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Know your agency: Why we don’t use contracts

Signing a contract

Sometimes it seems that for every good SEO agency, there are at least five bad ones out there.

Ask around, and you’ll likely find at least a few businesses that have been burned by an agency.

A lot of this bad blood is related to contracts – the SEO industry in particular has a history of agencies tying businesses into ironclad contracts that do nothing to protect them even if their relationship breaks down.

These SEO agencies usually make unrealistic promises, only offer packages that work on a handful of very specific services rather than a business as a whole, or use techniques that are frowned upon by search engines (we’re looking at you again, paid guest posting!).

But there are agencies out there that are striving to repair this reputation, operating on the basis of trust, value and just plain great work to maintain a relationship – not a contract.

We know the idea of working with a partner agency without a contract might sound intimidating in its unconventionality, but stick with us here – done correctly, and it has massive potential to benefit both clients and agencies.

How do we know this? Because we don’t use contracts with clients, and we never have.

In the latest installation of our Know Your Agency series, we’ll outline why.

What do contracts with SEO agencies look like?

Don’t get us wrong – it’s possible to have a good relationship with an agency that uses contracts.

A good contract will be easy to escape should you not want to carry on working with the agency in question, and will clearly identify the work that’s to be carried out. They’ll also make it clear what deliverables the client can expect.

On the other hand, the bad contracts won’t. They typically:

  • Include cancellation penalties
  • Don’t explicitly state the work being done on your account
  • Highlight outdated tactics as part of their strategy
  • Don’t offer reporting or measurement verification

Usually you’ll be able to spot the type of agency that offers these contracts at the proposal stage – you’ll just need to do your research ahead of time.

Why we don’t use contracts

When contracts are involved, agencies are, in theory, performing work because they’ve signed on the dotted line. Yes, they can be fired for handing in shoddy work, but there will still likely be a notice period in which you’re tied to them (and paying them).

But when contracts are left out of the equation, the onus is on the agency to prove their value. They know that the only way to get more work from a client is by doing an excellent job and getting results, and so they’re going to be working especially hard to achieve this.

We’d argue that with contracts, it goes the other way around – clients are proving their value to the agency in that they’re committing to paying them for a set amount of time and work.

Contracts also create distance and a formal, legal framework when really, the relationship should be that of collaborative partners. And yes, this sort of contract practice is standard (and necessary) in a number of industries, but we’d argue it’s not necessarily the right fit for SEO agencies.

In our experience, contracts create a relationship in which agencies fill the role of a supplier.  Without a contract, agencies can take on the role of a creative, collaborative partner rather than someone that’s required to fill a certain quota.

Further to this, the scope of work changes constantly in the world of SEO, so contracts can hinder the flexibility needed to adapt. Agencies need the flexibility to alter their practices over time, and work collaboratively with clients to find the best practices for their business.

A huge percentage of SEO agencies establish an hourly rate in their contracts, which doesn’t leave a lot of room to pursue tasks in more detail or even go beyond the scope of pre-outlined work. We could talk about this for hours, so we’ll go into more detail on why hourly rates aren’t our preferred mode of working in our next Know Your Agency blog.

But the point here is simple – contracts tend to create rigidity and an unnatural state of formality which, in an industry as creative and fast-moving as SEO, can do more harm than good.

And yes, there are selfish reasons too

We won’t lie – not all SEO agency-client relationships work out. It’s like any business sector.

These relationships can break down for any number of reasons: there aren’t enough resources on the client-side of things to implement work; the agency falls behind and isn’t delivering the work they promised in the pre-agreed timeline and so results are stunted.

When a client-agency relationship becomes strained, it doesn’t benefit anyone – clients aren’t happy with the work they’re receiving, and agencies aren’t happy with the work they’re delivering, which ultimately amounts to wasted time and resources for both parties.

So while eliminating contracts is helpful for clients as a back-up in case their SEO agency doesn’t work out, they’re beneficial for agencies, too. Agencies want the right spaces in which they can prove they’re good at what they do, and working with clients that aren’t a good fit hinders this.

A no-contract way of working means both sides are free to walk away any time, and for any reason.

So, how does Blink work?

Now, let’s be clear – we’re not arguing you should enter into a relationship with an agency in which there’s no accountability, no promises and no measurable metrics. 

We’re arguing it can be done in a more flexible, modern way.

The way we work is simple. Before entering any relationship with a new client, we come up with a detailed proposal in which we outline:

  • Room for improvement on a client’s website/web presence
  • Specific work we’d like to carry out and how we’ll do it
  • Measurable goals and metrics
  • Case studies in which we’ve achieved similar goals
  • A monthly retainer or price for one-off projects

Here’s an example from a proposal we recently created:

An excerpt from a recent proposal

If a client likes what we’re offering and wants to work on a retainer, we do have a terms and conditions document that we ask them to sign – this simply includes basic legal information covering intellectual property and other minor points, but doesn’t lock anyone into a set timeframe or payment scheme.

From there, no signatures are required, nobody is tied down to anything. We just get to work.

That first month involves extensive market research and getting to know a client’s business. Our account managers are in constant contact with clients, so we’re always on the same page about the work we’re carrying out. While the client is happy, the work carries on as normal. If they’re not, we adjust or they’re free to walk away.

The method to our madness is pretty straightforward – clients stick around with us because they like what we’re doing and we stick around because we like what they’re doing. Not because a piece of paper tells us to.

Ultimately an SEO agency-client relationship should be about the agency proving their worth to the client, not the other way around. Don’t forget that as the client, you’ve got the power, and that’s the way it should be.

Coming up in our next Know Your Agency series, we’re diving further into the way agencies work, specifically around hourly rates, and why this has the potential to hurt clients in the long run. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you’re keen to see how a no-contract way of working could benefit your business, get in touch.

Get in touch

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