SEO Consulting: How To Construct Great Proposals

Like in any consulting field, SEO is rife with competition. There is only one way to win in such an environment, and that is to set yourself apart from the crowd.

Not in a bad way, of course :)

Here are some ideas on how to construct winning proposals.

Size Isn't Everything, But It Does Count

Large proposals take a long time to do. On the upside, large proposals can look impressive, simply by virtue of their size. Clients often like to see large proposals, but they don't tend to read them.

Proposals can be a tricky balance to get right. No matter how brilliant your solution, most clients will think twice about you if you present it on a single sheet, especially if they have no prior connection with you, or aren't meeting you face-to-face. A proposal of a certain size can appear more authoritative.

What is the ideal size?

One good way of presenting a proposal is to break it into three parts. The first part is a summary, including your client-specific solution and costs. Length can vary of course, but keep it succinct. No fat.

The second part is a case study or two. Again, keep them succinct. It's highly likely that the client won't actually read beyond this point.

Finally, add background information about you, your company, your history and the SEO business, all of which should be aimed at supporting the summary page and case studies. This final part can be generic and doesn't need to be re-written for each client. Clients may only flip through this section, but tend to find it reassuring that it exists.

Contrast this approach with a proposal that is threadbare. It may be irrational, but thin proposals can feel incomplete.

Give Something Of Value Away

In your summary pages, share real information.

Share the type of information that is valuable and the sort of you'd usually charge for providing. Clients are likely to assume that if the SEO is giving a few morsels of valuable information away in the proposal, then even more valuable information will be forthcoming if they sign you. Demonstrate your mastery. If all you do is provide generic information at this point, then your proposal is less likely to stand out.

Some potential clients, of course, may pick your brain and then implement your solutions themselves. Whilst this can happen, it's unlikely. The client already knows they want SEO by the time they're at the proposal stage, and if they could have done this work themselves, they probably would have done so already.

Secondly, you can outline solutions that involve time cost to achieve. Imply that this work must be undertaken by someone who knows what they are doing. Outline the risks of not doing this work properly. The more real work, and risk, there is invlolved in implementation, the less likely a client will be willing to go the do-it-yourself route.

As we all know, there is a lot of real work involved in SEO. Make sure the client is left in no doubt on that aspect.

It's Not About You

Focus on the clients needs.

Nothing loses a potential client faster than an SEO who talks entirely about themselves and their industry. Clients don't care. Clients care about their problems and their industry. In the summary pages, restate the clients problem and propose your specific solutions. Outline time frame and costs.

This exercise is useful for a number of reasons, the main one being that you, or the client, may not know what the actual problem is!

What a client says may not be what they mean. For example, the client may say they want SEO because they're heard that's a great way to get traffic quickly. They may not say it in these words, of course. They may say they want SEO, and they want it asap.

However, if the SEO has asked enough questions, aimed at identifying the problem, the SEO may unearth unstated problems. In this case, a client wants to increase traffic quickly. A solution to such a problem might be a combination of SEO and PCC. The PPC delivers immediate traffic while the SEO strategy might take some time.

Formulate questions aimed at identifying the clients actual, as opposed to stated, problem. They may be quite different. The result is that your solution will be a good fit, which will lead to less frustration, on both sides, further down the line.

You also might discover at this point that the clients expectations are ridiculous, and you'd be better off looking for a more reasonable client. For example, I was once pitching to a large advertising company. Their clients had been asking for SEO, so all they knew is they "needed some SEO".


Problem was, as I discovered in the meeting, was that they knew nothing about the need to alter sites or web publishing approach. They had told clients they could deliver SEO as a bolt-on-service, a wave of the magic wand that miraculously delivered rankings and free traffic for life to brochure sites.

I didn't go any further with them.

Offer Guarantees (Assurance)

Guarantees are a contentious issue in SEO circles.

Many SEOs - quite rightly - point out that no one can guarantee a ranking position, which is true, but such technical nuances may unsettle a client.

Clients tend to like assurance, and a guarantee can help provide this. So rather than dismissing guarantees, look at aspects you can guarantee.

A fiend of mine, in a different industry, offers a guarantee that goes along the lines of "if you don't feel satisfied after our strategy meetings with you, even after you sign the contract, you can walk away, no questions asked, and no charge.".

That sounds like something substantial, but actually he is just restating consumer law in the country where he lives. The law is that a service must be fit for the purpose the client intended, and if it isn't, the client has a case against the provider for non-suitability of service.

My friend realized he could never afford to contest such cases, and would likely lose, as the consumer law favored the buyer. All an aggrieved client really had to do to win such a case was say the service wasn't fit for their purposes.

He was dealing with firms with deep pockets, and legal action defending against such firms would come at high cost, even if he was in the right, so he decided to restate a consumer right the client actually already had, combined with an economic reality - his inability to engage in costly legal battles - into a form of a reassuring guarantee for sales purposes.

