Structuring an SEO Project: Moving Away from the Retainer Model

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.

About Sam Crocker

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.

32 thoughts on “Structuring an SEO Project: Moving Away from the Retainer Model

  1. Great post Sam! The key thing for me (whether it’s a retainer based or constant deliverable project) is to have that long-term thinking and strategic approach.

    For two main reasons, a) client retention – it’s far more reassuring if a client can see the plans which you have for moving things forward and achieving results, so this definitely helps to justify budgets and retain that on-going relationship. And b) it’s a massive help internally – you have a much more strategic way of thinking, you can implement and build on long-term plans (as opposed to being reactive or looking too short-term) – plus it helps the team work better together if there is a more clearly defined plan.

    I can definitely see things heading more towards the constant-deliverable project in the future – have you found clients are flexible with budgets in this way? Just because some projects will work around client budgets and a fixed annual fee may be more appropriate for them and easier to sign off.

  2. @Yousaf- very glad you found it useful! Happy to be of help 🙂

    @Kev- it definitely does require a bit of trust building (particularly with existing clients if you want to change structure) to get the sort of ongoing and roll-over type spend and support but I do find actually a lot of this sort of thing can be planned for a year-long level (with a fairly good level of accuracy). It’s just about thinking very carefully what you want the year-long deliverables to be (3 pieces of content, 1 infographic, whatever) and trying to stick to that to the best of your ability rather than saying: “we’ll give you this for the first three months, after that point you’ll continue to pay and we’ll do some linkbuilding and stuff”

    Obviously there has to be a bit of wiggle room but if you can structure the agreement in such a way that they know more or less what to expect each month (and there is something tangible delivered each month) it seems to be a much better way to approach it. Ultimately I think the overall transparency on where their spend goes is what clients dig most and in some respects seem to like the control that comes with that being told to them before things start as opposed to “this is how we spent your budget last month” or… worse still… no real communication as to where the money goes at all.

  3. Sam,

    An excellent and well thought out piece.
    I guess it is always about fit and chemistry between agent and client.
    If a client really wants a strategic long term partnership then that is what you can sell them. If they are mature enough to understand the benefits then the rewards will be commensurate. At the other end of the spectrum we still get calls from clients who tell me they are on page one (for their own domain name) and insist they have cracked SEO and just need an SEO agency to build links for them. We tend not to deal with this sort. I refer them to one agency in particular that specialise in link selling (or rather renting).
    David Burdon

  4. Hey Sam,

    Excellent post, however what you have described is in essence just a correctly run retainer; all the potential hazards you highlighted are completely valid and I’ve spoken to innumerable clients who’ve suffered from a complete lack of communication from their appointed agency (some who have not even received reports without chasing – amazing value for money).

    I think the only point I would slightly disagree on is that a retainer set up benefits an SEO by default. This is only the case (as you point out) if your SEO is:

    (a) poor at time management
    (b) a poor project manager
    (c) does not communicate well or
    (d) is just plain lazy

    I don’t think realistically a lot of people would want to move away from the retainer model, but what you call the Constant Deliverable Model is exactly what I am for on my retained campaigns: clear communication of activity.

    Other than that minor quibble over taxonomy, you’re right on the money sir.

    1. Hi Stuart,

      That’s a fair enough point to make and I do agree that it’s not so much a shift in structure as it is a shift in mentality. My main “beef” with the retainer model is that there are a huge number of people who abuse the retainer for the reasons you’ve mentioned above or if you want to take a more cynical view perhaps because: if you’re getting paid for doing nothing, where is the incentive to work harder?

      I do think a retained fee (for specific tasks and a bit of a buffer for technical consulting as and when it arrives) is necessary but a default fee with no defined goals or actions with no clear end or review point – on the other hand – I definitely disagree with.

      As you say, think we both agree on most of these points other than the taxonomy but just wanted to clarify a bit and mention that it is not a drastic shift other than in mindset for some folks.

      Thanks for your comments!

      1. My pleasure, it’s good to read something that isn’t another Google announcement…

        In my experience the ‘lazy retainer’ (TM coming) model is very hard to grow precisely because it’s so intangible; you just end up putting in a glass ceiling over your own head.

        I’ve always found that taking the time and effort to show your clients what you’re doing, what they get and why you want to do it (with price attached as you laid out in your model) will unlock more budget in the future and build a much stronger relationship.

  5. I *really* like the transparency of the Constant Deliverable Model. Too much of SEO is black magic to outsiders. This allows clients to be taken advantage of and lets poorly skilled an unethical SEOs with good sales and marketing flourish. It’s bad for the clients and it’s very bad for our industry.

    What I’m not so on board with is the style of planning proposed. But first, some context to explain where my thinking comes from.

