Hiring an SEO firm can be stressful. With prices ranging anywhere from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars per month, depending on your specific needs, it is difficult to hear an SEO firm tell you it will take a few months before you can expect to see results. How do you know if they’re doing real work, or ripping you off? If you’ve hired an SEO firm before and had a bad experience, you have anxiety added upon anxiety as you go through the hiring process again. In these circumstances, it is perfectly understandable that you would be attracted to the idea of a guarantee. Other service businesses, from auto mechanics to shipping companies, offer guarantees, so why wouldn’t SEO firms?
As the owner of an SEO firm, I’ve been tempted to offer guarantees myself. Don’t my clients deserve a guarantee? And wouldn’t it be great for marketing? It would help those clients who are hesitant about the risk involved with SEO to decide to use us rather than a competitor who didn’t offer a guarantee, right? But several years ago when I started researching SEO guarantees, I found reasons to be hesitant about offering one myself. The first reason can be found in my spam filter, and probably in yours, too. Here’s a view of what I see in mine:
Wait, Sophia Loren is into SEO and sent me an email? I’ll have to look into this… But seriously, would I want to associate my firm with companies that send out this spam? This, by itself, was reason enough to think twice about offering a guarantee.
Why These Guarantees Can’t Be Trusted
I also studied this post on SEO guarantees by Moz Founder, Rand Fishkin. As to why guarantees regarding SEO should not be trusted, Fishkin gives five reasons:
1. “SEO & Guarantees Have an Abominable History” – Scams offer guarantees, which by itself means you should be on your guard about any firm offering a guarantee.
2. “The Search Engines Expressly Warn Against It” – Google’s official statement reads:
No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.
Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a “special relationship” with Google, or advertise a “priority submit” to Google. There is no priority submit for Google. In fact, the only way to submit a site to Google directly is through our Add URL page or by submitting a Sitemap and you can do this yourself at no cost whatsoever.
3. “Rankings are Inherently Unstable” – Rankings for a particular keyword search can vary from one moment to another, and from one computer to another, which makes guaranteeing them a tricky proposition.
4. “Rankings are a Poor Metric for Overall Performance” – See SEO: Focus On The Only Metric That Matters for more on this.
5. “Making Guarantees About Something You Cannot Control Carries Inherent Ethical Problems” – Auto mechanics work with mass produced, predictable parts. Shipping companies, like FedEx and DHL, have turned logistics into a well-oiled machine. But search engines control rankings (not SEO firms), and therefore SEO is an inherently less predictable, less scientific service. To guarantee results is to be somewhat disingenuous from the start.
I followed up with Fishkin to ask if he would change anything about his piece, to which he responded, “I’d still write almost exactly that article, though I’d note that Moz hasn’t been in the consulting business since 2009. That said, the reputable consultants I know still avoid guarantees.” Coincidentally, Fishkin just published a relevant video entitled How to Avoid the Unrealistic Expectations SEOs Often Create, which is worth viewing.
What The Experts Say About SEO Guarantees
To settle this question of SEO guarantees once and for all, I contacted several of the best SEO firms out there and got their responses to this question of SEO guarantees, and why they don’t offer them.
“Search rank guarantees are malarkey. Anxieties of the unknown are very real,” says Angie Schottmuller, Director of Optimization at Three Deep Marketing. “A good SEO agency authentically boosts customer confidence with education, clear expectations, and business goal alignment. A great SEO agency backs that up with supporting data/evidence, expert credentials, social proof, and relevant case studies. Bottom line, don’t make promises your agency, track record, or content can’t cash.”
Alex Houg, Founder and CEO of Portage Co., says “Offering a guarantee goes against the idea of inbound marketing. If you have to ask about a guarantee, you probably aren’t ready to be a client because you aren’t financially stable enough to make the investment.” He adds this warning to other SEO firms, “Client who ask for guarantees most likely fit in the 20% bucket of clients that cause 80% of problems. Work with people that already love you and are ready to go.”
Jeffrey Eisenberg, CEO of Buyer Legends, includes a similar warning to other SEO firms. “Potential clients seeking guarantees raise two major red flags: a. their own credibility b. the nature of your relationship with them.” He continues:
In the very beginning I used to explain why we don’t offer guarantees and then walked away. Until the day that I gained the confidence to ask them if they were willing to offer us mutual guarantees. I ask them for two guarantees. First, I ask them if they will guarantee to do exactly as we advise or risk pre-defined financial penalties. Second, I ask them if they’ll guarantee that their customers will be so delighted with their product or service that those customers will be willing to recommend them. This is more fair, since now their performance can be quantified the same way ours is. This strategy changes the tone of the conversation considerably. The main point is for them to realize that we are equals and not supplicants begging for work. We have invested two-decades in building our reputation and you might think you cannot afford to do this. You’d be wrong, we’ve never made a guarantee, and we’ve taken this strategy from early days when nobody knew us or what marketing/conversion rate optimization was.
