I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while—especially after following the contentious discussion in the comments of my last post. Rand Fishkin talks about why SEO firms should not guarantee rankings, and for the most part I agree with everything he says. But I am going to come down on the other side of the fence on this because it concerns a more profound issue that I feel most of us have been sweeping under the rug.
The problem is scammers who claim to be SEOs and who disrepute all of us with what they do. Wherever we draw the line between who is and who isn’t a “real SEO” is not important. There is no central authority or watchdog group that validates which SEO claims are true and which are false. But—and this is a big but—there is one way we can turn the tables. You guessed it: unlike scammers, we can guarantee our results.
A Knock at the Door
It’s well known that many people at the moment associate the term SEO consultant with snake oil salesmen. This is in large part thanks to people that don’t have a clue about SEO, but do know a lot about telemarketing and how much money can be made by proffering SEO services. Picture somebody coming to you and offering an irresistible service that will send mountains of customers right to your door; he’ll charge several thousand dollars for the service and you need to wait six months to see the results, which he doesn’t guarantee. Would you buy it?
Actually, a lot of people do buy into it…and that’s a problem for us. By offering our services with no guarantee at all, we are encouraging others to do the same. It has opened the door for scammers to prey upon innocent people. When a site owner comes into contact with an SEO, how can he tell the good ones from the bad ones? Most small business owners don’t attend search marketing conferences and don’t know who Danny Sullivan or who Aaron Wall is. They do know that their inbox is flooded and they get called maybe five times a week from different companies pitching SEO services.
You don’t need to know SEO to confirm whether a practitioner is providing a useful service or not. Just measure words against tangible results. How many extra visitors and/or sales/leads have resulted from the work of this SEO? Many will say that SEO has nothing to do with sales/leads/actions/conversions but, as I have laid out before, I strongly disagree. And I’m not talking about conversion optimization, which I consider a separate concern from SEO. If the consultant can show only rankings as proof, run away. Why? Because rankings alone are not useful unless they result in an increase in valuable traffic.
If you read my previous post, I think you’ll agree that rankings are not the best way to measure the success of an SEO campaign. There has to be a bottom-line benefit for the site owner, and that will depend on the specific goals of the campaign. Is it to increase awareness and trust of the brand, or to generate leads and sales? At the end of the day, the campaign is successful by reaching those predetermined set goals. This makes the SEO campaign valuable, both to the customer and the SEO providing the services.
A Line in the Sand
What I am trying to get across is that we can (and should) guarantee results—the right kind of results—because a well-executed SEO campaign will certainly drive more search traffic and affect conversions. This is true for at least a couple of reasons:
1. With proper SEO you can pretty much define the right audience for a product or service. That is, if the consultant does a good job and selects the right keywords, those visitors should already express an immediate interest in whatever it is they are expecting on the landing page. Choose the wrong keywords and the results and conversions are going to be drastically the opposite.
2. People tend to trust editorial pieces more than ads. That being said, when someone does a search in Google they see “editorial content” on the left (which is the result of SEO) and they see paid ads on the right (the result of PPC). Which content do you think they trust more? Which will result in higher conversions more often? Remember, most people trust Google, and that trust is conferred upon the search results. This is why Google is so protective of their users; every search result is perceived as an endorsement.
The larger point I’m trying to make is that we shouldn’t be fighting amongst ourselves about different hat colors. It doesn’t matter if you’re a white hat, black hat or gray hat if at the end of the day you’re providing results and the customer understands the risks of your methods. No matter what hat color we wear, we should be fighting together against the scammers that are infiltrating and destroying our industry. Our real concern are those people scamming our potential customers and not providing any value at all. We need to set a clear line in the sand that separates “us” from “them.” That is why I believe the smartest thing to do is guarantee our results—not top rankings—but measurable results.
If you get a customer and you don’t think you can provide measurable results, then don’t take the job. There will be plenty more knocking at your door because, when you deliver on what you say and exceed your customers’ expectations, they will come back to you for more and refer you to others.
Okay, I’ve said my piece. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this in the comments.
Paul Burani, Clicksh
September 3, 2008 at 5:53 pm
Very thoughtful and insightful piece, Hamlet. It's sort of like the stewing debate to lower the alcohol drinking age in the United States... it makes a whole lot of sense, but what separates it from reality is the first, big push that it would take. Someone should create a software program which aggregates SEO best practices with conversion reporting -- THAT would certainly help this come true!
September 4, 2008 at 3:00 am
Great post, Hamlet, and I couldn't agree more. I think Rand was certainly on-point with arguing why reputable SEO firms don't guarantee rankings - for the same reasons you've highlighted above (namely, because rankings don't equate to traffic or conversions). I think it's about sharing the risk with your clients - or at least letting them know that you're making a real commitment to provide them value, not just an empty metric. SEO firms and consultants should be establishing clear and valuable goals for contracts and working to reach and surpass those goals. Falling short of the goal shouldn't mean the client suffers and your disclaimers protect you. Whether we'd like to admit it or not, even with disclaimers our fate is tied to that of our clients. Protection from law suits doesn't mean protection from a negative reputation. What is more important: watching your ass in the short-term, or building your brand in the long-term?
September 16, 2008 at 11:23 pm
Interesting article and very insightful. Whenever I hear SEO companies guaranteeing rankings I always cringe. But to guarantee a measurable result, such as an increase in revenue is good business practice and sets a good standard for others in the industry. Frankly, I'm amazed the people buy SEO services with no guarantee of measurable results. If you're confident in your ability to deliver then you should be able to offer a guarantee. My only concern is that we get SEO companies guaranteeing measurable results and then failing to achieve them. What happens then? Will they be big enough to refund the money and take the hit? Such behaviour could hurt the industry even more.
September 28, 2008 at 2:41 am
When I look at a website, I pretty much know what I can do with it. If you know what you are doing, I see no reason not to offer a guarantee on your work. It will keep you on your toes, and will only make you more productive in the long run.