Dear SEO community, clients don't simply want our SEO recommendations—they want guaranteed results.
Now, before you start proclaiming that Google algorithms are moving targets, let me clarify one thing: I'm not talking about guaranteed rankings. We all know that SEO professionals who offer guaranteed rankings are either shady characters or magicians (or maybe both).
However, though no one can guarantee high SEO rankings, it is possible to guarantee and deliver great results: namely, more webpages ranked and improved site indexing using technical SEO.
The idea that the best SEO firms don't offer guarantees isn't just holding back your clients... It's also holding back your business—and the industry as a whole.
Why should you offer SEO guarantees?
For starters, considering that two top challenges for SEO professionals are that clients don't understand the value of SEO and that it's difficult to prove return on investment, you'd be wise to start giving clients what they really want. If neither you nor your clients can justify the value of your service, you'll be the first thing to go at budget time.
Offering guarantees, by showing them the objective value of your service, also makes clients happier and keeps them around longer. And because so few people in the SEO industry currently offer guarantees, doing so yourself could give you a competitive advantage.
The greatest upside potential, however, comes from replacing your project-based pricing or hourly rate with a pay-for-performance revenue model based on your SEO guarantees. But that only works under certain circumstances.
When should you offer SEO guarantees?
The key to making SEO guarantees work under a pay-for-performance model is to be selective with which clients you take on. You must assess the opportunity up front by vetting potential clients to make sure they meet the following five criteria.
1. They have an SEO-friendly product
While any business today requires an online presence, certain businesses derive more value from SEO than others.
For new products or services, SEO is a terrible channel: If no one knows that a product exists, they won't be searching for it online. Similarly, certain products, such as perfumes, benefit less from SEO because they're normally tested and bought in stores, not online.
In contrast, if a client offers a product that people are already searching for—and buying—online, like clothing or sunglasses, the potential to add value through SEO is huge. You can verify growing demand for potential clients' products using Google Trends.
2. They have product/market fit
If a potential client's product is SEO-friendly, you must check to make sure they've already achieved product/market fit, meaning that customers are already buying products on the company's site.
As SEO professionals, our job is not to build businesses but, rather, to help reduce clients' customer acquisition costs through organic search results. So, if consumers haven't yet validated their need for a given product, there's no guarantee that even the best SEO strategy would get them to buy.
3. They have a strong reputation for delivery
Even more than having proven demand for their products, potential clients must also demonstrate that they consistently meet or exceed the expectations of their buyers.
SEO rankings depend in part on the link reputation of the pages of a given site. Clients that have a lot of negative online reviews are bound to have a hard time earning more quality links—and no SEO strategy can completely eliminate bad reviews or improve a company's customer service.
4. They have a minimum level of online popularity
Because Google doesn't rank sites that are completely unknown, your SEO efforts will all be for naught if the company hasn't done the necessary marketing and public relations work to make a name for itself online.
Assuming that potential clients maintain an active online presence by consistently creating new and useful content, it'll be much easier for you to help them get their content noticed and eventually improve their rankings naturally.
5. They have a clean record and a positive outlook
If the client's business is sound, check the Google Search Console to make sure it hasn't violated the company's webmaster guidelines in the past year or two, and that it isn't working on shady link-building work. Google punishes illicit SEO behavior, and sometimes the residual effects of a shady, former SEO consultant may be preventing the client's website from ranking well.
Finally, double-check with Google Trends to make sure that any website traffic decreases are the result of poor SEO practices and technical errors—not a decrease in demand for the company's products.
What kind of SEO guarantees should you offer?
If a potential client meets those criteria, you're both set to win big. By fixing technical SEO errors, you can help clients get more pages indexed and ranked. Granted, you can't guarantee any specific rankings, but by simply getting more pages ranked, you'll increase a client's revenue-earning opportunity. You'll also increase yours.
But before you set out to strike a deal, you should look at your current clients and create a benchmark of the minimum and maximum results you've achieved, and correlate them to specific problems. Then, using those benchmarks, you can put together a business case showing clients exactly what kind of improvement they can expect—and how much they would benefit.
You can think about how to structure your SEO guarantees:
Most SEO professionals probably cringe at the idea of a pay-for-performance model because it takes away their security of earning a guaranteed income each month. However, if a client meets the above criteria, a pay-for-performance structure will almost surely play out to your benefit.
To structure this type of deal, consider charging a low one-time fee to cover the analysis of the business that you did up front. Then, on a recurring basis—monthly—you could charge clients a minimum flat rate that's just enough to break even and cover your costs. All of your profit, then, would come from performance fees based on reaching specific milestones you've set with the client.
For example, you could structure a deal whereby you earn a certain amount extra per month after reaching agreed-upon levels of traffic increase over a certain amount of time.
A second option is to charge a percentage on the lift in revenue or traffic resulting from your SEO efforts, in addition to the minimum monthly retainer fee. This type of revenue-sharing structure doesn't work well for some big companies because they tend to have a fixed budget per quarter (or per year) and can't have such an extreme variable cost. However, it generally works for mid-market and smaller companies that have more flexibility.
In this case, you can do a year-over-year analysis to get an average of their sales or traffic, based on which you can measure increases resulting from your SEO efforts and take your fair cut. The challenge with this model is that, in the case of non-e-commerce companies, it can be difficult to assign a dollar value to the improvement you've effected. You must think about each client's SEO goal—boosting sales, getting people to sign up for a trial, scheduling a phone call with a sales representative—and then agree on a fair value for each of those.
* * *
In the end, even if you end up earning the same amount you would have without the guarantee, your clients will be happier and they'll stick around for longer—and maybe even recommend your services to someone else.
The more likely scenario, however, is that a pay-for-performance or revenue-sharing model will boost your income right alongside that of your clients'.
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