Why SEO Guarantees are Dangerous

SEO Guarantees

SEO Guarantees aren’t all they are made out to be!

Why do most reputable SEO Consultants not offer SEO guarantees? Because an SEO guarantee is a promise in an uncertain field where small changes from search engine algorithms, competitors and external influences can make exaggerated differences, that promise is too easy to break, irreparably damaging a reputation. Though some clients will want a 100% guarantee to do business, there is little benefit in us making a guarantee because they actively reduce trust for long term clients with an understanding and interest in search engine optimisation. SEO guarantees are now seen as being too slick to be true by more knowledgeable clients.
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SEO vs Algorithms: Cheats never prosper

Ever since the beginning of SEO consultancy, there have been industry experts dedicated to ‘fooling’ page ranking algorithms, using ‘guaranteed’ tactics that include hidden text, link wheels, website submission software and unnatural keyword densities. Search engine algorithms are not that easy to fool. As these tactics became more popular, ranking algorithms developed to not only ignore obviously dubious tactics, but also to penalise sites that embrace them. Many of the most ‘guaranteed’ tactics have not worked in the last 10 years, and those that claim to be able to guarantee SEO results simply undermine their credibility as genuine experts, as well as penalising the sites that they work on (these mistakes can haunt a site for years afterwards). Experts are aware that search engine algorithms are increasingly rewarding genuine usability, rather than ‘one size fits all’, ‘guaranteed’ strategies. A penalty from Google can last much longer (and be far more costly) than a temporarily high ranking gained by dodgy SEO tactics. How much is that guarantee worth now after your SEO has taken the money and run leaving you with a bottom of the barrel ranking and a big bill to fix it up?

As a result of these sort of poor SEO practices and many horror stories, the market no longer believes guarantees. Instead, SEO guarantees are seen as slick marketing, often hiding behind cleverly-phrased terms or get-out clauses.

For example;

The “Keyword on First Page” Guarantee

When you delve deeper, these keywords are non-competitive, low revenue and long tailed keywords that are easy to fulfil but not lucrative to maintain. If tasked with guaranteeing the number one spot for a set of keywords for an Auckland baker for example, it would be a much easier task to reach the number one spot for “nice bakery in Auckland with coffee and muffins” than a genuinely useful phrase which produces quality, regular traffic, like “fresh bread Auckland”. This way, a wonderful sounding guarantee can be fulfilled, without the client seeing any actual benefit to their revenue.

The “Selected Search Engines” Guarantee

SEO guarantees are also usually a guarantee to get “at least one” of the target keywords to the first page of the search engines. The “search engines” will normally be Bing, Yahoo and of course, Google. But considering that in NZ, around 90% of search engine traffic comes from Google, how much benefit will being #1 on Yahoo bring?

The “While You Pay Us” Guarantee

You won’t even see this one in your agreement but in practice, it’s used a lot! I have seen websites rank highly because the SEO company creates links to their clients’ websites that are temporary. Some SEO companies link to their clients from their own (highly ranked) home page but then remove it as soon as the client stopped paying. This practice has been extended to include links from pages that rank highly for a specific topic. Once client A stops paying, their link is replaced with a link for client B (possibly client A’s competition!).

The “No Responsibility” Guarantee

Would you be happy to get to #1 for your target keyword within 2 months? Of course you would. Job done! Those SEO’s must be great! But what if you then spent the next year in purgatory because of a Google penalty? If what the “great SEO” did actually costs you more to un-do than it cost to do in the first place, is it still a good deal? What if your ranks dropped below where you started? Unfortunately, many SEO’s do things that are not only a “grey area” but asking for a Google penalty. They might work temporarily but you will still be dealing with the fallout long after the SEO has been paid for.

In many eyes, a guarantee signifies a scam. This is for the reasons mentioned above, and the fact that Google themselves warn against guarantees in this manner. Anyone looking to invest in an SEO consultant may have first glanced at the Google SEO guidelines. In their Guidelines on Search Marketing, (a document that has come under much industry scrutiny in itself), Google warn those looking for SEO consultants that such guarantees or advertised ‘special relationships’ with the search engine are not to be trusted. Whether strictly true or not, it is likely to remain in the consciousness of anyone looking for a good SEO consultancy.

Do SEO guarantees, guarantee success?

Competent SEO strategists, web designers and copywriters can be sure that their work will have a positive effect on page ranks. However, no one can accurately predict the exact results of any SEO strategy. Rankings are constantly changing, competitors are constantly changing. SEO is a highly competitive marketplace, meaning that even if you were to take page rankings as a level playing field (i.e. ignoring geography, previous page preferences…) you could not guarantee that a page will rank higher than any other. Page rank algorithms are both secretive and ever-changing; as are competitors.

