The $50,000 Screwjob- A Business Parable for SEO

I’ve been privileged to have worked with a lot of really smart people over the course of my SEO career, and a lot of them like to speak in metaphors and parables. I heard the exact same one told by two different co-workers last week, so I thought I’d relate it here, and then try to apply it to the world of SEO.  Here goes:

A factory that manufactures goods is broken down. While the machinery and conveyor belts sit idle, the factory is losing $1000 in profits every single hour. Panicked, they call out a repairman, who rushes over. He walks around the factory for a while, kicking this machine and tapping on that one. Eventually, he walks up to a small screw on one of the conveyor belts, takes out his screwdriver, and turns the screw 20 degrees to the right. All of the factory’s machinery roars back into life, everyone goes back to work, profitability returns, everyone is happy.

Then, a week or two down the line, the company gets a bill from the repairman for $50,000. They are, of course, outraged and call him demanding to know why he charged them such an exorbitant fee- after all, all he did was turn one tiny screw a little bit in one direction! The repairman apologizes and explains that he must have not been clear on the bill. The fee to drive to the factory and investigate then fix the problem is only $49.95. The other $49,950.05 is for knowing which screw to turn.

It’s a good metaphor, and it applies especially well to SEO. We do walk a fine line in that what we’re paid for is our expertise- but what happens when things bog down, for whatever reason? What if the client is not willing to pay for development work? What if their developer is too expensive and they aren’t willing to make the investment to make the technical changes necessary on the site? What if the site has no content? What if the client isn’t willing to write content? What if they aren’t willing to pay to source content? What if they don’t want to make architectural or design changes? What if they don’t think it’s important to have the site on its own server? What if they have no social media presence and no desire to create and maintain one? What if they have no linking budget? Worst of all, what if they don’t trust you, or they won’t listen to your advice?

Many SEOs would prefer to see themselves like the repairman in our first example; however, you have to have a contingency plan. Sure, you’ve got a great idea to do 301 redirects or consolidate 1500 subdomains and recapture a brands’ authority that you just KNOW will show measurable gains, and fast-  but what if they don’t want to pay for it? How do you show value then? Are you still doing useless work such as automated directory submissions or article spinning? Are you spitting out bad or unneeded content just so you can meet a specific number of deliverables? Are you constantly scrambling just to make it through a call, then struggling to get to the next call, then praying that that one gets punted or that the client doesn’t have a lot of questions? At some point, you need to deliver more than just your assurances that you know what you’re talking about.

Make sure your clients are well qualified. Make sure they understand what SEO is and what it isn’t, what it can do and what it can’t. It’s not the right fix in every single situation, and if you get to a point where you are just churning out work to maintain a client, take a step back and reevaluate your goals. If you don’t think something has value; don’t do it! There’s only so many SEO gurus in the world that can charge $50,000 for turning a screw a little bit. The rest of us have to work for it.

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