I’ve been doing SEO for almost as long as the industry has existed (um, a long time) and am always up to share my experience with friends or connections that are interested in creating a website or looking for tips on how to optimize for search engines.
In the vast majority of those times, I don’t ask for money. I won’t accept if they offer, either. That’s to say, I really don’t have a problem jumping on a call or answering SEO questions via email.
Overall, it’s been great. I’ve kept it casual and have preferred no strings (read: unpaid) because I didn’t want the hassle of having to perform to someone else’s expectations because money is involved; I give them direction for free, so there’s not only no risk on my side, but no risk on their side either. That doesn’t mean I didn’t take on some larger projects that paid me. Even then, my paid projects were great, but considering I’ve helped more than 50 websites large and small, it was just a numbers game before I ran into an issue.
From “Helping Out” to Paid Client
A little more than five years ago, a co-worker approached me to help his partner optimize her site for search. She had started a website around career coaching and soft skills. I was more than happy to offer my help and told him to let me know next steps.
He never followed up, but I ended up meeting his wife, the owner of the site, at a work function. In 2012, I met Lei Han at a company party in downtown San Francisco.
We ended up spending the majority of that work party chatting about her site, what she understood about SEO and what her goals were. I’d say we talked nearly two hours. By the end of the night, she thanked me profusely and kept apologizing for eating up my time at the party. I assured her it was cool; I love talking shop and it’s not like it was an M.I.A. concert or a birthday party for a good friend. I told her no worries and that if she had any more questions, that she should email me. She said she was grateful and that she would contact me later in the week.
She connected with me on LinkedIn a little later in the week, saying: “Stuart, thanks for all the great SEO tips. would love to get your mentoring more when you have time.” I responded to her LinkedIn message to send her questions to my email address. She did and we exchanged several emails about the SEO of her site, what she could do, and how she should approach it. I even jumped on the phone a couple times to discuss. She was grateful again. It was all good. I was happy to help her get her site up to speed SEO-wise.
Months later, she contacted me and asked me if I had the time to help her out. This time she offered to pay me for my time. I agreed. When we started this second engagement, I didn’t charge her what a consultant of my experience would have normally charged per hour. In fact, my rate was 30% of what an SEO of my experience would have charged. That was my decision, but providing that for context later on. In any case, I didn’t mind doing the work and told her that I didn’t always have time to dedicate X hours per week. That I would work on it when I had time. This was our spoken agreement throughout this working relationship.
The first campaign went well with little to no hiccups. Still, looking back, I did have to set and re-set expectations multiple times. I always ensured that positive rankings weren’t promised and that I don’t have access to Google’s algorithm. What I do best is use my experience and knowledge to do send the right signals in order to rank and it’s up to the search engines to interpret them. Even though the first campaign went very well and the site saw significant improvements in SEO traffic, she would often not give any credit to the work that was done to get there instead suggesting that it coincided with work that she was doing on her end.
“Could it be the blog post we created?”
“I released my newsletter around the same time.”
I would counter by saying that the blog post (or newsletter) was helping and I encouraged her to continue posting more posts, but would have to highlight the work that I was doing. It was annoying, but mostly shrugged it off as her not knowing how SEO works. All said, the first paid campaign went off well. She was happy and we went about our own way when the campaign ended.
Lei Han, the “Career Coach” That Cheated Me.
We saw a huge increase in ranking keywords and SEO traffic, so I wasn’t surprised to hear from Lei again months later. Again, I was happy to lend a hand. This would be our third and final project together.
She agreed to my raising my hourly rate (still significantly lower than market rate). Again, I set expectations around not promising results and we then mapped out a strategy that we would implement over the next several months. There was a loose time frame set, but similar to our two previous jobs, we agreed that this wasn’t either one of our main jobs, so we would work and connect on it when time allowed for it. Lei agreed and the project started.
At the very beginning, things were smooth, but after several months, the work relationship began to fall apart when she wasn’t seeing the progress that we saw in the first campaign or that she expected. I reminded her that at the beginning of the project, that nothing is promised and that her site is in a different place. The goals were also different. The keywords were more competitive this time around and that it would take time for us to build authority.
