Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is challenging, and it takes a lot of effort to keep winning and become awesome at this essential job.

Common sense dictates that, when getting ready for a difficult challenge, you should prepare and set everything to work to your advantage. But I often see SEO agencies and freelancers setting themselves up for nothing more than failure by taking on projects and clients which, for one reason or another, simply aren’t a good fit for them.

In this post, we’re going to get to the bottom of why that happens. Where do SEO professionals go wrong? How do they end up putting themselves at a disadvantage and unable to produce their best work?

Welcome to 9 of the most common mistakes SEO agencies make when taking on new clients.

1. They do not pre-qualify clients.

Pre-qualifying SEO clients is an essential tactic. This is simply because not every client is going to be a good fit for your agency. This process should take place soon after the client makes first contact, and can be carried out either via a phone call or pre-empted with a contact form on your website.

The criteria will vary from agency to agency, but it all depends on what type of clients and projects you want to work with, your expertise and resources you have at hand.

There are, however, some pretty universal red flags when it comes to unsuitable clients, that I would like to share with you here:

  • they clearly don’t have a budget

Of course budgets vary from project to project, but when someone calls you to inquire about a link building campaign in a super-competitive niche and clearly specifies his £100 per month budget, then it is clearly not going to work.

  • they have very unrealistic expectations

This is the age-old request: “I need a guaranteed number one ranking on Google for [insert super-competitive keyword here] in 6 weeks, please.”

  • their business is not viable

A tough one to call, but if you get the impression that the startup who has got in touch with you is barking up the wrong tree when it comes to their proposed product or service, no SEO campaign in the world will help make it a success.

  • they don’t really need your services or your services are unlikely to add value to their business

Sometimes, it’s ok to say ‘sorry, we can’t do that for you.’ If a potential client asks for a service which you simply can’t provide, taking the work will nearly always end in disaster.

2. They look in the wrong places.

If you want top-paying, blue chip clients, then your telesales people probably shouldn’t be calling local plumbers. Likewise, if you work primarily with hotels, you’ll be wasting your time knocking on the door of 3-bedroom B&Bs.

Define your market as tightly as possible. You can’t be all things to all businesses, so pick your favored industry, niche or size of business and expand your sales effort only within that area.

3. They are afraid to say “no”.

As noted above, you should never, ever be afraid to say “no”. Just because someone wants to pay you to do the job doesn’t mean you have to agree to do so, and it also doesn’t mean it will be a good project to take on.

I’ve seen a number of projects fail simply because an agency or a freelancer took on a project which wasn’t a good fit or was simply too big. So many freelancers and agencies struggle with the prospect of saying “no”, and especially those just starting out with limited cash flow. Let’s face it – saying “no” to money is not our first instinct.

You may think that because the client is happy to pay you to do the job, you have no choice but to do just that, but things are never quite that straightforward.

Working on a project that doesn’t fit your agency may mean that you end up spending too much time on it, thus making it unprofitable. You are also unlikely to keep the client in the long run; they may cancel the contract if you miss deadlines and that will likely result in you parting on bad terms. This won’t help with your reputation, and SEO agencies thrive on good reputations.

4. They fail to analyze the competitive landscape.

I’ve seen a lot of SEO agencies jump into projects without doing their homework first.

Failure to analyze the competitiveness of a niche that you’ve been tasked with working in can lead to a number of problems.

  • First of all, you may bite off more than you can chew.
  • Secondly, you will most likely set the wrong expectations if you underestimate the difficulty and the timescales required to complete the project.

Not knowing how difficult the project is likely to be can also lead to a financial loss if you go in with a low quote and then fail to deliver or discover that you need to spend more time than you originally quoted for.

You don’t have to perform full market research at this stage, but a couple of simple checks can give you a good idea of how competitive your client’s niche is.

At this stage of the project, I would usually do a quick check for a couple of main keywords to see what types of websites rank well and then use Competitive Landscape Analyzer from Link Research Tools (which happens to be my favorite tool for this kind of research).

Competitive Landscape Analyzer

5. They set or agree on unrealistic expectations.

This is a classic mistake in SEO and happens even more often when it’s just the sales team – and therefore potentially no SEO experts – closing the deal. Unfortunately, some salespeople will promise way too much just to get the client’s signature on that dotted line.

