensate.

Another paragraph could be:

Be prepared to re-develop your website, this can take a lot of time and may not neccesarily change the design of the site. if your SEO company doesnt do the changes, then make sure you have the full cooperation of a developer who will be key to turning this around quickly.

You make mostly good points, but I’ll have to quibble with the last one. Working for clients that are in the same category isn’t a good idea for ANY kind of marketing firm: SEO, PR, DM, advertising, etc. I agree that having clients in the same category does provide cost efficiencies and makes the marketing team better informed, but the conflict of interest usually outweighs those efficiencies.

It’s possible to split hairs to define the differences between clients in the same category, but I think one or more of those clients will ALWAYS be wondering if they got short end of the stick when a similar client gets better results. Sure, that client may have done everything right internally, while the disgruntled client did everything wrong internally, but clients never want to hear that. In the end, they will just blame you and say you played favorites. Why even go down that road?

Social profiles:

This is nice and the point are all valid but where the problem comes is the limited budget things most of the people comes up with the very low budget for there Marketing (SEO). and on the other hand this is shameful but truth that in terms or research business owners don't like the people who are real but they like the people who can satisfy you by talks of some attractive offers like 50% off for few months and all!!

Another great article Stoney. So much junk in search, yet you consistently write well.

I second Carri's objection though. It's a risk on your reputation. Make an arrangement with friends n refer each other these leads for a cut of the deal.

I'd also say that clients need to commit to understanding WTF the goal is (ROI) and to learning about SEO beyond the fact that it gets you ranked.

What a great blogpost, really straight from the heart. I completely agree on nearly all points (agree that maybe 12 months contract might be a bit too much for some if they haven't got experience working with SEOs though).

I might even refer this blogpost to some of my clients/prospects :)

Love it!

Thanks everyone for your comments.

I'll stand by not delegating to low-level employees. I'm sure there are always exceptions, but SEO is such a critical marketing function that it can't be handed off to someone who does not have a high-stakes interest in its success. You're not renting a car. If the "low level" person in charge of selecting the SEO will also be held accountable for the decision then go for it.

Wil, you make a good point, though I think we all have to admit that there are plenty of great SEO companies out there that don't rank for generic, highly searched SEO phrases. That was my point overall. YOu can't exclude people on that basis alone because many good SEOs simply don't try to compete for those phrases.

Mark, excellent point on redevelopment. I agree whole heartedly.

Again, I disagree on the issue of taking on multiple clients in one industry. I think its too easy for one client to say "they compete" even when they don't. Case in point, here Giant Eagle grocery stores carry gift cards for many other stores and restaurant chains. They don't carry Target gift cards because they feel they are competitors. Why? Because target has a very, very small grocery section. Smaller than what you'd find at 7-11. That's not competition. Same thing can happen online, and I think I laid out a decent real-life example.

Now with that said, I think that if a client wants to pay for exclusivity, then great! But that should cost extra. I just think it's silly to expect an SEO to turn away good business that won't hurt their clients on the basis that it might crossover.

As for the 12 month contracts, I guess that's flexible depending on the agency. I have just seen too many clients slowing down the process and then four months later complaining that there have been no results. 12 months protects the SEO and it protects the client.

The other issue I personally have with this is typically a lot of the SEO work is front loaded. If the client pays the up-front costs then a 12 month contract doesn't really matter. But I know many SEOs are willing to put in a lot of extra work up front because they have the security that they'll get it returned on the back end. Without that security, less up front work will be done or higher up front fees will have to be paid.

Great post. There is way to much 'smoke and mirrors' in this industry, thanks fro opening it up some!


Whilst it may not be realistic to expect a 12 month contract from every client, remember we are not talking about any prospective client. We are talking about one that we already know has sufficient patience and interest to read a 1,383 word letter. The clients we are targeting are therefore qualified.

I think it's probable that any prospective client who has taken the time to read such a letter has the patience to do plenty of other homework generally to ensure their imminent decision is as well informed as possible. Those are the characteristics of somebody that has the capacity properly to evaluate the merits of a long-term commitment and therefore may be more likely to commit than somebody who doesn't read the letter. The letter targets the studious, so I think a targeted outcome of a long-term contract is consistent with the letter itself.

Hello Stoney,

Here are few points which you should make it clear,
1. Competitor Site owner will never tells you who did their SEO and its hard to crack that person out.
2. Most of the SEO companies or Consultant looks for their business, instead of taking care of client leads. yep i am not saying all of them are bad.

Well whatever you stated i do appreciate especially the long term contract. If any business wants to sustain longer on top SERPS i think they should opt for a permanent SEO team which constantly works for them.

Well anyways thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

Really good post Stoney; great points raised in the post.

SEO is a long term strategy however, having 3,6,9 and 12 month projects allow clients to understand and see the affect SEO has on their website. Results speak for themselves.

I do agree for the most part, but there's one thing you say I do need to bring up:

"If you get a stock cost of services then you've got the wrong company."

Not always true. If you're a small business owner who's offering a niche or localised service, then a "set fee" agency can work wonders.

Small businesses can't afford SEO 9or even IT) departments, huge consultancy fees or unpredictable charges. They can afford to budget for a set fee each month, and as long as they don't expect to be top of Google for single-word phrases that are well beyond their reach, they'll tend to get a fair deal.

Don't haggle over price, but clients love to haggle, and think they are getting a great deal. That said, my favorite SEO question is - If your so good at SEO, then why ain't ya got a PR10 - your an expert - RIGHT?

I found this page while checking my own website stats with SeoQuake for the first time when I clicked on Google Index I found all the pages related to my site but the top spot had a link to with "An open letter to a Client in search of an SEO provider" so here I am reading an excellent article about SEO with comments that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

I have never found a site like this before where SEO services are discussed in detail. I find myself absorbed with your letter Stoney and by the comments which all put together gives me a a very good overview of for and against.

I can't talk to my wife about SEO as her eyes glaze over while she quickly gets the vacuum cleaner out! So I will be back soon to get more SEO Brain Food from this great website!

Thanks Stoney

PS: $10,000 for SEO? Is that a one off payment or by installments? Convincing a client to pay for a service that they might not appreciate or understand, as we don't want to give away too much detail in case the client is fishing and intends to do it in-house?

Not seeing immediate results as it's slow journey to page one on Google and not being able produce a portfolio makes our job even more difficult if one has Non-Disclosure Agreements with previous clients?

I think you need to have clients commit to a 6 month term minimum in order to show true roi potential. You'll catch at least one SE index update within that time frame.

One mor thing I would suggest one must work with multiple vendors rather than a single SEO .my experience says every SEO is an expert at one of the aspects.

If that's all it took, sure. But 1) the first SEO pass isn't always going to be the "golden ticket" and 2) there is a lot more than just on-page optimization that comes into play.

RE the 10K/ you must have been looking at one of the ads. Obviously all of the details can't fit into a single ad so if you follow the link you'll get all the pertinent information.

@Andrew, there are always exceptions but in general, out of the box services show a lack of individual planning. I get the allure of it, and for the most part you have to have a place to start. But selling link building to a company that doesn't need it shows a lack of personalized attention that clients often want. There is no reason that the monthly fee cannot be consistent, as long as proper planning of the campaign had been done in advance.

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