Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked as a marketing director, a consultant, and the owner of a small consulting business. In that time I’ve hired a number of vendors for various projects, and I’ve also been the vendor for a number of companies as well.
One huge mistake I’ve made both as the vendor and as the client:
Under-communicating at the outset of an engagement.
Clients bringing in SEO consultants are almost certainly busy. This is likely part of the reason they went ahead and hired you as an external consultant or consulting company in the first place. They’ve probably spent a lot of time working through the process of researching the best way to hire and evaluate an SEO and may have waded through a few different options for vendors.
In an ideal world, you as the consulting company would know all the right questions to ask.
However, with the first handful of clients I worked with, it might be difficult to learn what I didn’t know about the client. Likewise, I’ve also worked with some vendors who got started with little to no intake process whatsoever.
You may not be able to anticipate every question you’ll have or every bit of information you’ll need from a client at the outset of an SEO engagement, but there are some stock questions that will only require a small amount of time on the client’s part that can give you a large head start and help avoid miscommunication at the pass.
I’ve outlined a series of questions you as the SEO vendor likely want to get answered, the information you’ll want the client to share, and accounts you’ll need access to.
Accounts You Need to Access
Getting access to important data is a crucial first step in the SEO process. If you’re doing regular reporting, a technical SEO audit, and/or content promotion and link outreach, you’ll likely need access to a combination of the following:
- Google Search Console: These accounts provide a ton of useful SEO information (e.g., detailed search analytics data) that can be crucial in diagnosing indexation issues or errors with XML sitemaps
- Google Analytics: Similarly, you’ll also obviously want to monitor and measure traffic fluctuations.
- Google AdWords: This process has a few steps and can be a bit annoying for the client, but getting granular pay-per-click search query data can be useful for an SEO (you should probably know your way around your own AdWords account as well).
- Additional Analytics Accounts: If your client uses a tool like Omniture, again having access there will be valuable.
- Company Email: If you’ll be doing link outreach/content promotion on your client’s behalf, getting an email from the company (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) can help with response rates.
- Access to CMS: If you’ll be making updates on your client’s site, getting early CMS access can also be helpful (just make sure you clearly communicate what you’ll be updating and when).
- Access to Log Files: If you’re performing a technical SEO audit, you may want access to the log files for your client’s site.
If your primary client contact doesn’t have access to these, encourage them to find out who within their company has the ability to take care of these things upfront. The more of these items you can have access to at the start of an engagement, the quicker you’ll be able to offer recommendations, get them implemented, and get new content live and promoted so that you can start delivering visible results.
Questions You Need to Ask
So what’s useful information for you as an SEO?
Information About the Client’s Business
You have expertise in SEO. Hopefully, you also have a general understanding of business fundamentals, but you won’t know many of the specifics of your client’s business. Understanding their company’s goals and underlying business objectives is key for any SEO. Here are some helpful questions to ask your client to get those all-important specific details
1. Which actions on the site are most important to you?
Is it webinar sign ups, white paper downloads, free trials, newsletter sign-ups, form submits, or something else?
2. Are there any specific dollar values or relative levels of importance you assign to activities on the site?
For instance, does the client place an estimated value on white paper sign-ups based on historical conversion rates and the value of a lead/opportunity?
3. Are there sections of the site that are more valuable/higher priority than others?
If so, what are they?
4. Who is your target audience or ideal customer?
Encourage your client to overshare here — ask them to send specific persona materials, information about how specific buyers use their products, etc.
5. Can you list out any specific industries or sectors you want to target?
If this applicable to your client.
6. What are your company’s unfair advantages?
- Why do your best customers choose you?
- What problems do you solve for them?
- What’s different about you than your competitors?
7. What are some key reasons your best prospects don’t choose you?
What does their largest competitor do well that they struggle with?
8. What does success for the engagement look like?
- Specific traffic numbers?
- Lead or sales volume?
Hopefully, your client won’t just say rankings! If they do, ask for some additional success metrics, and provide some suggestions if needed.
Known Issues & Problems
If there are known tracking or SEO issues (or just things your client vaguely suspects could be problems), you’ll want to know about them.
Here are some questions to ask your client that can uncover some of the more common issues:
9. Is there something you suspect “isn’t quite right” in your data?
For example, were there instances when analytics code wasn’t installed or firing properly on part of the site? Does your client have older Google Analytics goals that likely aren’t representative of the actual actions you value on your site?
You, as an SEO, should be able to help fix these issues. At the very least, knowing about these issues gives you the knowledge that some of the data you’re analyzing may not be reliable.
10. Are there other domains you own?
If your client has a community micro-site or a dedicated site for a specific event they run (or even used to run), it would be helpful for you to know about it.
11. Are there “copies” of your site that may live elsewhere on the web?
- Do you have a staging server?
- Does the .net version of your domain show all of your content?
- Do you have translated international versions of your site’s content?
12. Has the site been penalized (to your knowledge)? If there’s been a significant traffic drop in the past, do you know or suspect why that may have occurred?
Even if your client didn’t get an explicit notification within Google Search Console and they just have suspicions about why their site has been penalized, you’re going to want to know.
