Lee Odden

Just Say No to Discount SEO

Lee Odden     Business of SEO, Rant, SEO

You know you’re in blog trouble when you start your posts with, “It’s been too long since my last post….” Hey, we’re busy as hell and we’re hiring: SEO Specialist, SEO Copywriter, Linking Specialist, Admin. More about all that on the TopRank site.

Now on to this malarkey about discount search engine optimization:

Over the years I’ve had many opportunities to give prospective search marketing clients “good deals” for a variety of reasons. Early on in your business, there are some compelling reasons to do so, but my advice? Don’t. Here’s some classics along with my feeble replies:

“We want to see what you can do with organic SEO for a month or two, and if we see results we’ll pay more.”

Great, sounds like you’re focused on results. For the short term, your best bet will be a paid search program. We can have a Google AdWords account setup with the approriate keywords, ad creative, landing pages and conversion tracking within 2-3 business days. We can monitor progress and scale the program up or down accordingly.

At the same time we can begin the process of optimizing your site for improved organic rankings which will take some time. Organic SEO should be thought of as a long term strategy. As we refine your site to be crawlable by search engines and enhance content as well as incoming links, your site will become more relevant for the search terms your prospects are using. If you’re going to optimize your site for organic rankings, it should be done correctly and long term or not at all.

“Our brand is very strong in the marketplace and working with us could be an entry point to bigger things. So give us a lower rate now and we’ll introduce you to bigger opportunities with our other companies in the future.”

I can see you’re very proud of your brand. We’re very proud of the results we’ve been able to deliver for our clients. The value we provide our clients is not something we discount. We would be happy to try a smaller project with you and scale accordingly based on the merits of that program.

“We want you to optimize our site on a pay for performance basis.”

Unless we have near full control over your site’s content and design, a pay for performance program is not practical. An effective search engine optimization program almost always involves improvements to the content, organization, linking and usability of your website.

There are many others and it’s tempting to just say, “thanks but no thanks”. I can say every time we’ve ever given a discount for any of the reasons above, it almost always turns out for the worse. That’s why we don’t any longer. What’s needed is better education on what SEO is, what it can do and when it is appropriate.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Clarification: Pay for performance has worked out fine in the very few instances we’ve taken someone up on it – as long as we were given access/control over the site.

  2. Great post Lee – and so true. Your answers were right on!

  3. Great post.

    As someone who’s recently broke away from the *employee* role to try his luck in a *self employed* role it’s often very tempting for me to take discount SEO jobs just to get by and put food on the table. I quickly realized after the few I took at first it’s a mistake.

    I’ve always read that these are the clients that end up being problems. I guess I just had to learn this on my own.

    After learning these lessons early on I now only work with clients that have projects I’m interested in and see the true value of SEO. It makes my job more fun, bills get paid on time, and the clients are great to work with.

  4. There is just no point to discounting. Whatever your rates are, there is always someone out there who will promise the same for cheaper. Every time I have focused exclusively on price for contract web work (and I’m not too proud to admit that economics forced me there at the beginning), I have had to spend more money on the 2nd attempt, when I went out to get someone I could trust to perform the work according to spec.

    In fairness, I think many people just see every price as negotiable. They would expect that any business has some extra profit built into the cost of services that comes out when you ask for it.

  5. For 20 years I had my prospects ask me for a “discount” for online and offline directory advertising. I always said diplomatically, “No, but I don’t mind you asking. I look for discounts in most everything that I buy.”
    You might then ask: “But, may I ask you why you are asking for a discount on professional services like SEO?” Then keep “peeling the onion” with more definitive questions until you get to what you think is the real reason for his asking in the first place (always be polite and strictly “inquisitive” in your approach). Some people will never say that “real reason”, but it was always informative to my “personal survey”, and sometimes productive to try to “get to the bottom of it”, as I sometimes turned a “lemon into lemonade”.

    Bravo, Lee, on all your effective “feeble replies” as they are professionally said and not in the least condescending, since you did not take the “discount request” as a personal insult and offense. I especially liked: “The value we provide our clients is not something we discount. We would be happy to try a smaller project with you and scale accordingly based on the merits of that program.” But, then warn the client that it may take even more time to see the really good results that he probably expects to see in a hurry, if he goes with too small a “smaller project”.

    My experience is that besides everyone wanting a “discount” on almost anything they buy (if they can get it), maybe many SEO’s are running into what this SEO said was happening to him (“Recycled SEO clients”) = http://www.ranksmart.com/articles/big-seo-company-killing-true-seo.html . It has been my experience in life that not only is it true that “one rotten apple can spoil the barrel”, but also that the “the ‘many’ have to pay for the ‘sins of the few'”.

    Lastly, I agree with your response on “Pay For Performance” SEO, but I would greatly appreciate clarification on two keywords in what you said here: “Unless we have NEAR FULL control over your site

  6. Hello again Bill! I do remember meeting you in Vegas. You have a friendly disposition and you’re easy to remember.

    Regarding your question about PFP SEO, I guess I was indeed alluding to past experiences where either commitments were made during the contract signing that we would need to be able to make usability enhancements and then not have them go though, to situations where our conversion enhancing changes were implemented, only to be overwritten by another stakeholder in the company with more pull than the department that hired us.