Case Studies Are Powerful

There is no sales tool quite so powerful as a good case study. A case study is a story. People love stories. A case study is also proof of your ability.

Outline the problem. Tell your audience what the problem looked like before you started - very useful if this problem is similar to the problem the prospective client also faces - what you did to solve the problem, and the positive results of your solution.

Stories are very powerful sales tools, and a case study is a great opportunity to tell a few.

Package It Up

Consider printing and binding your proposal, and delivering it.

We receive so many emails these days that they don't make us feel very special. It doesn't feel like there is much effort gone into them. A binded proposal, on the other hand, feels substantial.

In the interests of speed, you can still send an email copy, but try doing both and seeing if you land more deals.


Don't undercharge. You'll regret it :)

Published: March 1, 2010 by A Reader in marketing


March 1, 2010 - 9:03am

Nice info ... I believe providing a SEO analysis of the site along with the proposal would something client will like.

March 1, 2010 - 12:25pm

Most SEOs that are selling good product/service tend to sell the analysis as a product rather than give it away as a loss leader. You can give away a few bits for free...but if they want too much before paying it typically means 1 or more of the following

  • they don't plan on buying
  • they don't plain on buying from you
  • they don't respect you (or, at least not much)
  • they don't value your opinion
  • if they do hire you they will often want the moon for a song
March 4, 2010 - 5:27pm

I think the same is true with giving advice for free on the internet LOL (on any topic). I would love to know how many times in the past when I gave someone thorough advice online, the person actually actioned it. It is indeed a bit depressing lol

Simon Wharton
March 1, 2010 - 1:53pm

It's worth asking the question very early on. Do they have a budget for this marketing excercise and what is the ball park for it. Sometimes they wont tell you, sometimes they will. The point is to establish the job is worth doing inthe first place and whether they have a realistic view of the value of the effort needed to be succesful on their behalf. All too often a potential client still has little understanding of online marketing. They believe that because they've read a couple of SEO blogs (no offence Aaron) that they can deliver it themselves. Time to walk away and find a client that will value your efforts

March 1, 2010 - 10:11pm

Spot on Simon. And before I will even recommend a prospective client to a friend I will ask about budget. I leave it quite open ended so I can let them trip up themselves with being too cheap and greedy...and then I tell them "sorry at those prices you will need to do it yourself."

This is especially true when I know that the optimization project is worth millions to their business and they want to pay $1,000. Anyone who says they are value driven is really say that they are a cheap person who wants profits from nobody but themselves. Just yesterday a *value driven* laywer from Manhattan asked for help, and got none.

How is a person *value driven* and yet they spent a quarter million Dollars on their education and live in the most expensive part of the most expensive city in the country? Value driven is a tradesman from the midwest perhaps...not so much Manhattan lawyer though ;)

d marks
March 1, 2010 - 7:19pm


I know years ago you offered a service of one hour coaching & website review for a fee...Is this still a service that you offer

Is there a minimum to retain your services for consulting, feel free to send the info via email if you dont want to post online...thx

sorry for the name mixup had matt cutts on the brain, would be nice if he offered consulting as well :)

March 1, 2010 - 10:12pm

Here you go d marks. Though note I wouldn't be able to consult until Apil as this month is literally stuffed full already!

March 2, 2010 - 1:22am

Your next article can be about the one hour grilling - "How to prepare everyone in your organization so they can grill the SEO consultant during the one-hour paid consult (and get $50,000 of consulting for $500)".

If you pay attention, there are signs of potential success/failure at every step of the process, from first phone call to scheduling of conference calls, and even the way questions are asked.

I think every good SEO consultant should make that very first one-hour call totally free (and use it to ask the right questions), but charge for everything after that at the full rate. Any less and you are taking a loss.

March 2, 2010 - 2:41pm

Proposals are an art.

I had one that was extremely verbose and thought to myself if people are reading these like they read internet content I need to change some things.

So I got it down to a one pager. Made more bullet points and sentences that are short and sweet.

I think that if they require more information, and they like what they've read so far, then they'll ask for more.

My proposals are like a teaser of what I intend to do for them, and if reading through one doesn't have the intent of putting them on the edge of their seat then I don't send it.

One Question Though - I have asked a recent new client what they hope to gain from this work and they asked for what I thought, that is a sign that they don't understand it, and/or they want me to do their work for them in not only delivering results but determining how the work would be measured as well. So do you tend to prefer the clients that submit an RFP and have deeper pockets but can be more strict, or the clients that say we trust whatever you say we should do.

March 2, 2010 - 9:17pm

Do you tend to prefer the clients that submit an RFP and have deeper pockets but can be more strict, or the clients that say we trust whatever you say we should do.

This depends on what other assets they have to some degree, and how the relationship was formed. If the person at that large company was already at another large company in the past and hired you then...well that can end up being the type of client who is deep pocketed AND who trusts whatever you say.

