Several years ago I hired an individual to be a copywriter for me. He'd never worked in the SEO industry before and we had to do quite a bit of training to get him to fully understand how SEO copywriting was different than traditional copywriting. Within three weeks I realized he just wasn't working out and had to let him go. He wasn't the first.

A few months later I noticed a new SEO company appear in our local area. After doing a bit of research I realized that this my former employee. What did he know about SEO? Well, not a whole heck of a lot. But who knows, maybe I was actually able to teach him a thing or two during his three week tenure.

19 Days to #1

His site offered an ebook he had written titled "19 days to #1", for sale for only $195.95. Yes, that is the actual ad he used to promote the book on his site. I never bought the book though curiosity almost got the best of me once or twice. But I figure that any book promising rankings on AltaVista, Excite and Lycos, even back in 2005, wasn't worth the digital paper it was written on.

But this was back when SEO "Guarantees" were quite commonplace. SEOs would offer ranking guarantees with tight controls to ensure that no matter what happens they can't lose. The client's rarely win, but that should never stand in the way of "success".

Over the last few years most in the SEO stopped offering guarantees. Mostly because they realize that they have no absolute control over the results and that anyone pretending otherwise is either fooling themselves or worse, their clients. An interesting aside, this person's "guarantee" page on the site today is exactly the same as the page that was up in 2005. The only difference is that the phone number changed.

Offering guarantees is kind of like guaranteeing an item will sell for a certain amount at an auction. Without the guaranteer bidding on the item himself it's out of his control... though if he sets the bar low enough the guarantee is certain to be fulfilled.

If you want to read more about why guarantees are lame, you can read my post from a few years agodebunking ranking guarantees. No need to re-iterate that here.

But I guarantee you'll keep reading...

The question for today is, if SEOs can't guarantee rankings, what can they guarantee? That's a tough question, especially if one is trying to be truly honest with their clients. The prospect of offering guarantees means that everybody must be in cahoots as to what that guarantee actually means, and who it really protects.

Let's explore a few different elements that can be offered as part of some kind of SEO guarantee.

Guarantee specific amount of time to work on campaign

The easiest guarantee to provide is one based on hours to be invested into the account. An SEO can charge on an hourly basis, or a fixed amount that is based on the time they feel is needed to optimize the website. In the latter case the SEO would likely not go over the expected number of hours without getting approval and additional payment from the client. The client would also understand that they are paying on a per-hour basis.

Advertising and marketing is more of a creative medium and typically isn't hours based. SEO combines creative with technical so it can make sense make your campaigns hourly based.

Risk for the SEO: The SEOs risk is limited because they are getting paid by the hour regardless of how well the campaign performs. The only thing they have to worry about is having upset clients and/or losing valuable repeat business if they under-estimate the amount of time needed for success and either under-perform or continue to go back to the client for more money.

Risk for the Client: The client is paying by the hour and they simply have to trust that the SEO's work will produce meaningful results. This is difficult at the beginning of the relationship, but once performance starts proving itself this is a good deal for the client as they can continue to expect improving results, so long as the SEO is investing the required time.

Guarantee performance improvements

Another semi-easy guarantee to offer is some kind of loosely defined improvements. These improvements can still be specific enough to satisfy a client, but not so specific that more work has to be invested in measurement than actual SEO. The idea is to assure the client that the SEO's work will help them bring increases to their site. These increases can be in the form of page views, traffic, unique visitors, conversions, growth in ROI, etc.

The guarantee, however, should be satisfactory to the client before signing on the dotted line. Are page views what you are really after? In some cases, yes. But if page views mean nothing and conversions mean everything, then the client will need to make sure that they are being offered improvements in conversions and not page views.

These guarantees are usually be loosely defined in the area of "how much". Often these guarantees provide little more than "more than what you're getting now." That may not be sufficient for the client, however if the SEO can show a pattern of growth in the guaranteed area month over month, then the client can continue to expect virtually unlimited growth.

Risk for the SEO: Some site's require a lot more work and are much more competitive. The SEO should have an idea on whether the improvements are enough to justify the cost and time the client is paying for. They'll also want to make sure that they don't under-budget or they can find themselves investing far more hours and losing money on the account.

