When an SEO Client Is Only Interested in One Keyword

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Yes, you read that right—one keyword. An SEO client I worked with a few years back was adamant about it. They wanted all their SEO efforts focused on one main keyword, no variations, no long tail, no nothing. Keep in mind that this was in a pre-Penguin world so even though diversification of anchor text was important, the repercussions of failing to diversify weren’t quite as well recorded and publicized. Every month our phone conversations would go something like this:

SEO Client: “We sell purple widgets. That is what we sell so that’s the keyword we want to go after.”

Me: “I understand that, but if you only use ‘purple widgets’ as a keyword, you are limiting the long-term success of your SEO. Plus, ‘purple widgets’ is highly competitive so it is going to be a while before you start making headway there. ”

SEO Client: “But that’s what we sell.”

Me: “But plenty of your customers are searching for mauve widgets and lilac widgets and plum widgets. These are still great variations of your product that we can do really well for.”

SEO Client: “Well, we only care about ranking number one for ‘purple widgets.’ Nothing else matters.”

For several months I went back and forth with my client on this, but they refused to budge. They only cared about doing well for one keyword, and so my hands were tied. I can’t force a client to listen to my recommendations. At the end of the day, I work for them, and I have to do what they give me the green light to do.

But every month I pleaded my case and did my best to explain why going after one keyword was such a risky SEO venture. And wouldn’t you know it, a few months into their link building, I got a phone call from my client wanting to know why their traffic hadn’t increased the way they were expecting.

Me: “Because there is only so much search volume for ‘purple widgets,’ and like I mentioned, it’s extremely competitive. Your site is going up against some major industry players that have been targeting ‘purple widgets’ for a lot longer than you have.

SEO Client: “Well, how can we drive more traffic to our site?”

Me: “Let’s start targeting more keywords and long tail variations.”

SEO Client: “No.”

Eventually this SEO client and I parted ways. The last time I checked, they had gone out of business because, among other things, they had put all their SEO eggs in one keyword’s basket. When they failed to unseat the big players in their industry for that keyword, the whole company failed because they had no alternative traffic sources. Any SEO professional could tell you that this is a pretty quick route to failure.

As SEO consultants and professionals, we are sometimes limited by our clients. At the end of the day, we can only do so much if they aren’t willing to listen to our recommendations. That’s why it is so important to take the time to educate your clients and prospects. They might not need or want to know the nitty gritty details, but it’s important that they at least understand the overall picture so they know how an SEO campaign pieces together.

This can be extra hard when you’re working with a client that has been burned by a black hat SEO practitioner or a spammy SEO provider or when you’re working with a client that thinks they know SEO better than you do (Then why hire us?), but you have to keep plugging away at it.

I may not have been able to get this particular client to understand why targeting only one keyword was a bad idea, but you better believe that from that moment on, that became one of the first things I make sure any new client understands completely.

I’d love to hear from other SEO providers. What are some crazy/weird/dangerous requests you’ve gotten from clients regarding their SEO programs? How did you counter their requests?

Image Credit: Shutterstock/ GrandeDuc

Nick Stamoulis
Nick Stamoulis is the President of Brick Marketing, a full service Boston SEO firm. With nearly 13 years of experience in the Internet Marketing industry,... Read Full Bio
Nick Stamoulis
Nick Stamoulis
Nick Stamoulis

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  • Maven

    I felt really very sad after gone through your bad experience…

  • Mike

    I suspect this article is going to bring plenty of knowing smiles to faces. I once had a client shout down the phone that I clearly didn’t understand his business because I’d told him his main competitor was someone other than the company he considered his main competitor.

    His main competitor didn’t even have a website. I actually lost that client soon after – I could of fought it, but I really couldn’t be arsed.

    Can I ask, you (rightly!) tried to convince the client to diversify the keywords and chase the long tail, but was that argument data driven? Did you demonstrate that the CPA of what he wanted to do was greater than the CPA of what you wanted to do, with facts and figures to back up your argument?

    Most of my disagreements, to be honest, generally tend to come more from Devs that take my audits as ‘crititism’ and get butthurt, defensive and confrontational about implementing the results. The managers and marketing heads can normally be placated with a few graphs and a number that’s proceeded with a currency sign.

