Here is a quick story that demonstrates that being honest won’t win you every contract, but it will win you the right ones.
Recently, a prospective SEO client requested a link audit and strategy to help benchmark their current link profile. The aim of that was to highlight any keyword opportunities there could be.
Unlike many other link builders, my company provides this support free of charge to marketers that don‘t have the required knowledge to make a sound decision. That is because we believe it is unethical to sell links to these less experienced businesses without giving some idea of the potential return on investment.
A side bonus is that it demonstrates our knowledge of the market place and builds confidence in our ability to deliver.
So in the context of this story, the free advice should have had the right effect. However, it didn’t give them any confidence due to their misguided ideas about what can be realistically forecast in SEO campaigns.
Due to their inflated expectations and my ethical approach, I quickly wished them the best of luck, and I walked away from a potential £30-60k annual spend.
While this might sound like a negative, instead, I learned an interesting lesson, which I am eager to share with you. When you read on, you will learn why my client’s expectations were unrealistic and how to manage them in the future.
The Customers’ Expectations
When my customer posed the below question, I naturally knew the response he wanted. I have edited all of the emails to remove grammatical errors and improve clarity, but it doesn’t change how naive this request is when you know how SEO works.
“I need concrete projections about what ROI I will receive and at which month in the campaign I will start to earn more money. You must have data, don’t you?”
He was under the impression that SEO can be forecast in a similar way that Pay-Per-Click campaigns can. Unfortunately, that is how some SEO’s pretend it is, and some people eat it up, but it is not how it works.
Luckily for him, we are an experienced SEO team with an ethical approach, so he didn’t get that response.
The Reality (Our Response)
In the world of SEO, there are too many variables for anyone to promise him the ‘concrete projections’ he wanted.
That is why I responded with the below:
Good afternoon X,
Pleasure chatting earlier, and I apologise that neither my initial answer and this subsequent email are straight forward.
I totally understand your position, and that you need to have evidence to demonstrate the value/need for link building and justify to the powers at be that you should invest in your website.
I also understand that PPC is much easier to predict, because of the conversion tracking and performance management – to be honest, PPC spoils customers with endless data designed to drive confidence that money is well spent. However, it’s a necessary evil that most of us have to accept that the cost of regular marketing and links should also be considered as a long-term, necessary part of your overall marketing plan.
So, the links that a website receives act as little votes of authority. Google wants us, in reality, to sit back and only link to whoever we want to link to – totally holistically, so it’s easy for them to work out who’s most popular and why.
For 99% of the market, however, who are not Nike and don’t pick up links naturally, we have to push product reviews, ask for links back and offer an exchange of value (usually content for a bloggers site at a minimum) in order to compete with everyone else that’s doing the same thing.
Google’s first-ever algorithm was 100% based on links, and back then, had you asked me the same question, it would have been much easier to answer.
Unfortunately, these days it’s much more complex trying to work out what Google actually wants, and with more frequent algorithm updates on the horizon, it’s often tricky to show what works and why.
An example of this is the recent update that came last month, which had a massive, positive impact on growth for one or two of our clients. They were very pleased with the results. However, we told them that it was impossible to tell if this was the work of the link acquisition or, more likely, positive fall-out from the update itself.
Other agencies would have sat back and lapped up the praise. However, it was much too early to expect improvements, and with so many factors to consider, I try to offer the truth to all my clients and prospects.
The Cold Hard Truth About Forecasting Link Building Results
It might seem counterproductive for me to be so forthright with a potential client with money in hand. But I knew that I would never be able to give him what he was expecting.
Accurate forecasts are impossible to provide for SEO campaigns unless you spend countless hours tracking data for long periods (and even, then it is still just a guess).
If I had done what countless others might have done (promised results to convince him to book a campaign), we could be having an awkward conversation when the predictions don’t come true. To my mind, that is not honest customer service, which is why I was upfront with him from the start.
Why Forecasting for Link Building Campaign Results is Risky
The first reason is simple: We have no access to Google’s algorithm. No matter what any SEO specialist says, none of us knows what Google is looking for; we can only guess.
