Perhaps the best two words you’ll hear as an agency-side SEO.
The excitement, the feeling of grabbing a new retainer and starting on growing your clients business through SEO.
It’s also very time-consuming to get a client on board. If you’re in an agency setting (I’ve been in more than one) the sheer amount of front-end work to get a client off on the right foot is pretty monumental.
If you have multiple people working on your team, it gets even more complicated. Sure, you know the process to getting the client up and running, but not everyone on your team does it the same way. Bob adds in the clients login credentials to his personal Google Spreadsheet and Jennifer just prefers to write it down on a Post-It. If the account moves from one team member to another, you’re left scrambling to connect the two pieces before the client drops the “Hey, how’s it going?” email.
I know because I’ve been there. Lots of times.
After pulling my hair out a few times, and with the serious help of the book The Checklist Manifesto, I devised these four checklists.
Table Of Contents — SEO Client Project Checklist
These checklists are not comprehensive. They work well for me (on average, I’m working with clients in two specific industries that all have similar websites). My retainers are typically range anywhere from $500 to $4,000. Yours could be a lot more or less. They’re not for everyone (not even close). If you’re doing audits on million page websites, these are probably useless to you. If you’re doing SEO for an affiliate or e-commerce website, these probably are more useful. No value is implied here — use at your own risk. If you miss something important because it’s not on this checklist, then edit it and make it your own.
Pre-Client (Pitch Stage)
During this stage, I want to show them I know what I’m talking about without “giving away the farm” and writing a full marketing strategy for them. It’s a tough balance, but I side on over sharing rather than under sharing. That costs me about once a year where the client takes the idea elsewhere and has them execute on it. Oh well. Part of the life.
My feeling with most of the clients I work with is that they’re approaching me generally because they don’t have the time to do it, not just the talent. In other words, I work with savvy enough owners who are familiar with SEO and just don’t have all the expertise and time to execute on it. Here’s the list:
- Domain into SEMRush to review rankings
- Find top-keywords ranking
- Domain into SEMRush to review any drops in organic traffic
- Link growth chart in Ahrefs
- Quick anchor text review/analysis in Ahrefs
- Review home page for main keyword targeting
- Review UX of website as a customer
- Make 2-4 UX recommendations
- Find email sign-up, contact form or lead generation form
- Review email signup, contact form or lead generation form
- Break short notes into sections and make a few recommendations
At this point, I’m usually just having a client feel out what I see wrong or anything we could improve on quickly. I do always check links as well as any dips in organic traffic to see if the site could potentially have any penalty issues. Obviously the preferred method here is to have the client hand over Google Analytics & Webmaster Tools access, but not all are willing to do so. For the times they do, I just double check my assumptions above with any correlating data in Analytics and then I double check Webmaster Tools for query data, impressions, CTR and any manual penalties they may have on their domain.
I’m always evaluating the contact forms, checkout pages and any lead generation forms during an SEO audit.
Well, SEO is just the medium to a goal — a conversion. Each site will have at least one conversion, if not three or more, so evaluating these upfront is key. I can’t tell you how often I’ve won business just by finding broken checkout pages, fixing email signups and other small conversion wins. I don’t go all-in here and do any kind of A/B testing suggestions, I’m just looking for any quick wins.
On-Boarding (Organization Stage)
Let’s say they were impressed enough with your initial feel on the website. Exciting! They’ve signed a contract and are now going to start services. For ongoing SEO projects, I work on monthly retainers anywhere from 5-7 hours for small local businesses to 30-40 for large e-commerce websites. The details here could change depending on the client, the industry, the scope of the website and so on, but this is my starter list to open with after a contract is inked.
During the kickoff process, we’re feeling out the client on things like goals, actionable items they’d like to improve, general client understanding of the process and education. We’re not talking about the nitty gritty details of keywords, on-page optimization and the length of title tags. I do not take keyword lists from a client (if someone just wants to rank for one major keyword, then it’s not a fit for me) or ask clients to really do any analysis themselves.
Every single SEO client during a kickoff meeting should have a clear understanding on what types of things I’ll be working on, why a mix of tactics is usually best and how long the process takes of strong organic results.
They’ll get notified of my reporting schedule, contact email and idea creation and updates.
The kickoff checklist informs the client about some things that are needed to succeed. It may take up to an hour for the client to complete their checklist. I always tell them it should not be rushed, as it allows for me to get started on the right foot and get the best information possible for kick off.
