Structuring an SEO Project: Moving Away from the Retainer Model

Structuring an SEO Project: Moving Away from the Retainer Model

5th July 2011

There is no question that I have voiced my concern a fair few times about SEO needing to grow up, for us to become marketers, allow more transparency with our clients and so forth, though it has dawned on me that I’ve not really done too much to discuss how specifically we could go about accomplishing this. I do not hope (nor do I think it feasible) to address all of the issues we face in this one post, but I would like to point out one specific way in which I believe we can earn more respect from the people we work with directly and hopefully seek to avoid ever losing an existing client again (unless of course we choose to do so :)).

So, to get us started I want to have a look at a number of approaches that I have seen different agencies take in terms of setting up their contracts (some of these I’ve seen first hand, some I’ve seen from clients joining us from other agencies and venting their frustration,  and others I’ve seen from competitive pitches). We’ll take a look at what the positives are both for the SEO and the client and hopefully make a strong argument as to why – despite added difficulty to the SEO – I believe moving away from the retainer model is a step in the right direction.

How SEO Gets Sold-in

It is my personal belief that many of the issues with SEO and many of the reasons that clients complain about their SEO agencies is due to a lack of understanding about what it is they are actually buying and what they expect to get in return. For many brands, companies, and local businesses alike they enter into an agreement to purchase SEO often without understanding what aims they have and what it is they wish to gain from this channel. Others enter into it with unrealistic expectations and will never be satisfied (especially so if you make promises upon which you cannot deliver). Lastly, some enter into SEO with a very clear idea of their objectives but without any clue as to how to achieve them.

As a first step, it is essential (in my view) that the SEO practitioners be very active in the pitch process and in defining the contract. This is the only realistic way, one, to make sure your abilities and workload are accurately portrayed, but also gives you the opportunity to define along with any prospective client what they seek to achieve, why they are using SEO, what tactics will be used, etc. Many would and do argue that technical SEOs cannot and do not have the time to attend pitches, though I can assure you that this is an important activity for all involved parties. Unless you have someone heading up sales who has a great deal of first hand experience handling and managing SEO projects within the existing agency I believe this is an essential use of time because it means the prospective client will be buying into the team, their leadership, and the individuals managing their project as well as any shared goals and expectations from the project.

We will breeze quickly through the first types of projects (because I don’t think they are that widespread) and focus more on the second two.

Structure of SEO Projects

It seems to me that a large number of SEO agencies and individuals work on either side of the spectrum: either they are far too rigid in their rules and ways of working (i.e. “we won’t pick up the phone if we’ve used your allotted time for the month”) or they are far too fluid in their ways of working (i.e. you never know what they are up to, there are no hard and fast deadlines or any timeline whatsoever). There are valid arguments to both ways of working, but ultimately both have hazards to the client and the SEO.

The “Offsite” Only Project

There are a number of people who excel at offsite SEO and my hat is off to them. However, large link buying campaigns may have some value and success and some arenas but certainly do not in others. This model is typified by the “outsourced linkbuilding” myths and fears and despite the fact that there are positive ways to make an impact on offsite SEO positioning it as a “linkbulding only” campaign probably means either the SEO is selling it poorly, or they are just buying a ton of links.

Benefits: it is unlikely there will be any confusion as to what activities need to be done.

Hazards: ultimately, anyone who is serious about their website and about improving rankings who either states they “cannot” or they are unwilling to do anything about their information architecture, page titles, 404 pages and so forth is obviously not that concerned with their SEO performance. The hazards from this approach include, but are not limited to:

  • Risk of lack of results (if the onpage is bad enough)
  • Possible need for “aggressive” offsite behaviour that can lead to penalties or a bad reputation for the client
  • Possible cheapening of what SEO means – whilst there are definitely linkbuilding specialists (the same way there are onsite specialists) neither should claim that their specialism is the extent of what can and should be done
  • The cost associated with aggressive tactics will probably cost considerably more and yield considerably less impressive results than would a well rounded approach to SEO

The Onsite only Project

Some people either don’t like or aren’t any good at offsite SEO. This is fine in some respects, but as with the above model it requires that the SEO or the agency should be responsible enough to find or recommend someone that is. We’ve all got our specialisms but pretending you are a skilled link builder (when you really hate linkbuilding) does nobody in the industry any favours.

