Despite the fact that SEO can make or break a business online, SEO still conjures up a lot of negativity.

Some of the negativity is fair. While there are plenty of legitimate SEOs, the market still has its fair share of snake oil salesman going from client to client in a hit-and-run fashion promising the world but delivering none of it.

The negativity and controversy that exists around SEO can make the SEO market a tough place to do business. Here are 10 ways to be a great SEO and to demonstrate to your clients and prospective clients that you’re committed to providing a legitimate, top-notch service.

  • Don’t guarantee results. No matter how skilled you are and no matter how good your track record is, it’s impossible to guarantee results since there’s so much that is out of your control, even if you do everything right. So instead of promising things you aren’t able to promise, describe what you can do to put your client in a position to achieve results and how the things you’ve done in the past resulted in success for other clients.

    If you find yourself dealing with someone who is demanding guarantees, consider moving on since these situations rarely end well in my experience.

  • Set expectations. Even though you can’t guarantee top SERPs, you can help a client create realistic expectations. Whether it’s giving the client timeframes for the tasks you’ll be completing or explaining the process of SEO, it’s important to be sure that the client knows what to expect.
  • Educate. Some SEOs don’t like to tell their clients what they’re doing. They think of their knowledge as a trade secret and believe that if they educate the client, the client will eventually fire them and take over SEO themselves.

    This type of mentality is the hallmark of an amateur consultant. Most clients prefer transparency to secrecy and aren’t interested in firing consultants performing services that don’t fall under their core competencies. You should think of knowledge sharing as a way to demonstrate your competence to clients, making yourself even more valuable.

  • Admit when you don’t know something. SEO is a dynamic field and things are always changing. In many cases, hard and fast rules don’t exist and there aren’t any ‘official‘ answers. So when a client asks you about something and you don’t have an answer, don’t make one up; say so and look into it.
  • Keep your skills and knowledge up-to-date. Search engine algorithms are in a constant state of flux and the field of SEO is one of the most dynamic on the internet. Make sure you’re staying on top of the latest developments since no client wants an SEO in 2009 who has 2005 skills and knowledge.
  • Define deliverables. Last week I wrote that SEO is a journey, not a destination. It’s important for clients to understand that. If someone wants to hire you for a few weeks, there’s a lot that you can deliver but there’s also a lot that you can’t deliver. Therefore I always recommend detailing what deliverables you can provide in the timeframe that the client gives you, being realistic about what this means to the client’s overall SEO strategy.
  • Don’t push the limits. The line between white hat and black hat is often blurred and even if your risk tolerance is high, you shouldn’t assume that a client’s is too. Think of yourself as a doctor when working with clients and remember to ‘do no harm‘.
  • Provide references. Even though some prospective clients won’t ask for them, offering up references proactively is a good idea because it helps you stand out in a market that still has more than a few snake oil salesmen.
  • Don’t confuse SEO with PPC. Be careful about confusing organic SEO and paid search marketing. Yes, I’ve actually met people who didn’t know the difference because their SEO ‘experts‘ had led them to believe that the two were the same. Obviously that was probably a way of masking the fact that they were unable to deliver organic results.
  • Remember that SEO is more than just Google. Even though Google deservedly receives most of the SEO attention because it has the marketshare in the major markets, good SEO is holistic and many of your clients might receive significant benefits from other search engines. Therefore don’t exclude other search engines from your services.

Hint: if you’re on the client side, be sure to look for the above when dealing with prospective consultants and don’t hesitate to ask tough questions! A great SEO will welcome them.

Photo credit: Xurble via Flickr.