Advance Your Agency is a BrightLocal series designed to equip you with the skills, knowledge, and advice necessary to take your agency operations to the next level. 

As in any industry where trust has to be placed in an expert or authority, there are sharks in SEO. While we in local search like to think of ourselves as the more approachable, more trustworthy kid brother of mainstream SEO, sadly there are always opportunities for professionals to behave less than professionally, taking advantage of businesses and eroding the good standing and expertise SEOs should have.

You might not have dealt with SEOs playing fast and loose with the truth, but if you’ve been in SEO for some time, and worked with a variety of clients, you’ll no doubt have come across clients who have.

The experience of dealing with SEOs who overpromise and overcharge can leave more than a bad taste in the mouths of local business owners and marketers, but that doesn’t mean you should leave them to turn tail and charge forth with an agency-free, Google-only strategy, leaving SEO in their wake.

No, when confronted with a prospect who says they’re “done with SEO,” you have an opportunity – nay, a responsibility (okay, I’ll get off my high horse now) – to rebuild their trust in SEO and deliver the kind of service they should have received in the first place.

If you’re staring at a huge gulf between yourself and your client, wondering how to broach the topic of SEO with someone who’s been burned by a former SEO agency, this guide is here to help. (Fair warning: we’ll be talking a lot about relationships and I’m going to be doing my best to prevent this from sounding like a dating advice column – wish me luck!)

Why might a business be suspicious of SEO?

In order to define the best approach to turning someone around on SEO, it’s important to know what sort of experience your prospect has had, so you can learn what their misgivings might be.

Here are a few examples of ways in which local businesses might have been underserved by SEO:

Spammy sales tactics

There are numerous ways to approach a potential SEO client from an informed and considered position, such as approaching them with a bespoke audit of their performance. However, very often marketers choose to go down the cold-as-ice route of “hitting the phones” and promising the earth to unwitting local business owners.

To these people, sales is merely a numbers game and as long as you’re always bulk-sending emails or dialling every number in the phone book, you’re doing your job.

Every single day, business owners are bombarded with phone calls and emails from self-proclaimed “digital marketing experts” vying to help them get on the first page of Google, get social media likes and followers, build a new website, etc. The promises made by these marketers are endless, and the sheer volume of contact attempts can leave most business owners frustrated and confused about who to trust and believe when it comes to their own business’ digital marketing strategy.

Leveraging the ‘dark art’ of SEO

While SEO has undergone a transition over the years, from inscrutable practice to something that’s a little more clear-cut and easy to communicate, many business owners still see SEO as a ‘dark art’ with machinations unknown to us mere mortals.

This is, as it always was, down to the fact that Google doesn’t tell you explicitly how to rank in search. This alone adds an element of alchemy to the role of an SEO. Your job is to scry the SERPs for a glimmer of an insight and test that hunch to breaking point.

Stirring this mystic brew are marketers playing on the mythic ambiguousness of SEO, spinning a yarn and peddling Fool’s Gold, making grand promises and delivering only dust.

These SEO alchemists can spot a technophobe a mile away, and they use this knowledge to their benefit. They speak in tongues about schema, UTMs, and link juice. They tell tall tales of the ancient one, RankBrain, and ask merely for monthly financial sacrifices to appease the God of Google.

Anyway, I think I’ve taken that metaphor as far as it can go! My point is this: a lot of marketers play on the perceived complexity of SEO and use that to bewilder businesses into working with them, which isn’t a good look for the SEO industry as a whole.

A notable lack of expertise

On the flipside of the ‘dark art’ of SEO is the perception that anyone can do it: that anyone with a step-by-step instruction manual and a bit of time can do everything you need to rank well in local search.

If you’re wondering where this perception can come from, just take a look at the oodles of people offering SEO services for disconcertingly cheap prices through sites like Upwork and Fiverrr.

You’ll soon hear a klaxon in your head; a wake-up call alerting you to just how many of the SEO tasks you perform can apparently be completed by someone suspiciously devoid of skill or experience.

This view of SEO as a cheap tactic beneath a low skill ceiling does yet more damage to the cause of SEO as a whole, but it’s not just gig-economy chancers taking the shine off SEO. There are plenty of marketers out there who don’t want to get their hands dirty and do the actual work required to deliver local search success beyond basic tasks like citation building and GMB profile setup.

I can certainly appreciate the simplicity of this approach, and if you’re being completely transparent with your clients about the minimal impact of the base-level work you’re doing, who’s to argue against it? But this, combined with those selling SEO on gig sites, leads to yet more erosion of trust in SEO as a practice performed by professionals and experts.

What might cause a client-agency relationship to go sour?

