There is some good information in this article and I hope that you find it fascinating or educational. The point of this article is to allow you, the reader, to understand exactly what level of SEO to expect from the average SEO firm.
From 2001-2012 I owned a laptop repair company. I had been a computer technician, then a network engineer, and had certifications to do everything from repairing fiber optic cables to managing corporate firewalls and Microsoft Active Directory servers. I relocated to North Carolina at a time when Nortel was laying off thousands of seasoned IT people. Oops. It turned out to be a move that I did not regret as North Carolina is such a beautiful state. I found my niche in laptop repair. I went on to become one of the most knowledgeable people in the industry. These days they are a bit easier to work on, but, a few years ago taking your laptop to a random computer store or a big box store was usually a huge mistake. Someone who was an expert would do a far better job. My shop saw so many units we developed many of our own niche solutions. We repaired motherboards for $149 while others wanted $900 to replace them with the same standard issue part which would then in turn have the same issue reoccur due to its design flaws. The point is, some of the others were doing the best they could yet providing a disservice at the same time. In the laptop world, this meant buying a new machine. In the SEO world, screwing up a website can break someone’s company.
Today I met with one of the top SEO sales agents in the USA.
I will call him “John”. The firm he works for doesn’t matter but it is one of the largest in North Carolina. He has sold yellow page advertising, TV commercials and everything in between. He is a fantastic, outgoing individual that can sell ice to an Eskimo and he does very well for himself. This is the 3rd SEO company that he has worked for and he was indeed the top selling sales agent in the top selling region of a nationwide SEO company. I have had 40+ meetings with John and we’ve become good friends. Today I asked him “What exactly are clients getting in their SEO package?” The response was interesting. His job is to sell it. The owner of the company typically hires an SEO employee or every 5-10 clients that they take on. Not surprisingly, almost all of these SEOs are very green. Of course, their contract doesn’t guarantee any sort of placement (which is normal). They sell typical backlinking, nice meta descriptions, and maybe a few pieces of content, etc.
Questions I asked John the SEO salesman:
Do you take on more than one vertical per area?
Really? So if 4 criminal defense attorneys in Durham want SEO you’ll sell it to all 4 of them?
Absolutely, this happens all of the time.
In competitive niches, unique and quality content is mandatory to rank and rank for long term placement. What kind of content do you offer clients?
Well, it’s words on a page, maybe 4 paragraphs.
How much does it cost?
$100 per article.
Your main competitor charges $200 per article. Who writes it?
A person in Hungary.
Hungary?! If you’re writing content for a personal injury attorney in Charlotte North Carolina, how is that person in Hungary going to know squat about North Carolina laws, the Charlotte Area Transit System, or how dangerous Ashley Road is? They CAN’T be producing anything of value!
They’re not, it is just random articles and we charge accordingly.
The company website states someone in house does it. It lists their name and has an image of them. Why?
It is fake.
Is there any strategy behind the content to rank in local search?
Do your clients rank well?
Most of them don’t ask and think the algorithm is too much of a mystery.
For clients NOT getting content, what is the tactics used?
Typical backlinking, directory listings, on page SEO, sometimes a social media presence, call metrics if desired. We offer pretty charts to people via an online dashboard and field their calls when they have a question.
Do you feel titles, content length, meta descriptions, image ALT tags and other basic SEO is important?
Yes, we do all of those things.
Do you measure click through rates and adjust meta descriptions to improve CTR on a regular basis?
No. There are several SEO people at the firm. One of them is very good, the rest are entry level that learn as they go.
Do they keep track of bounce rates and try to improve user retention?
Not that I’m aware of.
I measured one of your client’s sites yesterday and it has a 6 second load time, are you aware that this is probably one of the factors of why it isn’t performing as well as it could?
No, how is this important?
Pagespeed is a ranking factor. Google wants a good user experience for people using it’s search engine. The page I am mentioning loads slowly- image dimensions are wacky, there are several HTTP calls- you could always minify the CSS or combine the JS or work on several other solutions. The home page could be loading in around 1.5 seconds instead of 6. It is a tough niche and it doesn’t stand a chance- in 3 minutes I saw a dozen glaring issues, pagespeed is just one of them, are the SEOs working on this?