    Prior to entering the online marketing industry I spent 20 years as a consultant and startup employee helping companies develop great software. When I entered that field the majority of complicated or big software projects were built using detailed product plans. Unfortunately those plans didn’t lead to successful projects very often. Billions of dollars were wasted on projects that never went live or that went live late and sucked when they were finally released.

    in 1999 a big shift started with Kent Beck’s publication of Extreme Programming Explained and the way a lot of software gets built was changed (for the better). A couple of years later when Kent and others at the forefront of this new way of building software got together they dubbed it “Agile Software Development” and wrote a manifesto that reads:

    We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

    Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    Working software over comprehensive documentation
    Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    Responding to change over following a plan

    That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

    I’ve been immersed in online marketing for the last couple of years now and I think it’s time for “agile” thinking with SEO and the rest of online marketing. I’m just now starting to take marketing clients (up until now all of my work has been on my own sites) and I plan to spend a lot of time on what this really means, both experimenting and writing about “Agile SEO.”

    I’d love to hear what other SEO’s think about it.

    P.S. The process Kent Beck created, known as eXtreme Programming (or XP), was built on five values: Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, Courage, and Respect. Those sound like a pretty good starting point for Agile SEO to me.

    1. Hi Julias,

      Thanks very much for your very well thought out comment here and I’m glad we at least agree on the “black box” issue as you refer to it which is definitely my biggest issue and what I wanted people to take away from this.

      As far as some of your challenges to the planning style I certainly take on board some of your criticisms and your thoughts and agree that at the extreme the structure I’ve described is far too limiting. As practitioners and to be successful within SEO (and online marketing more broadly) we obviously need to be agile and able to adapt very quickly in response. Whilst I think this is an important part of what makes an SEO successful I am not sure that the planning style I describe (or at least the one I would advocate if I haven’t described it so well) and this agility are mutually exclusive.

      There absolutely needs to be room to adapt and change gears and we as “the experts” need to be able to adapt our tactics on the fly. I don’t, however, think that this need be done without agreeing the shift with the client and without making clear to them how tactics will change or why they have changed and how our agreement/activities/deliverables need to change to address this.

      Where possible, however, I still think it is in the clients interest to think about deliverables/actions around these shifts for which ultimately we can be held directly to account. I’m not saying we should promise “we will build you x links next month” or anything, but it should be clear what we are going to go away and do and how it will impact the performance of their site and be planning alongside the client as online marketers to help optimise and maximise returns on their activities in other channels.

      It won’t always be possible to account for all of our time with deliverables but I think it’s a step in the right direction in moving away from a completely wide-open retainer without any accountability built-in towards a situation in which planning and thought goes into a monthly, 90-day and yearly strategy and communications occur both before drastic shifts in activity and following to discuss the impact as well as traditional reporting.

      Ultimately, I don’t think we’re a long way off in agreeing and I certainly agree strongly with the five values you’ve described… whilst what we call it may differ slightly I think the most important thing for me out of the “Constant Deliverable Model” is the transparency you mention and the clear expectations for and of the client and the consultant though I’ll agree it’s by no means perfect and could use further refinement 🙂

      1. Howdy Sam,

        It sounds like we are very much on the same page. I think it was the tone that I read into the article that concerned me.

        I’ll do an in-depth writeup of an Agile SEO process on YouMoz soon. It would be great to get the perspective of a heavy hitter SEO such as yourself that cares about process. Do you mind if I send you a preview for feedback before I publish it?

        1. Hardly a “heavy-hitter” but more than happy to look it over, will ping over my email address on Twitter if that’s all right? Just give me a nudge on there and I’d be more than happy to have a look.

  6. Hey Sam

    Good post, I tend to agree with points made by @Julias and @Stuart. What you have described above does seem like a proper retainer model. But I can also vouch for Julias’s comment as I came from an IT background with experience in project management. If the project becomes too process driven/structured it can lead to problems and things still don’t get delivered on time.

    I completely agree with the core of your message. SEO does need to be open and a roadmap is a great way to help the client envisage where you are going. Update calls are also essential in that process. When I ran a team agency side, we agreed on a monthly plan of actions that were synced with the companies quarterly, or yearly goals.

    SEO will continue to grow up and the bigger companies will start to hire internal people that can manage agencies for them. I feel more and more internal marketing positions will be focused on above the line, plus have the skills to manage these sort of tactics. Until then, it’s not in a lot of SEO companies interest to be open, as their client would see they are charging X amount of cash to outsource low level article marketing & directory marketing for pennies.