We’ve discussed some of the ways that a local business might have a negative perception of SEO, but there are plenty of real-life experiences they could have that might lead to a mistrust of SEO.

Here are a few of the ultimately avoidable ways that agencies might find themselves on the receiving end of a contract cancellation. We’ll be using these to define exactly how to approach and work with clients who have suffered these situations before.

A careless and uncommitted approach to work

Some SEOs see local search success as a long game, in which they have to first set up an online presence that gives a local business the best chance to rank, and then go on to work on the things that really make a competitive difference: the link building, the listing tests, the on-site SEO, the review generation.

Then there are marketers who only do the first part, and barely that. Those with a ‘set it and forget it’ mentality to local SEO aren’t going to provide long-term value to local business clients. Some even follow this up by offering a barebones service as a retainer, returning each month to say whatever the client wants to hear in order to keep them on the books.

The client experience of paying for very little at the start and getting even less over the course of the relationship naturally leads to misgivings about local SEOs.

Poor communication

Good communication practices should be at the heart of the client relationship, and this, as we’ll go onto a little later, should be set in place right at the start.

Some business owners and in-house marketers will want to know how things are going at your end, and that they’re really getting something for what they’re paying, whether that’s explicitly stated ROI or just the security of knowing their business is in good hands.

Sadly, too many marketers stick to their guns a little too much when it comes to not going outside their retainer or scheduled calls, and miss opportunities to answer small questions from clients or even acknowledge their requests. Worse still, some marketers go the whole hog and completely ignore communications as a rule, leading to a very negative perception of the practice on the part of the local business.

Poor performance

This is the bitter pill to swallow. Whether it’s through an agency’s mismanagement of goals, priorities and tasks, or just a flick of the wrist from Google’s algorithms, online performance can suffer, and this can lead to clients having second thoughts.

That’s not to say that this naturally leads to the end of a relationship, though. Any good SEO will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get to work to learn why the expected results aren’t materializing.

Even so, there are times when a downturn in fortunes can encourage clients to look a little closer at their books, and make tough decisions around what to cut back on. For example, as I’m sure many readers can testify to, the spread of Covid-19 and the subsequent shutdown of many local businesses led business owners to eye their budget carefully, crossing out any line not bringing in profit.

It’s not only poor performance at a macro level that can tell a client that something’s up, though. Attention to detail is critical when it comes to management of a business’ online presence. Consider the poor SEO who receives the call telling them that their client’s Google My Business short name has been spelled wrong, or the client that gets a 404 on their website homepage. The little things add up.

The rule of thumb is that if a client has to tell their agency that something’s wrong, the agency has already failed. It’s harsh, but you can see why so many businesses are a little skeptical when approached by new SEO suitors promising the earth.

How to see success when working with SEO skeptics

So, with these experiences and perceptions in your potential client’s rear view mirror, but still very much front-of-mind, how do you convince them that you’re different, that you’re not like the others, that you’ll treat them right?

The specifics of your approach will differ based on your type of agency, and also the experiences your potential client has been through, but broadly, the following advice could and should apply to every stage of the relationship.

1. Listen carefully to their complaints and plan to show how you’re different

To really get through to a potential client that’s been burned by SEO in the past, you need to sit down and pay attention to what their complaints are, and plan to address each one in an honest and forthcoming way.

Showcase as many points of difference between you and the previous agency as you can. Depending on what you’ve uncovered about their issues with the previous relationship, this can be as simple as outlining your communications process or highlighting the way your teams are structured. This won’t just show that you understand their complaints; it’ll highlight that you actively combat those types of issues.

For example, your potential client might feel that they never got taken seriously by the previous agency, and had no opportunity to speak to more senior members of the team. In this case, build in scheduled times for regular monthly or quarterly meetings where a senior member of the agency is in attendance, and reassure your potential client that this is a common practice for your business.

You may need to re-educate your potential client on the benefits of local SEO. Assess their level of SEO knowledge and bring your explanations of tactics and strategies down to their level, adding just enough technical language to showcase your knowledge and expertise without sacrificing comprehension or trust.

The potential client is likely to be fairly cautious around marketing types, so while you might have done due diligence and checked out their website performance in order to make a good case for SEO, and to see where an agency might have let them down in the past, you should ditch the stylish presentation and opt instead for a simple printout or report page.

If it’s clear that they feel like SEO is a minefield of complexity, you can explain how the playing field has changed over time, to the point that Google has made SEO easier to grasp, with Google My Business, Google websites and its own Google marketing kit. This will tell them that agencies are now competing on performance rather than access to some ‘secret sauce’ of SEO.

Above all else, treat them like a person rather than a project. They’ll notice in your behaviour and mannerisms that you’re to be more trusted than those they’ve dealt with in the past.

