From: Colleen

Hi Jill,

I am a small business owner who would like to improve my ranking. I have been contacted by a company who "guarantees" top-10 rankings on 6 major sites within 180 days for a fee. Can you please tell me if these types of companies are legitimate, and which ones you would recommend or avoid.

Thank you!


~~~Jill's Response~~~

Hi Colleen,

This is a very good and timely question, which I get asked a lot. Many companies receive numerous unsolicited emails or phone calls offering similar "SEO" packages.

Are they bad? Good? Indifferent?

Without extensively evaluating each offer, it's impossible to say for sure. However, there are definitely some things you should be aware of before signing any contracts for this type of service.

You'll often hear people who call themselves "ethical SEOs" say that *any* company that offers guaranteed rankings is simply out to scam you. They say that since nobody has control over the search engines, nobody can guarantee rankings. This is partially true, but I don't totally agree.

When talking about the "natural" search listings, not paid ads, it's true that no SEO company can simply place a URL into a particular position in the search engines for any given keyword phrase. All they can do is optimize your site and hope for the best. So in that sense, they can't guarantee a particular placement. However, that doesn't preclude any SEO company from guaranteeing that they'll give you your money back if they don't achieve a particular ranking in a particular engine. If they want to offer you that sort of money-back guarantee, then that's their prerogative. Offering this doesn't automatically mean that the company is scamming you.

That said, before you run right out and hire a company like this, make sure that you take a very close look at how they word their guarantee. You may not be getting the safety net you thought you were, and this is where they may truly be out to trick you.

Guarantees have been a part of the SEO business since I first began in it, but I've always found them to be a joke. Once you actually see what it is these companies guarantee, you will find that they are rarely worth much, and chances are you won't see any money back from them, due to the fine print.

Make sure you look closely at what they say they will do for you. Sure, first-page placement on at least six of the major search engines sounds great on the surface. But which engines do they consider to be "major" search engines?

The major search properties people seem to use these days are Google, MSN Search, Yahoo, AOL Search, AskJeeves, Lycos, HotBot, FAST, AltaVista and Excite, with some of these being used a whole lot more than others. The interesting thing to note, however, is that many of these use the same database!

For instance, Google powers itself, plus Yahoo and AOL. So a decent ranking in Google also means a decent ranking in Yahoo and AOL. Which gives any company that offers a guarantee three engines for the price of one! On top of that, there are engines such as HotBot that offer a choice of using AskJeeves, Google, Inktomi, Lycos or all four. Therefore a ranking in any one of those engines could also be considered a ranking in HotBot. (Which actually means Google gives you four for the price of one, I guess!) Lycos and FAST share the same database, and MSN uses Inktomi, which also powers a whole bunch of other engines that are probably included in the SEO company's guarantee.

Make sure you know exactly which search engines you will see top rankings in, and make sure they use separate databases. You should also make sure that they're not just ranking your site in a pay-per-click search engine by simply buying their way in on your behalf. (There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand where that ranking actually came from.)

Don't be surprised to find that what the SEO company considers to be a "major" search engine is one you never heard of before. That's a common trick some use to "fulfill" their guarantee. Do you really care if you're number one at Joe's Extreme Search Engine Extraordinaire?

Another trick these companies often use is that they simply optimize your site for keyword phrases that nobody is searching for. I've said it before, and I'll say it again...anyone can optimize pages for phrases like that. Who cares? Who cares if you're number one in all the search engines for a stupid keyword phrase that sounds really good on the surface, but which according to Wordtracker has zero searches in the past 350 million search queries? Be sure to check out current ranking reports from the company and do some keyword research on the phrases they have ranked highly. Better yet, see if you can look at some log file reports to see if any targeted traffic is coming into their clients' sites. I'm not saying that the SEO company should be shooting for the most competitive keyword phrases there are, but they shouldn't be shooting for the least competitive either.

So, in answer to the original question, what I'm trying to say here is that if you sign up with an SEO company because you figure you have nothing to lose, don't be so sure. Go through your SEO contract with a fine-toothed comb and make sure you understand *exactly* what you're getting or what you're not getting. Once you sign on the dotted line, it will be too late.

Most professional SEO consultants don't offer a guarantee, because they don't need to. As professionals, they will do the best they can do for your site and keep doing it until they've satisfied the requirements of their contract with you.

As with hiring any service, be sure you do the appropriate research into the company you hire. Check references, learn about their methods, and don't let them sway you with techno-babble. Good SEO companies are not cheap. If you don't have much of a budget for SEO, you should learn to do it yourself. The ironic thing is that in many ways, doing the SEO yourself may be easier than choosing a reputable company to do it for you!

Good luck!


August 26, 2003

CEO and founder of High Rankings®, Jill Whalen has been performing search engine optimization since 1995 and is the host of the free High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter, author of "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" and founder/administrator of the popular High Rankings Search Engine Optimization Forum. In 2006, Jill co-founded SEMNE, a local search engine marketing networking organization for people and companies in New England.

High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization firm located in Framingham, MA specializing in search engine optimization, SEO consultations, in-house training, site audit reports, search marketing seminars and workshops. High Rankings has a 100% success rate for substantially improving client rankings and targeted traffic.

Jill speaks at national and international conferences and has been writing about SEO and search marketing since 2000. She's been quoted in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Post. Her articles have appeared in numerous print magazines and online websites including CIO Magazine, CMS Focus, The Internet Marketing Report, ClickZ, WorkZ,, Entrepreneur, Lycos Small Business, WebProNews, SiteProNews and others. Jill has also appeared on many online and offline radio programs such as Entrepreneur Magazine's E-Biz Radio Show, SearchEngineRadio and the eMarketing Talkshow.

Search Engine Guide > Jill Whalen > Legitimate Search Engine Optimization Company or Not?