Posted September 5, 2006 12:54 pm by with 96 comments

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When you’ve spent the last 6-7 years of your life helping to build successful search engine optimization/marketing firms, you tend to learn a few things about what works and what doesn’t work. 😉

Now that I am an internet marketing consultant, I’m finding great satisfaction in helping other SEO/SEM firms evaluate their business and put in place plans and strategies that will help them grow. There are dozens of different issues that I have faced and resolved in my career and they appear to be common among other firms too. On that basis, I wanted to share with you the Top 10 mistakes I’ve seen search marketing firms make over the years. Hopefully, you’d find one or two ideas (and maybe all ten!) useful.

1. Charging a “Set-up” Fee.

Let’s start with the biggest business mistake search marketing firms make; pricing their services. I can’t tell you how many SEO/M firms I see that still have the following pricing model – $X,000 for set-up, then $XXX for monthly maintenance. Yikes!

It’s not that I can’t empathize with firms that continue to offer this model. You get a nice cash injection – before you even start work – and the client has a low cost option to keep the service going. Unfortunately, what actually happens is this:

a. You deter potential new clients who are not able to budget for such a high upfront cost;
b. Those that do become clients, see the “monthly maintenance” as an optional extra, something they often (wrongly) feel they can do without.

There are lots of alternative pricing options that work for search marketers, but often just switching to a standard monthly payment, that remains the same each month, can help potential new clients sign-on and create a mindset that the service is an ongoing concern.

2. Offering Too Many Service Options

I’ve spoken with, and worked for, search marketing agencies that offer a smorgasbord of search marketing service levels. Does this sound like your service offerings: “Light,” “Entry,” “Bronze,” “Gold,” “Platinum,” “Platinum Plus” etc, etc. Enough already! My head hurts just from looking at the service names. Can you imagine how confused your prospective clients get, when they actually have to decipher each service’s deliverables!

Ideally, your firm should offer just one solution–a service that is customized specifically to the needs of the client. If you can’t do that, my advice is to have no more than three different service levels. The first is the lowest cost, but will still get the job done. The second is the middle-tier, and the one you actually expect 80% of your clients to select. The third is the most expensive, whistles and bells, service that you only expect a few clients to actually sign-up for.

The reason for the three levels? Here’s what will likely happen when you speak to prospective clients. Some will like the concept of the top-tier service, but select the middle one, due to budget constraints. Some will not have much of a budget, but will likely “size-up” to the middle-tier, so as to not appear cheap or short-change their business. Price the middle tier offering to be the best value for them and you.

One other, quick tip on pricing. Never discount any service without removing some of the options from that service. I’ve worked with thousands of clients and each time we have simply reduced the price–without reducing the service–it devalues the service and creates a “what other discounts can I get” mentality with those clients.

3. Their Business Doesn’t Scale

I am still amazed at the number of search marketing firms that don’t want to grow their business. Honestly, they’re quite happy to have 10 employees, 15 clients and $500,000 in annual revenue. While that’s never been my philosophy, I respect those are their goals for their company.

That being said, you should always structure your business so it can be scaled to just about any size–even if you do decide to stay the same size. What’s the best way to do this? There’s no quick answer, but one rule of thumb that I find works is this; build your business as if you planned to franchise it. Could you take the systems and processes, you have in place, and replicate them elsewhere. If the answer is “No” you likely have a poor internal structure that probably relies too much on the skills of the CEO or some other SEM expert. (See No. 7 below).

4. They Spend More Time on New Clients Than Existing Ones

How many of you get a little annoyed when your cell phone company wheels out great new handset deals, while you’re using a “brick” because you’re 12 months into a 24 month agreement? That’s often how your clients feel. Ask them! Most will tell you that the service you offered over the first couple of months was a lot better than what they now receive. It’s no wonder that the search marketing industry has such a high attrition rate.

Instead of purely focusing on attracting new clients, realize that you’ve already made a huge investment into your existing clients and figure out ways to ensure that they don’t see a drop-off in quality and attention, once they’ve inked that 12-month deal with you.