Your client may be way off base about why their traffic dropped, but if that’s the case, you should be able to recognize that what they’ve suspected isn’t likely to be the actual issue, and what they share may point you in the right direction.
Beyond just asking about known issues, getting general information about the SEO work that’s been done is also helpful. Even if your client thinks their last SEO was great (or just OK) and there aren’t any major issues they’re aware of, deliberately outlining the work that’s been done to date is extremely helpful to you as a new SEO stepping into the mix. Here are some items you can ask for:
13. What link building have you or any vendor done in the past?
Encourage your client to be as specific as possible — if they have lists of links and/or descriptions of activity from previous vendors, ask them to share them. If their old marketing manager used to oversee this and your client knows they built some links but aren’t sure where they came from, ask them to try to obtain a list or get a general sense of what types of links they were.
14. Share your perspective on possible keyword targets. Are there certain terms you think would work particularly well?
Ask your client if there is anything they think may seem relevant but that they’re sure wouldn’t drive quality traffic/leads. You may need to push back or determine that the client’s ideal keywords are too competitive for their site’s age and authority, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of their expectations and your client will better understand your reasoning for targeting specific terms.
15. Are there any technical issues or sections of the site you’d like us to pay particular attention to?
If your client thinks everything about their documentation is working fine but that’s a key area of the site for them, you need to know. If the client recently moved any section of their site to new URLs or to/off a subdomain, even if they think everything went great and there are no issues, again, you need to know.
16. Do you have any reporting, keyword research, and audit information from previous SEOs you’ve worked with?
If they did a great job, that information will be helpful. Even if they weren’t happy with their work, knowing precisely what activities the client wasn’t happy with and having access to the reporting and updates the client received from other SEO vendors is vital information. This will help you understand what that last company was working on, why the client was dissatisfied, and how you can better deliver for them.
You need to understand which of your recommendations are likely to be implemented quickly and which aren’t. Start with triage – focus on things that have high impact and are quick to implement.
In mapping out an overall project plan, it makes sense to tailor the work you do, the types and volume of content assets you create, etc. to a company’s capacity to implement changes, get content live on their site, and support promotion.
You can better understand where you should focus your time and energy by asking your client the following questions:
17. Who will be responsible for and available to make technical updates to the site (such as implementing redirects, making on-page enhancements to increase page load times, etc.)?
If your client has a backlog of development projects and has limited development resources, you want to know upfront that there may be bandwidth or turnaround issues with resources.
This can help you prioritize tasks or maybe offer a recommendation for development help – or, perhaps you even have that capacity in-house.
18. What is your planned content schedule (if you have one)? Who will be creating content for your site and how much content do they plan to create (a blog post a day, an in-depth article once a month, nothing consistently, etc.)?
You may want to help with topic ideation here, and the volume of content your client is planning on creating may impact the topics that you tackle for SEO as well as potentially impacting your recommendations around site organization and information architecture.
19. How do you plan to promote new content?
Find out what your client’s content promotion process looks like and who is involved (social media specialists, their PR firm, etc.) so you can best understand how to maximize new and existing content on the site and build a plan that will fit with your client’s current promotion strategies.
Keyword Research & Content Ideation
You’re likely going to work through a lengthy process for making keyword targeting recommendations and doing content topic ideation. Jump-start that process by getting some specific information by asking these questions:
20. Are there sites you’d label as your biggest “competitors”?
This could mean sites competing with your client in search results for terms they want to rank highly on, and/or companies in their niche who they think are doing a great job with branding and/or online marketing.
Your client’s competitors can often be a good starting point for content ideation, so this is an important question to ask.
21. Are there any publications/websites that are frequently read by your target audience?
This is particularly helpful for topic ideation. Ask them who their team is reading and who the go-to publications in their niche are.
Similarly, find out if any specific articles and/or topics resonated particularly well with the client’s target audience (gone somewhat “viral” within their niche, been frequently linked to and cited by popular writers and influencers, etc.).
22. What would you identify as the conferences that your prospects would be most likely to attend (if any)?
Can your client identify any tracks/talks their prospects would be particularly interested in. Conference organizers are looking to put together an agenda that’s interesting to their prospects. If there’s a conference that your client generates a lot of great prospects from, the tracks and keynote speakers there could be great fodder for topic ideation and may lead to some interesting potential keyword targets.
23. What are some subreddits and/or forums that people in your industry (and/or inside your company) read frequently?
24. Who would you identify as “thought leaders” in your space?
These are speakers and writers who your prospects are especially likely to trust and look to for information.
All of this information will help you better understand your client’s niche and their prospects, as well as help yield better keyword and topic recommendations.
What Did I Miss?
The final bit of information to ask your clients is an answer to the question that we always close our SEO audit intake form with:
- Is there anything else we should know or that you’d like us to focus on?
Again: Encourage your clients to leave their shyness at the door!
Encourage them to include any additional information they think may be helpful such as goals, internal expectations beyond their team for the project, areas of concern, things they perceive as strengths about their site’s SEO that they want to make sure they don’t lose traction on, additional questions they hope to get answers to as a result of an initial audit.
The better you communicate with your clients from the start, the better your results are likely to be.