When SEO Firms Make Guarantees: What You Should Know

When you run a digital marketing agency, the #1 query you get is: if I contract with you for search engine optimization (SEO), can you guarantee a first place ranking on Google? What this tells us is that there are SEO providers out there who make such promises. As a result, there are clients who may achieve a top ranking – but not much else to show for their investment in SEO. The words "guaranteed rankings and traffic" have tainted the reputation of the industry. One of the most common tactics is for the SEO provider to select your keywords for you. They will select non-competitive keywords which your potential customers are unlikely to use. This makes it easy for them to deliver a high search ranking based on those keywords, but this does not deliver quality traffic. Companies who spend a lot of money raising their ranking from #2 to #1 may lose sight of conversion or dismiss pay-per-click campaigns that could help their bottom line. It’s possible to reach #1 and achieve little or no impact. It depends.

  1. Search Engines Warn Against Guarantees

    Google provides a very instructive set of guidelines on search marketing that every SEO client should read. They make one very clear statement: No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google. Although this section specifically warns about providers who claim to have special relationships with Google (such as access to knowledge of the ‘secret sauce’ behind Google’s search algorithms), the warning comes straight from the company who would know better than anyone that SEO guarantees are not feasible. For one thing, this would destroy the integrity of Google’s organic search model, which is the entire basis of their business success.

  2. Rankings are Dynamic and Unstable

    A reputable provider knows that search results for the same search term can vary from hour to hour, and from location to location. It depends on which search engine server is fulfilling your query at any point in time; whether you log in to your personalized Google account or some other account; or which city you’re in when you type the query. These factors change the order of results, so making guarantees based on uncontrollable circumstances does not make sense.

  3. Rankings are the Wrong Metric for Business ROI

    This is the most important thing to remember. The reason companies want high search rankings is to increase business. Rankings are a means to an end, not the end. Rankings alone do not increase traffic or convert traffic into business. The most basic metric of SEO success is quality traffic. If an SEO campaign shows a marked increase in search engine traffic, that’s one part of the success. The other part is whether visitors stay on the site and spend time on product and services information, play with demos or watch videos. This means SEO has brought the right audience to the site. Traffic is good, but converting traffic into visitors who take action is the ultimate success metric. Conversion could mean buying a product, or for non-eCommerce sites, it could mean signing up for a newsletter, or downloading a white paper. When visitors land on a company’s website, how easy is it to find information? Is the content clear and informative? Is the website easy to navigate? Does it provide calls to action in visible, logical places? Does the company know which phone calls or emails to the sales department come through search and which ones through traditional marketing? SEO can drive traffic but not conversion once the visitor lands. This is where Analytics come into play. An SEO provider will always install analytics to determine where the traffic is coming from, which were the most popular search terms and so on. Analytics can also monitor user behavior on a website: which pages were most popular, how long did visitors spend on each page, when they abandoned the site and on which page. This helps determine how a website could be improved for better conversion. A website optimized for conversion is also part of the business equation. A high search ranking definitely helps, but by itself will not convert business for you.

So What’s a Reasonable Promise?

A good digital marketing provider will focus on increasing a client’s business. This means taking a consultative approach that is broader than merely SEO. Typically this means an audit of the client’s existing online presence that includes search, website effectiveness, social media, and even offline mediums that drive visitors to the website. This will generate recommendations in the form of a digital marketing roadmap (See also: Why Every Company Needs a Digital Marketing Roadmap) which may include content strategy, website optimization, or a social media strategy. This takes a lot more work than just promising to submit a client’s website to all the search engines. A client may not have the budget to implement all the recommendations, but the provider will be able to advise which components are the most critical. The other factor is time. There will always be components that only the client can implement. This includes tasks such as freshening content and images, developing marketing content specific to the business, regular blog posts, and setting up offline mechanisms for tracking (different phone numbers for web queries and print ad queries is a good example). Fresh content helps boost search engine rankings; this is why regular blog posts are important. Social media also requires real commitment from the client. But a client may not have the staff or time to do this, so again, a good provider will explain how the various components impact the success of the plan and help the client prioritize. Given factors such as: competing SEO campaigns, changing search algorithms, client resources and/or ability to implement, the only guarantee a digital marketing agency can give a client is: to provide the best advice possible for using the Internet to increase traffic and improve business. (Read How to Overcome 9 Common B2B Marketing Challenges with Digital Marketing to learn about common B2B challenges companies face today.)

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