    1. Hi Kieran,

      Thanks very much for your input – and I do tend to think that it’s all part of the growing up process and ultimately not a perfect one – not being too process driven is immensely important at a level but I think the lack of process driven and open communication is what tends to lead to problems in many respects, though certainly one could have too much of a good thing.

      I guess ultimately your last point is the one that makes me most anxious for the company to grow up as the lack of openness is ultimately what leads a lot to think that SEO is either some sort of secretive dark art, or full of con artists (neither of which is true, though some who claim the title would argue otherwise). For me the reason for writing is that I feel like all SEO companies need to be open about this and hopefully the agencies or individuals charging the big bucks are not particularly reliant on outsourcing article marketing and directory marketing…

      All part of the growing up process and I appreciate your insights.

      1. During a client meeting in London with a very senior tech guy from Yahoo, he referred several times to SEO as being black magic. That meeting had a lot of senior execs in it and I was trying to bring them through an extremely technical audit. This perception of SEO will never change until there is some barrier to entry. Many agencies live of a crash and burn strategy. Black box their service, outsource a lot of the grunt work and hire a sales team to keep clients churning over. It worries me when I see a low cost SEO agencies scale their sales team up and aggressively sell crap services. In any industry where there is opportunity for a quick buck, there will be a wide gap between the good and the bad with a lot of crap in between.

        The problem for SEO as a whole is it not only taints clients view of SEO, but it also sets expectations that SEO can be done for a couple of 100 dollars a day “because this is what an indian company that approached me charge”.

        I think it’s good we have people like Rand, the Distilled speaking posse (Tom & Will), your good self and others who do a lot of speaking. The only way the perception of SEO will change is to have market leaders who set expectations. But I don’t see SEO growing up anytime soon. It’s just like internet marketing, full to brim of people looking to make a quick buck.

        Just a note. I am referring to SEO as a whole in the above. For the most part, SEO is a lot more problematic for the medium to small businesses. Big companies can afford large agency rates and for the most part, they are doing great stuff. My worry is that SEO in general is becoming a lot less reliable and harder to do. This leads many consultants and small SEO businesses to try scale out with very low cost labour, so most of my points lie with that section of SEO.

        I would end with something else, it’s kind of mental to me that some agencies let sales guys pitch an SEO strategy without knowing much about SEO. This brings me to another small gripe 🙂 and back to a point you mentioned above “expectations”. When pitching for business, you are usually up against a range of SEO agencies. What you find is each agency promises the moon, star and sky, this is where a lot of the problems start. The client is listening to “we can do all this for nothing” so a realistic strategy with solid metrics can be overlooked. If you are leading an SEO team, you should be able to pitch and you should be able to explain your strategy in a manner that can be understood by the client in business terms, not full of lots of SEO acronyms.

        To finish, although my post is ranty, I love the SEO industry and I think we do a very good job at trying to add value to our clients business. There are problems across online as a whole. I just feel SEO is very open about ours. Social Media for me is going to encounter the same type of problems. Clients don’t know what they want from Social, they have simply been told to get some.

        Ok, well, I better stop waffling.

  7. We (@ZetaAgency) have been using an open book transparent approach for a little while now and it has helped build trust with new clients (and existing which have supported the switch) much quicker, especially as previous agencies kept them in the dark. I would like to believe that the SEO industry is embracing this way of managing a monthly retainer, but I am more than aware of bigger agencies investing heavily in a sales team to keep clients sweet rather than the team, process and an open approach.

    Also to add to your pitch bit. SEO is so much more than just one person, we approach SEO very creatively in line with a content strategy (and of course KPIs, goals, etc). The project manager, analyst, developer, copywriter and creative’s involved in the campaign should all be involved to help win the business. We ensure any prospects visit us (the team) to really get a handle of what and who is involved; this really helps them to see the value of what is being pitched.

    Cheers Sam, fantastic post.

    1. @Henry, just wanted to say I like the sound of your setup, especially having a project manager to help structure each SEO project, something I am a big fan off.

  8. Ours is somewhat similar, but with some difference.
    1. We work from a budget standpoint. If the client can spend $500 or $5,000 per month – we create a work plan based on the budget.
    2. Time is typically broken down with what we have learned to be a reasonable allocation, resulting in a blended rate:
    50% to journeyman activities, such as link building, ongoing research, etc.,
    20% reporting, analytics, and management of the above 50%
    30% ongoing strategic work and client management

  9. I like to go with the month to month services contracts. Every month we deliver reports of rankings, analytics, and links. Clients seem to like this approach as long as our monthly reports are comprehensive.
    Selling the service initially is difficult though, as people don’t understand seo fully.

  10. Superb post Sam. As someone currently organising the transition from our old deliverables + retainer model to an ongojng deliverables model similar to the one you described, I totally agree with your mantra of transparency, clarity, and forward planning. It’s all a part of our industry growing up and becoming a mature marketing discipline.

