Where Does the Responsibility of the SEO End and the Client’s Begin?

Where Does the Responsibility of the SEO End and the Client’s Begin?


Last week, as I recounted my story of a troubled client, I got to thinking about this question. In the world of SEO, where do the lines of responsibility fall? When is the SEO responsible for failure and when is it the client’s fault? Or can lines be drawn between them so easily?

We work in an industry where expectations between the client and the SEO providers don’t often align. Before putting down significant sums of money many clients want some kind of guarantee, expect to see results in a certain amount of time, or want to see “top rankings” for specific keywords they feel are important. On the other hand, SEO providers almost universally reject the concept of guarantees, can only guess at time frames for “success”, and believe there is more to life than top search engine rankings for “important” keyword phrases.

We’ve all heard it said that it is the SEOs job to educate the client, or potential client, as best as possible in order to insure they have accurate expectations. But with all that, it still seems that some clients go on looking for promises never made and have a hard time dealing with certain realities. Understandably, it is their money on the line and they want to get a return on their investment quickly, but sometimes quick is just not possible.

So the question I ask is this: Where are the lines drawn between the responsibilities of the SEO and the client? As I flesh this question out for myself I’m hoping I can provide some basic guidelines for both SEO’s and SEO clients.

The client has to have a solid business plan.
The SEO needs to choose clients wisely.

To the Client: The simple fact of the matter is if you don’t have a solid business plan no amount of SEO in the world will bring you success. In fact, all the number one rankings in the world won’t bring you success. Yes, you’ll get exposure, you’ll get business, you may even get a few “loyal” customers. But sooner or later, if you don’t have a viable business model and plan supporting you the house of cards will come crashing down around you.

You can’t just start a business doing what someone else does. That’s business for the sake of business. If you want to succeed, you have to find something that you can do better. Find out where others have failed or neglected and build your UVP (Unique Value Proposition) around that. Find an approach that isn’t being covered or done to death and then find a way to make your business far more spectactular than what anybody else is doing. But remember, nine out of ten businesses fail in the first couple of years. Being online doesn’t change that.

To the SEO: Choose your clients wisely. It’s not about getting the sale or getting another few hundred or thousands dollars of income each month. Choose clients that you know you can build a long-term, successful relationship with. As the SEO, your job is to help clients succeed. Don’t take on anybody as a client you’re not reasonably certain that you can do that with. Yes, this takes a bit of extra work and it may mean turning down cold hard cash. But when it’s all said and done, you’ll have one less headache on your hand (that’s got to be worth a few grand a month in itself) and you won’t have to worry about unrealistic expectations, no matter how much you tried to educate the client.

The SEO has to have a solid marketing strategy.
The client has to have the investment to back that strategy.

To the SEO: There is no one-size-fits-all marketing strategy. There’s nothing wrong with selling SEO services in packages, but each campaign must be treated individually. The specific strategies that work for one client won’t necessarily work for another. Where you go to find links, what kind of articles to write, the difficulty of different long- and short-tail keywords and what the optimized pages look like when finished are all fluid and vary from campaign to campaign. The SEO must take these nuances into account and create strategies that are specific to any given client.

To the Client: While the SEO package purchased may outline the norms required for success, be prepared for additional recommendations from the SEO that might fall outside the specified contract. As par for the course, the SEO will uncover issues previously not found and may present ideas that are designed to further your business in ways that the standard SEO service may not. Don’t discount these strategies for lack of funds because they may be what you need to vault you to success. Plan ahead for additional marketing strategies recommended by the SEO and jump on them just as soon as you can.

The client can’t expect the SEO to do everything.
The SEO has to outline expected client involvement up front.

