I have come by a number of discussions recently talking about whether firms should offer an SEO guarantee on their work. I think this is an intriguing discussion and worthy of a little exploration on our blog. The first thing to point out is that Google specifically instructs the SEO community not to offer guarantees to clients when it comes to search engine rankings. We generally honor this because the last thing we want is to be on the wrong side of Google's good graces. But we are asked quite often by customers and members of our SEO reseller program if we would be willing to entertain an SEO guarantee.
In my last business we were sometimes approached about doing work at risk as well. And there truly is nothing special about SEO when it comes to building a project or engagement with an at-risk fee structure. At the end of the day, business is business and people need to make money. But customers are always worried about getting the appropriate value for what they pay. Suppliers are worrying about covering their costs and taking home a small profit margin. We talk about this with her SEO resellers every day as they are trying to jumpstart their businesses selling search engine optimization services.
In theory I think at risk contracts are a good thing. It puts an extra incentive on the part of the supplier to do extra good work. It aligns the entire team around good outcomes, at least in theory. But structuring your contract with guarantees can also have unintended negative consequences as well. An SEO team that receives less or no payment when they don't achieve rankings may resort to tactics of the customer did not sign-off on. Ironically this may lead to less transparency in the customer relationship where there would have previously been more open discussion about the SEO strategies.
Secondarily, if things start to look like they won't work out the team may decide to give up on the project entirely prematurely. In a regular SEO project if things aren't going well the team is probably motivated to work a little harder. But if the contract is structured so they won't get paid and less the rankings are they are, search engine optimization work may stop entirely because it becomes clear they won't recover. Again you may end up with a counter-incentive when you intended to orient the team in your favor.
The last thing to consider when talking about SEO guarantees is whether the contract includes a performance bonus in addition to penalties. In my experience when a client asked for and at-risk portion of a project they need to also be prepared to put on the table a performance bonus. Clients are often focused on what happens if the team does not deliver and look for financial compensation in that case. But it is only fair to both parties if there is also an upside for the delivery team in case they over deliver. In every contract I have agreed to with a guarantee, there has always been a bonus as well as a penalty. This is only fair.
The SEO reseller space is so new that things like this have yet to be ironed out. You have many new providers racing to this big marketplace to offer search engine opposition services who are willing to take big risks and offer you SEO guarantees. If you're shopping, keep in mind that Google frowns upon this heavily. Also keep in mind that the people most willing to take big risks might have very little to lose. In other words, they may not have been around too long or don't plan to be around too long in the future. These are folks you don't really want to do business with a long-term basis.
Also keep in mind that everybody needs to be paid for their time.