Can An SEO Firm Offer A Reasonable Guarantee?
Guaranteed results are the holy grail of SEO. Clients want it. SEO firms would like to be able offer it because of the marketing value. Some do, but most don’t. Those that do are generally looked upon as suspicious or downright disreputable. This is due, in part, to guilt by association. So many SEO scammers have promised guaranteed results that anyone who offers a guarantee is now seen, at least by the SEO community, as automatically a scammer. But if you look at the posts against SEO guarantees what most people are taking issue with are guaranteed rankings (see here, here, and here, in addition to the links above). True, to guarantee rankings seems illogical and unwise at best, since the search engines control rankings rather than any SEO firm, but on the other end of the spectrum what about guaranteeing sales, leads, or some other metric? What about guaranteeing the more hazy metric of satisfaction?
Rand Fishkin’s Moz, previously named SEOmoz, used to offer SEO consulting services, and in 2008 he posted on the topic of SEO guarantees. In that post is this section:
What search engine optimization companies can & should guarantee is that they’ll provide the best advice possible to help your site earn more traffic. They may even guarantee, after reviewing your site, that they can grow your search traffic by at least 10, 20, 30% or more (we’ve done this in the past, at least verbally, when we’ve seen sites that had incredible potential and extremely poor SEO practices). But, SEOs cannot control the search results the way FedEx can control shipping packages or Coca Cola can guarantee the taste of their beverage. The search engines alone are responsible for and privy to the rankings’ methodologies.
In my personal opinion, there are times when I would be willing to gamble a large amount of money on the fact that we could achieve a certain ranking for a given keyword. However, that’s not the same as a guarantee. A guarantee is a promise – a basic contract that necessarily creates an assumption of certainty by the deliverer to the recipient. Anytime you cheat on that logic and make a promise outside your sphere of direct control, you’re walking on shaky ethical and business ground.
Thanks to the list above, I shy away from even using the word “guarantee” in relation to our consulting business. In reality, we do guarantee that our clients will be happy with our results (and so far, at least, we’ve made good on that promise), we do guarantee that if they implement our recommendations, search traffic will rise (but that’s often a big “if”), and we do guarantee that our work won’t put them at risk of penalties from the search engines. I think that these types of promises are perfectly acceptable to make – just stay away from guaranteed “search engine rankings.” It’s just asking for trouble.
That said, what are SEO clients signing up for when they hire an SEO firm? There is an expectation of real, tangible results. As a friend of mine put it the other day, “Why wouldn’t you guarantee your work? If you can deliver, then you don’t need to worry about the guarantee you’ve given. If you aren’t sure you can deliver, why are you in this business?” But he wasn’t talking about guaranteeing rankings, the discussion was about guaranteeing those other metrics I mentioned. While guaranteeing satisfaction is a bit hazy, it is the ultimate guarantee. If a client isn’t happy with what you’ve provided, do you really want to take their money? If you run an SEO firm I know what you’re thinking, “Yeah, but if I offer that then my clients will hire me for a year, and even if I do a good job they’ll tell me they’re not satisfied, and demand their money back.” Really? That’s pretty shady behavior if you’re doing a good job. In that situation perhaps the problem isn’t the guarantee, but that you’re taking on clients who are unethical, and more screening is required to make sure you’re working with reasonable, ethical clients.
My thought is to divide potential clients into different groups. There would be those whose situations are so clear cut that it’s easy to make a guarantee. Perhaps it’s a client whose website is in terrible shape and has little competition. You know that with minimal work you can get their rankings up and increase traffic by 1000% and triple their sales. It’s easy to offer them a guarantee. Then there are potential clients in a gray area where you’re pretty sure you can produce positive results, but you’re not sure exactly how positive. Or because you don’t have direct access to their website or some other factor, you’re not sure you’ll be able to be involved on a level to where you can be sure of the results. Then you wouldn’t offer a guarantee. And of course there are the potential clients where you have little to no confidence of SEO being beneficial to them. You might take them on as a client if they insist, but only with the understanding that you’re not hopeful about the results.
What are your thoughts? Can SEO services be reasonably, honestly, and ethically guaranteed in some way? Or is it better, as Rand says, to stay away from the word “guarantee” altogether?