- Access Sheet (Client Facing)
- Access Information:
- Do you have any old domains used/other domains owned:
- Access to website content management system:
- Access to the website files via FTP:
- Access to the domain (registrar) (if needed):
- Access to third party or other internal system to verify Google Analytics stats:
- Access to Google Analytics given to house email
- Access to Google Webmaster given to house email
- Access to Bing Webmaster Tools:
- Social Media Accounts:
- Facebook URL:
- Twitter URL:
- YouTube URL:
- Google Plus URL & Access given to house email:
- Pinterest URL:
- LinkedIn URL:
- Any others (Foursquare, Flickr, ect):
- Company Information & History:
- The Kickoff Meeting
- Talk about: specific goals
- Talk about: overall length of process for SEO results
- Talk about: relative competition in their industry
- Talk about: what we typically work on the first few months
- Notify client: reporting schedule
- Notify client: who to email with ideas
- Notify client: why we update strategies
- How do you define your ideal customer?
- Is there any industry “lingo” we should be aware of?
- Who does your website target?
- Any previous experience with SEO?
- If so, tell us about it.
- What were the good things that agency did? The bad things?
- If not, tell us what you expect.
- Describe how people find you on the internet (Myrtle Beach real estate, Chicago dentist, plasma televisions):
- How often do people do repeat business with you?
- What’s the lifetime value of a guest/client/customer to you?
- What’s your CPA in other marketing channels?
- Who sets goals at your company?
- We’d like to know about any formal goals you have set up.
- Tell us about any business relationships (industry partners) that can help your marketing.
- Ever done anything like a giveaway or contest before?
- What makes your company different than your competition?
- What are the short & long term goals of your company?
- Tell me about your role, the business and how you fit into marketing?
- Any other employees that help out with social media, content writing, blogging or any other marketing efforts?
- Questions for us? How can we help?
- Set reminder to revisit competitors and goals after 6 months and 1 year
- The Kickoff Meeting
Audit (Assessment & Setup Stage)
After the on-boarding process, we’ll perform a site audit on specific, actionable items that define exactly what we’re looking for. This process includes getting initial competitor data into SEO tools, reviewing the competitive landscape for the chosen niche or target market and finding out what the current state of the website is. This is broken into several categories.
- Tools Setup
- Create Basecamp Project & Invite Needed Team
- Add to BrightLocal
- Add to Raven Tools
- Add to Google Webmaster Tools Account
- Add email@example.com to Webmaster Tools Account
- Add to Bing Webmaster Tools Account
- Add domain to Rank Tracker
- Full backlink export Ahrefs
- Add branded mention alerts in Google Alerts
- Index & Crawl Audit
- Check number of indexed pages “site:domain.com”
- Full Screaming Frog Crawl
- Review missing page elements (<titles>, metas, ext)
- Review duplicated page elements (<titles>, metas, ext)
- Review query strings (double check GWT as well)
- Review quantity of pages getting organic traffic versus indexed pages
- Search for brand searches, branded search volume
- Review Google Cache & text only version of the pages for rendering issues
- Crawl website with Screaming Frog on “googlebot” user-agent to find any issues
- Check for duplicate content in index on other sites with Copyscape.com
- Check for http:// & https:// versions. Add canonical tags & redirect if needed.
- Check for www. & non-www. versions. Add canonical tags & redirect if needed.
- Setup all versions (https, http, www, ect) in GWT
- Review blocked areas in robots.txt (login, checkout, cart, includes, “thank you” pages)
- Pull any GWT errors
- Current Content Audit (more in-depth content audits here, here and here)
- Review content headlines on blog posts: are they engaging with real value?
- Review category, tags, archives pages for quality, in-depth content
- Review pages with high bounce rates, no conversions and poor organic traffic
- Review index status on tag, archives and category pages
- Review paginated pages in Google index
- Review current blog for best pages
- Review top linking pages/blogs in Ahrefs
- Review top shared content in BuzzSumo & Social Crawlytics
- Review best quality links in Ahrefs
- On page & Website Structure Audit
- Start with a full Screaming Frog crawl
- Audit Google Analytics install – confirm on every page
- Confirm all pages running same type (analytics.js is default now)
- Homepage audit – target keyword in title, H1 tag?
- Identify current key SEO landing pages
- Target keyword in title, H1 tag?
- Are we trying to rank for realistic keywords?
- Check for quality, in-depth content on each page.
