Practical Tips for Holding your SEO Company Accountable
There are two primary means attorneys have at their fingertips to protect their SEO investment and establish accountability:
(a) The Marketing / Partnership Agreement;
(b) Scheduled Campaign Performance Reports.
Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone, in The Godfather, establishes the frame of mind needed when working with these documents: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” I encourage you to have a friendly, positive relationship with your SEO expert as you work together day to day. But this collegial relationship is possible only when it’s built on the foundation of accountability. When uncertainty, frustration, resentment, and distrust begin to seep in, the friendliness of partnerships can erode. Do yourself and your SEO provider a favor by insisting on tightly crafted partnership agreements and ongoing reporting. Remember, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
The SEO Marketing / Partnership Agreement
In the most basic terms the Internet Marketing / SEO Agreement should define exactly what you are buying and what you can reasonably expect from this purchase. There are not thousands of resentful milk buyers on the market, because we know the price is $3.53/gallon and the delivered product is easily understood. We buyers fork over $3.53 and we receive a gallon of milk in return. Simple. It is erroneous to believe that an SEO agreement cannot be similarly defined. It is a bit more complicated, but not by much.
Make certain your SEO agreement outlines the following:
What will be produced and delivered for your law firm on an ongoing basis. SEO is not a perfect science, nor is it magic. Achieving or improving visibility in the search engines (SEO) is accomplished through the application/implementation of actual production tasks (not the waving of a magic wand). These tasks may include:
- Content Writing
- External Link Acquisition
- Social Media Signaling
- Article Marketing
- Additional/Satellite Websites
- Design Updates (Yes, these can influence SEO)
- Mobile SEO
- Blog Articles
- Online Press Releases
- Website/Onsite Optimization
- Google Places/Local Profile
- Images Optimization
- Quality/Professional Directory Placements
- Video Optimization/Promotion
- and others.
It is the cumulative effect of these production-oriented tasks that works to optimize your website(s) for search visibility. Guess what? Each of these tasks can be quantified and should be itemized in your SEO agreement.
Understand that each task may have different criteria for quantifying the product. For example, content tasks may specify a number of pages, articles or posts to be crafted each month. Onsite optimization tasks or social media work efforts may best be quantified with hourly allocations [e.g., Onsite Optimization: 3 hours/mo. @ $95/hr].
What each task will cost. Your SEO agreement should not only outline what production tasks will be provided to your firm each month, but itemize the cost for each. Are you paying $250/hour for link acquisition or optimization consulting? You won’t know what is included and what it is costing you unless you work with your SEO provider to detail their efforts in your agreement. Since each SEO task can be quantified, there should be no hesitation or challenge to associating a cost for each.
Build in flexibility. It is critical to acknowledge that no SEO campaign needs the exact same strategies and services at all times. Most likely your campaign may adjust quarter to quarter as the needs of your SEO campaign shift. You may need more services/production tasks in the beginning of a campaign than you will need eight months down the road. If your SEO provider is doing what they should, your campaign should not remain static over the course of months – so why would your contract or SEO production tasks remain unchanged?
There are options to build in flexibility:
- When defining the SEO tasks to be delivered, their quantity, and associated price, consider framing the tasks as a range. For example:
Content Writing (5-8 pages/mo. @ $X/each)
Onsite Optimization Tasks (5-10 hours/mo. @ $X/hour)
Blog Posts (2-6 posts/mo. @ $X/each)
This offers the SEO provider the flexibility to adjust and adapt on behalf of your campaign to the dynamics present in the search marketing environment. As an example, if Google makes a change, your agreement already has built in the flexibility for your SEO expert to shift effort away from onsite tasks to additional content.
Note: This also means your monthly investment total will be a range ($X [min] – $Z [max]).
- To accommodate different levels of SEO service (e.g., the beginning of a campaign versus month 10+), you might request that the SEO company outline three levels of service: Options A, B, and C.
Each option should specify all SEO tasks, quantities, and per-item costs. Give the SEO company the flexibility to trigger the options as they deem most appropriate, month to month or quarter to quarter. This provides the SEO strategist the flexibility to implement what is needed at any given time, while also defining the framework for holding them accountable.
- If the SEO company is not amiable to an agreement with either a range of itemized services or a variety of options that allows them to trigger varying levels of service, consider a short-term contract (~6 months) and request that the partnership reevaluate the level of services and performance at the end of that time.
Vague descriptions of broad expectations should not take the place of an itemized list of services. “Top rankings in your X, Y, Z markets” — “Outperform your top three competitors” — “Get more business from your website” — “Rank for A-H search keywords/phrases” — “Be more handsome than Johnny Depp” – These are all wishes, but they are not defined, objective terms appropriate for a partnership agreement. “Top Rankings” are now subjective as the search engines customize rankings for individuals and locations; “Outperform” is a subjective term with no definition of what that means; “More business” and, certainly, “More handsome” are both generalized statements. Broad expectations or “vision statements” do little to enable you to hold your SEO provider accountable and understand what is being provided for your money.
Your Website Campaign Evolves, Why Shouldn’t Your Agreement? If you find yourself in an SEO agreement that offers little specificity as to what is being delivered and how your money is being spent, request a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) as an addendum to the existing agreement. There should be no hesitation from an SEO company with this, as you are not asking to terminate or rework the agreement – only to clarify the terms and products/services being delivered under an existing agreement. You should insist that the MOU follow the same tips detailed above: namely, specifically define each of the services/products, their quantity, and the associated cost for each.
