Avatar photo Michael Cooney
Mar 31, 2015
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    The Dark Side of SEO

    9am, Monday morning, Jeff is scheduled for a meeting in my office - it sounds like he's having client trouble again. You remember the guy with the small digital agency? We solved his marketing mystery case here.

    A loud knock on the door almost made me spill my coffee - Jeff really knows how to make an entrance!

    Jeff pulled up a chair in front of my desk. He looked a little beat down.

    "What's on your mind?" I asked.

    "Well, it's a client issue, but it's not specific to just one client..." He said, lifting both hands in the air and shrugging his shoulders.

    "I've been running my agency for almost 7 years now and it still feels like I take 2 steps back for every 2 steps forward. Just when I get a new client and I feel like I'm making progress—an existing client drops off! It's driving me nuts. My revenue is okay, but I need more growth."

    "Hmmm...any idea why they drop off?" I asked.

    Jeff shook his head. "That's why I'm here," he said. "The feedback I get is that they aren't seeing the growth they're used to or they want to try something new."

    "New!" Jeff grumbled, waving his arms about. "Whatever that means."

    This dude needs to learn how to chill out, I thought. He reminded me of George from Seinfeld, but with more hair. But that's beside the point. It appears we have another marketing mystery to solve!

    Let's dig into this case and see what we can find...

    The case file:

    • Jeff's firm builds websites and also offers Search Marketing for his clients. A typical client budget is around $20,000 to $60,000 a year.
    • Clients are happy for 2 or 3 years while building the website and the growth is big. After 2 or 3 years, clients start asking "what have you done for me lately?" and move on.
    • Most website traffic comes from search engine optimization.
    • Clients receive regular reporting and Jeff does not believe they are being neglected.


    I'm going to look at historical marketing data from two websites, using real data over a long period to give us perspective. In these charts I see my first clues.

    Chart 1: Traffic over 13 years, blue is page views and green is visitors.

    SEO Plateu

    In chart 1 above, at the end of 2002 this company started with the agency and in 2003 and 2004 we see impressive growth. In 2005, after 2 years with the agency, growth seems to stagnate and agencies are at risk of losing clients.

    The agency implemented additional strategies and we see new growth in 2006, but again, it stalls in 2007 to 2011. At this point the client has become dissatisfied. A new marketing agency is selected in 2011, and the website enters into a period of negative growth.

    Chart 2: Quick start and exit, traffic over 4 years.

    Quick Start and Exit, traffic over 4 years

    In chart 2 above, a new website was created for a client that focused on a long tail keyword strategy. Growth starts with a bang, growing from zero to a peak of 2,000 visitors a month within a short period. This website generated $250,000 in one year in sales on a budget of $15,000! The client loved their return, but started noticing a leveling off of results and wanted to take action. The agency suggested developing quality content for long-term results, but the client wanted more "quick win" tactics." They wanted 3x's growth, so they hired a firm in April 2013 who promised to give them the world. What the client got instead was a web traffic nosedive.

    Now we have a clear perspective on how clients perceive their marketing services. Here's the problem. Growth is like a drug—once a client gets a taste of it, they want more, and come to expect the same growth rate every year. Most of the growth came from search engine positions. The first year the agency moved the client's website from nowhere to the 1st or 2nd page of Google. Year 2, they moved from the bottom of the 1st page to the top half of the 1st page. The 3rd year, they moved even higher on the first page—but now they're at the top! Where do you go when you reach the top? We call this the SEO Plateau. Once you get to the top, you can't go higher and growth levels off.

    How do we help Jeff from losing future clients? Here's what we learned from the data about website traffic and client satisfaction.

    Case Results:

    • Marketing expectation gets set early based on website traffic growth.
    • SEO results inevitably plateau when they reach the top of the search engine results.
    • Clients equate value with website traffic growth.

    What can Jeff do to avoid the dark side of SEO plateau?

    I met Jeff at a great little Espresso bar (they make terrific coffee!). He was already there waiting for me, looking thoroughly caffeinated.

    "Good to see you!" Jeff said, enthusiastically. "I've been really looking forward to what your investigation reveals—I'm ready for maximum client retention!"

    "Well, based on the data you gave us, and some historical research, I believe I know exactly what's going on," I said. "Your clients are valuing your services on website traffic growth, rather than actual Business Value generated."

    Jeff nodded. "I think you are right," he said. "When traffic is growing and the search position is improving, the client is happy with my services. When the website growth slows down, the client starts asking, "what have you done for me lately?""

    "You've actually done 'a lot for them lately,' if you look at the data, you'll see that the actual business value was retained even when website traffic growth stagnated," I said.

    "Great," Jeff said. "So, how do I get my clients to focus on the business value rather than the growth?"

    "Jeff, I've seen a number of agencies struggle with this exact problem, it's actually one of the reasons we created WhatConverts. Let's set up some time in my office and I'll take you through a few strategies designed to build trust, show value, and actually help your clients and your business grow more."

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    Michael Cooney

    Michael Cooney is a co-founder of WhatConverts. Connect with him on Twitter or via email at michael.cooney@whatconverts.com.

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