You would think that after 20 years doing SEO, I might be bored, or that I’ve seen it all. And while I have seen a lot, the search industry is always changing, and this is what I love about it. SEO also attracts some of the best, smartest, and most genuine people I know, and I’m so grateful to be a part of the community.
On this blog, we like to be vulnerable. We share openly about client issues that arise and obstacles we’ve faced as an agency as we grow. And my team and I love sharing what I know, from trends in learning and development to how to increase law firm leads.
We also share mistakes we make and ways we’ve fallen short. Sharing the full story helps us remember we’re all human. But for every failure, we create a new solution, like developing in-house digital marketing technology to prevent and correct human errors.
Recently our team experienced the disappointment of losing a client that taught us about expectations, communication, and the reality of SEO.
A recent case study
In late 2021, we started working with a client who joined us after reading Law Firm SEO. We were excited to work with them, and they had been working with a reputable vendor that only does organic SEO for personal injury lawyers.
When they came to us, neither the client nor their previous agency could figure out what was wrong with their website. The site had experienced significant dips in traffic and keyword positions on Google from September 2019 to November 2021.
When we first engaged with this client, our SEO team audited the site from a technical perspective and then our team of engineers started to fix the critical issues. We saw small gains from these efforts, but quickly realized that we were just putting band-aids on a site that was on life support.
We created a special task force to work on this site and would meet every morning at 9:30 AM EST for 45 minutes. I made it a personal mission of mine to fix this site and make it one of our case studies. On some occasions, the client would join us on the call to have more transparency while we were all in the SEO operating room.
Our team’s strategy was to fully deconstruct the site and recode it from scratch while improving page speed and core web vitals, modifying URL structure and taxonomy, optimizing breadcrumbs, and incorporating better internal link strategies among many other technical and content improvements.
In conjunction with the website rebuild, we also started an aggressive PR and link building campaign leveraging creative stories and angles, interesting data points, and lots of outreach to the media. These link building campaigns generated lots of buzz and dozens of links from major online publications such as ABC News, MSN, Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, Law.com, Fox News, and dozens more.
Because of pressure from investors, this client needed results faster than what they saw. And because we had just finished rebuilding their website, immediate positive results were not realistic.
When you rebuild a website and start changing the URL structure and internal links, it’s to be expected that traffic will temporarily suffer because Google is removing old URLs from the index and following redirect rules to reindex and cache the new pages. Unfortunately, we did a very poor job managing the clients expectations and educating them on the short term repercussions.
We saw this after the May 2022 Google core update, when the site really started to take off and reap the benefits of the work we put in over the previous five months.
The client’s website had an initial dip in performance as a result of the recent Google update. But as the newly rebuilt site pages are now getting indexed, performance has gone back up and continues to increase, as we had predicted.
We can’t predict Google, and neither can any agency out there. We won’t make unrealistic promises to clients, nor will we hide behind data to claim credit for others’ work. But what we can do is communicate early and often on what to expect from SEO.
In this case, under-communication on our part led to the client leaving us. We didn’t do a good enough job managing client expectations, and while we never like when that happens, it was a learning opportunity and a chance for us to be vulnerable about something that didn’t go our way.
The reality of SEO
The reality is that SEO is a long game. It’s not for quick-fix types who want immediate results. But patience pays off, and our clients who’ve been with us a long time are still realizing the benefits of work we did years ago.
This case study scenario is what happens when we inherit a broken website. When our team made the decision to rebuild that client’s site, we knew performance would take an initial hit. And after the May 2022 Google core update, their site is now making big gains.
SEO is also for realists. I recently shared on our company Instagram that I don’t always tell clients to swing for the fences when it comes to SEO. What I mean by that is, if you’re just getting started in your SEO journey, chances are your website isn’t going to rank for high-value keywords with a large search volume.
If you’re not yet in a position to rank nationally for top keywords, I recommend focusing on ranking for an important longtail question that’s further down the interest funnel for people doing a search. As your site grows and becomes more of an authority, it can start to rank for more desired keywords.
For example, our law firm digital marketing clients might choose “personal injury lawyer” as a focus keyword. Instead of swinging for the fences, try for a base hit. Work on ranking for a longtail FAQ first. (And if you’re a personal injury attorney, here is a good example of what those FAQs can look like.)
As long as I’ve studied SEO, organic search has been a push/pull and an exercise in expectations versus reality. SEO is for people who are all in. It would be wrong of me as a leader—and us as an agency—to promise short-term results on a strategy that’s designed for the long run.
Long-term results need a long-term strategy
Because of the long-term nature of SEO, we expect to work with our clients over the long run. If a potential client comes to us wanting instant gratification through organic search, we set clear expectations and educate them on how SEO really works.
We design SEO strategies intended for the long run. If clients leave us after three or four months, they won’t see the benefits of what a long-term SEO strategy does for their website. We can’t make short-term guarantees, and we never overpromise. (This is the worst.)
In the case of our client who left us after we rebuilt their website, the real story of how SEO works reveals itself. Now that their website has the proper SEO foundation post-rebuild, we’re watching it start to gain. If the client had stuck around just another 45 days, they’d have seen their performance take off!
And just like this illustration of expectations versus reality, progress is still being made in SEO even when performance is flat. The work that doesn’t look or feel like progress will pay you dividends every time.
We’ve had clients leave us after two months and have watched from the sidelines as they’ve gained and grown. I’ll be honest: it sucks, and we agonize over it. But we always want to learn and improve, so we dissect what happened and update our processes to incorporate new information and client feedback.
There are plenty of misconceptions about SEO out there. The truth is if you’re not in a long-term relationship with your SEO agency, you need to adjust your expectations about organic search.
What we learned and how we’re improving
Regardless of the outcome, this experience reminded us to always clearly communicate goals and plans, encourage open dialog, and be open to pivot when Google changes its algorithm. SEO is like human behavior: people sometimes make irrational decisions, and search engine algorithms can be unpredictable.
When it comes to communication, we’ve learned that it’s important to make sure that the other party really hears and understands what we’re saying. When we say “It will probably take a little while for results to really start to show,” and they say, “Yup, I hear that all the time,” it’s not enough to mentally check that box and move on. We need to make sure that they get what we’re saying and can visualize what that means for their commitment to us.
As CEO of Hennessey Digital, I try my best to lead by example. I assume positive intent and practice empathy in the workplace, and I encourage everyone who works with us to do the same. And if something does go wrong, I take responsibility. We believe in positive thinking, but taking action matters most.
Moving forward, we know who we are and that we’re good at what we do. We’ve had clients switch to us because of our standard of service. Their results with their previous agency were decent, but they felt they weren’t getting the attention they should from their account team. We care about our clients’ success, and they trust us to get them results that grow their businesses.
And if you need help growing your business, fill out the form below to work with Hennessey Digital or reach out to me directly to schedule a 1:1 coaching session.