5. They Fail to Understand a New Client’s Goals

How much time do you spend discussing a new client’s goals and expectations, when they first retain your services? I’m not talking about what was discussed on the sales-call; I’m referring to after they’ve signed-up. My guess is your company, like many SEO firms, assume what the client is looking for, or apply some cookie-cutter approach to their goals.

You should spend hours, if not days, learning everything you can about your new client, before you start any campaign work. Don’t just take the normal client request of “I want more traffic” or “I want to be #1 on Google for my top keyword.” Interview the client and find out what metric, what results truly matter to their business. What will they be looking for, in order to deem the campaign a success? Don’t ever make assumptions, and don’t ever accept a generalized “we want more” answer.

6. They Fail to Realize Clients’ Goals Change Over Time

Speaking of understanding your new client’s goals, did you know that they change…often? Don’t assume that the goals, agreed on when the client first retained you, are the same goals each month thereafter.

While you’re moving ahead and achieving an increase in the number of keywords ranking on Google, your client is now fixated on why a particular page doesn’t have a PageRank. Never assume you know your clients goals. They change and you should ask them to reconfirm them often.

7. They Rely On One “Expert” to Provide All Client Recommendations

How many search engine experts does your firm have? Be honest. How many employees do you have, that you would have no problem speaking on your behalf at the next Search Engine Strategies conference?

Too many search marketing firms rely on the knowledge and skills of one in-house expert. Often that expert is the CEO or another high-ranking executive, who’s plugged into the industry, written articles and spoken at conferences.

Many search marketing firms never grow, because they rely on the availability of just one expert. It’s time to realize that you cannot, and should not, rely on one person to provide all of the deliverables. Train your people to know as much as you, in fact, give them an opportunity to learn more than you! You’ll gain more credibility, grow your business, empower and retain your talented employees, while reducing the crushing burden of being the gatekeeper of information.

8. Client Information is Silo’d

Not only is it important to constantly check your client’s goals and needs, but you should share that information with ALL those working on a client’s campaign.

Too often, clients have a single point of contact within their chosen SEO firm (a campaign manager for example). While the campaign manager and the client are both on the same page and both understand the goals of the campaign; the poor copywriter down the hall–the one asked to come up with some compelling, optimized copy–doesn’t have a clue what the client is looking for or what their business objectives are.

Many search marketing agencies could kill two birds with one stone–client success and employee retention–if they would just make sure that every employee understands the goals of the client and how their work makes a difference in the campaign. Client goals and desires should not be kept to just one team member. Instead, make sure everyone on the team has a chance to hear firsthand from the client. You’ll find their work quality improves and their satisfaction with their job increases.

9. They Turn Speaking Engagements Into “Sales Pitches”

It’s a sad fact that most “expert speakers” don’t understand what their audience wants to hear from them. I’ve seen too many speakers stand-up and provide the audience with high-level theories and concepts. They then hit their audience with a double-whammy of atrocity. First, they never actually provide solutions to the problems they’re discussing–fearful that they’ll give away too much information. Second, they compound this by turning the presentation into a sales-pitch for the company they represent. Arrgh!

Want to know which speakers end-up getting a fistful of business cards at the end of their talk? It’s the ones who’ve shared so much great advice and information with the audience that the attendees think to themselves:

“Wow, that’s really going to help our company, but it sounds so complex and time consuming. I know what, that guy seems to know his stuff. If he shared that amount of information in a 20 minute presentation, imagine the amount of info I’ll get if I hire his search marketing firm.”

10. They’re Scared of Losing Their Top Talent

If you are running a successful search marketing agency, you need to embrace the cold fact that you will, at some point, lose one of your top employees. Unfortunately, this paralyzes many firms as they become concerned with giving their top employees too much information or too much training. Have you ever asked yourself this, “Should I send “Jane” to that conference? What if one of our competitors offers her a better job?”

There are many questions that are similar to the one above. Unfortunately, they often prevent CEO’s from training their staff to the highest levels. They ask all new employees to sign non-compete agreements, hoping that they’ll be able to keep their staff on a tight leash.

