SEO involves taking risks, as most of you know, which is why many small businesses are hesitant to spend their already tight budgets on SEO. However, if you get it right, there will be a great return! In this Daily Brown Bag, you’ll learn about a recent Forbes article highlighting why no reputable SEO firm would offer a guarantee (which is a theme that we've hit many times over the years). We’ll also revisit Rand Fishkin’s 5 Reasons to Stay Far Away from Any "Guarantee" of Search Engine Rankings, the return on investment from SEO, and we’ll help you better understand SEO and that there aren't any guarantees in the SEO industry.

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Hello, and welcome to The Daily Brown Bag. Today we’re going to be talking about SEO guarantees. I’m Chad Hill, and I’m joined by Adam Stetzer.

Hey, good morning, Chad. Welcome to The Brown Bag. We’re talking today about a Forbes article in December that really caught our attention, Chad. This is a theme that we’ve hit over the years over and over again, but I don’t think it could be overstated. The title of this article was “Why The Best SEO Firms Don’t Offer Guaranteed Results.” I know this is something, Chad, in our SEO reseller community, on our forums, and in our discussions with our customers. I hear it occasionally in our 4 p.m. Q&A session -- that live-time teleconference. They’re saying, “Hey, I can go get this guarantee from someone else. Why don’t you guys have it?” We consistently say, “No. Really, you don’t want to be talking to firms who offer a guarantee.” And it’s nice to see an article like the one we’ve found here in Forbes that backs that up.

And here are some of the points that they were making. The author specifically talks about business in a digital marketing space. He owns a digital marketing firm, and he outlines what he’s been telling his clients, which is similar to what we’ve been telling our clients. And that is, specifically, there just simply are no guarantees in the SEO industry. Again, this is coming from Forbes, Chad. Any firm that tells you otherwise is feeding you a lie, and I know that we agree with that 100%.

SEO is a Risky Business

As most of you know, there are risks involved with SEO. It’s a risky business, and, because of that, many small businesses are a little hesitant to get involved and wade into these waters. Their marketing budgets are already tight, and they’re worried they won’t see a return on investment. Although, on the other side, they also have heard there’s a great return from SEO when you can get it right and really nail it. But it’s difficult to keep up with the ever-changing rules and guidelines from Google. I know we’ve been covering this for years. The guidelines -- we’ve been through them line by line, both in this Brown Bag forum as well as in webinars with our resellers as well as in discussions. Some of them are just downright gray and hard-to-follow, and they get updated over and over again. I think this is a really interesting concept, Chad, because this idea of risk/reward around in lots and lots of industries.

What comes to mind, of course, most readily is the financial industry. When you go to talk to an investment broker and say, “Hey, I really want something that’s very low risk, but will bring me great rewards very quickly.” Of course, any financial adviser is going to say, “That’s just not how it works.” There’s generally this continuum that, the less risk you take -- you know, slow and steady wins the race -- but, if you want to go for big returns, you have to take on higher risks. And so they advise clients, and I think we do the same. If you want to use PPC, that’s a much more “guaranteed” tactic, although it doesn’t always work 100% how you want it, but a much lower risk marketing approach vs. SEO. SEO has a lot higher risk, but, again, therefore has much higher returns. I think helping clients understand this is really key to being a solid citizen, and it’s the reason we don’t offer guarantees. Of course, there’s a billion reasons why things may not work. But I think, in my mind, Chad, transparency is the key here. We’re giving them all of the options and helping them make an informed decision rather than giving them some phony guarantee.

Yeah, and, just to clarify, when you talk about risks, I think you said this -- but just so people understand “risky” -- what we’re really talking about there is that you don’t know for certain. Any company doesn’t control Google and their algorithm, and, therefore, what we’re saying is that the effort that goes into it, it’s a little less certain that it’s definitely going to have the output. Whereas, you know, with AdWords, if you spend a dollar with AdWords (or usually $10 with AdWords), you may get a couple of clicks. And you can see that that happened right at the point that you paid the $10. That’s the difference here.

Fishkin’s 5 Reasons to Stay Far Away from Any "Guarantee" of Search Engine Rankings

We wanted to go back and also look at what other people have talked about in terms of guarantees. We found a good reference from 2008, where Rand Fishkin talks about some of the reasons that guarantees don’t make sense and why you should really run away from them. His five points were:

  1. That rankings are inherently unstable. This again goes into the fact that it’s Google. They control the algorithm. And, really, an SEO company guaranteeing that they know what Google’s going to do is just not possible. It doesn’t make sense.

  2. They aren’t the only metric that really equates with performance. We just covered a survey yesterday where small businesses said the number one thing for them were phone calls. So rankings don’t equal phone calls. We saw this a lot several years ago. I think people have gotten a little bit smart to this, but people would go after these completely useless keywords that had no search volume, so they had rankings. But they didn’t have any traffic, they didn’t have any phone calls, so that didn’t really make sense. It’s a guarantee that doesn’t really help you in some way.

  3. Again, these guarantees, they really equate with more spammy companies that were doing things that weren’t as good for the business. Guarantees sort of immediately take you there.

  4. The next one, though, is probably the first one we should have mentioned. Google has specifically said that you should move away from anyone that guarantees -- this should be a red flag for choosing an SEO firm. So, again, if you’re guaranteeing (at least rankings), then you are falling right into where Google is saying, “Be careful of that.”

  5. Finally, there’s sort of ethical issues with guaranteeing something you cannot control.

Look at What Companies are Guaranteeing

So there are companies that are still guaranteeing out there, but you have to look at what they’re guaranteeing. They will often talk about they’re guaranteeing work completed, which is within their control -- it makes a lot of sense. Sometimes they’re guaranteeing satisfaction. That one gets a little bit gray.

Rand Fishkin’s 5 Reasons Still Stand Up Today

You know, you have to really look at that. I think all of those reasons we talked about from 2008 still hold up today. SEO is the main thing here. SEO is a long-term strategy, and it has moved from where it was several years ago to really being a part of good marketing. SEO is now a lot more related to PR, it’s related to building your brand, and so all of the things you’re doing for SEO also have related benefits to other parts of your business. Again, watch out for those guarantees. They’re still out there… fewer and far between, I’d say. When you’re looking at and comparing a company that guarantees rankings to one that doesn't, just realize it’s not really a completely fair comparison.

Yeah, that’s really interesting, Chad. Even if you don’t buy the business reason or the ethics behind it, that point you made about how Google outright saying, “You just can’t do this” or you run the risk of getting a smack or penalty from them should convince you. I think overwhelmingly the case here this is just a shady practice. And, for those agencies that we talk to every day, it’s just not how you want to sell your product. You want to feel good about what you’re doing.

SEO & PPC Tips

The last point I’ll make, Chad, and I’ve said this many, many times and I say it in the 4 p.m. Q&A session all of the time, if you’re dealing with a client who is just moving into digital marketing for the first time, this whole topic is going to be very confusing to them. Just like someone who is just approaching the stock market for the very first time, you would never recommend a risky penny stock. So put them in something they can understand, that’s simple. Start with PPC. Get their feet wet with something that’s a fairly simple transaction. Over time, graduate them up to SEO, which is more complex and has a higher possible return, but also carries these other risks we’ve been talking about. It’s just a great way to ease them in.

In the long-term, our survey results all show this:

So our answer to that is to be honest and truthful about that. Be transparent, and don’t make these phony guarantees.

That’s our Brown Bag for this morning. We appreciate you joining us. We ask that you subscribe. We’ll see you back here tomorrow.