I have never even heard of half of the words you are using.
How much does this client pay?
I can’t divulge that information but most clients in that niche pay approximately $3,000 per month.
Couldn’t the firm hire a good SEO person?
Len, what would it take to get you to work for us 40 hours per week?
Well, I have my own clients and I’ve been self employed 15 years; I wouldn’t even consider working for someone for under $250k/yr.
Well there you go. Experts have their own clients and don’t need a job, and the owner isn’t going to hire anyone with your level of knowledge that at this time.
Do you do anything on Google+?
We offer it and call ourselves experts on this platform; however, it is definitely not something many people ask for.
Do you offer social media?
We do, but it is not as popular as SEO, as people don’t really use social media to purchase things.
Does the average customer know anything about SEO?
No. Most do not even understand how a meta description works.
How can someone sell SEO like you do?
People buy from me. I am selling myself. They buy from me because they like me.
Ho do you come up with a budget?
Occasionally there is a number that I need to work around, but I like to sell them on 10% of their revenue.
Is 10% too high?
You have to convince them that what you’re selling is worth 10%.
Do you make clients sign a contract?
Yes. 12 – 36 months.
Do you go back to them and sell them “more” SEO?
Yes, 6 – 12 months in I always try to get them to up their budget.
What does a client get for a “smaller” budget of $1,500/mo?
Nothing. They might get $200 – $300 in PPC advertising. We’ll take them on and charge them, but at that level we’re not going to actively promote their website at all. There is a lot of overhead at the SEO firms.
What kind of up-sells are you offering these days?
Hosting. Clients call in with questions and consume time. One way to alleviate the cost of this is by charging them for hosting. We charge $100 per month to host websites. This is another way to get $100 out of them each month.
People pay $1,200/yr for hosting?!
Yes, we call it premium service. People like the way it sounds. Most of the firms charge this price as well.
How SEO salespeople like John get paid:
At major firms like this there is typically a residual income associated with their performance. Many of the firms have mandatory minimums and probationary periods for salespeople who fail to meet quotas. It sounds good; however, do business owners really want their advertising dollars spent on a salesman’s salary? I suppose if the ROI is there then why not… In 2012 I tried to hire John. I was watching the competition a little too closely and almost fell into mimicking them. Once I realized the path I was on, I stopped immediately; thankfully I never went down that road. I would still hire John in an instant although at this point in time his pay is too high and I am comfortable with the clients I have. I am an absolutely terrible salesperson, but that is ok as the people who come to me have a general idea of what they want. I have a copy of his tax return here, as this is something we both took very seriously. John isn’t getting any younger and he wants to pack away as much money as he can for retirement and put his kids through college. John’s salary, benefits package, fuel stipend and bonuses currently make him $175,000/yr. He really isn’t a bad guy, either. He lands the sales and he is actively working on getting people a decent return on their investment, but there is only so much pull he has in the company.
What do you do if you want to rank in search?
I am currently accepting clients in high competition niches with a realistic budget. These clients will need unique, consistent, quality content in addition to real SEO. I do refer some people out to other individuals as well. Don’t hesitate to contact me here if you need assistance.
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Great article !! Thanks For sharing it !!
Follow up: It’s 2020 and has been nearly 6 years to the day since writing this article.
Shortly after it was published, the company “John” works at contacted me. They were not happy. Apparently, they had been reading employee’s emails and knew John & I were friends, so they began stalking me online and regularly reading this blog.
They contacted me, asking that I take the article down and also asked why I “hated” them.
I responded, telling them I don’t have time to hate them or worry about them and I most definitely would not be taking the blog down.
They wrote back, asking if I would have a beer with them and discuss it.
They wrote back, this time telling me they would sue me if I didn’t take the blog down.
That time I replied and told them they must know even less about the law than they do SEO. Not only is this an article nearly nobody will ever see, but even if they did, it contains no identifying information at all. It was also about how a typical “bad” SEO agency works, not one specific SEO agency. I also let them know that if THIS upsets them, they should take a good look at their business model.
Six years later… I now have many more clients and a small, tight team here. I still have the same clients I did in 2014. They’re still churning and burning clients and providing a disservice.