Arguing PenguinsMost agency-client relationships are rife with little frustrations and search engine optimisation (SEO) is no exception. The agency lets itself get wound up because it thinks the client doesn't listen to its advice; the client doesn't think it's getting the attention or results it requires.   

In the spirit of trying to foster better understanding between clients and their SEO agencies, here are five common reasons that cause the two parties to feel like having a good old moan at or about each other.

1. The client is having to wait too long to see any results from the agency 

Client thinks: “Damn. It’s been a while since I saw any effect from our SEO effort.  What am I paying my agency for?”

Agency thinks: “Why is the client getting on my back?  We’ve spent a hell of a lot of time working on their SEO in the last few months.”

One of the big challenges for clients when they first start buying SEO services is learning to be patient.  Your agency may have been beavering away doing lots of work on your behalf, but there can be a lag before its activities have an impact on your search engine performance. For example when the agency is spending time on link-building, you have to remember that if they build new links today, Google might find them in a week and validate them next month.  And it might take as long as three months for those new links to have an effect.

Most good SEO agencies will try to be transparent about what they are doing and provide regular reports that indicate how they are spending your budget.  But because results take time, there has to be a level of trust between the client and the agency.  It’s not easy for clients. Especially if they are new to SEO or they’ve had a bad experience with a previous supplier.

2. The agency feels the client is way too unrealistic about its expectations for SEO

Client thinks: “We’ve just taken on a great new SEO agency. I’m so looking forward to challenging some of our bigger competitors who are already on the first page of Google.”

Agency thinks: “This client has got to get real about what it wants to achieve from SEO if it wants to see some gains from the money it’s spending.”

As a client, there is nothing wrong with having ambitious goals for your SEO. But you might set yourself up for disappointments if you aim too high, too quickly. Your industry may be dominated by many big players who’ve invested heavily in SEO to gain a foothold on the front page for the most competitive terms.  In this case it might not be the best use of your budget to take them on initially. You could throw lots of effort at this and see no reward.

In the short term your agency might suggest focusing on longer tail key phrases that are tailored closely to what makes your business different. That way you’re more likely to see faster, tangible returns for your investment.  Hopefully as you start to see some gains from your SEO, you’ll be more likely to stick with the agency and over time they may indeed help you to begin challenging those major competitors where it hurts them most.

To avoid ‘finger pointing’ later on, it’s important for the agency and client to spend some time early in their relationship developing a set of explicit, measurable objectives.   And this shouldn’t be just about rankings –which can change every time the search engines change some aspect of their algorithm. Most SEO agencies these days advise that objectives shouldcover a range of areas including traffic goals and rankings.

3. The client makes ‘exciting’ new changes to its website, but doesn’t bother to tell the agency

Client thinks:  “Hey, the new design changes make the site look great.  If my SEO agency is doing its job, we’ll start to see a spike in conversions”

Agency thinks: “Oh no, I can’t believe they’ve changed the site without telling me. This has ruined a big slice of the SEO effort we’ve put into the site over the last few months.”

Clients have to get used to involving their SEO agency if they’re planning to make changes to their site.  If you change the source code of the site without consulting the agency, you run the risk of immediately wiping out much of the SEO gain the agency may  have accumulated for you.  Like any client-agency relationship, good clear – and early – communication is essential on both sides for things to run smoothly.

4.  Gaps in SEO knowledge hinder communication and planning

Client thinks: “I can’t really understand this technical jargon my SEO agency keeps spouting at me. I wish they’d stop bothering me and just get on with the job”

Agency thinks: “I keep having to explain the basic stuff to the client and they seem unable to understand and make any decisions about their SEO”

Client marketers will often have many other responsibilities on their plates besides SEO.  And because search is a relatively new discipline, they can’t always be expected to have a good grasp of the area.  For the agency this can be frustrating; not because it’s impossible for SEOs to work with clients who don’t understand SEO, but because sometimes the more creative SEO strategies result from the agency and client working together to generate alternative ideas .  

It’s down to the agency to make sure it communicates effectively in a jargon-free way and takes responsibility for helping the client provide the information and decisions that are required.  Many good agencies find ways to gradually increase their clients’ knowledge of basic SEO.  By creating a regular SEO learnings e-newsletter or an  ‘SEO tip of the day’ email, for example. Or even organising free SEO seminars or discussions. 