With changing algorithms, competitor’s efforts on their own pages and those changes that the client will inevitably make to their own site, specific ranking performance relies on far more than your own skill and knowledge as an SEO expert. Guaranteeing something with so many external variables is both dangerous and counter-productive.

Furthermore, SEO consultants can advise their clients until they are blue in the face. This does not mean that their strategies will be fully implemented, nor that other, historic SEO efforts are not causing offence to Google’s googlebots.

Offering an SEO guarantee shows an enormously simplistic view of page rankings. Performing the same search, in the same search engine can produce different results from different locations, different computers, and even at different moments in time. To try to guarantee a number one slot would be impossible; as a page designer, you will have visited the site many times, from that machine, the page may well be #1. On the client’s machine, the new page may not be. What is more, even following Google’s advice, word for word, comes with no guarantee of success. Google takes no consideration of good intentions. Because its algorithms are constantly changing, they are potentially penalising well intentioned, previously positive ranking strategies. You can never tell 100%.

Do you want Page Rank over Visits?

many visitors is better than a few high ranks

Do you prefer many qualified visitors or a few highly ranked pages?

SEO is not the be all and end all of internet marketing. Page rankings are very important, but they do not mean success in themselves. An SEO guarantee far from guarantees a website’s success as a commercial venture, and businesses are becoming ever more educated. Hanging all your performance on page rank alone shows an implied lack of confidence in your ability to deliver a holistic package that generates genuine commercial success. A relentless chase for page rank will almost certainly result in a less engaging, less useful, and ultimately less successful design.

Focussing entirely on reaching the hallowed number one spot leaves one glaring question; what happens after that? Is that the end of the site’s SEO strategy? Leave it as it is until a rival site pushes you down to number two, and then employ another SEO strategist?

Instead of page ranking for selected keywords, focussing on increased traffic or increased revenue are much more desirable goals, from which a far more holistic package can be delivered. In terms of customer loyalty, there is far more scope for building a lasting, and profitable, business relationship from a platform of delivering website visits than there is from delivering a page rank. After all, your target audience are probably searching on a far wider variety of keywords than you are tracking, so ranking highly in a few terms may not be better than boosting traffic across a greater number of searches.

Furthermore, from a sales point of view, would you be more engaged by a blanket guarantee or a specific indication of the potential increase a company could provide, based on a review of their current site? I would suggest that the personalised approach, for example, a 12% increase on current traffic levels, should be more engaging, more personable and more convincing than a blanket guarantee to get any page onto page one of the Google’s listings for an unspecified keyword.

Engaging SEO Clients

Extending this concept means thoroughly engaging our clients into the challenges and risks of their SEO strategies will both show them the complexities and potential strategies for their websites. This will both underline the need for expert assistance in achieving their goals, as well as providing a sense of ownership over the work that we are doing for them. This not only provides an added sense of security in hiring us to further their success, but also underline the need for continued engagement. Not to mention providing numerous opportunities for further website development.

This is also an essential angle for long term SEO success. Though many site owners will employ an SEO expert to simply ‘sort it out’ without input, there is a real danger that the SEO strategy designed by a third party without a genuine understanding of company ethos or direction, will actually work against the potential customer that does land on the page. SEO and page design is an ongoing, constantly evolving pursuit, and if the strategy is even slightly off target from the start, it will only grow further from the intended target as time and updates progress.

Winning Clients with SEO Guarantees

It can be sorely tempting when bidding for projects to promise simplistic, dumbed-down results. This is especially true if the client is seeking SEO expertise to combat a direct lack of in-house SEO expertise. Being able to offer the world may well win the bid, but the relationship can be very hard to manage after that. Often because the client may have the impression that pressing certain buttons yields certain results. By offering some insight into the complexity of the task, rather than the simplicity of achieving a result, future discussions will prove to be much more fruitful; both in terms of forging a path for progression for our clients’ websites, and in maintaining our services as a long term vehicle through the murky waters of SEO and page ranking algorithms.

How then, can we prove success to our clients? SEO is an ongoing process, where continual changes, fresh copy and dynamic content are rewarded in rankings. Pages rise and fall in the rankings in response to changing algorithms, competitors’ actions and a host of other, uncontrollable, factors. Therefore, the best way to prove results is a system of regular reports showing the changing performance of our customer’s websites over time. This not only shows progression, but also engages our clients, furthering both their understanding of the challenges and also their engagement in the project specifics. Both of these can only benefit the working relationship.

By outlining this approach at the outset, if a client does require certain guarantees, then we can build these into the reporting, but the key performance indicators can be negotiated and explored at this stage, focussing on something less finite, but more useful.
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