If you search for “SEO company” or similar on Google you will get a barrage of paid ads that look something like this:
And it makes my blood boil.
SEOs cannot guarantee rankings. Any agencies that do provide such promises are peddling lies to prey upon gullible businesses that simply do not know better.
Internet marketing is still a complex and puzzling world for those who did not grow up with it. It’s understandable that the agency that promises results, maybe even going so far as to offer a money-back guarantee (these are scams, just so you know), will always seem more alluring than those that conduct themselves honestly and rigorously.
Let’s take a few minutes to break down why ranking guarantees are not just bald-faced lies but are in fact a fundamentally unethical way of conducting your business.
What SEO is NOT
I’ve had more than a few clients refer to our SEO work as “black magic wizardry”.
I always smile at what is only meant as a term of endearment regarding our professional skills. But inside I’m cringing.
You see, SEO has a pretty ugly history, mostly involving attempts to outright manipulate Google’s search algorithms rather than work alongside it.
For example, agencies would write your keywords in white text on a white background so that Google would read what your users could not. Or they would create links to your website from “link farms”, websites that existed for the sole purpose of creating links to other sites in order to trick Google into thinking your site was popular.
Nowadays, these techniques are referred to as black hat SEO. Not only do they not work, they will in fact get your website penalised by Google.
The idea of even being associated with agencies that continue to pedal these dishonest and detrimental techniques brings a sour taste to my mouth.
The last thing I want to be thought of doing is “black magic”.
So you’re telling me SEO isn’t about tricking Google?
It absolutely is not.
Any agency that talks about tricking, fooling, or gaming the Google algorithm is either 15 years behind the times or outright lying to you. Either way, you should run for the hills
Even to those who don’t work in the industry, it should be pretty obvious that Google is way too smart today to be fooled by these sorts of absurd techniques.
Ok then, what is SEO?
SEO is a set of techniques and practices that work with Google’s search algorithm to help websites naturally improve their search rankings.
These techniques are known as white hat SEO.
SEOs use a combination of research and public communications from Google to identify what Google uses to rank websites, then works within those parameters to improve websites in Google’s eyes.
For example, we know Google likes content that has value to users. We talked above about black hat agencies putting keywords in white text on a white background to fool Google. A white hat agency would prefer to write 500 words of content about your brand that naturally uses your target keywords and related terms, all written in language that has value for your users.
See the difference?
Sure, but what does black hat vs white hat have to do with ranking guarantees?
The only way an SEO could guarantee results would be if they were somehow manipulating the search results themselves in order to change website’s rankings.
And no company has that power. Except Google.
Think of SEO companies like stockbrokers. A stockbroker can provide recommendations for where the best place to invest might be, where high-risk high-reward options might be, where your safe bets are, and so on.
But stockbrokers could never guarantee results because they don’t control the prices of the stocks they advise on. They can make well-researched and informed opinions, but at the end of the day a novel coronavirus pandemic might suddenly wipe out global markets overnight, rendering all guarantees and promises false.
In the same way, SEOs provide recommendations, strategies, and tools to help improve a website in the eyes of Google’s algorithm. But at any moment Google might decide to change its algorithm—as it has done on multiple significant occasions—meaning that you will need to revise your strategy and approach. If you had made guarantees to your clients before that algorithm change, well, you’re suddenly in a lot of trouble.
Surely that’s an extreme example—algorithm changes and pandemics aren’t that common, right?
No, this principle works on everyday matters as well.
Try an experiment for me. Google your favourite meal. Now log out of your Google account and search again. Now borrow your friend’s phone and search again. Try again when you get home from work. Then try all this again tomorrow.
You will see a different set of 10 results every time you searched.
Why? Because Google is incredibly sensitive to a range of details these days, including location, personalised search history, and so.
Would you feel comfortable guaranteeing that you can achieve a particular ranking in such an unstable and fickle environment?
It can’t be that unstable. Aren’t there agencies that offer money-back guarantees if they don’t achieve #1? Maybe they just know something you don’t.
Actually, I know something you don’t.
Those agencies and those promises are scams designed for unwitting customers who don’t know they’re being conned.