  11. Once a retainer has been agreed it should be easy to say when keyword research, technical audit etc will be delivered and when monthly monitoring, reporting, link building, etc will start.

    Right at the beginning i make it clear that any additional hours outside the agreed retainer will be billed seperately and that i will let them know at the time if they have already used up their hours for that month.

    Some are scared to do this fearing the client may not be happy at the additional cost but this is the approach my accountant takes and it works for him. We agree enough time each month to do my books but if want some additional work done he bills it seperately. I know exactly whats going to be done throughout the year i.e. monthly book keeping, quarterly vat submissions, end of year accounts etc. and i get an invoice each month itemising work that has been done.

    And who ever heard of a builder or mechanic doing extra work for free or not feeling comfortable saying “Ok, that’ll be an extra £xxx my love?”

  12. Hi Sam, This is the first time I have come across a post that explains how you can use a project base model for SEO and I like your approach. I work with large enterprise clients and it works well for large sites. However, I think it is not so cut and dry when it comes to small businesses and SEO. You mentioned that client expectations are hard to manage when you don’t go off a project based model but I think that is why it is so important to set those expectations. Managing the project like @Ric stated, you can still be clear on what you are spending time on and how that will benefit the clients. It is definitely difficult but possible. I appreciate the post and look forward to additional articles. Good luck in managing those client expectations.

  13. Thoughtful post and well done. But maybe trying to make too complex the relatively simple concept of project management? It is, after all, basic PM that you’re describing, yes?

    1. Hi Adam- I appreciate your point and there’s no doubt I am perhaps making this more complex than it needs to be but I would argue that SEO “project management” (it least in the roles I’ve held) is quite different and more complex than simple project management in that a single consultant can often be: contract negotiator, account director, strategy director and responsible for the technical implementation for anywhere up to 10 projects. As a result of this I do think it requires thinking about things a bit differently and almost more looking at the contract process as much as anything.

      I do appreciate what you mean though and will be the first to throw my hands up and say I may be overcomplicating things even in light of the above. I do think this ties into a bit what TJ has said above too in that working on smaller projects and local business SEO this would definitely be an overly elaborate way too look at things too so I can appreciate that this may not be as helpful to everyone.

      In any event, thanks for your comment!

    2. Sorry, just thought of one more thing- I think also that my main gripe (that didn’t really come across) was the number of clients who have come to work with me and stories I have heard from friends and family that have employed SEO agencies about the complete lack of transparency also led me to want to write this. I definitely don’t want to tell people how to do their job and some of this stuff probably sounds painfully obvious but you’d be surprised the stuff “SEOs” do and my view is that it damages us (the industry) as a whole so wanted to pick on a particular point.

  14. Great post, Sam. I’ve been struggling with similar issues. What I have found to work well is to start new client engagements with a deliverable-based program with consulting hours during a shorter time frame (3-6 months), then as the relationship and trust matures between the agency and client, a more robust and integrated retainer works very well. By the time the retainer takes shape, we’ve already proven our work and SEO as a strong marketing channel and the client considers us a business partner (ideal state and commonly achieved).

    One word of caution, make sure the initial deliverable-based contract works for both the agency and client in terms of delivering work in a shorter engagement. Deliverable contracts longer than 6 months tend to lead to scope creep when the work is completed in the first few months and the remaining are reporting and “some” consulting. During this time the client’s business needs change and need more SEO work that would be out of scope.

  15. Client retention is a way some agencies found to lock in their clients and make more profit.

    The not-so-savvy-about SEO client then gets charmed by their good talk and gets lured in.

    Clients have their part of responsibility also.

    1. Hi Jeremy- ultimately I do agree that clients have a responsibility to do their research and not get fooled by promises that cannot be kept and goals that cannot be achieved. However, I would also argue that there is an obligation on SEO’s not to paint a pretty picture and exploit clients in this manner if they can’t follow through. I know it happens in all industry but I think the fact that people do it feeds into people’s bad opinions about SEO being some sort of spammy black magic and less likely to try again with a new more trustworthy agency.

  16. Great post Sam. We have a hybrid of the retainer model and the constant deliverable model. Depending on the scope of work, we open up any client facing tasks to the client via Basecamp. Things that are not real deliverables to the client are kept private and this has two distinct advantages:

    – The client knows whats going on at all times, or we’re just a call away for a status update.

    – They know just enough so as to not try and micro-manage their account manager.

  17. Hey Sam awesome post! Gotta say though that I’m still for the retainer model despite the hazards that you pointed out. Though your constant deliverable model has some promise to it. 🙂 Thanks for sharing. Cheers!

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