Investing time and consideration when working to craft an SEO agreement is one of the most important steps in protecting your investment and building a solid foundation for the partnership with the SEO provider. While the SEO company may bristle at first, they will appreciate the openness and reliability of a detailed, well-defined agreement in the future as it provides for more confidence and trust on your part in the long term. Take advantage of the opportunity to craft a detailed partnership agreement from the beginning or to build accountability into an existing relationship via a Memorandum of Understanding as an addendum to the agreement.
Reports, Metrics & Accountability
As a supporting mechanism to a well-defined partnership agreement, your ongoing performance reports are essential to an accurate understanding of the performance of your SEO activities and investments. Work with your SEO provider to:
- Ensure that you have ‘Administrative’ access to your data. This may include Google Analytics, Google’s Webmaster Tools, HubSpot, call-tracking programs, online chat tools, heatmap/click-map tools, etc. Make certain you have an ‘administrative’ login to any tools/data that will be used to track and report on performance.
- Define the precise metrics that will be used consistently to gauge performance. Regardless of whether the reporting timeframes are month-over-month, quarter-over-quarter, or year-over-year, you want to always compare apples to apples. Ask your SEO provider to generate a checklist of those metrics they will be utilizing to gauge the campaign’s performance.
- Establish a reporting schedule. While you will most likely receive a monthly set of reports, you may also want to evaluate quarterly reports and annual reports. Agree on specific dates when you can expect your reports; both you and your SEO company should calendar those dates (e.g., the 5th of each month.)
There is an endless volume of data available about your SEO campaign performance, website activity, and visitor engagement. It is easy to become quickly overwhelmed and feel simultaneously uninformed and awash in data. Work with your SEO provider to define a set of data metrics that provides you both with an accurate gauge of the website’s SEO performance.
Common reporting missteps that deliver information of limited use and/or encourage false conclusions:
- Rankings. Relying primarily on a website’s rankings for specific search keyword phrases is misleading. The search engines now deliver dynamic, personalized search results to individuals (regardless of whether or not they are signed in) and customize those results to their physical location (Google is even customizing at the neighborhood level). In short, what you see, what your SEO company sees, what your potential client sees, and what the software uses to track/report on specific search rankings are all going to be slightly different.
Monitoring rankings can be useful to provide general indications of overall trends. Over the last six months, have you generally moved up or generally moved down for a specific handful of search phrases? This can be useful only as a snapshot of trending, but don’t rely too heavily on rankings. The search engines will only continue to customize and personalize search results more and more. Consequently, tracking and reporting on rankings becomes less informative and useful.
As we discuss what metrics are informative and should be used to hold your SEO provider accountable, remember that the only reason rankings were ever useful for tracking is if they delivered business. “Top 3” rankings are useless if they don’t deliver business. Stay focused on what actually matters – the return on your SEO investment – and avoid being lulled into the simplicity of tracking rankings that are not indicative of true success.
- Volume of Organic Search Traffic. Google Analytics provides data on the amount of traffic/visitors your website receives from organic searches. This should be a primary metric for reporting on the performance of your SEO campaign. Are the SEO strategies delivering more or fewer visitors from organic search?
- % of Organic Search Traffic. Your website will receive traffic from other websites, possibly from pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, social media marketing, and direct traffic from visitors typing in your website address. You want to know the volume of organic search traffic as a percentage of all website traffic. This may vary widely from law firm to law firm. If you are a television advertiser, organic search traffic may only be ~30-45% of all traffic. If you are not an aggressive offline advertiser, your organic search traffic may account for 75% or more of your total traffic. Know what your number is and track it as a data point on an ongoing basis.
- Geographic Location of Organic Search Traffic. Google Analytics allows for easy cross-referencing of organic search volume with the geographic location of your visitors. Understand both (a) the volume of organic search traffic from your geographic target markets, and (b) the % of these visitors to total traffic. If only 5% of your website’s traffic is coming from organic search traffic in geographic markets related to your practice, you have a problem.
- Usability Indicators. This phrase refers to how engaged your potential clients are with your website. Usability Indicators usually include reporting on Average Time on Site; Average Pages Visited / Visitor; and overall Bounce Rate. The Bounce Rate is a data point provided by Google to indicate user engagement and is provided as a percentage (e.g., 48%), where the lower the percentage the better.
While it is useful to track these usability indicators sitewide (the default data provided is usually referencing your entire website files), it is more informative to review these data points for your homepage, attorney bio pages, and top five most visited practice area pages. This will offer a more accurate understanding of the user engagement on those pages that are of most importance and most visited.
- Goal / Conversion Tracking. Make certain your SEO provider has detailed goal/conversion tracking set up in Google Analytics. A “goal” can be online form submissions (you want to track each form on your website individually); requests to download an eBook; a click to chat online; newsletter sign-ups; even a click on individual email addresses/links.
Targeting and acquiring relevant, valuable visitors to your website(s) from organic search results is critical to evaluating the performance of an SEO campaign, but so too is understanding how those visitors engage with your website and knowing what types of conversions are generated.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a potentially valuable Web marketing strategy that can deliver new clients for your firm. SEO can be a wise investment with potentially strong return-on-investment (ROI). At the same time, if not properly strategized, implemented, or managed, SEO can be an expensive misdirection of marketing budget.
Attorneys have been left feeling resentful of the large investments that have delivered limited returns and are nervous about trusting SEO companies. I encourage you not to discard the valuable potential offered by organic search marketing, but instead to apply the time to protect your SEO investment by holding your vendor accountable. Insist on a well-defined, tightly constructed partnership agreement, and monitor SEO performance by leveraging metrics and reporting. It will provide you peace of mind, create a solid foundation for a successful relationship with your SEO provider, and deliver increased business for your firm in the long run.
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