If you’re an SEO consultant, you can probably name at least one experience you’ve had with a past client that simply ended up being more than you bargained for. Signing a contract with a client that’s a poor fit can lead to all kinds of headaches, including misaligned expectations, abusive clients, and projects that are significantly bigger than you anticipated.
Ultimately, making this mistake can be a detriment to your agency and career. It’s always exciting to see a new lead in your pipeline, but it’s very important to ask the right questions upfront to make sure you’re not setting yourself up for failure.
Since so many of us at UpBuild come from an agency and/or consulting background, we’ve all seen how bad SEO relationships play out. That’s why we’ve spent a lot of time building out our discovery process to avoid these situations. In this article, I’ll share a bit about the potential pitfalls we look for in new leads, and how we try to spot them.
Identify Red Flags During The Discovery Process
The key to setting your agency up for a successful engagement is getting a thorough understanding of the potential client before you even consider sending them a proposal. We call this the “discovery” period, because we’re learning everything we can about the lead. A lot of SEOs make the mistake of focusing entirely on selling themselves during these initial conversations, without getting an idea of whether or not they can actually help the client.
Think of it like your first couple of dates with a new person. Of course you want to put your best foot forward on a first date, but you also want to get a feel for your compatibility with that person and if a relationship would go anywhere. That takes a bit of a critical eye, which is OK. The same holds true for the precursory stages of an SEO engagement. If you don’t spot red flags before you commit to working with the client, you could be in for a very bumpy ride.
When you’re talking to a new lead, you might feel like you’re answering questions in the interview chair, or like a salesperson trying to say all the right things to close a deal. Remember though, that you’re interviewing them at the same time. At UpBuild we send out a questionnaire with about 20 questions regarding the client’s background and goals. We also take extensive notes on our initial discovery calls, which we use to glean as much information as we can about the client’s business and website. It’s worth noting that getting this information isn’t just for qualification purposes; having these details documented will prove to be useful throughout the engagement.
Discuss With The Team
Once you have a good understanding of the lead, present the information to your team, particularly those who will be working on the account. Someone on your team might have an objection or concern that you hadn’t considered based on their previous experiences. At UpBuild, we hold a team vote where the entire team is able to vote on whether a new lead is a good fit. If any team member has a concern, they’re able to express that during the vote so we can hash it out before moving forward. If anyone has a strong opinion against working with a client, we include the option to “veto” a lead during the voting stage.
11 Red Flags To Look For In SEO Consulting Leads
Now let’s take a look at some common red flags that should make you want to take a closer look. Keep in mind, none of these are automatic disqualifiers but should prompt you to investigate further as to how severe the issue is, and if you’re actually able to provide the SEO services you’re promising.
1.) High Spam Score
If a site looks spammy to you, it probably is. Usually, just a simple eyeball test will tell you whether a site is legitimate or not. You can see just how spammy a website’s inbound link profile is by plugging the URL into Moz Link Explorer. If you don’t have a Moz subscription, read more about spam signals to get a better idea. Recognizing that a lead is a spam website is probably the closest to an automatic disqualifier on this list, because working with them could put your own privacy and security at risk, not to mention your agency’s reputation.
2.) Unethical Content or Business Practices
As you know, not all websites and businesses are created with good intentions, and you or some of your team members might find them to be immoral. This is why it’s important to get the opinions of the team members who will be working on the account so that no one gets put in a position of working for a client whom they disagree with from an ethical standpoint. At a higher level, UpBuild believes that we as SEOs have some responsibility for keeping the internet free of activity that can be harmful to humanity.
3.) A History of Black Hat SEO Techniques
Finding that black hat SEO techniques were used in a website’s past can throw a major wrench in your optimization plans. Unfortunately, some website owners have used these techniques without knowing the harm they were causing. If you notice evidence of black hat SEO, it’s best to let the client know as soon as possible. UpBuild might work with a client that had used black hat techniques (or had a prior SEO agency use them) without knowing, if we thought we could help them recover. It would really just mean more work on our part, which we’d have to plan for. What we wouldn’t do is work with a company that didn’t see a problem with black hat SEO techniques, or who didn’t show any signs of stopping, e.g. spammy link building techniques.