Risk for the Client: The client needs to be sure that the expected improvements will be more valuable than the cost of the service. This is somethign they need to work out with the SEO and hope they can both agree. The return on investment must be more than the cost of the service.

Guarantee customer satisfaction

This is isn't always as easy to provide as one would think. Primarily because what satisfies one person will not satisfy another. A customer can be satisfied with results but not with the quality of work. They can be satisfied with the performance of the campaign but not with the customer/client interaction. There are many ways to determine satisfaction and it's all arbitrary and open to individual interpretation.

In order to guarantee customer satisfaction the SEO and the client must first agree on the expectations of the campaign. Without doing this the client is basically giving the SEO a blank check. On the other hand, depending on the expectations, the guarantee may not be much more or less valuable than guaranteeing some vague improvements.

Risk for the SEO: Every SEO wants satisfied customers but they are always afraid of customers who will refuse to be satisfied regardless of how well the campaign is performing. Open-ended customer satisfaction is a recipe for loss. And it's not as if the SEO can take back the service and sell it to another client.

Risk for the Client: The only risk to the client here is not knowing what being satisfied actually means. They need to know what constitutes dissatisfaction in the legal sense (based on the contract) and make sure that their dissatisfaction is justifiable.

Guarantee specific results

Specific results are the most concrete type of guarantee to make but they can also be the most difficult to adhere to. Specific results can be things such as rankings, percentage of growth in traffic or conversions, specific goals that need to be met in the same, or really anything else the client is looking for.

The difficulty in setting specific results is that the SEO must throughly analyze the client's current situation to understand what kind of results they are getting now. They must also analyze the competition thoroughly, the competitive nature of the keywords, the potential traffic volume of the keywords and the current "value" of the client's site in terms of how a search engine would analyze it.

Risk for the SEO: There is a lot of up front research that needs to be performed in order to make accurate predictions. The SEO is also putting their faith in some things that they simply have no control over. How search engines, and even customers respond can rarely be accurately predicted. Also, if the SEO is merely providing recommendations for the client to implement then the guarantee is often subject to all recommendations being performed exactly as specified.

Risk for the Client: If the expected results are clearly set in the contract, the client's risk is minimal. They just need to let the SEO do their job to get those results. One downside can be that once the expected results are achieved the SEO may stop working as diligently on the campaign until it comes time for contract renewal when new goals will be set. Another can be that the recommendations put forth by the SEO my boost performance in the targeted area while reducing performance in another.

Looking for the win-win

The key for both the SEO and the client to create a contract that provides a win-win solution. Many times clients look for the win and the SEO gives in to the client's demands in order to close the deal. But ultimately this leads to an unhappy SEO who may not be investing adequate time because they feel like they are in a money-losing situation.

On the other hand, the client needs to avoid any SEO looking for the win when clearly the client loses, such as those who offer guaranteed rankings. These so-called SEOs are just out to make a quick buck and will do so by duping businesses out of their hard-earned investment dollars. Unfortunately, these types are in every industry, not just SEO.

A guarantee is only as good as the details determined in the contract. We like to think that we are being guaranteed something of value but that isn't always the case. Businesses looking to invest in SEO must not get caught up in making sure they get a guarantee.

Those that don't offer any kind of guarantee whatsoever often do the best work. They understand the nature of online marketing. They do their best, set expectations and keep the client informed of the progress along the way. While not all guarantees are "bad" the client simply needs to know what any guarantee means and whether it's really a guarantee that protects them or the SEO.

October 2, 2008

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.


Hi, Stoney!

There is one thing I guarantee to my clients and write it on the contract: everything I do for their sites will be 100% compliant to Google Guidelines for Webmasters so they will never risk being penalized for black-hat. Not anyone who "guarantees" rankings is in a position to promise this.

Ah, before I forget: great article!

Who was the guy you fired and what is his website?

Interesting post. More to your point, if this guy is so good with SEO, how come his book is nowhere to be found when you search for it? I mean even an exact title search doesn't turn the book up until #4 and it's invisible on less specific searches.

Keep up the good work!

@ Alexis - That's a good point and certainly somethign you can guarantee. Not sure I would. Sure, following the guidelines is good and all, but Google ain't got no hold on me! :)

@ Dan - won't tell! But feel free to try to figure it out.

@ Keith - I don't think he sells the book any more. This was a few years back. I had to use the Wayback Machine to find the image.

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