SEO

The 17 Commandments of Setting Expectations in SEO (Interview)

For all the difficulties SEO throws our way, one of the most difficult areas is in setting expectations. Whether you are in house or agency, consultant or team. Yet some people have figured out the right formula to attracting and retaining the right kind of projects by properly setting expectations. I figured I would ask them (both in house and agency folks) their thoughts on how they do their best to set expectations and share them with you. I have already talked about how I set expectations in SEO, so nothing form me on this one.

I got such great answers that I have taken the top 17 and made my 17 commandments of setting SEO expectations, then at the end of this piece I link over to the question and answer format for all of their answers. Thank you to Rhea Drysdale, Lee Odden, Rand Fishkin, Scott Skurnick, Melanie Nathan, Lindsay Wassell and Garrett French.

Here are the questions I asked:

    1 – Can you give me a time when you didn’t set a clients expectation properly and it came back to bite you, and more importantly how did you recover from it / what processes have you put in place to keep that from happening again?
    2 – I have found that one of the hardest conversations to have with prospective clients is the “you don’t deserve to rank #1 for that keyword” conversation, do you ever have to have those conversations, and if you do, how do you handle them in a way that helps the client realize you are trying to help them.
    3 – When a client asks you to estimate ROI on an SEO project or asks where do you expect us to be in 12 months how do you handle those types of questions.
    4 – When someone says something to you like, I read a report that shows that 60% of the clicks go to the first 3 listings, so I must be in the top 3 spots – it makes all of us cringe, how do you address that logical concern?
    5 – How do you set expectations about the number of links / quality of links you are going to be able to procure for your clients?
    6 – How do you handle the situation when a prospective client comes to you and has the budget, but they have few linkable assets, doesn’t have time to create content, weak PR, etc, etc?
    7 – Any recommendations on questions to ask a prospective client before you take on a project to sniff out if they have the resources to create GOOD linkable assets?

Based on those questions here are the responses I got and the commandments I developed: (here’s the PDF to print out!)

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Can you give me a time when you didn’t set a clients expectation properly and it came back to bite you, and more importantly how did you recover from it / what processes have you put in place to keep that from happening again?

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Rhea
Outspoken Media is a small agency, which means we physically do the work ourselves. As COO and a worker, I often have to re-evaluate the time I spend communicating with clients about work and time I spend actually getting the work done. I always want to address a client’s concerns and questions, but I’ve had to learn the hard way that it isn’t rude to explain to a client that the more they need reassurance, the less time I’m going to have to get the job done and demonstrate ROI. In contracts we now clearly state how often we will be available for calls and that if a client needs more time from us, they will be billed x amount per hour beyond their current services. It’s the only way we can ensure a happy balance between communication and work.

COMMANDMENT #1: Thou shall explain the balance between time spent talking about SEO and time spent doing SEO.

Lee
Early on when I was with another agency doing web development projects and web marketing, we’d take on a variety of projects that would involve new territory for us. That kind of scenario creates expectations issues and recovery deals mostly with owning up to capabilities and timeframes. However, with the agency I’ve had the past 10 years, we pretty much stick to what we’re best at, knowing our capabilities and limits. Processes are essential for expectations management with everything to how you market your company, public and media relations efforts designed to build influence and credibility all the way to hiring, training and implementation. Reporting makes a big difference as well and including mutually agreed upon objectives front and center of every program performance report keeps everyone on the same page.

COMMANDMENT #2: Thou shall stick only to what thou REALLY knows to avoid unforeseen client expectations creeping up.

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I have found that one of the hardest conversations to have with prospective clients is the “you don’t deserve to rank #1 for that keyword” conversation, do you ever have to have those conversations, and if you do, how do you handle them in a way that helps the client realize you are trying to help them.
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Rhea
We’re often brutally honest with our clients, which they usually love. Of course there are times when I do have to explain that their services/products/content just aren’t up to par and in some cases, it might simply be a matter of them not meeting user intent for a particular keyword. I’ve found that it’s easier to explain the situation to a client by letting the competition or search results speak for themselves. Instead of us voicing an “opinion” that the client needs to do x, we give them examples what strategy the competition is using to earn their placement.

