One of the hardest thing for an SEO to manage is expectations. For many SEO consultants and firms, part of closing the deal is to get the client to believe that the work they provide is going to get them "results," however that is defined. But in doing so, many of those charged with getting the client to sign on the dotted line can easily make things sound better than they really are. That's a product of sales.

Just look at any commercial for a new health or diet product. At the bottom of the screen you read something like "these results are atypical, your results may vary." That's almost the exact disclaimer that could benefit many SEOs as they push through their sales cycles.

A good SEO can undersell and overperform. The problem is getting the sale. That's not always an easy task when underselling, especially when you're going after businesses with limited budgets but want sometimes unrealistic achievement for the money they are willing to pay.

Once signed, keeping the client's expectations is no longer the job of the salesman but instead becomes the job of the project manager and/or SEO. And it has to be done throughout the life of the optimization campaign. No matter how many times an SEO tries to keep the client's expectation in order there are always clients that want and expect more than they are currently getting.

That's not necessarily a bad thing from the client end, but the SEO needs to always guard against it or they'll be finding themselves with disappointed clients. Or one less client today than yesterday.

What can the client expect from their SEO?

The first answer to that question really depends on what is written in the contract. The client must read the contract thoroughly in order to understand what the goals are that the SEO is trying to achieve. Is it rankings, ROI, conversions, traffic, or any combination of these?

In some cases the contract may not even specifically define the expected results and instead focus on the type of work being performed. This protects the SEO as they are performing a certain function rather than work based on certain results. Many creative ad campaigns work the same way. They don't usually make promises as to the reception their ads will get. Similarly, SEOs cannot neccessarily control the result of their marketing campaigns, they just control the work that goes into it.

That's not to give the SEO a pass. If the work that goes into the campaign isn't performing then the client should move on and find an SEO that can produce the kind of results they are looking for (contract permitting, of course).

Let's take a look at several of the typical expectations client' have of their SEOs.

Rankings: This is often the measure of choice for many clients. When these clients hire an SEO, despite warnings that the SEO has no control over rankings, rankings are still what they expect. But what rankings in particular?

The client has every right to be disappointed if the SEO is "proving" their success with rankings for keywords that deliver very little traffic (unless client is in a very niche industry). Many SEOs that guarantee results to so based on their own manufactured keyword lists that provide little benefit to the client.

At the same time, the client shouldn't expect instant top rankings for highly competitive phrases. Heck, even moderate competitive phrases can be a challenge for a new site. These things take time. What the client should see is progress. They won't see instant rankings across the board but they should start seeing some of the longer-tail phrases start making an appearance in the search results. Over time that should expand to include moderately competitive, then into the more highly competitive phrases.

What a client should NOT expect is for a specific keyword to always rank well. Rankings fluctuate, pure and simple. And sometimes they even drop unexpectedly into no-mans land. It's the SEO's job to investigate and figure out what may have caused the changes and then to make changes as necessary. But changes should be expected only if necessary.

Traffic: Increases in traffic should almost universally be expected once the SEO's changes are made to the site. But there are several reasons when traffic isn't really the core issue at all.

Traffic itself isn't really what the client should be looking for. It's easy to manipulate a site and drive a whole lot of new traffic to it. The question is whether that traffic is targeted or not. If traffic increases significantly, but there is not a proportional increase in conversions, then the client may not be getting what they had hoped.

Traffic increases can also be very insignificant when dealing with niche industries where keyword search volume is naturally low anyway. Though even in such niche industries it would be hard pressed to not see any improvement in traffic whatsoever. Just make sure that your expectations of traffic increases coincides with the search volume of your primary keywords.

Finally, traffic increases may not be a whole lot if the client is already getting tons of traffic. Again, traffic can and should continue to improve but what may be more important here is working to improve conversion rates. Changes in titles and description may actually decrease rankings or traffic but at the same time could bring a strong improvement in the number of conversions.

Conversions: The SEO should never be doing anything that reduces the raw number of conversions. And hopefully they aren't doing anything that decreases the conversion rate. But it's only partially the SEO's job to actually help improve conversion rates.

The SEO can make the links in the SERPs more appealing and they can help you make improvements to the site that will both improve the effectiveness of the site with both engines and people. But ultimately, it's the client that has to close the deal.

The SEO can help by making recommendations, suggesting specific improvements to the site's architectural structure, etc, but when it comes down to it, they are not the ones running the business. They can help put everything into alignment, but the client is still responsible for their side of things. (This is why most SEOs don't work on a percentage basis. The SEOs work can be completely invalidated by the client!)

ROI: Ultimately, this is what the client needs from their SEO campaign, a positive return on their marketing investment. It's not just about whether your keywords are in position 4 or 6, or if you get 10,000 qualified visitors vs. 100,000 unqualified, or even if your conversion rate improves from 2.5% to 3% (though that ain't something to complain about!) What the client really should be looking at is, are they getting a positive return from your financial investment, and is that return sufficient?