I almost always hate RFP (and typically tell them if they are shopping to keep shopping but if they seriously want to work with us they may, but we don't have the time to be shopped). Sometimes they will let you know that it is a formality and that they want to work with you...but if they are shopping many people I say meh. ;)

Generally I do prefer deep trust, but a person having absolute trust in you can sometimes go too far. There was a guy from Hawaii who hired us who would attribute algorithmic swings to us...and so whenever his rankings went down he would have us build some more links, and then when the rankings improved a couple days later (before the links were even indexed, this was back when Google was way slower at finding new links) he would think that we did it and that we can change the rankings as we wished almost immediately. That was interesting, but sometimes not fun because the expectations were so high. I would tell him that he was just experiencing algorithmic changes when it bounces around, but he would always chalk that up to my modisty...sigh :D

March 5, 2010 - 5:53am

One client I have trusts me, wants me to teach them what I do, and I'm happy to explain but usually its not far into the conversation that they are losing interest which is why they hired me, so someone will make sure to follow through.

The hard part is when there seems to be an endless list of things to fix, working within the confines of whatever CMS they use, every client so far has had title tags duplicated for every page with their company name as leading terms.

They have inventory thats in an iframe, and clients that have never even setup Google analytics yet their website drives 40% of their sales and they spend 10's of thousands of month on marketing, of course the majority being print and tv.

I had an opportunity to do some contracting for a large firm, the person in charge is well known and it would be nice to do work that someone would notice and understand, and value.

There's so much I have been able to do with the smaller clients, but it's probably 10 times the effort because of their understanding, and then the effort of having to constantly tell them what I'm doing and why.

March 3, 2010 - 6:32am

Nice post - case studies are a great way to prove value and nothing is more important than charging enough. Less than enough leaves you short on resources and ultimately hurts the client's campaign.

Best point though...know the budget. You better pre-qualify the company before spending a few hours on a proposal.

March 4, 2010 - 4:20am

Great posts. I enjoy reading your blog and wanted to chime in on this one, hopefully it helps.

I tend to use a proposal as a summary of the client objectives to be accomplished (discovered through previous discussion via phone or e-mail) and charge fees based on the value delivered (generally with options so they aren't stuck with "Yes" or "No").

It has been my experience that proposals are the easy part - if you do the pre-proposal investigative work thoroughly.

It is during this stage I ask many questions to:

A.) Uncover what the client NEEDS (which is not always what they say they want). This can put me ahead of the pack early if they say they want X and I am able to clearly highlight why they need Y to accomplish their goal.

B.) I have a target market / client profile so this stage is a good time to examine if I think we are a good fit

C.) Build some rapport while giving away information as others mentioned to establish credibility.

Generally when I follow this outline I land the proposal.

March 4, 2010 - 5:51am

You just covered the basics on what to do to have a smoothly running business. Some times even experienced business owner fail to put in practice some of these and the ask; Why they failed?

March 19, 2010 - 5:53pm

(and typically tell them if they are shopping to keep shopping but if they seriously want to work with us they may, but we don't have the time to be shopped). Sometimes they will let you know that it is a formality and that they want to work with you...but if they are shopping many people I say meh. ;)"

I'm in this situation right now, met with a new client, first meeting went something like "we want to begin this in a few days"

How many times have you heard that one? :|

So I prepare the proposal, granted it's about 10x the amount of work I do for a typical client right off the bat, starting immediately, and my team of 7 gets yanked off other stuff to get this one started.

They respond it seems a bit high priced, to which I say, look at your Q2 marketing budget, you end up saving 100k or more and you're balking at a 5k investment to get started?

Sure seems like shopping. In fact I was very direct and just said today, are you able to set a meeting for next week to give this a solid "go or no go" commitment.

To which they said, no I can't I'm too busy but would like to talk to you about this soon.

Now I'm to the point where I'd like to say the proposal expires in 14 days, if you can't pull trigger by then were done.

March 20, 2010 - 3:46am

That is the maddening part. Its not like they are policing saving their company a few is more like they are trying to police against you making a livable wage.

If they claim that $x is too much then tell them you are willing to absorb a lot of the risk and will gladly take a piece of the upside in the value you create.

Start pushing the conversation in that direction and they will stop acting like jackasses because while they are trying to discount for risk, they are hoping to capture all of the upside while paying you crumbs for making them millions. And THEY KNOW IT. ;)

March 26, 2010 - 12:31am

A proposal is as much a way to provide the client with the ability to make an informed decision on your services as it is for you to determine the viability of a client.

All too often you find a client who doesn't want to allocate enough resources - whether that be to pay you or to ensure that recommendations are actually implemented.

Those types of engagements can be frustrating since that measured success you're seeking to guarantee is constantly being thwarted by shoddy implementation.

Providing a solid proposal, with a few bits provided for free, along with a solid understanding of expectations can help save you from heartburn. And at the end of the day, word of mouth is a powerful tool - particularly in SEO where many have been burned by charlatans.

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