This is usually done by the agency selecting which keywords they are going to get you ranking for. This is itself is not a bad thing—we do it with every campaign we run. What is nefarious is choosing keywords that are irrelevant to your business interests based on how easy they are to rank for.
For example, it would be immensely difficult for me to get your website ranking for “iphone case online”. But it would take me 10 minutes to get you to #1 for “colour-eating catoblepas autotune”. In fact, I’d be willing to bet (but not guarantee) that this article now ranks #1 for that term.
But what use is that to anybody? It’s just a vanity metric. Congratulations, you are now #1 for a term that is going to bring zero benefit to your business. But the agency you paid has now wormed their way out of giving you your money back.
This is a catoblepas, in case you were wondering.
Source: Jan Jonston – http://symploke.trujaman.org/index.php?title=Imagen:Catoblepas.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1277712
But I thought rankings were important. What is SEO even for if not getting rankings?
Rankings are a means to an end.
The end is revenue and growth for your business. To achieve that we need (highly qualified) traffic. To achieve that we need rankings for relevant terms.
I’m much more interested in helping your business achieve return on its marketing investment, to help your business grow and succeed year to year, than I am providing you with a curated report of all the useless keywords I help you reach #1 for.
Rankings on their own are a poor way to measure the success of a campaign. They are important, but you also need to be looking at traffic, sales, engagement, and a whole host of other factors.
Can SEOs guarantee traffic or sales then?
No, and for much the same reason: SEOs cannot control the functions of another business.
There are a range of factors that affect a business’ sales and traffic: overall business strategy, external marketing efforts, work carried out by internal web developers, and so on.
For example, a campaign might start while the business is running TV ads, but these then cease 6 months later, which leads to fewer people searching for the brand online. The business itself might change its product suite. The business might launch a new website through a third party company.
These are all examples of things completely outside my control that have happened during campaigns that I have run that have affected traffic and sales. Can you imagine how disappointed my clients would have been if I had guaranteed traffic numbers in any of these cases?
SEO is only one piece of the puzzle of business success. It would be the height of arrogance to think that we can make promises about your overall business growth based on our work alone.
Ok, that makes sense. What should an SEO guarantee, if anything?
Expert knowledge, professionalism, diligence, communication, best-practice strategies, honesty, and transparency.
In other words, all of the things that are within the SEO’s control.
I see it as my responsibility to know and understand as much as I can about my industry and then translate that knowledge for my clients and apply it to their websites. It is important that I communicate my knowledge and strategies for my clients so that they can understand what I am doing and why.
In that sense, we are much like other professionals. For example, I know absolutely nothing about cars, but I trust my mechanic because he explains the nature of my vehicle problems, outlines potential solutions, what he recommends and why. I aim to do the same in my work.
Are there any other red flags I should look out for when looking for an SEO agency?
Anything that indicates a desire to hide, fool, or obfuscate.
My general principle is that what is good for users is good for Google. After all, Google is trying to serve the best experience for its users, and they are very good at what they do.
A few dodgy things to watch out for include:
- Guaranteed #1 rankings, fast results, doubling your traffic etc.
SEOs cannot control Google’s algorithm. Even Google itself says that nobody can offer ranking guarantees.
- Talk of fooling, tricking, or duping the Google algorithm
These are black hat techniques that will bring more harm to your website than good. Google is more than wise to common attempts to game the system, and it has no patience for websites that attempt such deception. This is a one-way track to getting your website blacklisted from Google entirely.
- Secretiveness, hiding methodology, no attempt at communication or education
I don’t want my mechanic making changes to my car without first communicating the problem and solution. Your SEO company should be no different. Transparency regarding strategy and work done are absolutely essential. You should also expect regular reporting that addresses more than just vanity metrics.
- Pressure to sign long-term contracts
If an agency’s strategies are so effective, why would they feel the need to tie you into a contract? Unfortunately, some businesses see each client as short term and simply collect their monthly fee for minimal work. Try to find an agency that is keen to build a long-term relationship and really understand your business. The quality of their work should stand on its own.