Client Horror Stories: Silence of the SEO Client

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What You Can Do To Avoid Being On Your Client’s Dinner Plate

Much like Clarice, I’m still considered a noob in the respective SEO realms. However, whether you are 10 years in the search business or only 2 (like me), you’ve probably had more than your fair share of difficult clients.

As most of you hired guns know, there is not as much time as we would like to dedicate to drafting long term contracts, customizing payment models, or ensuring that the influx of quality clients keep coming. What you may not know, is how to overcome your own horror story to ensure that you don’t fall prey to your own personal “Hannibal Lector”.

Image by rivieragalleryartist

In my particular case, I had an error in judgement and got involved with someone who could have easily launched my career forward significantly *enter first red flag*. Everything was there-good clientele, capable team, and good cash flow to get the necessary accomplished.

However, this client had had a “bad relationship with the previous SEO” and was extremely skeptical about the process in general. The time that I took to convince her that the $50 e-books she purchased, ridiculous plugins, and that PageRank shouldn’t be paid attention to, fell on deaf ears *enter second red flag*.

After 5 weeks of keyword research, content freshness tweaking, and scheduling/optimizing new content, I was told that because I was spending so much time optimizing content it wasn’t worth it to keep me on board when a writer+plugin combo could do anything necessary content-wise. I tried to explain the importance of leveraging the hundreds of pages of content she currently had (and adding more) instead of worrying about building more poor quality links. While she’s still following the content strategy I laid out, we disagreed on what was and wasn’t needed, and parted ways after only a few weeks.

Whether it’s because we just clashed on what each of us thought was needed at the time, or that she just didn’t want to pay after a strategy was in place (the day she fired me was payday, go figure), I’ll probably never know.

Be Prepared

We will all have clients that disappoint, cheat, or sidestep us in various forms whether we like it or not. Unfortunately nothing can be done about this. However,  taking proper measures to ensure that the worst doesn’t happen is our first line of defense against bad clients.

So what’s the lesson learned? Be prepared. Prepared to break hard news to clients, prepared to do extremely tedious work, and in some cases even firing a client if need be.

Overcoming The Inevitable

Whether you’re an agency, or a consultant like me, Buffalo Bill and his Acherontia Atropos Nemos will probably find you eventually. The question is, what can you do to keep you skin intact? (pun most definitely intended).

Like any campaign, you want to establish goals. You don’t want to make the same mistake I did by not correcting unrealistic expectations when they come to your attention at the onset *third and final flag*.

For sake of argument though, let’s assume Buffalo Bill already has you in his hole. Aside from Clarice coming to your rescue, how do you propose to be saved from the unfaithful client who owes you $5000, $10,000, or more in fees and services? Like me, you probably want to tell the client that they will get the hose again if they don’t cooperate and pay you, but I doubt this will get you anything more than a restraining order. Instead, let’s think pragmatically.


At the very least, you can report said business to the BBB via Consumer Complaints, but you will want to make sure that you have the proper documentation ready. Things like business name, address, phone number, people you have spoken to, and even specific transaction dates should be things that you need to have on hand if at all possible.

In most cases, the FTC handles identity theft, spam, and larger “trends affecting consumers”, but they also reply to General Complaints.

In addition to legal avenues, don’t forget about all the other freelancers and agencies that have shared their unfortunate experiences at your disposal via Google. Sometimes all it takes is an advanced search operator to get the correct information that you need.

While, IMO it’s definitely a last resort, some may consider the threat of posting Ripoff Reports (funny and true as they may be) as a primarily method to receiving payment. These may be fine and good (and if you’re truthful , legal), but they shouldn’t be considered as a viable response to a client not paying. Posting bad information about them isn’t going to make them want to pay.

Unfortunately, aside from small claims court filing, the FTC, BBB, and RoR, there isn’t that many avenues that you can take unless cash flow isn’t a problem. In this case, court jurisdictions, contract circumstances, and other variables may come into play. Many arenas like FreelanceUnion, FreelanceSwitch, and others, may help you find ways to get paid as well.

Search contracts are very common, but they should always be tailored to specific clients and their needs. Hopefully you’re able to recognize most unfavorable traits ahead of time, and address them in a fitting contract. The time and energy that can be saved by having precautions in place to address those poor traits is invaluable.

Lessons Learned

I haven’t got burned more than once, but the one time I did was more than enough to learn my lesson. My ex-client leveraged the content strategy that I put in place, fired me, and has been doing great in the SERPs ever since (although her unnatural link profile has recently been confirmed by GWT :) ). For the sake of total transparency, I say this so that others can learn a valuable lesson on what some people are capable of in the client-side search world.

If you haven’t got torched by a client yet, hopefully this post will be enough to make you fear (and take the necessary precautions) the ever-lurking, Silence Of The Lambs story that’s out there for all of us.

Jared Carrizales
Jared Carrizales is a SEO consultant that loves content development. When he's not knee deep in Google Analytics and spreadsheets, he likes to play tennis... Read Full Bio
Jared Carrizales

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  • Nick Stamoulis

    While it’s not always easy to spot who will be a bad client, there are warning signs. If they come in telling you that they want to rank #1, that is the first sign. Obviously, they don’t understand the process and probably never will. If you don’t get them to #1 within a few months they will be angry and claim that you didn’t do your job.

  • Josh Garner

    Man, I can’t tell you how tough it is to see them coming sometimes.

    I’m thinking it’s even more difficult when you work in the “more affordable” sphere. I’ve been doing so for the last few years, and it’s almost as if they know it would be more work/time/money for you to attempt a legal reconciliation than they actually owe you.

    The UK does some cool stuff regarding late payments to help promote prompt payment (I wonder how this is working- PDF –

  • Jared Carrizales

    True, and emphasis on “probably never will” 🙂 No matter how well you may explain the process, sometimes it’s still not enough to get their mind off of needing to rank #1.

  • Ryan Estes

    The hard case! Businesses and business owners that have stood the test of time have a hard time taking advice from internet pros. If I feel a pissing contest developing I withdraw. I listen, I compliment, I take notes and reiterate. In other words, I placate. Then I go about my business and report on successes and room for growth. There’s only so much energy to argue.

  • Suzi Grala

    Really great article Jared! I am sure there are many out there that have found themselves in similar situations – us included. Sensible advice to have a contract in place for every client should things turn sour – normally due to lack of understanding about SEO, as Nick Stamoulis points out in his comment.

    In our experience, there are have occasionally (thank goodness) been issues arising when a client doesn’t read emails thoroughly – let alone contracts! This is usually when there is an invoice attached – leading to the inevitable commencement of tactics to delay or avoid payment for services already provided.

    It is always hard to turn a prospective client away – however it can sometimes be the best decision to make!

  • Jared Carrizales

    @ Josh
    There are some places that cater specifically to freelancers/consultants in the States too, but like you said it doesn’t mean much in the long run if the client absolutely refuses to pay.

    Very true. While I don’t argue under any circumstances, I definitely don’t sugar coat anything either.

    Thanks 🙂 I couldn’t agree more. This is actually why client education is very important to me. The more they know about the industry, the less emails and phone calls you have to answer-typically. Usually this leads to happier clients and less of the creative “tactics”.

  • Daniel

    I enjoy reading these horror stories, does anyone else have any more?

    • Melissa Fach

      Check back each Wednesday for awhile.