A Realist’s Guide to Setting Expectations for SEO

Setting expectations. We have all heard this term at some point, and a few weeks ago I happened to see an entire blog post about how to set expectations effectively for SEO. Yuck. I mean, it was a great post, and I get the point of why it’s important to set expectations. We all have to set expectations, but the whole topic just makes me want to throw up because there is something fishy about the term setting expectations. Personally, I despise this term because it wreaks of a typical cover-your-ass business attitude. It’s in the same vein as making sure every correspondence is emailed, so that there is a record of everything. Documenting every last message is utterly ridiculous and ultimately pointless. It’s like you’re going into a relationship with the mentality that you have to gather and organize data for the purpose of one day using it as evidence. If you have that mindset, you need to examine your life.

If you have ever been in a situation where an email could actually prove something, you probably already know that those emails are rarely used as evidence in situations where both sides are so astoundingly pissed off (in those situations, it’s best for both parties to just part ways). In fact, the only reason those emails exist is so that both parties can read them and feel like they were in the right (i.e. “See that? Right there? I told that b-hole that I wanted to rank for 2 specific terms.” Or… “That guy’s a nightmare. Did you see his email? He asked me why his site is not ranking in the top 3 results for a couple of impossible terms after only 6 months of SEO. Then he told me that I had not done anything for their business! What a jerk.”). Gosh. It makes me cringe to think of those experiences.

Maybe we could avoid those stressful events if we do a better job at setting expectations. Or maybe not. Have you ever noticed that ‘setting expecatations‘ only raises its ugly head when a client is unhappy or dissatisfied? Whose fault is that? As an SEO,  it’s your responsibility to keep your client happy. If you can’t manage a client relationship, being a badass SEO won’t really matter because you’ll lose all your clients. In fact, you may need to find a new line of work. More than half the game is managing relationships. Maybe even more than half. Sorry, I’m not a statistician.

Let’s face it. There are a lot of times when the SEO/client relationship is not optimal. Let’s just call these bad relationships. Many factors can lead to bad business relationships, and they rarely have to do with SEO recommendations, work or methodology. In the end, everything comes down to results, but quite often there are external factors, such as the current economic climate or the client’s company culture. These factors can play a huge role in creating a bad business relationship, and sometimes these external factors can actually outweigh your SEO campaign results.

If you’re a good SEO, results are not the culprit. Results will keep your clients happy for the most part, and your results are always there to change the client’s mood from “WTF is going on with our SEO?! You suck at SEO!” to “Yeah, you’re right. Your results speak volumes for how awesome you are at SEO. I’m not pissed off at you. It’s just that my boss is on my ass about everything. Wanna get a beer?” We’ve all been there. People are taking it out on you when you actually did a great job. It’s like that scene from Three Amigos when El Guapo is taking out his frustration on Jefe:

Classic scene. Now where were we? Oh yeah – If you’re not a good SEO, you’ll be up against the fact that you suck at SEO and you’ll be up against the many external factors that are producing pissed-off clients.

If you have any sort of social skills, you can probably discern the nature of a business relationship within a few minutes of talking with your client about your SEO recommendations. Some people are happy, easy-going and good-natured, and these people would never insult you or get in your face about anything. These people don’t work in marketing (and for the most part, they also don’t work in e-commerce). However, this is not to say that all marketing people are sadistic jerks. Most people in the search industry are awesome people who have a nerdy undertone about them. However, you must understand that there is a lot on the line when you take the reins of company’s SEO campaign. Livelihoods, families, that super sweet Cable TV package – directly or indirectly, your clients are placing their job and all their most beloved possessions in your hands when you take over an SEO account. You’ve gotta respect it. So don’t F*&$ it up.

As an SEO, you’ll need to be able to communicate your thoughts and prove your methods with solid results. If you ever find yourself discussing ‘setting expectations’ then you can be assured that you failed at creating a good relationship with your client and/or getting awesome SEO results. Hopefully you can own up to that. And then you can move onto the next client with a new, wiser perspective. Well, hopefully you can. Hopefully. [If you can’t, go find those emails you saved. They will make you feel better. Either way, no matter what happens, at the end of the day both you and your (ex)client will be sitting at a bar with a beer in hand, and all of life’s problems will disappear. At least for a while.]