How to manage SEO clients’ expectations

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Managing your SEO clients’ expectations is as essential to their success as it is to your own. If your clients have unrealistic expectations, especially in regard to the timeframe for results, then they will most likely be unhappy with whatever you accomplish and may end up giving up early or, worse, on SEO altogether.

If you want happy clients who sing your praises and you don’t want your client relationships to end prematurely, there are some key principles to establishing and managing expectations effectively.

Comprehensive research

The process of managing client expectations starts with research and ends with… well, you hope it never ends. Comprehensive research not only gives you the data you need to be able to set realistic expectations, it also provides the client with a detailed picture of the challenges at hand, as well as the potential rewards.

Unless you’re billing the client for the initial research, you will not want to spend all day on it. For client research at Webfor, I have found that putting a potential client’s site into Raven and using the Search Analytics, Competitor Manager and Research Assistant tools can pull together large amounts of data quickly to help you establish benchmarks and set expectations to use in your initial proposal.

There is no need to exaggerate the numbers. If anything, cut them in half. When you are conservative in your estimates and you exceed the client’s expectations, you will have a very happy client.

Education and expectations

Education is a big part of setting realistic expectations.

Educate the client using solid keyword, traffic and competitive data while pointing out the ranking factors that are influencing their traffic and their competitors’. When the client truly understands how valuable SEO is to their organization, it will make your job that much easier.

Educate yourself about your client’s past experiences, current marketing initiatives, goals and their understanding (or lack thereof) of SEO. That provides a framework in which you can paint the picture of what they can expect in regard to their overall search marketing strategy.

A key component of our business model always has been to under promise and over deliver. When you set realistic expectations around a timeline, placement and ROI and then blow those expectations out of the water, you have an extremely high client retention rate and lots of client referrals.

Also, while it may seem counterintuitive to tell your client what you can’t do, you may be surprised by how much they appreciate your honesty. Just make sure you explain why certain things are unrealistic, and more importantly, why and how what you can accomplish will grow their business.

Deliver results

While setting realistic expectations is imperative, it means nothing if you do not produce results.

Even if you know you’re delivering results, in the beginning your client may have a harder time seeing the immediate effect of these results. It’s important that you discuss this often with your client, reinforcing the expectations and timeline you’ve already set with them. Setting a realistic timeline and benchmarks in the beginning is important, but you need to continually reinforce this with your client as they tend to forget.

Be honest, and don’t be afraid to share positive results as well as the challenges.

Communicate regularly

In any relationship, if you aren’t communicating, it creates an atmosphere where people may make assumptions about things.

Monthly meetings are a great way to build your relationship, educate your client and update them on the progress of your efforts. If you simply email them reports to review on their own they may misinterpret some aspect of the report. Pick up the phone or, if possible, meet with them in person to review the progress of your efforts. By doing this you can reinforce what you already spoke to them about, educate them on updates in the world of search and give them strategies they can implement to better track the ROI of their marketing dollars.

(Note: we can all hope we never have any legal issues, but as they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Make sure your SEO agreement plays an active role in managing client expectations while also providing you with some legal protection.)

Businesses are constantly bombarded by internet marketing companies that exaggerate numbers, traffic and the potential return on investment to lure them in. What surprises businesses these days is genuine honesty. If you do your research, educate the client (and yourself) to set expectations, deliver results and communicate regularly, you should have that client for the life of their business and possibly longer.


As I was finishing up this post I got a call from a potential client who was referred to us by one of our existing clients. As I was getting to understand their business, she said, “We tried SEO, but didn’t feel that we were seeing any results… and it had been three months.” I had to explain to her that I was writing on that very subject and that the SEO company she hired had actually done a lot of things right, but they made one huge mistake… they didn’t set realistic expectations!

Have you had similar experiences? Do you have more advice? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

2 Responses to “How to manage SEO clients’ expectations”

  1. I always stress that SEO is a long term building process. Clients need to understand that from the very beginning. It can sometimes take months to see the results of an SEO campaign. Always be honest and upfront about this timeline. I agree that communication is key and should be consistent and ongoing.

  2. This is going to be a stress out reporting for SEO specialist. Since they focus on what they can do to increase its value online. But this is all about Google and other search engines. Sometimes its is much better to help business owners start to do the SEO then they can hire somebody to do what they are doing. This might help business owners eliminate a thought that SEO specialist don’t do their job. 🙂