Setting Client Expectations for SEO
Show of hands: how many SEO professionals reading this have been asked whether they can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google?
We have. It’s a common misperception that getting a #1 ranking is a reasonable, achievable, and sustainable goal for pretty much anyone who puts their mind to it. And why wouldn’t clients assume this? There are plenty of ads promising guaranteed top rankings, usually phrased like a used-car-salesman pitch and with about as much credibility.
I mean, think about it. If these companies could always deliver what they promised, Google would need a horizontal display to accommodate the multitude of #1 rankings!
Seriously, though. When we’re asked for a guaranteed top ranking we have to respond with, “Of course that’d be great, and it’s certainly something we strive for, but we can’t absolutely promise that. And here’s why….”
Which is so much less compelling than an unqualified YES.
So if we don’t guarantee a top ranking on Google, what can we guarantee? If it’s up to us to define what clients should expect from a successful SEO campaign, what do we tell them?
A Question of Control
At times I envy my colleague Amy Konefal on the Paid Search side of our business. Compared to Search Engine Optimization, PPC is so concrete, so specific, so… controllable. It’s fast. Agile. Responsive – the Ferrari of Search. Want a top ranking? No problem, let me log in and ramp up that bid, or add some negative keywords to the Adgroup. There, try searching again. See? There we are at the top! High fives all around!
It’s really irritating.
It almost makes me happy to see Google’s Quality Score throwing a wrench into all that carefree PPC celebration.
SEO, by comparison, can seem mysterious and arbitrary to clients, a perception not diminished by unpredictable algorithm changes and Google’s often vague, delphic statements about what tactics work, what tactics could trigger an index ban, and what constitutes a quality, high-ranking web page.
So we do our best to set clear, realistic expectations up front, clarifying what’s possible and what the client will have to do to achieve it.
While setting expectations is usually a custom exercise tailored to each client, here are a few of the common themes we make sure to communicate:
Expectation #1: SEO is not an exact science.
Communicating the inexact nature of SEO is an important first step. Rankings are affected by many factors, not all of which are within our or the client’s direct control. For instance:
- The SEO efforts of competitors
- changes to search engine algorithms
- a client company’s SEO-unfriendly CMS platform, directory structure, file-naming protocol, or META tagging standard that’s not going away anytime soon
- an upper-executive’s selection of keywords to target
All of these and many other uncontrollable factors influence the success of an SEO campaign.
Expectation #2: Rankings are important, but not the whole story
A narrow focus on rankings alone ignores other important considerations, ones that can make the business case for SEO much more effectively and concretely than rankings alone. For instance:
- Traffic from organic search. One of the major reasons for achieving high rankings in the first place is to increase the amount of traffic to a site. If traffic numbers increase noticeably after SEO improvements go live and maintain over time, SEO efforts can receive the credit.
- Conversions from organic search traffic. The quality of organic search traffic can be another measure of SEO’s success and value to an organization. One way to measure this is to track conversions (of whatever type your client’s site offers) from organic search traffic, and compare the quantity pre- and post-SEO efforts.
- Branding, credibility and competitive advantage. While less easy to measure directly, improved rankings (even if not the #1 spot) translate into more visibility for your client’s site and less for their competitors. Every results spot filled by a client’s page is one more chance for them to appear in front of their potential clients and customers.
Expectation #3: SEO is judged by improvement, not arbitrary targets
Moving clients away from a hard numeric goal (“We have to be #1 for ‘music'”) to one of improvement over time is key to managing an SEO project. While we may not guarantee a specific ranking, in our experience we can guarantee overall improvement in rankings, traffic, and visibility.
Expectation #4: Trends are important. Minor fluctuations are not.
Everyone’s experienced it. An optimized and link-built page finally hits the top five, only to drop three positions the next day. Panic time, right? No. Time to note the interesting little change and reassure the client.
Like a strategic stock market investor, we’re more interested in data trends than individual data points. We need a broader view than a single day’s worth of data to give quality advice. Yes, perhaps we dropped three positions today. But when we look at performance over the past month or quarter, what’s the trend? Of course, we slice and dice trends in various ways to gain as much clarity as possible. For instance, we might look at an individual page’s performance for its targeted keywords, or look at organic traffic trends for a group of strategic keywords. And of course we pay special attention to trends pre- and post-optimization efforts.
Expectation #5: Improvements depend on implementation
A caveat to Expectation #3 is this – our recommendations have to actually be implemented in order for them to work. For some clients this is no problem, but many have technical or other restrictions that limit the amount or type of tactic we are able to employ for them. So, to help set expectations in this area we set priorities, indicate which approaches would be most effective for the client, and clearly communicate the possibility of reduced results if the most effective tactics are not implemented.
Expectation #6: A ranking is more valuable if it’s for the right page
Here is an area where we differ with some SEOs, because it goes directly to visitor experience. We think a top ranking for a page that provides a poor experience isn’t much of a win because it’s not sustainable.
Visitors who click through a result listing only to find a confusing, difficult or irrelevant page aren’t likely to return. Or remember your company’s brand with affection, if at all. So what do you have to show for your top ranking but a bunch of useless, bouncing traffic? (unless, I concede, your business model is based solely on traffic numbers).
Success Through Education
We’re firm believers in SEO evangelism and education, which is why one of our service offerings is SEO training. The more a client understands about how SEO works and what factors influence success, the more they’ll spread the word and build consensus among their wider team. Which means when it comes time to change filenames, update the site directory structure, create new keyword-rich content, or get a budget approved, those involved will already be on board.
This, then, is our true long-term strategy for setting client expectations; to create educated clients who already understand what to expect.