If you want to grow your company, you should invest in its people. Sure, you may end up losing some of your key people over time, but that brings us back to the idea of not relying on one expert to deliver client recommendations. If you create a great environment, which takes care of clients, trains its employees and gives them an opportunity to make a difference, you’ll build a company that your key people will want to stay with. And if they do decide it’s time to stretch their wings, by following the advice outlined above, your company will still remain strong due to its great client relationships, service offerings and expert staff.

  • Georgi Georgiev

    Andy, I track your blog for more than a year now, but I never felt like leaving a comment. This time I do. And it is “What a great post Andy!”. You pinpoint very very painful areas of Search Marketing and the problems the people in the business face. I’m one of them and I have had the experiences you describe. Some I solved, others – not, but I never had it like that – clear and ordered in my head. Thanks for that post!

  • Andy, very good post. I see you’ve touched on few points I wrote on my blog about “SEO companies being underpaid” here … don’t know if you read it.

  • Hi Georgi, thanks for your kind words. I’m glad to have helped.

    Hi Igor, I didn’t read you post, but will now! 😉

  • Jim

    Nice! – Yes, some of these points you hit home with me a few weeks ago when you came for consulting. (and I’m glad I got tons more details and solutions as well from your consulting)
    Great Post!

  • Thanks Jim – of course, the consulting service comes with a lot more detail and solutions. 😉

  • Well done Andy. Glad to see you offering up some of that wisdom of yours!

  • Andy,

    So what are the most common problems are you seeing out of all? What are the most difficult.

    I would venture to say that the most common and difficult are:

    #3 – Their Business Doesn’t Scale
    #7 – They Rely On One “Expertâ€? to Provide All Client Recommendations
    #8 – Client Information is Silo’d

    What are your thoughts?



  • Brilliant post Andy. Would make a great article (-;

  • An article you say? Never thought of that! 😉

  • Good question Daniel. I would say having a business that doesn’t scale and not taking care of existing clients, are the two biggest issues. Pricing of services is also a big one.

    There are many more, so maybe I’ll do a follow-up with numbers 11-20. 😉

  • Your post is good, Andy, but a lot of the advice is only really usefull if you want to grow a larger company. I, for one, am not sure I really do. I simply don’t like working in a large company – so why build one? I like working in a small tight group – just a handfull of close people 🙂

    Having a different goal than growing a large company also (almost) automatically removes a lot of the problems you (so rightly) describe – such as doing sales pitches at conference presentations. I’ve never done that because I am not selling anything. In fact, I don’t really want to take on too many new clients 🙂

    Money is nice, no doubt, and with the houly rate I (and other “profiled” SEOs) can charge I could probably make more than I do. But in recent years I come to realize that there are just more important things than work and money – for one, my family, my wife and kids. With a high hourly rate, very selective (and few) clients, I can make more than most people and only work very little. Having that as a goal totally change the top 10 mistakes one can make (because you can, off course, still make mistakes – large or small).

    Anyway, you post was good, Andy – I just wanted to point out that there are other valid goals in the life of a good SEO than growing a larger firm 🙂

  • Here’s one, make employees take pride in their work. An employee’s performance should be judged by the “quality” of the work, such as conversion rate from this page copy, or ROI from the SEO/SEM effort. It shouldn’t be judged on the quantity such as “how many pages of keyword analysis the person did last week”.

  • Now what’s wrong with “Bronzeâ€?, “Goldâ€?, “Platinumâ€?, and “Platinum Plus?â€? ;^) LOL

    Those marginally beat the “Super Deluxe” and “Would you like fries with that?” SEO service package names.

    Honestly, I used a few quirky (gay) names for services back in the day.

    Your #1 – Charging a set up fee: I always find the monthly payment scenario the best for everyone and often compare it to a “hosting plan” when talking or emailing potential clients. Paying for SEO really should be like paying for hosting. I mean. come on – who would pay for a year’s worth of hosting from ‘xyz’ hosting company without knowing uptime, support, and other problems that might occur? The same should go for SEO, at least until they’re comfortable with the level of services and work being performed.

  • Hi Mikkel,

    Thanks for stopping by and providing your thoughts. I certainly agree that those that are content to keep their business small, often don’t face all of the issues I highlighted – in fact, they sometime have their own, which I am learning now that I am a consultant.

