When researching search engine optimization (SEO) companies, it is tempting to choose any company willing to offer guaranteed SEO services. It is human nature—people love a guarantee.
This holds especially true for purchases where the buyer is purchasing something outside of his or her area of comfort. When companies first consider pursuing SEO as a potential marketing channel, particularly when there is an ongoing cost involved, they get a sense of comfort from purchasing "guaranteed SEO." Unfortunately, with many SEO companies, this confidence in the guarantee is ill placed.
A lot of questionable SEO companies offer what I like to refer to as a "leprechaun repellent" guarantee. In other words, it's a guarantee that is easily attainable—if you purchase such services and are not subsequently harassed by a pesky leprechaun, the guarantee has been met. How can you complain?
The truth is that SEO companies do not control the major search engines, and any firm that claims to have a "special relationship" that gives it sway over the natural search engine results is simply counting on your ignorance. Fortunately, this does not mean that guaranteed SEO is impossible, especially when the guarantee has to do with aggregate results and the methods used to achieve them.
What follows is a partial list of some of the more popular types of guaranteed SEO out there—some of them roughly as useful as leprechaun repellent, and some of them actually meaningful.
The 'Leprechaun Repellent' Key Phrases Guarantee
Many SEO companies boast that they will achieve a certain number of top rankings in the organic results of major search engines. This type of guaranteed SEO can be tempting, especially to those who are investigating SEO companies for the first time. After all, high rankings are what it's all about, right? Isn't that the goal?
The answer is an emphatic "No." Quality SEO companies will point out that the real goal is to bring high quality traffic to your site. It's quite simple to guarantee top positions if you choose noncompetitive or obscure phrases—for example, "leprechaun repellent."
Want proof? Enter "leprechaun repellent" into your favorite search engine. You will almost certainly find this article dominating the results (caveat—if you are reading this article immediately after its release, the search engines may not have indexed it yet. Wait a week and try again.).
It is extremely easy for SEO companies to achieve high search engine positions for phrases that nobody uses. Such rankings might impress your friends and neighbors, but they won't send you quality traffic. They likely won't send you any traffic at all.
It's important to note that the phrase "leprechaun repellent" is used only for demonstrative purposes. Many unpopular phrases may not sound absurd. There are surely countless phrases that sound extremely relevant to your business that are never typed into search engines. Good SEO companies will avoid such phrases. "Leprechaun repellent" practitioners will embrace them—it allows them to attain their worthless guarantees.
There is also another aspect of this type of guaranteed SEO in which SEO companies will guarantee you first place positions on unspecified search engines for more competitive phrases. Unfortunately, this type of guaranteed SEO often involves obscure engines that have very little market share and are not sophisticated enough to quickly eliminate Web pages that use spam tactics. In a few documented cases, the guarantees involved search engines that the SEO companies actually owned and operated!
There are really only three major search engines at present—Google, Yahoo and MSN. There are a handful of minor engines that are also worth mentioning, including Ask Jeeves and AOL Search. Any guaranteed SEO should involve prominent engines, not obscure ones.
The 'Company Name' Guarantee
There is also a common guarantee that shady SEO companies will use that guarantees that a company will show up for a search on its company name. This, much like the "leprechaun repellent" flavor of guaranteed SEO, offers no real value.
Sure, if your company name is "Acme," it may actually be competitive. But chances are that if your Web site does not already show up near the top of the search engine results for a search on your company name, there is an easily fixed technical glitch that will resolve the issue. Quality SEO companies will address this area immediately.
Moreover, ranking highly for your company name, while obviously desirable, provides only a tiny fraction of the potential value of search engine marketing. The real benefit for most companies is that search engine marketing attracts potential buyers who are not already familiar with the company name. Unless your company is a household name, it is unlikely that having your company name figure prominently in the results is going to have a huge impact on your business.
The Pay-per-Click Guarantee
Some SEO companies will offer guaranteed SEO services that promise top positions for certain key phrases on popular engines, but they are counting on dealing with prospects who do not understand the difference between natural search engine results and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.
With PPC, it is very easy to guarantee a number-one result, but this result will appear in the "paid" or "sponsored" results of the engine. Say, for example, that your company installs custom swimming pools. While a competitive phrase like "custom pools" might be difficult to achieve in organic results, the SEO company is not concerned with organic results. All it has to do is outbid the current highest bidder (using your money, of course), and your site will show up as number one in the "sponsored" results.
