Top 10 Business Mistakes Search Marketing Firms Make

    September 5, 2006

When you’ve spent the last 6-7 years of your life helping to build successful search engine optimization/marketing firms, you tend to learn a few things about what works and what doesn’t work. 😉

Now that I am an independent consultant, I’m finding great satisfaction in helping other SEO/SEM firms evaluate their business and put in place plans and strategies that will help them grow. There are dozens of different issues that I have faced and resolved in my career and they appear to be common among other firms too. On that basis, I wanted to share with you the Top 10 mistakes I’ve seen search marketing firms make over the years. Hopefully, you’d find one or two ideas (and maybe all ten!) useful.

1. Charging a “Set-up” Fee.

Let’s start with the biggest business mistake search marketing firms make; pricing their services. I can’t tell you how many SEO/M firms I see that still have the following pricing model – $X,000 for set-up, then $XXX for monthly maintenance. Yikes!

It’s not that I can’t empathize with firms that continue to offer this model. You get a nice cash injection – before you even start work – and the client has a low cost option to keep the service going. Unfortunately, what actually happens is this:

a. You deter potential new clients who are not able to budget for such a high upfront cost;

b. Those that do become clients, see the “monthly maintenance” as an optional extra, something they often (wrongly) feel they can do without.

There are lots of alternative pricing options that work for search marketers, but often just switching to a standard monthly payment, that remains the same each month, can help potential new clients sign-on and create a mindset that the service is an ongoing concern.

2. Offering Too Many Service Options

I’ve spoken with, and worked for, search marketing agencies that offer a smorgasbord of search marketing service levels. Does this sound like your service offerings: “Light”, “Entry”, “Bronze”, “Gold”, “Platinum”, “Platinum Plus” etc, etc. Enough already! My head hurts just from looking at the service names. Can you imagine how confused your prospective clients get, when they actually have to decipher each service’s deliverables!

Ideally, your firm should offer just one solution – a service that is customized specifically to the needs of the client. If you can’t do that, my advice is to have no more than three different service levels. The first is the lowest cost, but will still get the job done. The second is the middle-tier, and the one you actually expect 80% of your clients to select. The third is the most expensive, whistles and bells, service that you only expect a few clients to actually sign-up for.

The reason for the three levels? Here’s what will likely happen when you speak to prospective clients. Some will like the concept of the top-tier service, but select the middle one, due to budget constraints. Some will not have much of a budget, but will likely “size-up” to the middle-tier, so as to not appear cheap or short-change their business. Price the middle tier offering to be the best value for them and you.

One other, quick tip on pricing. Never discount any service without removing some of the options from that service. I’ve worked with thousands of clients and each time we have simply reduced the price – without reducing the service – it devalues the service and creates a “what other discounts can I get” mentality with those clients.

3. Their Business Doesn’t Scale

I am still amazed at the number of search marketing firms that don’t want to grow their business. Honestly, they’re quite happy to have 10 employees, 15 clients and $500,000 in annual revenue. While that’s never been my philosophy, I respect those are their goals for their company.

That being said, you should always structure your business so it can be scaled to just about any size – even if you do decide to stay the same size. What’s the best way to do this? There’s no quick answer, but one rule of thumb that I find works is this; build your business as if you planned to franchise it. Could you take the systems and processes, you have in place, and replicate them elsewhere. If the answer is “No”, you likely have a poor internal structure that probably relies too much on the skills of the CEO or some other SEM expert. (See No. 7 below).

4. They Spend More Time on New Clients Than Existing Ones

How many of you get a little annoyed when your cell phone company wheels out great new handset deals, while you’re using a “brick” because you’re 12 months into a 24 month agreement? That’s often how your clients feel. Ask them! Most will tell you that the service you offered over the first couple of months was a lot better than what they now receive. It’s no wonder that the search marketing industry has such a high attrition rate.

Instead of purely focusing on attracting new clients, realize that you’ve already made a huge investment into your existing clients and figure out ways to ensure that they don’t see a drop-off in quality and attention, once they’ve inked that 12-month deal with you.

5. They Fail to Understand a New Client’s Goals

How much time do you spend discussing a new client’s goals and expectations, when they first retain your services? I’m not talking about what was discussed on the sales-call; I’m referring to after they’ve signed-up. My guess is your company, like many SEO firms, assume what the client is looking for, or apply some cookie-cutter approach to their goals.

