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Ruth Burr

How Much SEO Advice Should We Give Away for Free?

Ruth Burr
How Much SEO Advice Should We Give Away for Free?

If you’ve been working in search marketing for a while you’ve probably been asked for free advice.

Whether it’s your neighbor on a plane, your cab driver or your tablemates at your friend’s wedding, you’re going to run into people out in the world who have websites and want to market them.

People get asked for free advice in social situations all the time – SEOs don’t have it nearly as bad as lawyers, preachers or plastic surgeons in that regard. It’s not that big a deal, especially when it’s not detracting much from your work or social life (although I was tempted, after spending 45 minutes giving my Uber driver website advice on a 5 a.m. ride to the airport, to tell him that considering my hourly consulting rate he owed me money).

But there are times when free advice starts to become a problem.

The Free Audit

Offering a free “audit” of a website can be a great lead generation tool – the promise of some free advice brings in potential clients, and you have an opportunity to poke around their website a bit to get an idea of what kind of work they’ll need. However, there’s a delicate balance between offering enough information to demonstrate value without simply handing over a list of items your prospect could go out and get fixed by someone else.

The Free Audit model of lead generation becomes more complicated when SEO audits are also a product that you sell – a full, in-depth SEO audit takes a significant amount of time and effort and is usually priced in the thousands of dollars. It’s not the kind of thing you want to give away for free. On the other hand, most potential clients don’t have a strong grasp of online marketing, so giving them some idea of what they need and why they need it is a big part of convincing them that you should be the one to do it.


As a stopgap, many agencies use or build “page grader” type tools, which can be used to quickly generate a report on missing SEO elements and areas to be improved. Just pop in a URL and it spits out a list of items to be improved. Sounds great, right? If only actually diagnosing SEO issues were actually that easy.

There are definitely some higher-quality page grading tools out there, and many can be useful in the context of a larger SEO campaign. But taken alone they usually aren’t a good indicator of overall site health. Every agency has had a client (or two, or five) come to them and say, "this other company reached out to me and said my SEO score is 33, and my competitor’s is 45, please justify your existence.”

Often the “score” includes outdated factors like meta keywords tags and keyword density; rarely does it give the kind of nuanced look at a company’s online marketing necessary to pitch (let alone build) a robust program that will earn them money.

The SEO Assessment

Online marketing is, at heart, a custom service – selling it well should require a level of customization. Since a full SEO audit is among the services I sell, I call my up-front audit the SEO Assessment to differentiate the two.


A customized online marketing assessment for lead gen/sales purposes should look at things like:

  • How well-optimized they are for local search. Is their NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) information easy to find on their site? Do they have local profiles claimed and optimized? How are their reviews?
  • A Screaming Frog crawl of the site. Do they have a ton of 404 errors? Are their title tags present, unique and appropriately keyword-rich?
  • User experience. Is there a clear call to action? What does the site look like on a mobile device? How fast does it load?
  • Inbound link profiles from Majestic or Open Site Explorer. Do they have inbound links to deep pages, from a variety of sites? Any low-quality or obviously spammy links to worry about?
  • Traffic data from SEMrush. Any suspicious drops in traffic that might indicate an ongoing penalty?
  • Their competitors, both in their local market and for some of their target keywords. Where are the biggest areas of opportunity?

Pulling all this together can take a couple of hours, but once I have it all together I have a solid understanding of the prospect’s website and business. It will also give me valuable information into their SEO past – if there’s evidence that an SEO shyster has been at work on their site, I’ll have to work harder to get results and to earn their trust. Most importantly, I’ll be able to confidently look the prospect in the eye and say, “If you hire me to do these things for you, you will make more money.”

At the end of the day I’m not too worried about presenting a prospect with an initial SEO assessment and having them go off and do the work themselves or get someone else to do it. People do try it, which can be annoying when you’ve put that much work in, but those prospects often come back in six months or a year, hat in hand. That’s because the effort and expertise it takes to pull together that list of recommendations is nothing compared to the effort and expertise it takes to successfully enact them.

SEO is hard work. It takes a level of time, persistence and knowledge that are beyond most business owners. Putting in the time and work up front helps show a prospective client that you’ve got what it takes to put in the time and work for the long haul.

Have you had similar experiences? Feel free to share your own stories and suggestions in the comment section!

Image credit: Pixabay

Ruth Burr Reedy the Senior SEO Manager at BigWing Interactive, a full-service digital marketing agency in Oklahoma City. At BigWing, she manages a team of on-site and local SEOs. Ruth has been working in SEO since 2006 and lives in Norman, OK. Her last article for SEMrush was "How to Get the Most Out of Conference Networking."

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