Our guesses are usually reasonable and based on reliable information and practice, but that doesn’t mean that they are infallible.
With so many algorithm updates to contend with, we are always on the back foot and seeking new and innovative ways to boost our client’s rankings. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t, but whatever the case, we mitigate risk.
Second, the competition is outside of our control. We could do everything right and still fall back because someone else was better (in Google’s eyes).
All improvements and movements that clients experience are proportionate to the activity of their competition.
If you are unable to compete with a competitor’s budget or their site starts trending, your hard work might not stop them from cruising ahead.
Third, as link builders, we don’t look after every factor that affects search rankings. On-page SEO, content, and usability all play significant parts, and we have no input in those areas.
How Do Link Builders Maximise Their Chances Of Getting It Right?
With that in mind, you might think that link building agencies are redundant if they can’t guarantee results.
The opposite is true; we are vital if you want to boost your site’s chances of reaching your target market.
Good link builders are continually learning, and we share that knowledge with businesses. That means they don’t have to put any effort into staying ahead of the algorithm updates and industry theories.
As such, when a link builder conducts a site audit and makes a suggestion, they are using common sense, experience, and guesses informed by their extensive work in the SEO market.
It Isn’t All About Links Either
In summary, nothing in the SEO market should be taken in isolation. Remember your chemistry lessons at school.
Every experiment is subject to change, as each variable, however small, has a part to play. Take away, add or inflate any of these variables, and the whole experiment changes. The results will be dramatically altered from the last time you did it.
That is exactly what happens in SEO. Every market, target keyword, and SERP is different, so any definite promises are worthless. All we can do is gather the facts, present our best guesses, and then deliver our services without negatively impacting our client’s site.
What Predictions You Should Expect from Good Link Builders
With all that being said, link building does and continues to be a very effective way to encourage Google to look kindly upon your content.
Some factors are visible to link builders. Combined with experience, a good one should be able to give you some ideas of what might be needed.
As an example, a link builder should be able to see gaps where links might help. They could then estimate how long it would take to build those links. They could then estimate when that might have some impact. It could happen sooner or later than predicted, but at least you have a guide.
New links take a little while to get indexed by Google. That is because the algorithm crawls fresh content on third party sites, so it can take time for it to notice changes. Those pages, in turn, build in page authority, and that impacts the link equity that passes across. Still, it can take time for the algorithm to put it all together.
The impact of month 1-2 activity probably won’t be fully felt until month 4-5 of the campaign, and so on, so managing expectations here is crucial.
That is why, as this article shows, being honest with all businesses looking to invest in SEO is crucial to maintain a reputation.
Any Decent SEO professional Will Share Their Knowledge, Not Hide It
SEO data, like any facts and figures, can be made to say practically anything if you spin it right. That is why the best SEO agencies like to view the full picture and then present it to their clients. Then, our clients can make an informed decision.
This commitment to transparency led my SEO agency to develop a backlink opportunity system that uses the most important SEO metrics in a formula that provides a balanced score.
What My Client Said
Going back to my example, it should now be evident that this potential client didn’t agree.
Here is what he had to say:
Thanks for this, but unfortunately, I cannot make any hard financial projections based on the information you have provided. As it stands, your work is very unlikely to be funded. What is needed are some hard metrics to support funding such as traffic predictions, domain rating changes, and so on. These metrics need to be linked to the various packages you have.
As I have already highlighted, it is virtually impossible to give this data. This guy might come back, which is why I kept it kind with my response:
I totally understand your position and wish you the best of luck if this is untenable. Like PPC, you have to actually start the work before gauging impact/generating and data.
We rank number 1-3 for all of our link building terms (possibly the best reference available in this market) and yet still bid on a few terms we want to appear for (without watering down the site focus). Even for our own site, we had to run the gauntlet ourselves and test out various strategies before landing on a formula that offers an ROI.
So that’s all I can suggest, give it a go and make adjustments along the way. Anyone offering ‘concrete’ expectations in writing just leaves themselves open to repercussions, and I’m just not prepared to do that in such an unpredictable market.
With that, I dropped the mike and let him head off. If he does come back, I’ll be happy to mop up the mess.