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SEO Clients Report 2021: What Do Clients Want from SEO?

In our State of SEO report, we asked working SEO pros about what results clients expect from SEO and what clients really think about SEO.


  • Increased traffic tops the list of client expectations of SEO, with 21% of SEO professionals indicating it is the most common objective.
  • Keyword rankings are the top client success metric for 44.7% of SEO pros. Sessions and pageviews came next at 28.9%.
  • Content marketing is the most sought-after SEO service for 31.3% of SEO pros, followed by keyword strategy (30.8%) and web design (25.5%).
  • 38.6% of SEO pros agree that their clients believe SEO is an essential part of marketing.

Anticipating SEO clients’ expectations enables you to better connect with potential clients, win more business, and better serve your existing client roster.

You can be on the lookout for new areas of opportunity and directions to expand your business, too.

In our recent State of SEO survey, Search Engine Journal gathered insights from over 1,200 working SEO professionals about their experiences working directly with clients.

Keep reading to explore:

  • What results do clients expect from SEO?
  • Which metrics do agencies use to measure success for their clients?
  • What SEO services are most in-demand?
  • What do clients really think about SEO?

(Don’t forget to check out Client Insights: Budgets, Traffic & SEO Tactics and What Matters Now in SEO & Where to Focus Next from the State of SEO 2021 report, as well.)

What Do Clients Expect from SEO?

We asked a cohort of agencies and freelancers who work directly with clients to share what they believe is the most common client expectation for SEO:

what is the most common client expectation for SEO

(Question asked: In your experience, what is the most common client expectation for SEO? Restricted to those who answered “work for an agency” or “I’m a freelancer/contractor.” 1,219 answered.)

Increased traffic tops the list of SEO client expectations for 21.6% of survey respondents, with new customers (19.7%) and brand awareness (18.5%) not far behind.

However, 17% of clients want all of the metrics delivered.

Interestingly, B2B clients are more likely to want to achieve all metrics (20%) compared to B2C (14%), which suggests that B2C clients have more focused metrics to measure success.

If we consider these results, increasing the traffic is just widening the neck of the funnel. What we really want is more qualified traffic.

It is positive that 19% of clients want new customers, as this shows a more focused strategy that is delivering results. This indicates that there are a high proportion of clients who are focused on conversion and not just driving traffic.

What Metrics are Agencies Using to Measure Their Clients’ Success?

As highlighted in the results above, clients are focused on increasing traffic to measure success from SEO.

If we look at both agencies and freelancers, we can see a difference in how the SEO professional measures their results compared to their clients’ expectations.

The top 5 metrics that agencies use to measure clients’ results were:

Metric Percent Volume
1 Keyword rankings 44.7% 486
2 Pageviews/sessions 28.9% 314
3 Branded vs. non-branded traffic 21.6% 235
4 Bounce rate 21.4% 233
5 Conversion and goal events 20.7% 225

(Question asked: In the last 12 months, what were your top metrics to measure SEO performance? Restricted to those who answered “I work for an agency” or “I’m a freelancer/contractor.” 1,087 answered.)

Keyword ranking (44.7%) was far and away the most popular metric used by agencies. Agencies consider this more than twice as popular as using traffic (21.6%) to measure results.

Other data from the survey showed that keyword research is also where SEO professionals spend the greatest amount of time.

Which SEO Services Do Clients Want?

By tracking what SEO clients are asking their agencies for, we can begin to see where there is a demand for services and potential gaps to fulfill.

Service Percent Volume
1 Content strategy 31.26% 381
2 Keyword strategy 30.84% 376
3 Web design 25.51% 311
4 User experience 23.87% 291
5 Local SEO 23.87% 291
6 Technical SEO 22.72% 277
7 Content production 20.92% 255
8 Social media marketing 17.39% 212
9 Paid search 17.31% 211
10 Link building 17.23% 210
11 Mobile SEO 13.45% 164
12 Email marketing 13.29% 162

(Question asked: In the last 12 months, which services did your clients request the most? Up to 3 options could be selected. Restricted to those who answered “I work for an agency” or “I’m a freelancer/contractor.” 1,159 answered. 1.23% selected “Don’t know.” 0.98% selected “None of the above.” 0.98% selected “Other.”)

Content strategy came out at the top of the list as the most in-demand service that SEO clients are asking for.

Other data from the rest of the survey also align to show that content marketing and strategy are in demand right now (read the full State of SEO report to access all results).

Web design has always been a natural, complementary add-on to SEO – many digital agencies offer both services. And it’s no surprise to see this as the third most in-demand additional service.

Just under a quarter of SEO clients are requesting local SEO as a service.

During the pandemic, as many businesses as possible had to quickly pivot to digital to survive. This resulted in a surge of local brick-and-mortar businesses with a need to be visible online in a local capacity. In the next year, the expectation is for local SEO to keep growing as a service in demand.

This sentiment is backed by Andrew Shotland of Local SEO Guide, who said, “COVID caused a lot of multi-location brands to re-evaluate their marketing mix last year. Most of them likely were significantly under-invested in SEO (#shocker). Even the biggest retail brands have this challenge because Local can be a royal PITA.”

Shotland added, “We see this in particular with retailers that have a big ecommerce biz. They often ignore the locations and are missing out on a huge amount of potential local search revenue.”

What Do Clients Really Think About SEO?

what is the most common feedback from clients about SEO?

(Question asked: What is the most common feedback from clients about SEO? Restricted to those who answered “I work for an agency” or “I’m a freelancer/contractor.” 1,159 answered. 3.69% selected “Don’t know.”)

Finally, we get to the essence of our results: What is the client perception and sentiment toward SEO?

The good news: More than a third (38%) of respondents report their clients think SEO is an essential part of marketing.

Only 13% said their clients thought SEO was unnecessary.

As one survey respondent put it: “They don’t get it, but know it is necessary.”

SEO is now being seen as a core part of a marketing strategy.

“They seem to know they ‘want’ it because everyone else is doing it. But not why or how it will actually benefit them,” another survey respondent wrote.

With the pandemic putting so much emphasis on digital channels, this is only set to grow. It’s never been a better time to be in SEO.

Note: We surveyed 1,241 SEOs who worked directly with clients through an agency (875) or as a freelancer (366). In our client-based cohort, 51% worked in B2B, 41% were B2C and 8% fell into a non-specific “other” category.

More Resources:

Download your copy of the full report to access all the data from the Search Engine Journal State of SEO survey 2021.

Find additional insights such as:

  • The most important emergent SEO factors for the next few years.
  • Which Google changes are considered the biggest threat to SEO.
  • Which factors have the most impact on ranking.
  • Where to find new business.
  • What to focus on for the next year.

Featured image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal
All in-article images created by author, August 2021

Category Careers SEO
SEJ STAFF Shelley Walsh

Shelley Walsh is the SEO Content Strategist at SEJ & produces the Pioneers, a series about the history of SEO ...

SEO Clients Report 2021: What Do Clients Want from SEO?

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The State of SEO 2021: Key Industry Survey Findings [Research]