    That being said, I think it makes sense for every small business to review the items I listed. A lot of them do apply to companies that want to grow, but they also apply to those that wish to stay small. For those, my advice helps them to be more efficient, which would allow them to have a greater work/life balance.


  • Hi Paul,

    That’s a great addition to the list and one that is just as important. I think also comes back to the “silo” of information I mentioned. SEO staff need to feel that they are making a difference to a campaign and not just expected to “churn” out deliverables.

    I’d much rather measure performance based upon client satisfaction, than number of deliverables.


  • Hi Brian,

    Long time no see! 😉

    I agree that insisting on a set-up fee makes it a lot harder to win a new client. With many companies already burned by at least one SEO campaign, a company that removes that fear, will more easily win the business.


    PS. I should have recommended services be called “Regular”, “Biggie” and “Super-Sized” 😉

  • I think most common business mistake – not just for SEM’s, but for all types of enterprises – is treating employees like commodities instead of like respected business partners. Set up systems where, if your bottom line grows, they profit, as well. Make your success their success and they become totally motivated to help the business prosper.

  • Dear Andy,
    Thank you for highlighting these familiar issues. Can you talk more about, or give an example of, an SEM firm that scalable? To me, scalable and replicable means a certain amount of “cookie cutter” processes that must be followed. I use the term “cookie cutter” in a positive way here. The difficulty I have as the head of a small SEM firm is that we spend alot of time customizing for small clients. We want to grow by adding larger clients, and I have the franchise mindset but I’m not sure where to focus…

  • Tim

    I totally agree!! I have worked for a few SEO companies but the last fitted this description down to a key. They had a steady income but were not looking to expand, then 3 of their only decent SEO programmers left leaving them in bit of a situation. I think every mistake you have outlined here was based around their company. What worries me is, how many other companies out there are making these mistakes too? Hence why I freelance now.

  • Hi Tammi,

    When I consult with SEM firms, there is never a single recommendation for how they can scale their business.

    I certainly don’t advocate a templated SEO campaign for clients, but the way you structure internal teams, training, rewards and some of the more routine task, is how you are able to replicate each team and grow the business.

    That’s the teaser version. 😉

  • ST

    Fine! I have made always first mistake.

  • As a consultant I totally related to every word of your article. The Bronze, Platinum etc especially hit home with me – I had consulted for a company who was so intent on having the “special names” and forget what the customer wanted.

    I was repeatedly saying the customers wanted “XX” and they were too busy color coding packages (which they changed, I swear, daily).

    They also were not delivering at all what was being promised to customers I had brought in.

    After losing several pending clients due to the company’s total disregard for their needs and wants- and then the company having the gall to say I had not brought them any clients recently – I walked out of that consulting position as fast as I could.

    I’ll be reading more of your posts – this was my first visit here.


  • This was a great post. I must admit, when I read the title I didn’t think I was going to learn much, but your ideas are really solid and useful. I particularly liked the one about pricing. I had taken it as a given that charging a set-up fee was both essential (for the time and effort involved in setting up a campaign) and intelligent (as it provided a nice sum of money). I now see that it can be detrimental. Still, I wonder if one should charge for the time and labor involved. I imagine that one can just raise their montly rates a bit to compensate for the time and effort involved in setting up a campaign. Particularly if the client is locked into a long-term contract. By the way, do you approve of securing a “long-term” contract with a client (let’s say, 6 months or a year)? Obviously it is nice to have guaranteed income for a period of time, but are there any down sides that you are a ware of? I’d be interested to here your opinion.

    In the meantime, please keep the good posts coming.

    All the best,

  • Hi Moshe,

    I make different recommendations, based upon other aspects of an SEO firms operations. It would be hard for me to make a suggestion that would fit all business models.

    If you’d like to set-up a personalized consultation – with recommendations tailored to your business – I’d be happy to do so.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Great points. In addition to client information being siloed, the other aspect I find often is that SEM/ SEO are viewed as “all-by-itself” techniques, without considering that ultimately it is meeting certain business/ marketing objectives.

  • An good read and one I will be comparing close with our business model.

    We’re a very young company and the problem were dealing with is too much work – a problem i think you never really dealt with in the body of your article.

