Why Fixed Amount SEO Retainers are Unethical

Lots of SEO agencies charge clients for upfront activities, then slap on a monthly fee for “ongoing search engine optimization.” Yet they provide little value — often not even explanation of what they did or what was accomplished, beyond perhaps an organic traffic or SERP report.

While those reports are certainly important and useful, they tend to be mostly sleight of hand on the part of the SEO agency. Worse, some agencies outsource everything, and have zero control over the direction of the campaign.

What we believe

At Station Four, we feel that it’s unethical for us to charge clients a fee for results that:

  1. May not be attributed to our specific efforts
  2. May not achieve the client’s true business objectives

The entire point of the digital marketing revolution has been to establish greater transparency in determining return on your marketing investment, but organic search is an area in which that ROI is obscured. All too often sites gain traffic due to a shift in Google’s data signal preference du jour, or lose traffic despite doing everything right. Similarly, gaining rank for a search term doesn’t necessarily equate to more sales.

Lots of agencies are happy to exploit that pocket of ignorance and take credit for wins while resting on their laurels, and blaming Google’s fickle affections when they lose. At S4, we want to win as badly as our clients do. Consequently, we focus on preparing technical audits for clients with current sites, or building out the proper foundations for clients building new sites.

Simple, measured, White-hat SEO

Technical, on-page SEO is important, but once your fundamentals are in place, you move on. You should revisit these efforts every six months to a year, unless of course a new algorithm update demands that you return your attention to whatever Google now deems significant.

After that, your SEO efforts should really move into identifying how to build your content marketing, or how to automate those efforts. It should emerge from a robust marketing plan, so that you’re less beholden to the latest Google update.

Our approach

We believe that there are five components to properly conducted SEO.

Technical SEO

This component includes ensuring that your titles and metas are optimized, confirming that Google’s robot can crawl and index your pages, applying “rel=canonical” tagging where appropriate, etc.

On-site SEO

A precursor to content strategy, on-site SEO involves an audit of the current content on your site. For example, if you’re trying to rank for a particular term, do you have a relevant page on your site to address it? Are local listings important for your business, are we focused on a national level? This can even include an assessment off-site elements, like reviews or directory listings.

Inbound link building

The days of easy black-hat link farming are gone. We build a transparent strategy focused on identifying opportunities to generate inbound links from authoritative domains. This can involve identifying influencers and directly contacting them.

Content strategy

SEO for content marketing is an ongoing activity of regularly generating fresh content for your site. It includes the planning, development, management, production, and governance of your content. This can include blogging and social strategies, among others.

Reporting

SEO is a marathon, not a sprint, and results aren’t typically realized in the first few months. Reporting on your performance at regular intervals lets you assess how successful your efforts have been, and enables you to determine whether you should dedicate more resources to SEO activities or redirect them.

At Station Four, we consider each of these elements individual projects, so you’re only billed for work that’s actually been done. You’re getting full transparency at every step, you’re not locked into a contract, and you retain maximum flexibility. If your SEO provider has only provided those first technical improvements, and isn’t regularly engaging your team with recommendations on inbound links or content, find out exactly what you’re getting for that monthly fee.

Ryan Hickey is the Director of Digital Strategy at Station Four. Originally published at blog.stationfour.com.

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