This is why you always need people with good SEO knowledge to be involved during the sales process and present at any meetings with the potential client.

Unless your sales team doubles as SEO experts, they are unlikely to know how long will it take to move the needle in a particular niche and what resources it will take to get there.

6. Expectations aren’t managed from the start.

You should never tell your client what they want to hear. Doing so will usually lead to scope creep (i.e. you’ll work well beyond what was originally agreed), which is why you should only ever tell your clients what they need to hear.

Define the project from the start and be upfront with the client about what they can expect from the SEO campaign. If they want more, or think it doesn’t sound ambitious enough, as an SEO agency you are well within your rights to revisit the proposal and increase the price accordingly.

There should be no surprises in SEO, for either the client or the agency itself. Manage expectations right from the start.

7. They fail to confirm/establish client’s goals.

Make sure you know what your client wants. A great tactic is to prepare a checklist of questions you ask all of your new clients and which is aimed at gaining an in-depth understanding of their business. Here’s a good example to get you started.

If you’re not on the same page as the client when it comes to defining a successful SEO campaign, then you’re in trouble. I’ve seen this before, as SEO agencies will often have a predefined definition of success, such as increasing conversion rates or organic traffic. But every client has different goals, and meeting those goals will make them happy. To keep them happy, you need to know what kind of results will put a smile on their face.

Never assume you know what your client’s goals are.

8. They take on projects they do not have the experience, know-how and/or resources for.

Taking on new projects is always tempting and saying “no” is often difficult. This is why many SEO agencies underestimate the difficulty of projects.

We all know that testing is a big part of Search Engine Optimization, but learning on the job is a tactic that rarely ends well. If a client asks you for App Store Optimization and you’ve never so much as thought about it, taking the project is just asking for trouble.

You should always strive to learn and become better at digital marketing but at the same time you need to be aware of your agency’s limits. The same goes for the resources; what may be sufficient for a small business may not be suitable for enterprise-level SEO projects.

Always make sure you have (or can quickly gain access to) the resources needed for each project.

9. They never challenge the client.

If you work in SEO, you’ll know this feeling all too well. You’re midway into what is proving to be a successful campaign and the client calls you. They want you to implement something that will be detrimental to the campaign.

What do you do? Smile politely and agree? Or do you challenge the client and explain that it’s not a good idea? The latter should always be the approach you take. You’re the expert, remember, so never be afraid to point out when a client is simply wrong.

Go along with their request, and the campaign will fail, and there’s a good chance the blame will be placed on your shoulders.

You know best when it comes to SEO!


This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope you found it valuable. Consider the advice above and you’ll hopefully make better choices when it comes to gaining new clients.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.

  1. Number 5 is one that i’ve seen happen to many times.”Their (sales team) set or agree on unrealistic expectations.” SEO can contain many different things that a client may need. Some of these things are simply not identified by the sales team. That’s because the sales team can have a hard time identifying things, especially technical issues.

    I’ve learned that sometimes the best sales team is the business owner or the SEO Analyst doing the work. There’s a level of knowledge that you simply can’t find in a sales guy without years of experience.

  2. Pre-qualifying clients is always my first step, so I was glad to see that that was literally #1 on your list! It’s important to know exactly what you’re getting– and not getting– with any client you consider to take on board. Much like how a doctor works, it’s important to diagnose their current situation before making any promises. At our agency, , we make it a general rule not to work with startup businesses– not because we don’t like to help budding companies, but because many of these companies make steep promises about how much they’ll pay us AFTER our work is done and they’re “famous.” Sorry, it just doesn’t and shouldn’t work that way. If there is no money from the start, my experience has shown that they won’t invest back into the company so it’s will continue to generate more money… which includes paying all the people/companies, like SEO agencies, that got you money to begin with! You really hit the nail on the head with the other points.

    Another mistake many SEO agencies make is not creating a paper trail with their client. Some clients are impatient and want results NOW. So when the results don’t come in the first 4 months, which likely they won’t with some of Google’s updates, then the client freaks out and demands his money back because he doesn’t know what you have done. One way to fix this is by using a ranking tracker that emails to your client daily. This will help you to not have a large 4-month charge back fee!

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