Benefits: if the business or client is focussed primarily in improving their onsite SEO this can only be a good starting point and it means they are probably more likely to get work implemented. They also are unlikely to ask the agency to do anything spammy.

Hazards: clearly onsite SEO is only half of the puzzle and just focussing on this one half can lead to similar hazards as the offsite only model. The hazards for onsite only projects include:

  • Generally a very positive impact in the first few months with a good working relationship, often followed by diminishing returns and characterised by frustration with results
  • The lack of offsite activity generally leads to a lack of results
  • A lack of results generally leads to the client sacking the agency or SEO
  • Another potential hazard is that despite any real results some agencies continue to do work that they know will have minimal impact on the site because they are dependent on the income from these projects.

The Deliverable + Retainer Project

One of the most common set-ups I have seen is the “deliverables up front, followed by a monthly retainer approach”. This is a nice model for the agency because it allows the time to get all of the research and important structural stuff out of the way. I would argue that it is absolutely essential most times to do the research that goes into these deliverables (i.e. keyword research, technical site audits, competitor analysis, etc.) though the problem is that by putting this research up front, particularly if the agency is vague in defining how much time it will take, is that the client will grow impatient and wonder what it is you are doing and how they can get involved!

The bigger issue I have with this model, however, is that it tends to lead to a very poorly defined “retainer” period after the fact and the monthly activities are not well defined. This is not to say that the SEO or the agency are not very hard at work, but without a set schedule as to: “I plan to linkbuild around these category pages, write content for these products, and report on these things” it is very difficult to judge how well you are doing your job. More to the point, if you are not delivering results you had better be prepared to defend your actions, account for all of your time, and explain what’s been going on.

Why this structure is good: this design is great for the SEO because it allows them the opportunity to do all of the research and hopefully make their margins for the project on the upfront documents before really tucking into the SEO consultancy and ongoing work on a “retainer basis”. It allows the SEO the greatest flexibility and frees up time for dealing with all of those lovely “emergency” problems that seem to crop up.

Hazards of this model: this model really is designed to benefit the SEO. Although there are certainly arguments as to why this is the best model for clients to get the best return on investment (i.e. let the expert handle their time and use it on what they deem most effective) the risks are as follow:

  • The client doesn’t know what you’re doing on a monthly basis
  • The client doesn’t know explicitly what they are paying for and what results they can expect
  • The SEO can waste a lot of time and not necessarily account for its loss through “ad hoc” projects and client management time that were not built into the retainer hours
  • Clear opportunity for miscommunication and misunderstanding
  • If the initial deliverables don’t get implemented, there is a tendency for SEOs to blame the devs (and yes I admit this is sometimes their fault)
  • The SEO may have to give detailed breakdowns of how they’ve spent their time at a moment’s notice – particularly if results have not been good. As a result the SEO will often feel bitter towards the client

The Constant Deliverable Model

Right, so before we get started with what I believe is the best way to deliver SEO (totally my opinion and please feel free to poke holes in the idea) I thought it was worth making a quick disclaimer: I do not wish to suggest that it would or should be possible to deliver nothing but documents with no stopping point. However, what I do feel quite passionately about is that there should be a clear roadmap in place with all documents, when they will be delivered, and what activities you plan to be doing during roughly what dates for the lifetime of the project.

In this model there will certainly be time built in for ad hoc consultancy as well as client liaison, however, this time will be specified in the proposal and will be a line item on their bill. The aim with this model is to specify, deliver and remain accountable on a line-by-line basis. At this point you’re probably asking yourself, what this might look like. It is also worth noting that this can be reviewed and modified, however it should allow for a “90 day plan” with names, responsibilities, number of hours, and hourly rates next to it – and most importantly it should include deliverables that the client can expect and for which they can hold the SEO to account.

I obviously can’t use client data but I will try to break down an example for some hypothetical “new project”.