COMMANDMENT #3: Thous shall be Brutally Honest! Use the current SERPS to explain what is/isn’t attainable.

Scott
Absolutely. When we were relaunching the Edmunds site a number of years ago there was a desire to rank highly for “Make” terms such as Ford or GM. Due to the competitive nature of these terms I didn’t think we would be able to achieve this even though our site is authoritative in nature. The easiest way to support your argument is by showing examples. When you can show people that the results are dominated by sites which you won’t be able to displace because they are either official OEM sites or Wikipedia it goes a long way in helping your cause. The other argument that can be made as that the quality of traffic going to such general terms won’t help your revenue goals.

COMMANDMENT #4: Thou shall stay focused on revenue primarily, not rankings, links, or traffic.

Lee
A prospective client once asked about pursuing the word “brain” using a new web site. It’s a pretty straightforward thing to share a few datapoints about the search marketplace for any given topic as well as a few specifics for the sites that are already in the top spots. Sharing the resource allocation necessary for uber competitive and broad topics in the context of the prospects online resources vs going after topics that better reflect an intent to buy is pretty useful. But the conversation isn’t effective unless you share alternatives that show how the company can reach their goals. Spend huge resources chasing a unicorn or spend moderate resources going after hundreds or thousands of catchable fairies. (Bad metaphor) but we get it Lee.

COMMANDMENT #5: Take a resource allocation approach – articulate the expected time and resources required to target broad words, which may never rank even with extreme effort.

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When a client asks you to estimate ROI on an SEO project or asks where do you expect us to be in 12 months how do you handle those types of questions.
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Lindsay
These are REALLY tough to answer and I doubt my answer is going to be very helpful. At SEOmoz we came across this question very infrequently. Most of our clients had already experienced success in SEO and were contracting us to take them to the next level. They already understood the ROI from experience.

Perhaps more helpful is my experience starting out as an in-house SEO. I had to work extremely hard to get my projects into the development schedule. 80% of my job at the time was education and communication. I eventually won over the executive team by convincing them to make an investment in a ‘pilot project’. I was sure it would make a big difference, but I couldn’t exactly pinpoint how much of a difference. I got my pilot project and achieved more than 400% SE traffic growth in 6 months. That paved the way and I could always reference that case study as an example of the potential ROI.

COMMANDMENT #6: Thou shall have results that speak for themselves, even if you start with a small project.

Scott
Luckily I haven’t had to deal with a ROI discussion in a while. Once you are able to prove yourself as an in-house SEO, the doubters become few and far between. I have been very fortunate that I have had the support of upper management over most of my tenure at Edmunds. Regarding a 12 month outlook, I always do my best to give an honest estimate. Some projects are riskier than others and I make sure that is known upfront. I am also very clear that I will not make any guarantees and that every project has the potential to fail. If I think I can give a ballpark estimate I will, if I don’t think it is possible I explain why. As an in-house SEO I think we have much greater liberties when it comes to these types of questions vs. agency SEO’s.

COMMANDMENT #7: Thou shall prove thyself early, and always be honest about limitations.

Melanie
Firstly, I never estimate an actual dollar amount (cuz that’s impossible). Instead, I try to focus on what the SEO project will potentially do for their exposure and their website’s usability, which in turn can lead to more signups or conversions. I also offer a list of past clients, the results achieved and an invite to contact any of them in regards to their project.

In every case though, it’s better to promise little and produce huge than to promise huge and produce little.

COMMANDMENT #8: Thou shall always underpromise and overdeliver!