The better the ROI, the happier the client will be. But not all ROI is the same. It all depends on the industry and keywords and a whole lot of other things. Timing is also a critical issue in ROI. Instant return on investment is not likely--hence the word investment! The client must be willing to invest into the marketing campaign expecting the rewards to come later. The complicating factor, however, is how much later?

Again, this goes back to expectations. Many SEOs have contracts of a particular duration of time precisely for this reason. They don't want the client having expectations of a positive return before the time invested in the campaign allows it to happen. This could be a few months to a year or more, again, depending on keywords, competition, industry, etc.


When hiring an SEO it's important to have expectations. After all, it's the client's money at stake here. But the expectations of the client must line up with the expected results the SEO plans to deliver. And this should be done before the contract is even signed. But even if both client and SEO are on the same page at the beginning, it's helpful to keep those expectations in line throughout the life of the campaign. Communication is key, but so is either side not having unreasonable expectations from the other.

One of the biggest drawbacks to improving a site, whether it's for rankings, conversions, or anything else, is that the SEO makes requested changes which the client promptly ignores. If the SEO has provided recommendations and the client has not yet implemented them, this is first thing the client should look to before demanding that the SEO explain themselves for lack of "results".

But none of this is to alleviate the SEO from responsibility. They certainly have some and they should not hide behind a cleverly crafted contract to avoid it. It's the SEO's job to make sure the client is happy. If the SEO properly manages expectations the client is far more likely to be happy with the course and direction of the campaign.

October 7, 2008

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.


What can the client expect from their SEO? of course more traffic for their websites. great post, i dont have any funds to rent SEO company, im doing manually by my selft for my websites.

Quote "What can the client expect from their SEO? The first answer to that question really depends on what is written in the contract. The client must read the contract thoroughly in order to understand what the goals are that the SEO is trying to achieve."

In my opinion this would appear to be a very defensive stance for any Project Manager/Delivery person to take with a client. The chances of retaining clients and getting repeat business with this sort of positioning have to be limited.

@ Richard - my point here is that if the agreed contract specifies that the SEO will do X then they can't really come back expecting the SEO to have performed Y. I'm not suggesting that any SEO provider take that as a "stance". This statement was aimed at the client at making sure they knew what it was exactly they had agreed to.

I couldn't agree more with this post. There is absolutely no doubt that the proper expectations for progress and results must be set during the initial sales conversation. I believe many issues arise when those marketing and selling SEO services, and SEO consultation in particular, are not SEOs and truly have no concept of SEO whatsoever. That's not at all uncommon with large corporations that claim to offer search engine optimization "services" in the form of SEO Consultation.

It is the nature of salespeople to inflate expectations in order to make a sale. When they don't even understand what it is they're selling and what's involved with achieving the outlandish promises they're making, the negative impact is multiplied exponentially. What they don't understand is that by over-promising results, they damage the reputation of the entire organization as a whole - not to mention setting the SEO up to fail miserably before the work even begins. In many instances, no matter what the ultimate results, they will pale in comparison to the promises made by the individual that sold the service in the first place and the SEO will be labeled as the failure in this scenario.

The basic problem with SEO consultation itself is that many business owners don't understand that consultation is just that - consultation. There is often very little, if any, hands-on work done by the SEO personally...leaving the actual work to the business owner or to whomever he/she delegates the task. I've covered many common misconceptions about SEO Consultation in SEO Consultation Is Ruining The Reputation Of An Entire Industry. That post certainly supports the position here in Stoney's post. Well done!

I agree that expectations are the most difficult/important thing to control. "What are your suggestion for deflating unrealistic expectations w/o endangering your potential client." This is a question that any sales team that is talking up an SEO product should be able to answer.

This is a great post. It's funny how a clear definition of results is often overlooked until after the research part of the campaign is over. When it comes times for results clients start picking all kinds of things out of the air.

A very nicely written article! We've been following some of the points mentioned above in our quest for Good SEO. But in every Search Engine Marketing, it is important that one lets the clients know what the realistic goals are. Rather than letting them believe that the result of the Search Engine Optimization will be immediate.

Nice review by the way!

Well, I am agree with SEOAly. Because in today's current picture, client don't want to invest a good amount in SEO & always expect that some one will rank them high, increase traffic, ROI with in the budget of $200, which is simply not possible.

So, my point is that all the results can be achievable, it's just a matter of time & client needs to understand that SEO needs patience.

At the end, SEO works & client have full right to ask their expected results.

It would be a very brainstorming discussion going on. :)

For me, I expect only one thing but likely to accept the minimum success.
The minimum success is being on the first page, the only thing I expect is top 3 or top 5 position.

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