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Selling SEO

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 03 Dec, 2012
Essential Essential topic

Building a business case for investment in SEO

One of the joys of running an SEO business is there's a huge range of organisations out there for you to target: everyone, after all, wants to rank. But actually selling and delivering SEO services to a wide range of organisations can bring challenges as well as fulfillment.

I hope this post will be useful both to consultants and agencies selling SEO services, but also marketers and business owners looking to hire SEO agencies.

When it comes to selling SEO, I believe one of the biggest challenges we face is engaging with people who have different views of SEO and online marketing. Figuring out how people view their online environment and what it means for them and their business is fundamental to building a business case for SEO and a productive ongoing client-agency relationship.

How misunderstanding of SEO can lead to confusion

I think that there are different perceptions or questions around understanding SEO that fall naturally into three areas. I'll keep them simple, since often I think SEO is overcomplicated. This is not what clients want or need.

  1. What marketers and business people think SEO is
  2. How you do it
  3. Who should do it

A common understanding between buyer and seller of these three areas is an essential prerequisite to a successful sale.

If you can get to this common understanding, you’ll find yourself in a consultative sales process. This’ll help you to differentiate yourself from other agencies selling technical SEO, which is something that or non-technical decision makers to understand and buy into.

Let's look at the three areas one by one:

  1. What is Search Engine Optimisation?

When a new sales enquiry comes in to my company, Cicada, the prospective client often begins by saying they want to rank well, or better, or be number 1, for a specific keyword. This is fine as a conversation starter but if that's their only objective, it can mean they have quite a narrow understanding of SEO.

This in turn can signal there's a potentially long journey ahead, before we'll get to do the things that really make a difference to their business.

Sometimes, ranking better for a single keyword can make a huge difference. We have a client whose primary keyword drives a large proportion of their high-value traffic. But that client has also worked hard on the conversion aspects of their site.

Our view is that a pure focus on keyword ranking is not very effective. It’s much more effective when done within a broader marketing and / or sales context and with clearly defined business objectives. And that’s one reason why the SmartInsight's PRACE framework is so useful.

At Cicada, we place SEO in the context of our wider mission: making our clients' websites easier to find, easier to use, and easier to measure. And if you can get your clients to buy into that kind of wide-ranging brief, it's likely you'll be able to zoom-in on a bunch of things that will really make a difference to their business objectives.

2. How do you do SEO?

There's endless information available on SEO techniques, together with ongoing discussion about what constitutes white/grey/black hat and an increasing interest in content marketing. So I'm not going to cover those here. What I do want to discuss is this: where do you start and how do you prioritise?

There are so many things you could do to optimise a website for search engines that it's a job to know where to begin. This is particularly so if you take the view that it can't and shouldn't be separated from business objectives and strategy, wider marketing campaigns, social media, and other website disciplines like user experience and conversion optimisation. Here's the process that we use to help us figure out what's important:

  • Get a technicolour understanding of the client's business
    Find out as much as you can about their commercial objectives and strategy, products and services, marketing and sales, customers, competitors, staff, partnerships and other stakeholders. Drill down into their website visitor personas and the sorts of keywords the client thinks are important. Understand the purpose of the website and how it supports the organisation.
  • Do a wide-ranging audit of how the website is performing
    Against this strategic-level understanding, we drill down into four main areas:
  1. How easy it is to find the website?
  2. How easy it is to use the website?
  3. What does the competitive online landscape look like?
  4. … and finishing up with a technical on-page audit.
  • Identify the gaps
    How well does the website performs for the business, against what your client would like it to be doing?.
  • Identify ways to plug the gaps
    This is where you’ll need to use your experience to select from the huge range of SEO and digital marketing techniques, and disciplines such as user experience, a short-list of activities. Hopefully by the time you get to this part of the process it’ll be clearer to you where you need to begin and what kind of budgets the client can work to.
  • Prioritise
    Sometimes it’s obvious where you need to begin, other times less so. In these instances we use a simple little matrix to help flush out the priorities by urgency and impact:



High Medium Low
High 1 2 3
Medium 2 3 4
Low 3 4 5


  • Implement, measure and go again
    If the site’s not measureable, then that should be one of the first things you do. Setting up goals, funnels and events in your analytics package will help you and your client to understand the impact of the changes you’re recommending or making. When that’s in place, it’s a simple matter of identifying the highest priority changes agreeing a budget, and getting on with it.

    Then implement the changes, let them bed in, measure the impact and go again, all the time working to the client’s budget, reporting on real business measures, and carefully steering the site to business success.

3. Who should do SEO?

This relates back to the question of 'what is SEO?' Who should do it also depends on the nature of the organisation, particularly how big it is.

To be honest, I don't believe there should be hard and fast rules here. So long as you have a clear set of objectives and a plan to get you there, I don't think it matters who does what. Yes it's likely that there'll be technical tasks that the client won't want to do or won't want to learn. We find that in businesses of all sizes, the client can be relieved to outsource the drudgery.

I think one of the most valuable parts of our SEO process is that we meet the client regularly - ideally monthly and face-to-face. In these meetings we review the last month's activities, review the stats (summarised in a RAG report using the SmartInsight's RACE framework), and agree objectives and activities for the next month. Who does what then falls naturally out of that.

In our experience, when the client sees how SEO and digital marketing drive their business objectives and they start seeing results, their confidence grows and they ask for increasing levels of support. In the medium term this can lead to them expanding their teams, for whom we provide training, and it's a virtuous circle.

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