Lee Odden

Legacy SEO Clients

I started doing site optimization work around 1997ish but didn’t start taking on my own clients until 2000. We started TopRank in 2001 and some of our SEO clients are companies I’ve worked with for 7-8 years. That’s a lifetime in internet time, getting to know their business, hitting success goals and receiving referrals for even more business.

The services we offered then and the services we offer now are quite different and one of the issues agencies have to deal with when auditing client hours vs revenue is to decide where the business is profitable and where it’s not. Client business models change and vendors are expected to change along with the clients in order to best serve the client’s needs.

When the vendor’s business model matures there come some hard decisions about whether to continue to work with certain types of clients/projects or not because they no longer fit within the agency’s service areas of expertise or business model. The mistake of allowing legacy SEO clients to pay 2001 prices for 2007 services is one that is totally avoidable with proper contract renewal procedures and client management.

However it is possible that even with the best account teams, that some situations may slip through. Personally, I prefer to retain those long time clients even though they are not at the price point currently targeted or reasonable for services. As long as the engagement is profitable for the client and is making a positive contribution to the agency’s bottom line, I think they should stay as clients. ie profitable for both client/agency, but maybe not as profitable as the agency would like.

Another point of view is to offer those clients the option of upgrading to the current minimum services mix and pricing or move on to another vendor. If a significant number of clients were in this situation I see this as reasonable. It’s the sort of situation that often happens when one company acquires another and new clients are absorbed.

What do you think? At what point does it make sense to let legacy SEO clients go? Aren’t those long term relationships and referrals worth as much or more than a significant upgrade in services and pricing? Or does it make more sense to focus purely on the numbers? This is a topic of debate I’m having and am curious what others that have long term agency experience think.

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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. Avatar Stoney deGeyter says

    Lee, we’ve gone through this several times in the past four years or so. At first it was our desire to stop losing money and then our desire to be able to provide higher quality services. If you “force” an upgrade it’s inevitable that you’re going to lose some people. On some rare occasions we’ve managed to work out a compromise where the client is not quite getting all the new services but also isn’t paying as much. We do this on a case by case basis. Sometimes its just best to let a client go. The difference between profitable and not-so-profitable can be a big one. The not-so-profitable clients can ultimately stand in the way of providing a better service to the profitable clients. While legacy has benefits… if you can’t remain profitable then its not good for anybody.

  2. Lee, Great topic!
    We have several “old” clients. We basically keep that at older hourly rates. I can’t bring myself to “loose” these older clients, even if there’s little profit now from them because without them signing when they did we wouldn’t be where we are today.

  3. Great feed back Stoney, thanks. No matter what, we’re running a business, not a charity so profitability is high on importance. I think there’s a balance possible too.

    Jim, you and I are totally on the same page.

  4. Avatar David Temple says

    Lee, I think you have a unique situation where your clients are better served by using all of your services, seo, pr, blogging, etc. If they’re just using legacy seo services then I would either move them into a more holistic sem program or pass them on to someone else.

  5. Avatar Scott Fish says

    The Search Marketing environment changes and so must the offerings to a client. In some sense, you should be able to offer a client the same service LEVEL at the same price. In another sense the time required to provide the same level of competitiveness may require more time/resources. Consider social media campaigns, 2 years ago those didn’t exist like they do today, and that’s something that older clients probably don’t have as part of their service description. However, to achieve similar goals today as 2 years ago, using a social media campaign may be required. I guess that I’d take the stance that the market for some niches is much more competitive today than it once was and that takes different tactics and in some cases more time/resources, which translates to a higher cost of service. If a client wants better results (or to stay competitive) it may cost more, but if they are fine with their “maintenance” service level, then I’d keep them at the same price level. Honestly, I think this issue provides a great chance for an Up-Sell.

  6. Overall, I’ve unfortunately not found it profitable to keep legacy clients, unless they are willing to move to the new pricing model. As your agency grows, so too do your services and your overhead. For many growing firms (especially those growing from a one person shop to a small business), prices may be very low to get started, but those prices may not be able to be supported in the long term.

    First and foremost, you have to decide WHY you are in business. If you’re not interested in growing your business, then pricing exceptions (for legacy clients or otherwise) may be fine. BUT, if you are in business to grow the business and make a profit, then you have to keep focus on the goal of your business — to make revenue.

    I ask myself constantly — does what I’m doing today in my business — does this business decision — adhere to my ultimate goals and business plan. If not, I have to be strict and discontinue the activity.

    It’s like you said, Lee, unfortunately, we are not charities, we are businesses. And growing businesses aren’t just accountable to their clients and themselves, but also to employees. Selling a contract short sells your dedicated employees short too. That may be one less bonus, one less vacation day, or less pay you can offer employees just to please the client. It’s all a balance. Just something to consider.

  7. Scott, you are right about the upsell situation. And it’s an upsell in the interest of serving the client as well. The legacy client situation can be avoided when there is a proper plan in place with account management, but as mentioned in the post, it can happen that a few slip by.

  8. Those are good points Janet. This is a situation with 7-8 year old clients. How many SEO firms are in that situation? I think the crux of this issue is that it is completely avoidable in the first place, which is why we’ve allocated more than double the staff and resources to account management than we did 3 or more years ago.

  9. Some years ago I read an interesting article that is on my mind since then. The point was, that especially “old” clients should be charged more, instead of less because they usually get more out of you than anyone else.

    Like when you know a client for years and become kind of friends, he maybe won’t hesitate to call you Saturday, 9pm for anything that could wait another two days. Things like that.

    I wouldn’t say I agree with this 100%, but it made me think since then.

  10. Avatar Stoney deGeyter says

    It’s definitely hard dumping clients that you’ve grown with over the years, but sometimes it has to happen. This may not apply to you but at one time we were charging #39/month for SEO back in the day when it was me in my house. Now with a staff of five $39 wouldn’t get a client a half hour worth of work. Heck, it wouldn’t even get them 15 minutes. As much as I like some clients, that’s just not worth it. In our situation with each pricing increase that came with additional services that we thought were a necessary part of having success in the SEO campaign. We often offered those new service to the legacy clients for a short time, but eventually told them that if they want to keep those services they have to be willing to pay for them. Many times they will.

  11. The trick is getting past the guilt and accepting that business is business. These clients of yours are probably having the same issues with their clients or customers and will recognize your situation. You don’t owe them for being your client and they don’t owe you for being their vendor.

    Also, if these legacy clients are “good” clients then they’re not going to think any less of you because you have to cut them loose. And I’m guessing they’ll still send referrals if they were happy with your services.

    I used to do web development consulting and found myself in this situation frequently.

  12. It is not an easy decision to let old time clients go, but it helps when they are not profitable. I have decided to let a few go, either by explaining what my situation was like, or by raising my fees to a suitable level.

    However, having been freelancing for many years, I have gone through quite a few of ups and downs, and the old clients helped me through some of the hard times, so I’m standing by my old clients, I have just explained them in a very polite manner that I had to raise my fees, and no-one had any difficulties understanding that.

  13. Lee

    I had this same debate with my partner at work just today. It’s easy to look at it simply as lost opportunity cost, however, what we find, is that typically these mature accounts require less time to manage and we can have success with a lot less effort. So another avenue you could take is to spend less time on their account. If you’re upfront with them, I’m sure they’ll understand. Everyone understands the principals of time=money and inflation – I’m sure their prices haven’t stayed stagnant since 2001.