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Have you ever wondered what your retainer actually pays for?
It is common practice for SEO agencies and consultants to slap on a monthly retainer fee, but very often, there is a lack of transparency from the provider on what the client stands to benefit from this arrangement.
We typically give clients a choice on whether they want to pay a retainer or not and when they do, then we agree a set maximum number of hours (give or take) based on our standard day or hourly rate.
In a general sense, there are typically two schools of thought on the matter when a retainer comes under scrutiny:
CLIENT: “I pay my SEO agency £XXXX a month, but I have no idea what it’s for. We get our weekly reports from them, but those are quite obviously automated, and then there are the occasional emails and phone calls, but nowhere near the value we are actually paying for.”
AGENCY: “We have to charge a retainer to cover the time spent offering phone and email support, attending client meetings, trouble shooting and other ad hoc requests. If you monitor your time in the way a solicitor would, you will be shocked how much time actually goes unaccounted for.”
The common denominator, or rather missing denominator, is transparency. Although painful to maintain, time sheets are a very effective method for clients and agencies to see what the outputs were each month so that time management on both sides can be more efficiently maintained with no costly hours being wasted on menial tasks or “meetings for meetings sake”.
The Virtual SEO Manager
Our retainer is a pay as you go model which we have aptly named the “Virtual SEO Manager” service. This gives clients the presence of an accountable SEO resource who takes care of all matters relating to SEO from strategic input at marketing and IT meetings to managing 3rd party relationships and presenting business cases at internal budget meetings. By making it a pay as you go model, clients are in control of how much they use us and so can decide whether it’s for ad hoc requests that require a few minutes each day or to implant us as a member of their team.
The most common use of our time on a retainer tends to fall in the following areas:
- Project Management – Once a strategy is delivered to a client, it is quite common for progress to stall because there is no-one in house to drive that strategy forward and work with IT, product development and marketing teams in a coordinated fashion.
- Trouble Shooting – There are always questions relating to particular implementations or challenges thrown up by whatever CMS a client is using and then quite often questions related to best practice in general from technical to content and outreach.
- Data Requests – Whether questions have filtered down from senior management or a client wishes to understand why certain things are happening, this inevitably leads to some number crunching, report running, data presentation time.
The one thing that is and SHOULD be covered by a retainer which has proved costly for a couple of clients who chose the non-retainer route, is monitoring general SEO health. I don’t mean checking weekly reports, but making it part of the service to login and check things like webmaster tools and analytics every other day.
Some clients can expect this as part of the service, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter what line of business you’re in, this seemingly minuscule task is time consuming and should therefore have a fee associated with it. If you’re eating in a pricy restaurant, you can expect to have your coat and bag taken to the cloak room for you and the waiter can expect a decent tip. However, if you’re stopping at your local delicatessen, you can’t expect the staff to open doors and take care of your coat and bag for you…. unless you tip them handsomely.
Examples Where An SEO Retainer Pays For Itself
In one instance, the client over-ruled our recommendations around boiler-plate copy and the “significant risk” it posed in terms of a penalty. We used the exact words “significant risk” when identifying the threat, but the client decided they had got away with it long enough for it not to be a concern despite the recent Panda updates.
The second instance was where we identified a duplicate domain threat and advised the client to redirect one to the other or risk losing the primary site from the index. Three weeks later and this issue had not been addressed and sure enough, Google had started to de-index the domain we were focusing our efforts on in favour of the local domain.
Had we been on a retainer, these problems would not have surfaced because we would have managed the threats up the chain until they were dealt with.
One might argue that as the SEO consultants, we should have pushed harder for the problems to be addressed sooner, but where do you draw the line between doing what has been asked of you and pursuing a concern in your free time that the client has already chosen to take upon themselves?
How Would We Have Managed This On A Retainer?
We have simple processes in place to help us cover our clients SEO health which include:
1. Check Webmaster Tools every Monday and Friday e.g. look for crawl errors and other warnings.
2. Check Analytics Daily for Traffic Status e.g. anomalies in traffic.
3. Monitor industry movements and announcements and alert client to anything that may have an effect on them e.g. algorithm updates.
So in concluding, there’s no point arguing about whether you’re getting or offering value unless you take the time to substantiate and agree exactly what it will involve.
If you choose the retainer route, make sure you know what is expected of both client and agency and ensure communication is open and honest. In other words, if a client has bought 8 hours of your time in a month and they are using 16, then tell them and show them where the time is being spent.
If you choose the non-retainer route, then make sure both parties know what is expected of the other and most importantly, make sure that the client understands that it is their responsibility to fill in the gaps that would otherwise have been filled by the SEO retainer.
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