3 better ways to manage SEO client billing and expectations

by | Oct 6, 2017 | Analysis, Public Relations

I want you to think about the last time an SEO client canceled at your agency. Was the overwhelming response from your team an empathetic and warm, “We understand! We wish you nothing but the best!” Or did it end disjointed with a teaspoon of misunderstanding and maybe a dash of name calling?

Even though my experience in the SEO agency world only runs four years strong, I’ve noticed the all too familiar pattern of onboard, upset and repeat—regardless of the quality of work being done.

It’s led me to ask two questions:

3 better ways to manage SEO client billing and expectations

In 2014, BrightLocal polled more than 1,700 SEOs about their turnover that year. Sixty-three percent saw client turnover that cost them at least $30,000 or more in annual revenue. Ten percent saw turnover that cost them more than $500,000!

So what’s the deal? Why are we so bad at client retention? Do SEO agencies naturally attract fickle spenders who like playing agency hopscotch? Perhaps it’s time we turn the mirror on ourselves and look inward.

The Truth about SEO client cancellations

Simply put, cancellations are on you. The client expected something that you did not or could not deliver so they left.

So how do we fix that?

Instead of onboarding with the question, “What would you like SEO to do for you?” We need to change the conversation to, “This is what SEO does and this is how we do it. If you want that for your business, we’ll consider working with you.” If your doctor asked you, “What surgery do you think I should perform?” You’d fire him too.

Taking responsibility for departing clients isn’t a tactic for inviting more shame or blame into your life, rather it’s empowering. It forces you to have an honest conversation about your professional limitations and preferences.

Much worse than getting dropped by a client is trying to maintain this unhealthy and unsustainable belief that you’re an ideal solution for every client and every project. With every client that leaves, you should be learning something new about the kind of client you want to work with and what kind of work you should be offering.

How all SEOs feel about their clients

It’s common for us SEOs to default to, “When they like us we love them!” However, when they don’t, most SEOs usually react by:

  • Shrinking and over-compensating or over-delivering in an attempt to “fix” the problem.
  • Puffing up and becoming defensive. We stand up for the work we did and in doing so, often neglect the concerns of our client.

Neither of these reactions fosters a relationship of trust. So, what if we could fix the problem

before it happens?

What if our contracts were so clear about the scope of work we perform that overcompensating would clearly be beyond the limitations of the contract?

What if instead of taking a custer-esk last stand in defense of our work, we could just say, “I did what we agreed I would do. If that’s not good enough for you I’d suggest working with someone else.”

Really good SEOs don’t shrink or overcompensate because the work they do is enough. They determine that, not the client. And when it’s not, they take responsibility.

Really good SEOs also don’t become defensive because they don’t have time to work with clients that are constantly challenging their legitimacy in their profession.

Solidifying the variables

Most digital agencies provide SEO services where the only shifting variables are cost, deliverables and/or hours worked. It almost always looks something like this—

The more you pay the more links we build, hours we devote, pages we optimize, blog posts we write… The list goes on.

There is so much left unaccounted for in these kinds of contracts! What a client wants and expects may vary, but I can guarantee you they’re not paying to see how long they can make you look busy.

Let’s say no to finger pointing on both sides, to nebulous and amorphous fault finding. That being said, here are three alternatives to billing that will create better client retention rates and increased fulfillment and manager responsibility.

3 better ways to manage SEO client billing and expectations

Deliverable-focused SEO package

We’ve heard it said, “Some clients know just enough to be dangerous.” If you’ve tried educating your prospect on the importance or unimportance of this or that SEO element and they won’t budge, put it to rest. Some clients are convinced they know what they need better than you do.  In this situation play one of two cards-

  • Choose not to work with them. Their attitude, scope of work, or likeliness to be volatile may not work for you, or fit into your company’s set of values.
  • Carefully and explicitly define deliverables and leave no room for contract flexibility.

For example, if a potential client is convinced they need a unique meta description for every page, an alt tag for every image, and 5 links a month from 30+ DA domains, give them exactly and only those things. Let them know their contract is limited to only deliverables.

Here’s what you can tell the client about a package like this-


  • With the exception of very few variables, this package option enables the client to have full control and a complete understanding of what work Agency X is performing.
  • This package offers the greatest amount of transparency. Since it’s focused on deliverables, all work that is being completed will be showcased in a monthly report.
  • This is Agency X’s most financially flexible SEO option. Since deliverables are chosen buffet style, you only pay for what you get.


  • Since this contract is deliverable focused, the results yielded from the work performed are extraneous to the contract (i.e. if organic traffic, rankings, or conversions do not increase, Agency X is not responsible).
  • This contract option takes a tactical approach meaning this package does not offer overall marketing strategy or consulting.
  • Agency X will not negotiate reviewing or making changes to deliverables if the client finds them unsatisfactory.