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When someone says something to you like, I read a report that shows that 60% of the clicks go to the first 3 listings, so I must be in the top 3 spots – it makes all of us cringe, how do you address that or other logical concerns?
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Rhea
We usually don’t cringe, it makes sense. However, is the keyword right? Before we start with a client, we need to see their conversion reports if they’re doing PPC and we need access to their analytics. We want to know what’s driving visitors to convert for them and we prioritize which keywords we go after from there. If a client is starting from scratch we do our homework and make educated decisions on which keywords we will target. Based on performance of those keywords we’ll tweak our strategy over time. When we’re billing a client for so many hours, it simply doesn’t make sense for us or them to go after keywords that won’t convert and we tell them that.

COMMANDMENT #9: Thou shall be practical and consider the other person’s point of view, they don’t know what you know so take time to educate and explain.

COMMANDMENT #10: Thou shall not make ROI judgments without conversion data.

Scott
Funny enough I haven’t had to deal with these kinds of comments. I have avoided using rankings as a success metric for a number of years now. For us it is all about driving unique visitors to the site, giving them the best user experience possible and then getting them to convert. It is much easier to optimize your conversion rate than search rankings because conversion is 100% within your control. Obviously good rankings and traffic are highly correlated but we drive so much traffic via long tail terms that it is nearly impossible to accurately track rankings. Luckily we do rank in the top 3 for many of our core terms but even a slight drop or increase in these rankings doesn’t have a large affect on our overall traffic.

COMMANDMENT #11: Thou shall always optimize conversion rates because that is 100% within your control.

Lindsay
I work really hard to steer clients away from keyword and rank focus and towards overall search referral traffic growth. That said, I have to agree that top three placement is the only place to be. Even the traffic difference between second and first position is substantial. Most of my clients obtain traffic from 10s or 100s of thousands of unique keywords every month. Looking at rank for individual terms isn’t real common amongst these folks. They are (thankfully) more interested in top level figures like the SE traffic volume overall.

COMMANDMENT #12: Thou shall never focus on only one individual keyword.

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How do you set expectations about the number of links / quality of links you are going to be able to procure for your clients?
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Rhea
Clients that have prior experience with paid links, sponsored posts or article syndication often expect a large sum of links with exact match anchor text. In those cases we again have to be brutally honest about the fact that it is going to take more time for a natural link development strategy to gain competitive rankings, but they will have built a defensible brand. We tell them that they are going to see less links, but better quality and there isn’t the risk of being smacked with a penalty or worse. We don’t require six or twelve month contracts with our clients, but we explain from the start that for us to demonstrate return, they need to stick with us for six to nine months. Of course time depends on the industry, so highly competitive terms will take longer than less competitive longtails or smaller industries.

COMMANDMENT #13: Thou shall create a DEFENSIBLE brand that any human could review and approve of.

Lee
We’ll work with companies that are focused on outcomes from marketing. Links are measured, no doubt. But the emphasis is on moving the conversion needle. Some programs call for simple linking programs and others are more like media relations engagements. It depends on the nature of the program, industry and audience we’re trying to reach. All that said, goals are important and they must be set in order to achieve efficiency so past performance tempered with the level of competition in an industry become useful for link quantity/quality expectations management.

COMMANDMENT #14: Thou shall articulate that different goals require different effort. Start with goals THEN develop your linking plan.

Rand
My take on link quantities and quality is generally based on the types of queries the client is seeking to rank for and the competition in those search results. As you know, we do lots of work here at SEOmoz to build a web crawl and metrics about links that can be leveraged to make competitive SEO more of a scientific process.

When we look at a given set of search results or a site’s position amongst a field of competitors, we can look at a number of metrics around quantity of links and linking root domains, raw importance (metrics like PageRank or mozRank), quality of links (via proxies like mozTrust & Domain Authority) and anchor text distribution. This helps inform us of where the missing pieces lie and what we need to do to catch up (or stay ahead).

I did a WB Friday on this topic.