2. Manage expectations

If you’ve managed to get through that difficult first conversation, and your potential client is willing to hear you out on your proposed strategy, congratulate yourselves on the fact that the first, and hardest, hurdle is well and truly jumped.

But the battle to win back trust is only just beginning. When going into detail on a strategy for a client who has seen little success with SEO in the past, it’s crucial that you manage expectations effectively.

Firstly, try to avoid making guarantees. With local SEO having so many moving parts that are specific to individual businesses, industries, and locations, there really isn’t a way of guaranteeing that coveted number one spot in Google. Plus, it’s entirely possible that this is the kind of approach your potential client previously fell foul of.

Be frank and honest about how much of an uphill struggle your potential client might be facing, but ensure them they’re in the best possible hands to make the climb. (This is a good time to provide testimonials and case studies, which we’ll come to more a little later.) If you think it’s going to take 16 months to get them to rank where they want to and stay there, you need to be upfront about it, and crucially, explain why it’s going to take that long and how any other approach will lead to very short-lived results.

To really hammer home how much you can be trusted with their business, consider being open about the tools you use for each tactic, go into detail about your overheads, and show how what they’re paying for will translate into results and increased revenue. This is a great opportunity to speak business-to-business, and use language that they’re familiar with in order to establish common ground and a foundation of trust.

A fantastic way to lay out everything I’ve mentioned above is in a collaborative ‘relationship agreement’. This is a document that you work on, together with your potential client, that establishes clear lines of communication and outlines the basic processes and methods for working and communicating with each other. This is particularly important if you know that a breakdown in communications or a poor management process led to a poor agency experience last time.

In this agreement you can make promises to respond to calls or emails within a certain timeframe, outline who should attend meetings and reviews, and cover a basic process for handling issues and requests. It should also dictate the best way to raise issues (such as by phone or email) and who the main point of contact should be for both companies. Outlining processes like this sets expectations clearly from the start of a relationship and avoids any uncertainty later.

3. Build trust over time

You might think your work is done after securing the contract, but people who have had past issues with marketing don’t turn into the SEO faithful overnight. It can be a long road to fully reestablish trust in what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going about it, but now that you’ve started on the right foot, that should be a far smoother road to travel.

In fact, this journey can be made much easier before it’s even begun: if you’re worried that your potential client isn’t going to buy into a long, ongoing relationship, you could offer to start with several smaller project-based jobs before offering the opportunity to commit to a retainer. Show value incrementally until you’ve built up trust. This way, you start by taking the relationship at a pace that they’re more comfortable with, and only commit to an ongoing one when they’re ready.

(So much for this not sounding like dating advice, huh?)

When it comes to regular reporting, you need to live up to the promise of honesty by showing all results every time, warts and all. Don’t hide negative performance. Instead, offer to explain why it’s occurring and suggest tactics that can reverse the trend. After all, rows and rows of green numbers start to look a little suspicious after a while, and even more so to someone who had little trust in marketers in the first place.

Finally, don’t allow your agency to become a stranger. Even when things are ticking along nicely, tactics are working, and everyone seems happy, try to go beyond the regular, mandated calls and reports. Check in with your client now and again to share an interesting piece of SEO news relevant to their industry or your strategy, or a small update on progress on a particular piece of work.

By doing this, you’re showing that you care, and that even when you’re working on something else, you have them in mind and okay this is sounding like dating advice again…

4. Be good at what you do, and be able to prove it

This is the hardest part, and for good reason. Even with all the client relationship tips and tricks in the world to hand, ultimately it’s all for naught if your agency can’t deliver the goods. If you’re not genuinely good at what you do, you risk becoming another bad SEO experience for your client.

Local SEO is hard, and for you, that should be a good thing. That’s why you’re hired to do the hard work and really earn both your clients’ trust and their budgets. So make sure you’re always becoming a better marketer: always be testing hypotheses for yourself, keep up with the latest in local SEO, and learn from everything you do.

Remember that you’re always only as good as your last campaign or project, so if you’re truly delivering success for your local business clients, you should be able to prove it with case studies and testimonials.

If any of your clients had misgivings about SEO at the start, all the better: get them to say that in their quotes! These pieces of social proof will be integral the next time you’re faced with a potential client who’s been burned by an SEO agency.

Closing Thoughts

I hope you find this advice useful when you’re next needing to turn around an SEO skeptic. Remember that if they’re talking to you in the first place, the battle is half-won – good luck with the rest of the fight!

On the other hand, if you’re a local business owner reading this who wants to feel less alone in their distrust of SEO, I hope this guide has shown you that while you may have had bad experiences in the past, there are plenty of other fish in the SEO sea (okay I’ll stop now.)