SEO Pilot Projects Are a Bad Idea
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Nobody likes to waste money and SEO estimates sometimes come with sticker shock. So when a company requests an SEO pilot project (3 months or less) I understand their perspective and desire to make sure they don't throw good money after bad. The problem is that SEO is not something that necessarily has an immediate result. Sure, sometimes you can remove a bad entry from a robots.txt file and suddenly see more organic traffic to a site, but more often than not there's significant analysis and ramp up such that the first set of recommendations takes weeks to be implemented. And by the time they are implemented, there could be less than a month left in the pilot engagement. If talks of a renewal begin a few weeks prior to the end of the current contract, you've got a window of just one or two weeks in which to show significant improvement with rankings/traffic/conversions. Good luck with that...
Why Would a Company Want an SEO Pilot Project?
SEO is relatively new and so I think many companies are unsure about its effectiveness. However, they've undoubtedly heard enough about it that there is pressure coming in from different directions to get on the SEO bandwagon and to get on it fast. These conflicting forces lead to the obvious, but not so good compromise of "let's try SEO for 3 months and see if it actually works."
Another factor that company's are likely worried about is that the SEO industry doesn't exactly have a glowing reputation (see how to spot a snake skin SEO seller). There are fly-by-night shops that are more than willing to take a company's money, fiddle with the website a bit, and then close down. Independents doing the same thing are even more numerous. So from the perspective of the company, a way to reduce this risk is to only commit for a short period of time.
The Truth About SEO Pilot Projects
There are a few problems with short engagements that make positive results hard to achieve. The obvious, which I've mentioned already, is that there just isn't enough time to get enough work done to have an impact. Just to be clear, I'm talking about doing SEO for large companies with complex websites and multiple layers of bureaucracy just within the IT department. Right around the time when you finally establish trust and a relationship with the people that can make things happen, you've got turn your attention to talking about a contract renewal or extension.
I believe, the mentality (conscious and subconscious) that the parties have with a pilot project also has a negative impact. On the one hand, the company buying the SEO services is pretty explicitly saying they don't trust the company they hired. The response to this is to provide service that is high on feel-good activities. This isn't necessarily bad, but it is time consuming especially when have to first deal with negative impressions before being able to build positive ones.
On the other hand, the SEO agency is likely going to focus on activities that will result in a renewal so the there's an opportunity to do real SEO. And as with public companies that only look to make the current quarter look good to shareholders, a short-term approach can end up costing the company time and money that could've been put towards a comprehensive SEO strategy with a realistic timeline for implementation.
A Better Approach
As I see it, a company needs to feel good about two things to skip over the notion of a pilot project and instead engage in a long-term effort.
1. Does SEO work?
I think this first question is an easy one to answer. A few phone calls to trusted contacts at other companies should provide you with the insight you need. Sure you can read the case studies and stats put out by the various SEM organizations and agencies, but there's no easy way to know who can and who can't be trusted.
2. Is the SEO company good at what they do?
Like the first question, this one can also benefit from a discussion with those you trust. But in addition to such communication, I think it's also worth doing some searching in Google. You'll likely find the CEO of the SEO agency all over the place, but how about the actual people that will be working on your account? LinkedIn profiles, blogs, speaking engagements, and SEO/SEM communities can paint a professional profile that is much better than nothing at all. SEOs always talk about reputation management so why not turn the tables on them and check out their reputations? I will, of course, acknowledge that what appears on the web often can't be verified, but it's a pretty good starting point.
3. Use the "Out" Clause in the Contract
Contracts commonly have an out clause for both parties. Such a clause provides each side with the ability to terminate the engagement without a financial penalty (or at least one that is not too severe) when there is sufficient reason to do. Be professional and use this clause as a safety net rather than as a means for making threats. With accurate records showing discrepancies between what was promised and what was delivered, you can make a solid case for terminating the engagement.
I think the above three steps, when executed properly, can go a long way in providing an alternative to a pilot project that allows the SEO agency to put together an appropriate, long-term strategy while also offering some protection and comfort to the hiring company.