I received a phone call that turned into a discussion of why reputable SEO firms don’t guarantee search engine rankings. This was from an acquaintance, who stated they are really excited that their contract with a Dallas marketing agency will be expiring at the end of the month and they want to switch to Spade Design.
She asked if I would be willing to take them on as a client to help redesign their website, grow their social media audience, and most importantly “get them to rank.” She told me that they have the necessary budget but they will only partner with us if I would guarantee their business will rank number one in the four cities that they are operating in (major cities like Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio). I would have marked this as one of my favorite types of phone calls, but then I heard that last part.
Blunt Truth About SEO
I had to explain to her why reputable SEO firms don’t guarantee search engine rankings and that she shouldn’t trust her business with someone who would make such a guarantee but she quickly interrupted and said another company promised that they could do it. This was followed up with a question asking why I won’t make such a promise, implying that if they could then she felt certain that we could do even better.
I could hear the confusion in her voice because someone convinced her that a guarantee was not only possible but also easy for them to do within two months and they could do it “cheap.”
We spoke for quite some time as I addressed the misconceptions and false information she told regarding SEO, web design and proper digital marketing practices. I have a variation of this conversation about three times a week, so I wanted to publish five reasons why reputable SEO firms don’t guarantee search engine rankings.
Reputable SEO Agencies Do not Guarantee Search Engine Rankings
Reason #1: SEO & Guarantees Have a Terrible History
From the mid-90s through to today, SEO scams have used “guaranteed rankings and traffic” as a snake oil sales tactic to fool gullible buyers with false promises. This has stained our entire industry and made it difficult for legitimate businesses to even consider using such “guarantee.”
Many of the SEO companies that still promise number one rankings have taken the clever approach of guaranteeing a certain number of keywords that they have researched and chosen themselves. This way they can select low competition phrases and have a high rate of success with a low amount of work. Whether those keyword rankings provide any benefit or serious traffic is another matter altogether.
Just like timeshares have their “free” weekend getaways and used car dealerships have their high-pressure salespeople taking your keys, SEO has its own terrible, stereotyped marketing claims that legitimate providers avoid at all costs.
Related Article: The Difference Between One Time SEO & Ongoing SEO
Reason #2: The Search Engines Expressly Warn Against It
Google’s guidelines on search marketing page ranks very well for a variety of queries related to SEO and guarantees because so many people are performing research about such services. This line, in particular, stands out:
No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.
Even though the context is meant to put it in a slightly different context (“Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a “special relationship” with Google, or…”), the point they are making is very direct.
Reason #3: Rankings are Inherently Unstable
If I perform a search for “SEO Company” or “SEO Agency” here in Tyler, then drive a couple of hours to Dallas (or to Shreveport) and execute the same search query, I’ll likely receive very different search results. The same goes for if I were to log into my Google account and get personalized results or hit a different datacenter during the course of my querying. Many searchers have even had the odd experience of hitting refresh on a query and finding the results change or re-order.
Given the fickle nature of search results and the fact that ranking in a particular position on a given machine at a single point in time says very little about the future or even the present, it’s no wonder that savvy SEO firms stay away from such a guarantee.
Related Article: The Essential SEO Jargon glossary
Reason #4: Rankings are a Poor Metric for Overall Performance
Rankings do not equal traffic. I have to cover this point on a daily basis so I want to explain this thoroughly. I also wrote this article about the difference between rankings and website traffic.
A great SEO campaign should be measured by the increase or decrease in search engine traffic – not rankings.
Achieving rankings is (almost) always a means to an end and not the end itself (the one exception is reputation management campaigns, where excellent rankings are the objective.)
That said, I have a firm belief that traffic alone, is pretty much worthless unless it is supported by a conversion optimization strategy. Which is the rate at which traffic performs the desired actions on your site, like making a purchase or submitting a form and turning into a lead.
I encourage all of my readers, do not seek rankings for bragging rights or to look good for your boss. It may backfire on you eventually. Focus on a solid business model and great website content and services so that interested visitors land on your website because they’ve expressed a desire that your website can fulfill. In other words, focus on providing content that solves the problems searchers are looking to resolve.
Yes – position #1 will generally get you more traffic than any other real estate in the search results, but plenty of campaigns we’ve seen and even some we’ve worked on have been sabotaged by an obsession with pure rankings.
The metric should always be traffic – increasing search traffic means the SEO is doing their job. Making the rankings of a few top phrases the priority above and beyond the overall search traffic means that goals are not being communicated effectively or they are simply misunderstood.
Don’t forget that 70% of search volume is in the tail of the demand curve – and there’s usually a lot more low hanging fruit to be found therein.
Related Article: SEO vs Inbound Marketing
Reason #5: Making Guarantees About Something You Cannot Control Carries Inherent Ethical Problems and is Just Plain Dumb
Politicians constantly fall into the trap of making promises they can’t possibly deliver. Luckily, they’ve been letting people down since the dawn of government, so we’ve set the bar relatively low. This isn’t true, however, in the business world. If FedEx promises to deliver a package by tomorrow, that’s a guarantee they can make because they control the means of delivery. On the flipside, if a camera-maker promises that all your pictures will come out beautiful, that’s irresponsible – what if you decide to point your lens at Clint Howard?
This same principle applies to SEO.
What search engine optimization companies can & should guarantee is that they’ll provide the best advice possible to help your site earn more traffic. If they are really confident, they may even guarantee, after a full audit of your website, that they can grow your search traffic by at least 10, 20, 30% (we’ve done this in the past when we’ve seen sites that had incredible potential and extremely poor SEO practices). But, SEO Firms 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 creates an assumption of certainty by the deliverer to the recipient. It’s giving your word and putting your reputation and the reputation of your business on it. Any time you cheat on that logic and make a promise outside your direct control, you’re walking on shaky ethical and business ground.
The list above shows why reputable SEO Firms don’t guarantee search engine rankings and why I have stayed away from ever using the word “guarantee” in relation to my search engine optimization work for my clients.
In reality, I do have a guarantee but it’s something I can control and be held accountable for.
Our Success in Spades Guarantee ensures that our clients will be happy with our efforts and our results. We guarantee that if they implement our recommendations, search traffic will rise (but they often ask us to manage everything once they see how much work it takes). We guarantee that our work will be done safely and not put them at risk of penalties from the search engines, and we promise that we will never hold our client’s hostage or lock them into a contract for a service that they are unhappy with.
I think these types of promises are perfectly acceptable and show the true commitment of a company but trust me, if you ever hear something like “we guarantee search engine rankings” RUN.