    When do you expand? what are the pitfalls young companys should expect? what are the measures for good expansion, from 2 – 10 employees.

  • Funny that – I’ve often felt concerned about giving too much away simply on blogs and forums – but you’ve done exactly what you preached in 9., and already I’m thinking:

    “I can do some of this myself. But obviously this guy knows more and is more valuable to work with.”

    Great posts – blogrolled at Platinax. 🙂

  • Thanks Brian!

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  • I would like to expand the first point. Not only should they not have a setup fee they should keep the contract short. Whatever you want to get paid should be split up on shorter contracts. Don’t try to get really low monthly payments. Don’t set your smallest contract over a year for $100 a month. When you make long contracts your giving out free loans.

    I would also like to know what you think of automatically adding ppc to an SEO contract. Like saying that a certain percentage of the contract goes straight to PPC for every client.

  • David, there are some creative ways to put together campaigns that include a mix of PPC and SEO, under one budget.

  • I understand that I have just seen people just have a certain set % that is the same on all contracts.

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  • Barry

    Hello Andy.
    This is a great article. Its of much help and an eye opener in its unique way. Thank you and keep up the good work.

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  • Nikolina-Croatia

    Dear Andy,

    I am from Croatia, and I am thinking of opening my own Marketing and Sales Consulting Firm (while in Croatia there’s none, and I am pretty into it;-))…I agree on all statements, but it will pass at least 3 more years till people start realizing what is actually their problem, and start improving and upgarding current adventages instead of inventing new ones…well people do not devote too much time to develop strategies, or they simply do not get it….

  • Miss/Mrs. Nikolina

    I live in a country, which is just about the same as yours (I doubt, however you’ll ever read my comment…) and SEO is something I am interested in for about 7 months. Many of the field experts think that this is nothing, and I agree, but I am eager to grow and to start a SEO business in my country. The Internet infrastructure there is rather poor, and people would hardly know what does a Search Engine mean, but I hope they’ll soon understand and I’ll be there for them, trying to avoid the point Andy described. Don’t think that I live in a ‘cave’-country. People do know what is Internet, but for many businesses a Web page in many cases doesn’t mean anything.

    I wish I could participate in that SEO article competition, but unfortunately, I don’t have many chances with my 7 months of experience. I will try though…

  • I do understnd the problems but what i feel that a problem arises only when there is a solution following it. We need to sit and think about it and find the solution in this case online marketing is a best way of seo.

  • Great Article Andy especialy when you are new in the market you can learn or correct things in your business enviroment.

    Keep up on Good work

  • Ok, i kinda have another view on some of these issues.

    I would never do seo by the month. We spend WAY to much time in the initial optimization, design of the optimization structure, research etc. We charge 3k up front, and i would not do a job for a penny less. Perhaps this is because we physical SEO redesign that actually takes design and programming time, apart from the normal SEO.

    I think you should get as much as you can, so you have the resources to have success. I agree with the names Andy points out, it does make your options seem cheesy.

    As for as month by month goes:

    I require a one year commitment, and would never change it. Again, we put too much time, and too much value is received to let a customer see results and leave, thinking the results would continue. In fact we would strip out all SEO on termination, as it is our view that the work we are doing is ongoing and includes weekly updates mandatory for success…if a client leaves (like a membership) they should not continue to get your SEO infrastructure.

    This all leads to perceived value IMO. I thin the biggest mistakes made by SEO firms is charging to little and de-valuating the services. SEO can make a company double their revenues, so i would not rent it month to month. Just my 2 cents… I did find many very interesting points in your article. thanks.

  • sky

    “Former Porn Webmaster Sees The Light…Well, Mostly.”

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  • @Scott: I’m surprised at your comment “In fact we would strip out all SEO on termination”. If a client has paid you to optimise their website are you saying you would revert it to an older version if they stopped paying your retainer ?

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  • Hello Andy, great article!
    The number one error says everything, the clients expect many things from a SEM company, and if the first thing you tell them is about a setup fee, is like putting a wall between you and them. Why don’t give them a free consultation, the only thing that you’ll probably lose is a couple hours of your time, but you will win the confidence from them.

  • An excellent post and a worthwhile read time and time again.