    • Nick Stamoulis

      Hi Mike,

      I did pull search volume data to show them how much potential traffic they were missing out on. I also did my best to explain the user intent behind each keyword. I even used their own analytics to show them what percentage of their visitors were coming from long tail variations. Unfortunately from the very beginning they had tunnel vision on this one keyword.

      I’ve learned that the best clients may need education, but they are willing to listen, learn and adjust their SEO program based on the recommendations we give. Some may put up a fight in the beginning, but most of the time I can make a good argument for why we do what we do. If after several months they are still pushing back then I know that the client is no longer a good fit for us.

      Thanks for reading,

  • Nick Kringas

    Wow.. I’m glad you decided to part ways with the client. Unfortunately, even though they only wanted to pay you for one keyword you would still have to use other anchor text to make things look natural and at that point probably wouldn’t be worth the trouble.
    I don’t have any SEO client stories to top that….
    thanks for sharing Nick

  • Harald

    I had a client who insisted that he fails to get into top rankings only because of his domain. All explanations/facts regarding “weight” of domain name for rankings (just one of many factors) were futile. He also ignored my warning that organic traffic will probably drop right after a domain switch.
    To sum it up: The switch was done, organic traffic dropped by 30%, he blamed me about it and quit. This was his best decision! 😉

  • Camilla Todd

    I sympathise! I have come across a few clients where I have really had to push the question “why?” after all of their requests, to reveal that what they aim to *get* from their requests is not what they will get at all.

    Most of them, luckily, are happy to be guided back onto the right track once that is explained, but yes every now and then one gets a person who is unable to believe that someone else might know better. It’s a pity, because for the most part they are shooting themselves in the foot!

  • Jaimyn Chang

    I’m surprised I never really see this topic come up a lot more on sites discussing SEO tactics and issues. A lot of clients that own offline businesses never understand, no matter how much you try to explain to them, the fact that keywords generate valuable traffic to their site, provided you’ve done your keyword research and all that. Some people like to target keywords relating directly to their business (even just a single related keyword as this article explains), when in fact they should be targeting different keywords that produce more traffic and will help them more in the long run. The whole “I want to rank for one keyword and one keyword only” is really a problem that needs to be resolved early on in the SEO campaign because if your client doesn’t understand the importance of it, you’re going to seem like a scam artist in some ways to these people with no online knowledge.

  • SemLAB

    I have a lot of questions from clients with 1 keyword. Most of them want to add more keywords after consultation, but the rest want to stay with 1 keyword and cheap price. Good educated client is much better than person who want to have only 1 keyword. We still have to teach a lot ppl 😉

  • Theresa Sheridan

    Great article, it definitely brought a knowing smile and a chuckle! Depending on the client, I will sometimes ask them if they bring their car to the mechanic to be repaired, do they have enough skill at that to tell the mechanic how to do his job? Often times people will think that because they are a business person, they’re knowledgeable in all areas, therefore are entitled to tell us how to properly do our jobs.
    Thanks so much, I’m off to share this on my Facebook in hopes that a couple of my clients might read it!

    • Nick Stamoulis

      I use the “doctor” analogy with my clients. Would you go to your doctor and tell them how to perform surgery? No, you go to them because of their expertise!

      Thanks for reading Theresa,

  • Shane Parkins

    This is something I have to contend with through my agency and I can honestly say around 75% of the clients with such tunnel vision fail to grasp the concept of SEO. It’s far easier to progress working on SEO Campaigns with a variety of keywords to help it look natural.

  • Cheri

    I’ve never hired an SEO “expert” because 99% of the spam I get is from people claiming to be experts. If someone could answer this one question I would gladly hire them: Why does Google ignore the word ‘plus’ on my website? I’m trying to optimize for ‘plus size lingerie’ but Google insists on seeing this as ‘size lingerie’. I worked around it by changing my URL to ‘Lingerie Plus Size’ but it’s awkward and not a common search term. Other websites score well for this phrase and looking at the page source of various competitors I don’t see what they are doing differently than me.

    • Doc Sheldon


      I suspect that “plus” is being seen as a stop-word, and thus being ignored. Unfortunately, if that’s the case, even using “plus-size” wouldn’t help.

      However, for what it’s worth, a search query for plus size (or plus-size) lingerie would still apply to “Lingerie Plus Size”, IMO.