- Audit each top-level page with this intent
- Review page titles uniqueness
- Review meta descriptions uniqueness and hand-write for key pages
- Review page titles length
- Review meta descriptions length
- Review 301’s in Screaming Frog crawl
- Review any iframed content in Screaming Frog Crawl
- Test site speed http://tools.pingdom.com/
- Review current XML sitemaps for proper structure, 404 pages in them, missing pages
- Submit flawless sitemap to GWT
- Submit flawless sitemap to BWT
- Review link to sitemap.xml in robots.txt
- Check for descriptive URLs
- Review internal linking structure for quality, anchor text, quantity
- Review broken internal links in Screaming Frog crawl
- Current Ranking & Position Review
- Add to SEMRush and review top keyword ranking data
- Review any dips in organic traffic and match up to algorithm changes
- Review branded search over time with Google Trends
- Export full keyword ranking spreadsheet from SEMRush
- Keyword Research, Portfolio & Analysis
- Review SEMRush keyword ranking report
- Email client, asking for top, mid a high-level focus on profitable services.
- Google Keyword planner – add in competitors landing pages for extra insight
- Create keyword map for blog posts
- Create keyword map for informational/content pages
- Create keyword map for targeted converting traffic
- Inbound Link Profile Audit
- Pull up full Ahrefs link profile
- Review quantity of links compared to closest three competitors in organic search
- Review quality of links & website sources
- Check for major local directory links
- Review anchor text – branded should be number one
- Percentage of links to homepage
- Percentage of links to interior pages
- Competitor Audit
- Find top 3-5 competitors in organic SERPs
- Client gives top 3-5 competitors
- Add all websites to Raven Tools
- Review top linking pages in Ahrefs
- Review top shared content in BuzzSumo & Social Crawlytics
- Review best quality links in Ahrefs
- Create list of top-quality links for duplication
- Review top competitor on-page content for meta keywords & keyword targeting
Strategy & Task Creation (Planning Stage)
After the audit, I have a pretty good handle on the weaknesses, strengths and overall shape the website is in from the SEO end.
Keep in mind no tactical work has been done yet. But, the next step is really critical.
Creating a careful, systemic strategy can have general outline, but cannot follow one simple process for creating a custom strategy for all clients. There’s just too many variables here to make something universal.
For example, one to-do above is to review the link profile. That could take 30 minutes or 30 hours depending on the client and any issues they have and could drastically affect the strategy you have for SEO success.
- Notes/Tasks To Review After Audit:
- Technical issues discovered during the audit
- A list of competitors to get content ideas
- Content audit for current pages on the site
- Index issues
- Crawling issues
- Link profile issues
- Keyword maps
After this point, I have a call with the client letting them know what I have found and the next step: to setup a SMART goal.
For your SEO and overall organic visibility, we have examples of a SMART goal:
Specific – I want to see an increase of 10% revenue from organic traffic over the next three months with a 10 hour per month budget. Or I want to see an in-depth guide on Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with 15 pages about attractions, things to do, local businesses and restaurants.
Measurable – I can track this revenue through Google Analytics or/and my call tracking system. Or I want new content to be shared and linked to by at least three news sources, high profile bloggers or websites.
Attainable – If your company has been declining in revenue 8 months in a row by double digits, a 200% increase probably isn’t likely. Example of content based attainable goal: I want this content to be created with a ten hour per month budget over the next two months.
Realistic – You will not rank for “car insurance” with a 3 hour budget. Goal: I expect my website to get 15,000 visitors over the next 6 months or I want revenue to grow 10% compared to last year.
Timely – What is your timeframe for organic results? Typically, we see lag periods of true organic efforts like in-depth content, link building and on-page updates trail about two months behind or more. Are you okay with this fact?
- Create a SMART goal with the direction of the rep & client
- Add into Basecamp halfway through to check trending progress
- Add final goal into Basecamp with reminder to follow up at end date
How I Use This Checklist
Having this is great — but what takes it over the top for me is turning this into a real checklist in a project management app. At first, I was experimenting with using Trello for adding these tasks into a board for each section and checking them off. However, after playing with Trello for about two months, it didn’t fit my workflow. I’ve moved over to Basecamp professionally and am much happier. The “Me” tab is pretty much pinned open all day with tasks just like the ones above.
The trick to getting this quickly into Basecamp is pretty simple. Navigate to your project and scroll to bottom. Compose an email and add in the sections one-by-one. Four emails later, you’ll have a full-on client on-boarding laid out in a Basecamp project. In general, this takes me about 5 minutes and I’m off and running assigning todos, working on the project and keeping logs & notes of what I’m working on.
Of course you can use Trello, Wrike, Omnifocus, Asana or any one of a million project management apps to wrangle this checklist. The software is up to you. The button below will send you to (formatting stripped) version that you can easy copy/paste into your favorite project management app of choice. Free, zero email required. Enjoy.
Feedback, Updates & Corrections
Feedback is welcome: email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.