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Survey: Most SMBs Spend 2 Unhappy Years of Marriage with SEO Provider

A recent survey of 1,200 US small business owners and decision-makers from Backlinko found high expectations of SEO providers and widespread dissatisfaction — only 30% would recommend their current providers. There was also evidence some confusion about SEO services and what they can accomplish.

The findings showed that the average monthly spend on SEO services was $497 but that “clients that spent over $500/month were 53.3% more likely to be ‘extremely satisfied’ compared to those that spent less than $500/month.” There’s a correlation vs. causation discussion that follows from this conclusion. (More on that below.)

Who provides their SEO services? According to the survey it’s most often a webhosting company:

  • A service provided by a web hosting company: 43%
  • A freelancer: 24%
  • An agency: 16%
  • Both an agency and freelancer: 6%
  • Other: 11%

But when seeking out a provider, the top three ways that SMBs found SEO services were:

  1. Word of mouth/referrals
  2. Google search
  3. Online research/reviews

The following chart shows the expectations of SEO providers. A number of these choices, including improving site security, gaining social media followers, email subscribers and helping attract new employees, are beyond the scope of conventional SEO services.

Importance of specific SEO benefits to SMB respondents

Satisfaction with specific SEO benefits 

The numbers above suggest higher overall levels of satisfaction than the “70% would not recommend” finding. Indeed, 59% percent of respondents agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement, “I have seen dramatic positive results for my business because of SEO.”

The top two reasons for switching or abandoning SEO providers were: 1) dissatisfaction with business results and 2) dissatisfaction with cost/expense of service. Interestingly, some of the respondents also blame their own lack of understanding/education and internal resources for the low satisfaction levels expressed. “Specifically, 50% stated that ‘I feel like I need more training to fully benefit from what SEO offers’ and 28% told us that they ‘do not have the staff resources to properly benefit from SEO,'” explains the Backlinko discussion.

Overall satisfaction with SEO services by provider category

Backlinko also found some confusion among SMBs about what constitutes an “SEO service.” The company said in its discussion of the survey methodology that “many [respondents] believed that software provided by hosting companies were providing a service.” That implies they may not have actually been getting actual SEO services in some cases.

Backlinko generally stated that low satisfaction “is largely due to three main factors: 1. Lack of client education, 2. Lack of available resources and 3. Poor understanding of how SEO is helping them.” Lack of available resources isn’t explored in the survey. However that may, as a practical matter, be business owner time to fully understand the service and its benefits. If so, this is a failing on the part of the vendor — especially in light of the finding immediately below.

The survey discovered that 65% of respondents had used two or more SEO providers and 25% had used at least three. But the average SEO tenure — and this is very interesting — was two years with a single provider. (If this is a webhost, does it mean they’re switching hosts also after two years?) And if this figure is correct it suggests a significant failure on the part of the SEO provider itself. Two years is more than enough time to obtain and explain results.

Now to revisit the finding: “clients that spent over $500/month were 53.3% more likely to be ‘extremely satisfied.'” It may be that those SMBs that value marketing and are willing to spend more are more sophisticated and more likely to see and understand the benefits of SEO. It could also be true that those able to spend more are getting more professional and better quality services and seeing better results.

There are lots of areas worth further exploration and questions that the survey doesn’t answer (reflecting limits of online survey research). If you’d like to dig further into the results and draw your own conclusions, you can see the discussion here and the methodology here (.pdf).

One Response to “Survey: Most SMBs Spend 2 Unhappy Years of Marriage with SEO Provider”

  1. Steve Chafe says:

    Really great article with some great details about what can disappoint SMB clients.

    To support all of the mentioned aspects, I and my team have found that the skillsets required to do the best job possible require long term, ongoing learning in each of the areas mentioned. We’ve found that it just isn’t possible for one individual to reach maximum proficiency across all the crucial aspects,including staying on top of recent SEO needs like E-A-T and writing quality and speed optimizations (which, when done generically, can actually break certain WP plugin functions).

    As an agency that has been able to keep clients for much longer than 2 years, we’ve found that the long relationship is only possible by having the right set of specialized individuals in house. As an example, a CSS expert focused on visuals and layout customizations across 5 different high-market-share screensizes doesn’t have time to become an expert on server speed, iptables security rules, wordpress plugin security vulnerabilities, and server capacity, among many other very relevant tasks for a successful ROI outcome.

    When all the crucial and even subtle parts of generating ROI for a client, the marriage between client & agency can last 10 years or more. Just like any marriage though, it isn’t easy and takes an insane amount of work 🙂

    Again, it was really great and helpful to see the data confirming what we’ve seen!

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