COMMANDMENT #15: Analyze competitors linking before setting expectations on your linking efforts.

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How do you handle the situation when a prospective client comes to you and has the budget, but they have few linkable assets, doesn’t have time to create content, weak PR, etc, etc?
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Lindsay
Don’t use poor content as an excuse to fail. If their content stinks, be sure to include content creation in the scope of work.

COMMANDMENT #16: Thou shall include content creation in the scope of work!

Rhea
To be honest, we probably wouldn’t take them on. We’re in the business of building high quality, natural links. We need something to work with to do that. If there’s absolutely nothing available to us and no room for improvement, we’re being setup for failure. You can’t tie our hands and expect aggressive results.

COMMANDMENT #17: Thou shall set expectations on what is possible based on what you have been given to work with.

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Oh and here’s a special part: a ton of questions you can ask clients before taking on projects:
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Rhea (wow, thanks Rhea, these are awesome):
Do you have a media plan? If yes, we’ll need to see it.
Do you have a newsletter? If yes, how do you determine topics? If you have a calendar, we’ll need to see it.
Do you have any videos (interviews, commercials, how-to’s, etc)?
Do you have photos or graphics? If yes, how are those created?
Do you have a blog or podcast?
Who currently writes content for the site/blog or runs the podcast?
Do they have an editorial calendar? If yes, we’ll need to see it.
Do you speak at conferences or other industry events?
Will you be exhibiting at any conferences or industry events?
Do you donate to non-profits/charities or are you a sponsor of an organization?
Have you run or do you have plans to run a contest or giveaway?
Have you sent out or do you plan to send out any press releases?
Who is your target demographic? What questions do they typically have about your company/products/service?
Do you have client testimonials or reviews?
How do you manage customer service online?
Do you manage any social profiles? If yes, what is your approach with those?

Garrett
I like starting with: “what’s working for you now?” …in terms of both link building and of larger markteting initiatives.

We spoke with a link building prospect recently with not much content on site. We asked how they generated prospects currently and they off-handedly mentioned their 10k+ email list that they’d been building over the past 10-15 years. They estimated that 10% or so of the list were active, industry-facing publishers (bloggers/site owners etc). We recommended they begin engaging the list, publishing conversations (with permission) and start leveraging the conversations for links.

We’ve found that it’s usually easier to build from what’s working already in some way than to generate something brand new. Another important aspect though is how well positioned in the company is your immediate contact… If they have networked well internally you will have better success, whereas if they’re new or not well trusted or respected yet you will have trouble getting to the appropriate resources.

Lastly, it’s vital to have a sense of what’s actually linkable in their market space. You can look at what assets have been proven to attract links on competitors’ sites, as well as industry-facing publishers’ sites.

Melanie
What unique value does your web site offer? What needs does it satisfy better than your competitors?

Are they part of any groups or associations? Are they acquainted with owners of any related businesses? Do they volunteer for or contribute to any charities? You’d be surprised at how many link opportunities most sites are already sitting on yet they simply don’t realize it.

A question I sometimes have my clients ponder: “Who are the specific group of site owners that directly benefit when they link to my site?”

Lee
If their resources are online, it’s pretty easy to find those. Otherwise, ask what public relations, advertising or interactive marketing they’re doing. Inventory digital assets and find out what the marketing plan is for the next 6-12 months. If a company isn’t doing any of those things, maybe they’re not a good fit for SEO.

Huge Thank yous again to:
Melanie Nathan – “Canadian SEO” | @melanienathan
Rhea Drysdale – outspoken media (I endorse for reputation management) | @rhea
Rand Fishkin – SEOmoz.org – Go check out their link analysis tools | @randfish
Garret French – Go read the link building book, I got a ton of good tips | @garrettfrench
Lee Odden – Toprankblog.com @leeodden
Lindsay Perkin Wassell – Keyphraseology.com | @lindzie
Scott Skurnick – Edmunds.com | @sskurnick