5. The client’s internal depts and other agency partners aren’t working to support the SEO effort

Client thinks: “My SEO agency’s harping on about how our other suppliers and in-house teams should be more aware of our SEO strategy.   Are they just trying to point the blame at someone else?

Agency thinks:  “I’m sick of chasing up this client’s in-house teams and other agencies to make sure they’re working in line with what we’re doing with SEO”

SEO should not be a separate silo that operates independently from clients’ other digital marketing activity.  To get the maximum benefit from the work your SEO agency might be doing for you, your other suppliers and your in-house teams need to be buy-in to the SEO plan.   This can include your web developers making the technical site changes the SEO agency recommends in a timely manner and your PRs, bloggers, copywriters and social media agencies taking account of your keyword strategy when developing content.

A good SEO agency will be happy to work with a client’s other suppliers and teams, but there is a limit to the time they can spend chasing these people. Clients can make things easier and less frustrating for the agency by leading the way and ensuring that all other parties appreciate the value placed on SEO by their organisation.  Regular conference calls or meet-ups can help to make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction. 


Published 26 January, 2011 by Horst Joepen

Horst Joepen is CEO of Searchmetrics and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (10)

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This is why you should never sign a contract stating that you can get company a to postion 1, or you might get sued.

over 7 years ago


Gareth Rees

Great post. I'm surprised it hasn't created more comments. You're spot on with all of this. Transparency, lists of responsibilities from both sides, and constant checking in and making the client feel part of the project really go towards building trust and faith in the early stages of a campaign where usually the client feels like nothing much is happening.

over 7 years ago


Chris Bantock

Some great points here - just goes to show that as an agency we have a responsibility to educate our clients and that realistic ecxpectations are set up front. 

As an industry we suffer when services are oversold and then the client is suprised when they under deliver. 

over 7 years ago



This post raises and reaffirms some good points. Trust and communication are key, especially when we cannot guarantee results. As long as the clients see that they are being looked after and not left in the dark, everyone should be happy. Regarding clients who are unrealistic with their expectations, we often recommend they undertake a PPC campaign to get onto page 1 - as we sometimes are up against companies who, as Matty states, 'guarantee' page 1 rankings. SEO campaigns are not short-term, and in fact we have e-commerce clients who have been with us for 9 months before they start seeing high, profitable rankings in search engines. Clients who are serious about SEO, trust you, have an informed service, will not fall into any of the above 5 categories...and they are the ones we all want.

over 7 years ago



This is quite true, I recognise all of these. Of course some clients are better than others, some are very demanding, whilst others trust us to get on with something we know more about.

But sometimes, you do really want to crawl under your desk and put your fingers in your ears.

But then again, we can use some very SEO orientated language at times, so maybe both should both hold up our hands.

over 7 years ago

Adrian Bold

Adrian Bold, Director at Bold Internet Ltd

All sounds very familiar!

over 7 years ago


Nick Stamoulis

These are all very true! It is amazing how sometimes clients just are not on the same page as their SEO agency. Personally, I think taking on a new client is like being in a relationship...honesty, being realistic and understanding is very important!

I recently wrote an article for other SEO agencies about how to "divorce" your SEO client if needed (it does happen from time to time!):

over 7 years ago


Matthew - IT Services Brighton

Good points, however much time you spend trying to educate people in advance about the mysteries of SEO, they still always get twitchy if they are spending money each month on something they can't actually see or touch.

over 7 years ago



It is important to maintain a transparent relationship between the client and the agency which is key to any business. The post reflects some of the important aspects that the clients and the agencies experience on a regular basis. Identifying these aspects could possibly help in bringing out solutions to have a more effective, transparent and better communication between both the organizations.

almost 6 years ago


James - it support Horley

I have always found SEO to be such a strange thing to point out or prove unless you understand it. Some people assume instant results although we all now it's about the long game.
I have even had customers who were not happy moving from page 10 on google up to 4th in the serps! If it was that easy to get good rankings then the top searches would change everyday! Thanks for the post.


over 5 years ago

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