  • I have read this post now for about the 11th time. I love it Andy. Thanks!

  • Good question Daniel. I would say having a business that doesn’t scale and not taking care of existing clients, are the two biggest issues…

  • Good question Daniel. I would say having a business that doesn’t scale and not taking care of existing clients, are the two biggest issues.

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  • ege

    Great Article Andy, thanks for writing.

  • Andy, really your tips are quite interesting. I hope some of this helps!

  • I promise you this will work. It helped me a lot when I first read these 10 mistakes because the first company I knew about in seo was Internet Advancement. They are obviously no example to follow. Thanks again Andy!

  • Even if it was said a lot times, i Thank you for this great Article Andy, have needed some nice tips.

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  • Great Article Andy especialy when you are new in the market you can learn or correct things in your business enviroment.

    Keep up on Good work

  • perfect article i like this page and bookmarked i will learn more things from here..

  • An excellent post and a worthwhile read time and time again.

  • Peter

    What are your thoughts on pricing for PPC set up and management? Wouldn’t an initial set up fee and ongoing monthly management fee be suitable in this case?

  • I promise you this will work. It helped me a lot when I first read these 10 mistakes because the first company

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  • To be honest I hate quotes in HTML. Particularly when I’m coding in php using sql queries. Of course it’s not difficult at all, but sometimes it drives me nuts when I am debuggin script and the error occures because of those quotes.

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  • Thank you my friend for your useful article.

  • I just started internet marketing about a year ago and found that search engine optimization is the way to go. I post to my blog regularly and submit articles to article directories when I can.

  • An excellent post and a worthwhile read time and time again.

  • thankss so much
    I just started internet marketing about a year ago and found that search engine optimization is the way to go. I post to my blog regularly and submit articles to article directories when I can

  • Great Article Andy, thanks for writing.

  • I loved it. I posted the list on you should post your lists in the future on
    – Aaron

  • An excellent post and a worthwhile read time and time again..

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  • While I don’t think I will continue this forever… I find that not requiring a contract seems to help those who have already been burned by other firms offering SEO services they cannot fulfill. I would imaging most young firms that are capable of the work and can show some results would benefit from not requiring a contract. Once you become more established, you would need one to help filter client requests. Until then, do the job, and there is no reason for the client to stop paying.

  • Thanks perfect post

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  • Thanks great post. I like this.

  • Money is nice, no doubt, and with the houly rate I (and other “profiled” SEOs) can charge I could probably make more than I do

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  • Great Article Andy, thanks for writing.

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  • Many thanks for the great information guys.

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  • Some businesses are best left when they reach the amount of money that the owners/investors wanted from it. This is because the business may be part of a larger group that wants to indulge in some experimentation etc. and they like to use the consistent business to bring in the money. Like a bread-and-butter sort of business. Growing it means higher costs, greater risks etc. So, there are reasons for those ambitions and I think it’s okay to make a decision (like companies like Ferrari have done) where they say : “Ok, this is where we wanted to take it and we’re going to let it stay here and no further.”

  • Thank you.

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  • Great article. Even though it’s almost 3 years, it is still relevant today. I tailor my contract/services based on who the client is and what their business entails.

  • Great site with very good look and perfect information… Thanks!

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  • Cool that is what i was looking for!
    Enjoyed reading it. Thanks

  • Great article, great site. Perfect information for me. Keep up the good work! Thank you very much

  • interesting article, i like your point about concentrating too much on new clients at the expense of current clients.

    if you can take such great care of existing clients that you’ll almost never lose one, then their recommendations alone will create a climate for uninterrupted growth AND you’ll be creating a legacy with rock-solid goodwill that can be sold or passed on.

  • Beal because of the free information he gave me a while back and continues to give me

  • Where has this article been? Amazing article Andy – truly good for any business.

  • I think each client should have a tailor made campaign, as you say – it’s often niche markets that can get the best results and not just big keyword terms and that’s what you rightly poit out in 5 & 6.
    I think the first part of a campaign needs to be a listening excercise – no-one knows the business better than the (potential) client, and that’s where you always need to start.

    Great article!

  • Nice tricks, everyone should read this article for knowing what to do in Search Marketing.

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