Hiring an SEO expert on a retainer agreement

Saturday 1st October 2022

Search Engine Optimisation is an ongoing process so clients will often be presented with retainer agreements - here's how to spot the better ones.


What is SEO?

SEO is the process by which a knowledgeable and experienced person will make incremental changes and improvements to your website or ecommerce store, in order that it appears higher on the search engine rankings for particular key terms. It's matching YOUR site to the relevant search phrases YOU CUSTOMERS are using.


Why can't my Web Designer do SEO?

The skills and experience involved in being a web designer/developer are focused on making a website work - in the same way that a car engine should switch on when you turn the key. Your web designer will be primarily concerned with making your site attractive and on-brand, functional and easy to use, and reliable.

A Search Engine Optimisation expert will be zooming in on three major aspects that are related to - but not the same as - your web design. Those SEO factors will be Technical, Content and Reputation. It's a whole different mindset and separate area of expertise.


Why does SEO take so long?

There are 3 primary hurdles that need to be overcome with SEO - your website capability, your competition and your customers.


Website Capability

Not all website platforms (Wordpress, Drupal, Wix, Shopify etc), codebases (php, asp, javascript etc) or indeed designers/developers are built SEO-ready.

Your SEO expert may want to make changes that are simply not possible on your platform, meaning that you are already one place back. Or they may suggest you change hosting for added speed and security, yet you (or your designer) deem that too time consuming.

If your site needs to host 80 new articles (targeting relevant phrases discovered in this process), can your platform / designer easily create a consistent set of well designed pages? Can you implement effective call to action conversion tracking in order to justify (at a later date) the effectiveness of your SEO expert's work?


Your Competition

No matter what you do, you are up against your competition - 'competing' for Google's trust in your relevance for that particular search phrase.

Of the proverbial 200 website factors that Google reviews, one competitor might have 'ticked 156', whilst another may have 'ticked 124'. But even this isn't clear cut.

Each factor will no doubt be weighted by Google/Bing for importance e.g. age of site being more important that your home page meta data?

So your website and the SEO expert is in a constant flux of assessing and outdoing the competition, whilst the competition do the same to you.


Your Customers Searching

People think and feel different things, and in seeing your website appear at #5 for "loft insulation 20mm", they may prefer the text shown by a competitor first? 

Perhaps they decide that they need to alter their search phrase?

Perhaps they choose your website, click about but decide not to buy today.

After a good period of time (collecting market-driven comprehensive data) your SEO expert will make changes to respond to what they are seeing. They are tweaks and tests to see if the intricate Google matrix of ((200x200 factors) x competition), nets you any positive results.

Good SEO experience (often over 10+ years) will help your expert choose which levers to pull first, which factors probably have more strength in your marketplace, and which factors your competitors are weak at.


Why Retainer Agreements make sense - and why you have no choice but to be patient


As reasoned above, SEO takes time.

Testing, tweaking, technical capabilities, depth of content, people being available as a resource (think 'web designer', think 'who writes the content') are all a necessary part of the process.

This is why any experienced and successful SEO expert will always recommend a middle to long term retainer agreement to see the changes through. Any client should be looking at a minimum of 12 months, up to 36 months, in a company or consultant they can trust.

It is not about the SEO person securing income for 1-3 years, it is about you securing results that clearly take time. If you are concerned about such a financial commitment to something that is both highly beneficial but somewhat uncertain, then you need to review the detail within that retainer agreement.


Which Retainer Agreement is best?


Retainer agreements can be simple or complex, but all should be clear.

Writing my first Retainer Agreement back in 2007 (reviewed by my agency boss and the company lawyer), I was keen to make sure it was:

  • results driven
  • highlighted the challenges to implementation (see above)
  • included a range of services that could be chosen between (the levers)
  • guaranteed client input (feedback, understanding, keyword/user direction)
  • gave cancellation options/conditions for longer term contracts (handover and training period), and
  • was clear about inclusive and exclusive costs

So any client should be clear and reasonable about their expectations - including activity and reporting - and any SEO consultant should also be clear about expectations and the levers required for change.



This article was written as a supporting piece to my SEO Contract offer which is sold by [days] rather than a fixed fee - I had several questions from people about how many [days] they should order - which is then discussed here.

If you are interested to understand more about Retainer agreements then you can simply Ask Me a Question.