To the Client: There are just some things that the SEO cannot do for you. Truth be told, you (should) know your business far better than they do. Don’t expect them to learn everything there is to know about what you do. Their job is to plan and implement SEO strategies that will help you succeed, but there will be times when you’re gonna have to get involved. You’ll have to approve keywords, approve text and yes, you might have to get your hands dirty pursuing links or writing articles or blog posts. Some things can’t be faked and having your SEO do them will make you look like a fraud. When a personal touch is needed, get involved and provide it. Let the SEO be your guide, but don’t hand the reigns of the business over to them.

To the SEO: Clients like to know what they are getting into. If you give them the expectation that it’s a hands-off campaign then you really don’t have a right to go back and ask them to help out. Be sure that the client understands their expected involvement during any portion of the campaign up front. Most clients don’t mind getting their hands dirty, but they don’t like being surprised with “must do” tasks put upon them when they thought you’d be taking care of it. If more programming and development may be involved and extra funds have to be spent, let them know of these possibilities before they sign on the dotted line.

The SEO needs to understand the clients needs.
The client needs to be patient for results.

To the SEO: Sometimes clients themselves don’t know what they need, which is why they come to you to begin with. As the SEO it is your job to anticipate their needs and to communicate those with them clearly. The client is looking to you for advice on how to make their website better and how to improve rankings and sales. But their needs might also be on more of a personal level, in that some clients may need more hand-holding, more communication or more assurances than most. Don’t think of these clients as high-maintenance, they just have different needs than others. Give them what they want, provide the communication level necessary to keep the client satisfied.

To the Client: Results don’t come overnight. And sometimes they don’t come for months. While there is nothing wrong with checking up with your SEO provider to get an update, you also need to allow time for the process to work. Don’t call up every week wondering where the results are. What you can do, is communicate with your SEO the desire to get involved and ask if there is anything that you could be doing to help the process along. Offering to develop content, pursue links, build social media profiles, etc are all things that you can do that will free the SEO up to develop successful campaign strategies for your success.

The success of any given optimization campaign is the dual responsibility of both the SEO and the client. But the success of the business lies solely with the client. The client must be sure that the business can succeed with or without the SEO. Any business solely depending on a SEO for success is doomed to failure, regardless of the SEO’s success or lack thereof. At the end of the day, the success of the SEO is largely dependent on the viability of the anyway.

While the SEO can certainly help a business succeed in new places (online) the client has the responsibility to ensure that the online marketing strategy is fully implemented and carried out. But they also need to make sure that they invest in multiple marketing strategies. The old cliche “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” holds true. Too much emphasis in SEO that produces delayed or less than expected results, can doom a business that might have otherwise succeeded. The SEO’s responsibility is ultimately limited to the contract signed. The business owner’s responsibility for success goes far beyond that, putting them in the driver’s chair of ensuring their success.

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you’d like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.

Brilliant article! Just today, a client looked at me askance when I mentioned her writing an article for her niche. It’s extremely important to have clarity regarding the role of seo and client. Thank you!

Excellent! We applaud you for this amazingly clear article and will be referencing to it on our websites and within our members area. Outstanding!

Yes..! Great Article. We should be more clear to the clients, no matter they are known to yourself or generated from your seo website. We as well should never afraid to teach other and updating clients step by step with what is going on in the SEO Company doing their project will win their trust too. Normally, we recieve 90-% Business from the Europe, and United States of America. The many of the businessmen never met, but what wins them is the mutual understanding, an indication about the clear things in advance e.g. No Gurantees! SEO is Wait and Watch..and then Yes, we may promise for the Quality SEO work. And when it comes to the Quality SEO work, I do not think client gets in to your nurves or on the head :).

Thanks and I think this thread needs to be discuessed further.


The points are well made….and then somewhat undercut by the fact that the author repeatedly forms the plural of “client” with an apostrophe! For ANY writer, if language is one of the tools of your craft, then learn to use it.

Xqqqme, if the article was about copywriting or proper grammar usage, then I’d buy your point about the message being undercut. But since this article is on another topic entirely the argument remains solid as ever. My grammar abilities, however will continue be suspect. 🙂

Thanks for pointing out the errors. We’ll fix.

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