How to manage SEO clients’ expectations

How to manage SEO clients' expectations

30-second summary:

  • SEO is expensive, yet offers no tangible guarantees in terms of rankings or traffic. No wonder so many business owners are confused
  • All SEO clients are different. It is important to understand their prior experience in SEO before developing your relationship management strategy with each of them.
  • Getting to know a new lead and their decision-makers will help you position your service in a more useful and easy-to-understand way
  • Educating clients is often necessary for them to know what to expect from an SEO service

SEO is an often misunderstood industry. I’ve seen quite a few business owners who assume that an SEO consultant has some sort of magic button that can boost the site’s organic search visibility within a certain amount of time.

While a decade ago that may have been the case, the SEO industry has evolved far beyond manipulative tactics that (to be quite frank) used to work like a charm in the past.

Today’s SEO is about making websites better, on all possible levels, from content value to usability. It’s doing everything better and faster. There’s no single element that needs to be improved that is sure to boost organic positions. It’s working on a website as a whole consistently to hopefully see gradual growth.

To make things worse, most SEO clients come with a long history of SEO work that has been performed on their site. And that work may have resulted in gradual loss of rankings and organic search visibility. Figuring those out is important because those red flags can prevent those businesses from seeing any progress even if they keep investing into the long-term SEO strategy.

So how to properly manage your SEO clients’ expectations without scaring them off?

Understand your SEO client

It may sound extremely cynical but the best SEO client is the one who has already been burnt by overpromising and under-delivering of those promises. These clients come with a better understanding of why SEO results cannot be guaranteed and why they need to invest into longer-term results.

But those clients have other challenges to fight. Their sites are often penalized or filtered and their budgets are often suffering from months of poor organic traffic. These businesses are often willing to agree to anything that would allow them to fall back into Google’s graces but it is tough for them to erase years of link building efforts and start from scratch.

The other type of an SEO client is a restless one. These businesses may have used other SEO agencies in the past, saw no results and are quite impatient by this point. They are weary of making yet another long-term investment because they feel they have invested enough by this point. 

You need to carefully investigate what has been done for these sites so far and explain why it didn’t work and what you are going to do differently, while still insisting on why you cannot guarantee any results in any definitive timeframe.

Finally, there are clueless clients who don’t care what you do but need to know when they are going to rank within top 5 for their important keywords. These clients require a full-scale education, scary examples of businesses losing all their rankings within a day and case studies showing gradual growth of organic visibility that starts with long-tail strategy, link building research and building a tailored outreach strategy.

Investigate your decision-maker unit (DMU) carefully

In many cases, even when it comes to small businesses, there will be more than one person deciding whether you or your agency is someone they will work with.

In the B2B world, a DMU is a decision making unit, in other words it is a group of people which will determine whether a business will work with you. This group may consist of the company owner or CEO, a marketing manager, head of the dev team, etc.

Lots of businesses have internal SEO teams that need outside help. This SEO team will most likely be part of that company’s DMU. Avoid criticizing their work to the management. Don’t make them feel like your agency can replace the internal team.

Instead, find out what that team is doing and how you can complement their work. 

From experience, most in-house SEO teams will gladly outsource things like link prospecting, outreach and, more recently, Core Web Vitals optimization (the latter is too new, so not many SEOs are keeping up). On-going tasks like competitor tracking, keyword gap analysis, and backlink profile monitoring are often missing from many in-house SEO strategies.

You need to know those gaps to position your service better.

The best approach is to identify your DMU and how exactly your agency can help at the lead generation form. Make sure your service request form includes questions like:

  • Do you have an in-house SEO team or person?
  • Have you used SEO services before?
  • Do you have any concerns we need to be aware of?

Have a report sample ready

Develop a detailed SEO report sample to show prospective clients to ensure they know what to expect:

  • Month one report
  • Sample roadmap of further work
  • Monthly reports detailing projects completed or underway, etc.

Based on different decision-making units you have come so far and the different services you provide, those reports may vary.

Be clear and transparent

SEO is an ongoing and never-ending process. The only way to build a long-term customer base is to build trust even prior to onboarding them. And nothing works better than being honest and transparent.

It is better to lose a demanding client than to face the consequences of improperly managed expectations.

On your onboarding call, spend some time discussing who maintains their website, how their blog is managed, what it takes to push updates live, who is creating, editing and approving content before it goes live, and whether the site is powered by an existing platform or is it custom-built.

Make it clear that you will need access to their data, including analytics and Search Console accounts.

Understanding these details will help you estimate the turnaround of your SEO recommendations to be implemented. If you foresee any slow-downs (for example, every update needs a tedious approval process or developers are the only people who can update the site and these teams tend to be busy and slow), make it clear that these roadblocks can slow down the process and discuss ways to overcome them.

Don’t forget to explain the set-up process in much detail. Your agency needs time to research the site and its SEO history in much detail, and that takes time, and that time isn’t free. Many businesses expect active work to start immediately when they sign a contract, so don’t let it come as a surprise that SEO research is part of the setup process. 

Furthermore, on your onboarding call, try to better understand the rest of the company as well. Mention that you will likely need help and input from other teams, like product development and customer support. The ultimate goal of an SEO strategy is to bring in more sales, not just bring in organic traffic, and that’s the whole company’s initiative.

Ask them for more info on their previous digital marketing efforts, including PPC, lead generation, landing page management, and email marketing. The more you know about the company and its current conversion funnels, the better your SEO service will be positioned to compliment those.


Search engine optimization may seem a very mysterious process to business owners who feel like they are throwing money into thin air without being promised anything tangible in return. If you put yourself into those business owners’ shoes, it is actually quite understandable. 

So don’t feel bad when yet another prospective client is demanding some type of guarantee. Be patient but firm. Onboarding SEO clients often requires educating them on why SEO cannot have any guarantees but how it can be very rewarding in the long run.

Ann Smarty is the Founder of Viral Content Bee, Brand and Community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas. She can be found on Twitter @seosmarty.

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