Unfortunately, talking her down and answering her questions were only temporary. Slowly but surely, the same behaviors started to show: questioning results, wondering about metrics, and taking credit for positive progress. What was worse this time was my needing to repeat myself week after week after week about things we’ve talked about a handful of times.
I also began to feel as if I was beholden to her as a full-time employee — which I wasn’t. Lei began to ask more questions that weren’t in the scope of our project or even related to SEO. Over time I fielded questions about social media, crowd sourcing, creating logos, concerns about being hacked, queries with website capacity and bandwidth and asked for recommendations for a webhost. She also began texting me in the evening or early in her morning if she had problems with her webhost.
At the beginning, I would help to the best of my knowledge, but over time, I realized that answering was just feeding her impulses; that she believed that I owed her that because she was paying me for SEO. I stopped responding to all text messages about work and became more and more bothered.
Lei still lacked a basic understanding of how search engine optimization worked. That lack of understanding is okay because that’s why she hired me. However when she continued questioning well-known industry best practices (over and over) and taking credit for good results, then it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship. Add to that the micro-aggressions, the expectation of doing work out of scope, and having to repeat myself more than a dozen times on specific best practices wore on me. It was time for me to end the relationship. In fact, she hit on four of these five really good reasons to fire your SEO client.
When You Know When to Fire Your SEO Client
Over time, the human condition is to start taking things for granted. It’s like night and day comparing someone on the first day on their job to that same person one year in. When I started out helping Lei out, it was free and easy and she was grateful (as she should be getting free info). The second campaign worked out quite well and she paid me on time for the most part. Payment wasn’t a problem.
For me, things started to change in the third campaign when she felt like she wasn’t getting more than her money’s worth. Read that again: Lei didn’t just want her money’s worth, but she wanted more than her money’s worth. Yes, we want to improve our client’s rankings and traffic and give them as much as we can within reason, but SEO contractors aren’t Black Friday sales or Amazon Prime Day. You’re not getting an 50 inch LCD TV for $79.
From this experience, I would say these are the red flags to pay attention to:
- Out-Sized Expectations
- Expecting Work Out of Scope
- Taking Credit For Progress
- Communication Outside Normal Working Hours
- Doesn’t Understand Basic SEO Metrics
After having enough of the growing disrespect, I sent Lei a text message to terminate the relationship. At the end of the day, I did more than 80% of the work so I asked to be paid 75% of the work I completed. I felt that to be fair. What did Han think was fair? Not to respond. A few days later, I asked her again for payment. No payment. A week later, I requested to be paid. Well, you get it now.
I’m Still Pissed
When Lei needed help with SEO and social media and recommendations and webhosting, she had no problem taking that help. Over the course of a few years working with her, I delivered optimizations, SEO strategy, backlinks, content, infographics, recommendations for webhosting, SEO traffic, Wikipedia mentions, social media shares – not to mention all the free work and fielding questions out of scope.
When it came down to paying for that work, she chose not to pay me believing that she deserved more. Keep in mind that this is from someone that prides herself on soft skills, communication, and leadership. What I got was silence and unpaid invoices and this “Stanford MBA” got off with free work and improved site SEO for life.
In the end, Lei paid me less than half of our agreed upon price (which included a social media campaign that I paid out of pocket). This is when I did more than 80% of the agreed work. I won’t get into the exact sum but the money wasn’t insignificant. What matters here is that I got scammed by her and taken advantaged by this “career coach”. As you can tell it doesn’t sit well with me.
I didn’t mind helping Lei out in the beginning, I did so 100% altruistically. I would still jump at the chance to help out friends and smaller websites with an hour or two of my experience. I enjoy talking about SEO and I’m happy to share my knowledge without charging anything.
That said, after working with Lei, it definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. In the future I’ll be a lot more careful about taking on paid clients that have small sites and will keep an eye out for signs. I hope you can take something from my experience to see the red flags and know when to move on.