You should spend hours, if not days, learning everything you can about your new client, before you start any campaign work. Don’t just take the normal client request of “I want more traffic” or “I want to be #1 on Google for my top keyword”. Interview the client and find out what metric, what results truly matter to their business. What will they be looking for, in order to deem the campaign a success? Don’t ever make assumptions, and don’t ever accept a generalized “we want more” answer.

6. They Fail to Realize Clients’ Goals Change Over Time

Speaking of understanding your new client’s goals, did you know that they changeoften! Don’t assume that the goals, agreed on when the client first retained you, are the same goals each month thereafter.

While you’re moving ahead and achieving an increase in the number of keywords ranking on Google, your client is now fixated on why a particular page doesn’t have a PageRank. Never assume you know your clients goals. They change and you should ask them to reconfirm them often.

7. They Rely On One “Expert” to Provide All Client Recommendations

How many search engine experts does your firm have? Be honest. How many employees do you have, that you would have no problem speaking on your behalf at the next Search Engine Strategies conference?

Too many search marketing firms rely on the knowledge and skills of one in-house expert. Often that expert is the CEO or another high-ranking executive, who’s plugged into the industry, written articles and spoken at conferences.

Many search marketing firms never grow, because they rely on the availability of just one expert. It’s time to realize that you cannot, and should not, rely on one person to provide all of the deliverables. Train your people to know as much as you – in fact, give them an opportunity to learn more than you! You’ll gain more credibility, grow your business, empower and retain your talented employees, while reducing the crushing burden of being the gatekeeper of information.

8. Client Information is Silo’d

Not only is it important to constantly check your client’s goals and needs, but you should share that information with ALL those working on a client’s campaign.

Too often, clients have a single point of contact within their chosen SEO firm (a campaign manager for example). While the campaign manager and the client are both on the same page and both understand the goals of the campaign; the poor copywriter down the hall – the one asked to come up with some compelling, optimized copy – doesn’t have a clue what the client is looking for or what their business objectives are.

Many search marketing agencies could kill two birds with one stone – client success and employee retention – if they would just make sure that every employee understands the goals of the client and how their work makes a difference in the campaign. Client goals and desires should not be kept to just one team member. Instead, make sure everyone on the team has a chance to hear firsthand from the client. You’ll find their work quality improves and their satisfaction with their job increases.

9. They Turn Speaking Engagements Into “Sales Pitches”

It’s a sad fact that most “expert speakers” don’t understand what their audience wants to hear from them. I’ve seen too many speakers stand-up and provide the audience with high-level theories and concepts. They then hit their audience with a double-whammy of atrocity. First, they never actually provide solutions to the problems they’re discussing – fearful that they’ll give away too much information. Second, they compound this by turning the presentation into a sales-pitch for the company they represent. Arrgh!

Want to know which speakers end-up getting a fistful of business cards at the end of their talk? It’s the ones who’ve shared so much great advice and information with the audience that the attendees think to themselves

“Wow, that’s really going to help our company, but it sounds so complex and time consuming. I know what, that guy seems to know his stuff. If he shared that amount of information in a 20 minute presentation, imagine the amount of info I’ll get if I hire his search marketing firm.”

10. They’re Scared of Losing Their Top Talent

If you are running a successful search marketing agency, you need to embrace the cold fact that you will, at some point, lose one of your top employees. Unfortunately, this paralyzes many firms as they become concerned with giving their top employees too much information or too much training. Have you ever asked yourself this, “Should I send “Jane” to that conference? What if one of our competitors offers her a better job?”

There are many questions that are similar to the one above. Unfortunately, they often prevent CEO’s from training their staff to the highest levels. They ask all new employees to sign non-compete agreements, hoping that they’ll be able to keep their staff on a tight leash.

If you want to grow your company, you should invest in its people. Sure, you may end up losing some of your key people over time, but that brings us back to the idea of not relying on one expert to deliver client recommendations. If you create a great environment, which takes care of clients, trains its employees and gives them an opportunity to make a difference, you’ll build a company that your key people will want to stay with. And if they do decide it’s time to stretch their wings, by following the advice outlined above, your company will still remain strong due to its great client relationships, service offerings and expert staff.


Add to | Digg | Yahoo! My Web | Furl

Bookmark WebProNews:

Andy Beal is an internet marketing consultant and considered one of the world’s most respected and interactive search engine marketing experts. Andy has worked with many Fortune 1000 companies such as Motorola, CitiFinancial, Lowes, Alaska Air, DeWALT, NBC and Experian.

You can read his internet marketing blog at Marketing Pilgrim and reach him at