    So we keep it simple and steer away from PFP with our consulting business. If I want to play that game, I apply it to AdSense and Affiliate revenue projects instead.

    Great feedback and questions Bill!


  7. I’m with you Jon, it does need to be a win-win or we’ll all go out of business. Well, maybe not that drastic, but success is more likely as a common benefit than mutally exclusive.

  8. Lee – I cannot agree more! I’m one of those fools who fell into temptation a while back when I was just starting my business, and while some of those clients are good clients – they in some cases don’t necessarily respect the value of my time. I charged them a very low rate and really worked real hard and long to get results for them, and as such they think its just real easy and that it doesn’t take me much time to promote their site. When clients don’t value your time – that’s a bad thing. They’ll give you more not-so-related tasks they’d like you to do (and fit within your current billing arrangement), they’ll call and want to chat for a long time, etc. The pricing you charge should be fair for both parties – if its not a “win-win” than it truly will not be a desireable arrangement long-term.

  9. I’m currently on the fence about offering a potential client some kind of a PFP deal. He manufacturers custom machines and builds a quality product. The delima is that his site uses frames so I can’t even do an effective PPC program for him. I’ve offered a price to remove the frames and to run a PPC program for him. The package price is higher than he’s comfortable with. I know I could make PPC work for him so I’m now thinking that if I change the site on a PFP basis I can get him as a client. Is this shortsighted thinking?

    I have a lot of experience with technology companies that tend to understand PPC and SEM. More traditional companies seem to have more of a challenging seeing the value in my services. Perhaps I’m just not selling them well enough 🙂

  10. Thanks, so much, for your valid input here as it is helping me become more aware of all the good reasons many SEO’s are against some form of PFP. I certainly don’t want to change the topic of your blog post, Lee, which is on “SEO discounting”, but I think that many SEO’s believe (rightly or wrongly) that PFP is another way for a prospective client to try to get a “discount” on their SEO’s services.

    I am aware of the many pitfalls that some form of SEO PFP (if not done properly) can cause both client and consultant to fall into. I also would not want to force PFP on any SEO firm, especially the ones who have been “burnt” by some form of it in the past. SEO firms can price their services any way they want to in a free country.

    However, I do believe that more and more clients will be looking to some form of SEO-SEM PFP in the future for many “right” and “wrong” reasons. So all I’m trying to say here is to turn PFP down when your “gut feeling” of the specific situation feels bad, but maybe have an open mind to some form of PFP where the “details” of the specific situation open the door to the possibility of a true, long term “win-win” scenario.

    Havard Business School’s Marketing professor Benson Shapiro ( http://dor.hbs.edu/fi_redirect.jhtml?facInfo=bio&facEmId=bshapiro&loc=extn ) wrote a piece on “Performanc-Based Pricing” or PFP in which he said: “Performance-based pricing is insurance. It insures that the seller does not undercharge the buyer.” ( http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item.jhtml?id=3021&t=marketing ) = Worth the relatively short read, IMO. He recently told me that he still believes in P-BP (PFP), and intends on doing an update someday. Personally, I think it is MUCH HARDER for traditional ad agencies who deal with intangibles like “branding” to be held partly accountable for a successful, long term, “win-win” PFP compenstion method. Their clients also have a VERY hard time being held totally accountable for tracking offline sales as part of their responsibilities in PFP.

    Your point about “another more powerful stakeholder” in the client’s company being a problem is VERY VALID. That’s why traditional ad agencies make sure they have ALL TOP MANAGEMENT sign off on the “cooperation” agreement, and maybe even have some contractural financial penalties to the client’s company if they don’t follow through. I believe in this unless the SEO is unreasonable in demanding substantial changes (not previously discussed) to the branding message or overall corporate direction that same top management wanted to begin with. If top management changes their minds, midstream, and negates part or all of the SEO work already carried out by changing the SEO’s work or the direction and branding of the company, then there needs to be a contractural clause that compensates the SEO for the EXTRA WORK needed to adjust to those changes (maybe an “hourly rate” in addition to PFP, for that extra work time).

    Jon, I disagree that you were a “fool”, since you learned some valuable lessons. I don’t know the specific circumstances, but when you said “they think its just real easy and that it doesn

  11. Yeah I’ve found that unless its win-win its lose-lose. Their is no real lose-win or win-lose arrangement. If I charge 10 times what is a fair rate and my client pays it but feels cheated, they’ll let me know. They’ll be upset and unhappy and believe you me, they’ll find a way to make my day unpleasant as well! Likewise if I do a project in exchange for a cup of coffee the client may be thrilled at the value they get initially, but I’ll be annoyed. I’ll resent the client and then when I’m busy chances are their project will be the one that gets put off or slips while I work on the projects for which I’m paid fairly. As such, the client’s results may slip. Win-win all the way!

  12. Anyone interested in tackling my web site with a PFP deal?



  13. Site, by the way, is http://www.sirwishlist.com.


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