3 better ways to manage SEO client billing and expectations

Traffic-focused SEO package

How comfortable you are with the idea of incorporating traffic-based contracts is a good litmus test for how confident you are in your SEO team’s ability and skill. Traffic based contracts are riskier, but can attract higher budgets. Here’s an example of what a traffic focused SEO package looks like-

Agency X agrees to increase the client’s year-over year traffic by 20% within a six month time period.

  • Jan 1- June 31 (2017)- Yielded 126,879 organic visits
  • Jan 1- June 31 (2018) Agency agrees to achieve 126,879 + 20%= 152,255 organic visits

A way you can make this contract more attractive to prospective clients is by creating incentives and consequences for exceeded and unmet goals.

An example:

The percentage amount that Agency X fails to meet client’s goal will be the same percentage of the contract price refunded to client (up to 15%). However, the percentage amount that agency exceeds client’s goal will be the same percentage of the contract price that must be paid to agency in addition to the principal (up to 15%). Said with less contract speak– if Agency X does not meet the goal, they pay back the client a portion. If Agency X exceeds the goal, client pays Agency X more.

Here’s what you can tell the client about a package like this-


  • Agency X will be held responsible for increasing client’s organic traffic by the amount specified on the contract.
  • Agency X offers marketing strategy and consulting with this contract option. Agency X will have a vested interest in optimizing best pages while seeking for opportunities to create new pages and content that will have big organic wins.
  • Reporting is simplistic and digestible. If Agency X is on pace to hit organic traffic goals, the client can feel reassured their dollars are being well-spent.


  • Because organic traffic is ultimately the measure of contracts success, whether or not that traffic is converting is extraneous.
  • Because these contracts could potentially mean refunding money to a client, Agency X only works with clients when they are confident they can exceed client goals. After a goal is exceeded, Agency X has the option to expedite a new contract or simply consult for the remainder of the contract period.
  • This package requires a fair amount of client involvement. Because goals are traffic based, its likely Agency X will work with the client to create and approve new landing pages, blog posts, etc.

3 better ways to manage SEO client billing and expectations

ROI-focused SEO package

For all you clients out there measuring how your marketing dollars are affecting your sales, we salute you. This package is for you.

Traditionally, ROI based packages work best with e-commerce clients. The ease in tracking digital marketing efforts is often as simple as setting up e-commerce tracking within in Google analytics.

For non-ecommerce clients whose websites are the sales funnel and not necessarily the place of the transaction, things are a bit trickier. Let’s take a look at a hypothetical software sales client.

It’s likely this client is leveraging content for all areas of the sales funnel- white papers, free trials, webinars, form captures, etc. Clients will then find the average monetary value for each white paper download, form capture, etc. Let’s say it looked like this-

  • White paper download – $30.11
  • Webinar – $415.87
  • Free trial – $78.96
  • Form capture – $221.43

Now that we’ve determined what each conversion is worth to a client, we can determine whether or not the organic traffic we’ve brought to the site has created an ROI.

There is an optional addendum you may to add to this contract to incentivize both client and agency. If you and your client can agree upon a monetary goal for a campaign, say $10,000 in ROI, you can discuss luxury taxing any dollar made beyond your target ROI during the contract period. Here’s a hypothetical example-

After Agency X exceeds client goal of $10,000 in ROI, 10% each dollar made that can be attributed to Agency X’s marketing efforts is paid to the agency.

Here’s what you can tell the client about a package like this-


  • This package is ultimately focused on creating a return on investment. Agency X will be completely impartial to tactics and partisan to results.
  • Campaign will be determined a success only after Agency X has provided a return on investment.
  • Agency X assists in business development strategy in order to accomplish ROI related goals. Creating an inbound marketing strategy as opposed to just an SEO strategy yields greater results and creates content and resources clients can leverage for other or future digital campaigns.


  • This is Agency X’s most financially inflexible SEO package.
  • This type of contract requires in-depth client involvement (i.e. crunching the numbers and assigning a monetary value to micro conversions, approving biz dev campaigns and new landing pages and blog posts).
  • Agency X is selective about who they choose for these kinds of SEO packages.
  • Forgive me, but I am going to bring out the feels for this conclusion.  We do this digital marketing thing for a living because we enjoy it and we’re good at it. There will be clients who will make you question both of those things.

The instruction I’ve provided here is intended to help you keep those clients from shouting at you on bi weekly calls or writing passive aggressive emails or from even showing up in the first place. Though difficult, it’s achievable. As we maintain honest relationships with our clients and ourselves, that dash of name calling and teaspoon of misunderstanding will turn into a hint of client retention and a pinch of job fulfillment.

Max Pond
Max Pond is the SEO Manager at Epic Marketing. He is a man of simple tastes but has a tremendous passion for self-betterment and progression. Max loves playing the drums and spending time with his wife and his daughter. Max is fascinated with finding what motivates people and helping others get to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.


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