4.) Penalties From Google
Many times, a prospective client will think they’ve been hit with a penalty from Google, when really they’ve lost rankings for some other reason. So a first step should be to determine whether or not it was really a penalty or whether something else might be in play. If you find out that the website in question has been hit by penalties from Google, you’ll want to do some more research before signing the client. Try to identify what the penalty was for, and then assess your ability to help the client recover from the penalty. Google penalties aren’t always fatal to a website’s SEO performance, but it’s important to talk about this with the client before you begin an engagement to let them know what you’re up against.
5.) Optimal Technology Stack
Make sure the client’s website is built on a platform you’re familiar with and written in a coding language you can understand. For example, if you’ve only worked on WordPress sites, you may encounter unexpected challenges working on a site built in .NET or react.js.
6.) Poor Communication
If you’re dealing with a lead who has expressed interest in partnering with you but shows chronically bad communication, that might be an omen to a less than fruitful engagement. If they’re super slow about returning your emails or answering your discovery questions, there’s a good chance they will be equally apathetic about implementing your recommendations or paying your invoices on time.
7.) Indecisiveness Regarding Plans For The Website
Sometimes you’ll get a lead who is completely on board with SEO one week, and then wants to shift their focus to something else the next. These clients can be hard to work with because they don’t have a solid plan for the future of their site. You might spend a few weeks optimizing their current site, just to find out they’re planning to launch a new site in the next few weeks. These types of engagements tend to end up with lack-luster results because of the time spent trying to get on the same page as the client while they sort things out internally.
8.) Unrealistic Goals
If client’s only goal is to rank #1 nationally for a super-competitive term that they don’t currently rank for at all, and they only have a tiny budget to accomplish that task, they’re going to end up disappointed no matter how much good SEO work you do for them.
9.) Small Website
For a small website with few pages and no plans to add content, there’s not a lot of ongoing technical SEO work that can be done. Give the site a run-through to make sure you can find enough work for yourself before you partner with the client. Otherwise, refer them out to someone who specializes in one-off projects for smaller websites rather than ongoing retainer work.
10.) Lack of Development Resources
Make a point to discuss with the client how they plan to get your SEO recommendations implemented. If they don’t have the development resources necessary for code changes and additions, it takes longer for your recommendations to be implemented, and results take longer to achieve. If your stakeholder is answering to their superior, it could appear to them that your SEO strategy isn’t working and you might not get a chance to explain why.
11.) Lack of Copywriting Resources
Similarly, you should size up the client’s copywriting resources to ensure that any content changes can be made in a timely manner. In the interest of providing the best value to the client, it’s important that they understand the dependencies you’ll need from them to complete a successful engagement.
12.) Small Budget
Asking for an approximate budget in your early conversations can save time for both parties. If the client’s budget is too tight to make the engagement profitable for you, that’s a perfectly valid reason to call it a bad fit.
13.) Abusive Behavior
If your client point of contact comes across as aggressive, demanding, or condescending, or if they show signs of having a temper during the discovery process, it’s likely that the whole engagement will be the same way — if not worse, since abusive clients tend to become more so once a contract is signed. Remember there’s no need to put yourself or your team in the position of dealing with someone who’s not going to treat you with respect.
Set Yourself Up For Success
Hopefully you can use this advice to avoid getting yourself stuck in a difficult engagement, and instead, keep your pipeline filled with clients who are a good fit for you or your agency. If you notice any of these red flags in your next discovery, be sure to investigate further.
Talk it out! Many of these potential pitfalls can be averted by simply discussing your concerns with the lead and with your team, then use your best judgment as to whether you should proceed with the client, or point them in a better direction
Are there any pitfalls that you’ve dealt with that aren’t on this list? Let us know in the comments.