The above is a screenshot of an 90 day plan that I have created along with my prospective new client. As you can see, it has clear dates next to individual tasks and also has who is responsible for what the task is. This will almost certainly remove any doubt about for which tasks the SEO is responsible, for which tasks the client is responsible as well as for which tasks the development or PPC agency is responsible (if you don’t manage all of their online activities). If you like this idea I strongly encourage you to check out Smartsheet or use Google Docs to allow for easier management of the process.

In addition to this 90 day plan, our initial proposal will include the line items mentioned above, who will be responsible for delivering them, and what the rate for said work will be.

For example, a monthly breakdown for the first month might look something like this (though ideally much prettier and in a table):

  • Keyword Research – English, Italian, French, German:
    • Sam C. – Quality Assurance – 5 hours (* £xxx/hr) = £xxx
    • Richard S. – English – 14 hours…
    • etc.
  • Reporting – x Sites
    • English – £xxxx/month
    • Italian, French, German – £xxx/month * 3
  • Guest Blogging
    • 2 guest posts – Tommy P. – £xxx/month

And so forth! Meanwhile, month 18 might look very different as we (hopefully) won’t have a great deal of technical work to be doing at this point. The breakdown for months 18-24 might look something like this (also accompanied by a 90 day plan):

  • Reporting – x Sites
    • English – £xxxx/month
    • Italian, French, German – £xxx/month * 3
  • Guest Blogging
    • 2 guest posts – Tommy P. – £xxx/month
  • Technical Consulting
    • Sam C. – 5 hours * £xxx/hour
  • Quarterly Review
    • Sam C. – 2 hours * £xxx/hour
    • Steve R. – 2 hours * £xx/hour
  • 10 Unique Product Pages
    • Tommy P. – .25 hours * 10 pages * £xx/hour
  • Linkbuilding
    • “blue widgets” – x hours…
  • 3 Unique Guides
    • Tommy P. – 4 hours * 3 guides * £xx/hour

And so forth. Ultimately, the aim with this model is to create a very clear outline as to what tasks will be done, with what frequency and at what cost. This allows the SEO to spend a bit less time faffing about and thinking about “what should I do this month” and spend more time solving specific problems with a schedule of delivery dates.

As you can see, this isn’t actually all that different from the “deliverables + retainer” model but it is a totally different mindset and is done in a manner that keeps clients happy because they know what to expect and when to expect it. This shift in mindset from one of justification towards one of proactive project management has made a world of difference in my ability to manage multiple clients but I’ve noticed that it tends to leave clients happier than other techniques we’ve tried and things they’ve experienced at other agencies sometimes.

Benefits: I don’t want to beleaguer the point too much here, I believe the above has made a strong case for the benefits, but for me the most important ones are: transparency, accountability, prioritisation, clarity of tasks, shared understanding of deliverables, less reliance on “trust” and most importantly time saved from justifying what work has been done. Perhaps the greatest unintended benefit is that this is an agreed and shared document so it can also save you from a lot of the “non-emergency” tasks that clients love to drop on your desk. It requires these tasks to be fit into the schedule unless they are clear emergencies.

Hazards: in general this will not remove all of the hazards listed on some of the above methods and it will not remove the risk of failure, the costs of doing business, or the fact that some ad hoc consultancy might always be needed.

  • The greatest hazard (in my view) is that either the SEO or the client does not keep the roadmap updated
  • Another hazard is that by planning too far in advance you can limit your flexibility in time to experiment on new things (obviously this can be countered by having a set number of “SEO consultancy hours”)
  • An obvious unintended consequence for the SEO is that this creates more work as effectively you are making yourself both a project manager and a technical SEO – having junior staff come to meetings and so forth can really help with this

I’m sure you all can provide me with more issues, but hope some of this can help. It is my genuine belief that moving away from a model where we deliver everything up front and then “fill time” on a retainer we can instill a much greater level of trust in the industry amongst our clients and with any luck (obviously you’ve still got to deliver results) it should help prevent you losing clients in the future. I’ve seen a lot of clients grow tired with some of the other methods, though I’ve yet to hear any complaints about the “constant deliverable” method… though obviously it’s still early days.


Written By
Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director at OMD UK. Sam focuses on increasing traffic and conversions for websites whilst always keeping his eye on a company’s bottom line.
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