Studies have indicated that sponsored results are held in a lower regard than natural results by savvy Web searchers who recognize them as advertising. Also, as soon as you stop paying, your ranking disappears.
The 'Submit Your Site to 50,000 Search Engines' Guarantee
There are many variations on this offer, primarily involving the number of engines promised. Regardless of the number, this is probably the most pervasive and persistent type of "guaranteed SEO," and it is basically a scam that preys on ignorance.
Companies that believe that they have high quality Web sites are predisposed to believe that the only thing holding them back from search engine success is that the search engines do not yet know that their sites exist. However, search engines measure quality in a much different way from a Web site owner. A properly optimized site does not need to be submitted to search engines at all. (I refer to actual "spider-based" search engines such as Yahoo, Google, and MSN, not human-edited directories such as Business.com, the Yahoo Directory, and the Open Directory Project). Engines prefer to find sites on their own.
This "solution" offers no real value, except of course to the SEO companies offering the service. Also, as previously mentioned, there are not 50,000 search engines—or at least 50,000 search engines worth worrying about.
Do SEO companies that offer this service meet this guarantee? Certainly—they use automated programs to do the submissions. Is this type of guaranteed SEO worthwhile? Not for search engine positions, but it may keep leprechauns at bay.
Given the preponderance of "guaranteed SEO" that is meaningless, the seemingly Wild West nature of the industry and the reality that SEO companies do not control the results of any major engine, it may seem that guaranteed SEO can never be a worthwhile endeavor. However, that is not the case.
If you note the abovementioned examples, they are primarily involved in specifics—top positions, a certain number of submissions, a certain number of engines. However, good SEO companies, understanding that they have no control over individual results, should be confident enough in the results of their work in aggregate and in the safety of the methodologies that they use to offer guaranteed SEO that lives up to its promise.
The Targeted Traffic Guarantee
SEO companies dedicated to showing value to their clients will take a baseline reading of current search engine traffic at the outset of a campaign. While, as previously mentioned, SEO companies do not hold sway over search engine results, they should at least be confident enough in their overall skills to promise that their clients will see an increase in targeted search engine traffic based on popular phrases relevant to the business.
If the firm offering this type of guaranteed SEO charges on a monthly basis, any month of the engagement where traffic for targeted phrases does not exceed the baseline should not be charged. After all, you are paying on a monthly basis to protect and improve your positions. While major algorithm shifts that make results on individual results unstable can and do happen, they rarely happen on all engines at once. You should feel confident that the firm you are paying has a very vested interest in making sure it adapts to the changing nature of search engine algorithms, and few things inspire such confidence as knowing that it will not get paid otherwise.
If your prospective firm is unwilling to guarantee that it will send increased traffic to your Web site from targeted phrases, every month, it may be time to look elsewhere.
The 'White Hat' Guarantee
SEO companies are commonly broken up into two camps—"white hats" (practitioners who remain solidly within the search engines' stated terms of service) and "black hats" (practitioners who work to unravel the latest search engine algorithms and base their optimization techniques largely on technology, regardless of an engine's terms of service). Both approaches are legitimate—in that there is nothing illegal about exploiting a technical loophole for results.
However, black hat SEO companies put their clients at risk of penalization, including outright banishment from the major engines. Getting back in can be a long process, and sometimes it is not possible at all. If you are concerned about potential penalization, get a guarantee from your firm that it adheres to the stated terms of service of all major search engines. If you can (and this is rare), get a guarantee that your site will not be penalized through any action of the SEO firm.
This is harder for a company to offer, since the major engines frequently update their terms of service, and techniques that are acceptable today can be deemed unacceptable tomorrow. However, a confident firm that always errs on the side of caution when optimizing client Web sites will offer this type of guaranteed SEO services, since it will not use techniques that have a potential for penalization in the future.
Abusing the Metaphor (Beating a Dead Leprechaun)
Guarantees have been around for at least as long as leprechauns have been hoarding breakfast cereal and starring in bad horror films. So have guarantees that are essentially meaningless but sound respectable.
A good guarantee should not only appeal to the base emotion of a potential purchaser but also afford some real protection that the purchase he or she is making will provide meaningful results. Many of the most popular types of guaranteed SEO do not, and that's a shame. The industry already has a questionable reputation due to "leprechaun repellent" practitioners—make sure you don't go chasing their rainbow. After all, it's your pot of gold they are after.