SEO requires effort on both the part of the client and the SEO firm, making a one-sided guarantee unwise, which is a point also made by Ian Lurie, Founder and CEO of Portent, Inc. “We don’t control people,” Lurie says. “SEO requires a lot of work on a client’s site. If they can’t or won’t make the changes we recommend, or if something else goes wrong on that site, SEO may become impossible. SEO also requires work on authority. If a client’s brand takes a major blow, their SEO will suffer.” Lurie also points out that clients sometimes end up working against the SEO firms they hire. “Google’s Terms of Service forbids some activities,” Lurie states. “If a client has someone else participating in those activities, with or without their knowledge, Google may penalize them.”
Lurie reiterates the point that SEOs don’t control search engines. “We don’t control the algorithms,” he says, “Google makes hundreds, if not thousands, of changes to their algorithm each year. As SEOs, we can guarantee that we’ll bring a site into line with best practices around visibility, discoverability, authority and audience appeal. But we don’t control the little things that Google tweaks and changes, and those can impact rankings, too.”
Jordan Kasteler, Sr. SEO Manager at Red Door Interactive, says “Oftentimes, clients or prospects ask about guarantees when referencing keyword rankings.” He echoes Fishkin’s warning about focusing on rankings, saying, “This is a red flag in itself since judging SEO performance on keyword rankings is a problem within itself as keywords do not equal organic traffic. Keyword rankings fluctuate on their own due to competitor efforts, search engine algorithm updates, and are also largely personalized to one’s location and history. Controlling a ranking is near impossible and search engines positions are fickle.”
“We don’t offer a guarantee when it comes to client rankings and we’re very upfront about that,” says Rae Hoffman, CEO at PushFire. “We don’t work for Google and we can’t control their algorithm. The only guarantee we can offer clients is to do the work to the best of our knowledge, to the best of our ability and with their best interests at heart.” Hoffman says, ”I’d be wary of any guarantee by an SEO firm that centers around guaranteeing Google’s algorithm will react in a certain way. In my opinion, even a Google engineer can’t guarantee that the algorithm will act a certain way six months down the line. There have been several instances where Google representatives have said they saw no issue with a certain tactic only to devalue it or demonize it later.”
“How can we guarantee something that is a moving target?” asks Wil Reynolds, Founder of SEER Interactive. “What would you do if Travelocity were a client of yours and you had guaranteed their results right before Google started showing flight information at the top of search results for airline flights?” He continues, “Sure, we can get you a ranking, but no one should be in search for rankings, we should be in the game for revenue.”
The Risks of Trusting a Guarantee
When I try to explain to potential clients why we don’t offer a guarantee, I call tell that many of them don’t want to believe me. They want to believe there is someone out there who can guarantee and deliver top rankings in the search engines. Many SEO firms take advantage of this desire, and because these firms generally offer their services at very low prices, many clients think, “Well, this guy offers a guarantee, and he’s cheap. Might as well try him out and if it doesn’t work, I haven’t lost much and I can still switch to the more expensive guy who promises better quality later. What’s the worst that could happen?” Unfortunately, when someone chooses a low quality SEO firm a lot of bad things can happen including losing your money, losing your time, losing your rankings, and perhaps earning a penalty from Google that may take a good amount of time and expense to get resolved.
An Acceptable Guarantee
Reynolds does offer one type of guarantee. “I’ve always told my clients, I can make a guarantee, I can guarantee that I won’t hire any old slouch off the street to work on your project,” Reynolds says, “I interview every SEO team member personally to this day, because while I can’t guarantee the outcome for every client, I can guarantee that I care enough to get smart, passionate, dedicated people to work really hard on helping them to be successful.”
How To Hire The Right SEO Firm
While it’s understandable why it would be natural to want your SEO services to be guaranteed, the nature of the service is unpredictable to the point where guaranteed results don’t hold much meaning. When shopping for SEO services, it’s important to do your homework and follow best practices for hiring an SEO firm. You can gain greater peace of mind by looking at case studies, talking to references, and most importantly–learning more about SEO. Knowledge is the best weapon when it comes to hiring a good SEO firm and working in partnership with them to maximize results. Best of luck!
Reprinted from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshsteimle/2014/12/16/why-the-best-seo-firms-dont-offer-guaranteed-results
Josh Steimle is the CEO of MWI, a digital marketing agency with offices in the U.S. and Hong Kong.