  • Richard

    I had a client like this once at a previous job but it was his CEO that was obsessed with the one term. They didn’t care that we helped them dominate every other term in their category but this one keyword stayed at #2 no matter our efforts. So in the CEO’s mind, nothing else mattered.

    • Nick Stamoulis

      That’s always hard. I’ve worked with plenty of marketing managers over the years that “get it” and are completely satisfied with the work my team is doing, but if the numbers don’t match what the CEO expects then the program must be a failure.

      Thanks for the comments!

  • greg fields

    wow, i’m no seo expert but this has opened my eyes. I’m going to diversify and try to target long tail keywords

  • Gary Darling

    I cannot believe that someone can really be that hard headed. Hmm, which is better people finding your site with one keyword or multiple? It doesn’t sound like that difficult of a question to me.

  • Matt

    Side question…

    Is it common to just charge based on # of keywords you want to rank for and not the hours spent in total?

  • Stuxbot

    Nick, thank you for another useful post. I also got some request regarding clients SEO programs. Actually they wanted to focus on highly competitive keyword and quick results.

  • Camilla Todd

    Not true, read the rest of the comments, plenty of folks with the same experience. If you’re in SEO you’ll meet someone like this eventually (although I hope you don’t!), and then you’ll see.

  • Alison

    It’s not as common as it once was, but I still occasionally get clients with “pet keywords”. One narrative that seems to register with my clients is a brief explanation about semantic indexing. I explain that the search engines have a thing for authenticity… and using many different related phrases really underscores the site’s authentic relevancy for that keyword realm (i.e the “pet keyword” and a number of highly relevant variations of said keyword.) I find this explanation along with really clear monthly reporting helps to guard against pet keyword fixation. And it doesn’t hurt that all my clients are eCommerce, so I can report on revenue-generating keywords… and most of the time, its not the pet keyword.

    • Nick Stamoulis

      Hi Alison,

      I think every company has “pet keywords” they want to do well for, but the issue becomes one of priority. Your #1 dream keyword might be too far out of your reach to start, so you have to invest in other keywords to help keep your business alive and kicking while you work towards that main keyword.

      Thanks for reading,

  • Nico

    Educating your client(s) is as important as your own SEO efforts… In the beginning i didn’t really care, but these days if they don’t follow me in my story and gameplan they have to look for someone else.

    For example you start working with the client that only wants the one keyword… you don’t get the desired rankings and traffic = bad publicity for you as an SEO.

    So don’t go for the quick buck, go for the longterm relationship and your own GOOD reputation as an SEO.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    Thanks everyone who read and left comments! It’s always great to hear from other people.


  • Greg Bem

    I know I’m a little late on this, but I wanted to throw out this strategy, since I’m an in-house SEO working with auto dealers (many of whom behaved like your purple widget maker): use competitors as examples. Find these other cases where websites similar to that of the client cover other products/services/long tails. Prove to your client by going above your word and using evidence to show how the most successful SEO strategies operate. Clients may or may not claim to be SEO authorities–but most importantly SEO specialists need to be THE authority and knowledge provider. This is where success stories becomes so crucial in one’s argument.

  • jeremy.grity

    Hi Nick.. like your expression “pet keyword”… in one of your reply to a comment. Truly, clients who insist on pet keywords prove once again that little knowledge is dangerous…. the way we work here is to send our SEO analysis and what we plan to do.. if client agrees, we go forward….

  • Kathy H

    Love reading some of these stories! I have a client who has around 100 keywords/phrases they say are all top priority (they are small and their current website only has 35 pages of content). They won’t assign any rankings to them, and they want to come up on the first page for all of them within 30 days in a highly competitive market. We are having a reality check meeting in a few days…

  • Roger

    Educate the client. That’s the word, take the time to explain him how SEO works and you’ve done a big part of the work 🙂

  • Liz Madeley

    Love this story – was looking for tips on how to deal with a client that won’t take my advice on conversion rate optimisation, If you have made all the recommendations and have them on paper (on email), at least you have this to fall back on if/when things fall over.

    Only other thing I would possibly have done in your case was to spend time working on other keywords even if that wasn’t what the client had asked for, under the guise of making links look more natural, Then show them the better volume and performance of those keywords and convince them to concentrate on them that way. Perhaps I have been watching too much “House” – apply treatment first and ask permission afterwards! 🙂