Why No One Can Guarantee SEO Results

If you had a choice between SEO and guaranteed SEO, you’d always choose guaranteed, right? With any service, the guaranteed option is always better, right?

Not with SEO.

Before we plunge into what guarantees we should expect out of the SEO Industry, let’s look at ranking guarantees that are, and are not, provided for in SEO.

Have you ever seen a lifetime rankings guarantee?

A money back rankings guarantee?

Or how about a website replacement guarantee if penalized?

No?  None of the above?  That’s because the only guarantee you’ll see with SEO companies is a very specific kind: guaranteed rankings. Some SEO practitioners even put this guarantee in writing. They build it into their pay for performance pricing model as

“we guarantee you rank or you don’t pay.”

What reasonable business owner seeking SEO services wouldn’t find some appeal in that promise?  But…they shouldn’t.

Here’s the rub – the SEO Industry can’t, and shouldn’t, guarantee results. Guaranteed results are just not possible. Why?

A Real-World Example Of Guarantees

Let’s say you head down to your local consumer electronics store and buy yourself a brand new television. You walk in, talk to the advisor, choose a television, and get it delivered to your house. There are a few things you’d expect to be guaranteed in that whole process, especially if you’ve done your homework beforehand:

  • It’s delivered on the day you expect it
  • The television will work when you plug it in
  • It will be compatible with all of your devices (Apple TV, Fire Stick, DVD Players etc.)
  • The picture is of the same quality written on the box
  • That if there is a problem with the TV you can return it

That’s the bare minimum. A shop like Best Buy can guarantee that, because these are all things that they can control.

TV stops working? They can replace it. Delivery guy late? They can refund you. Been mislead about compatibility? They can recommend a different TV.  But Best Buy cannot and will not guarantee that:

  • The television will be better than your neighbors’
  • Your kids won’t knock the TV off the stand
  • Your Call Of Duty metrics will improve
  • You can always find the remote

These are all things that are out of their control. They can’t predict any of the above will happen.

Based on what we’ve learned about guarantees in the Best Buy example, let’s talk about why guarantees in the SEO industry aren’t an option.

Why We Can’t Guarantee Results in The SEO Industry

When it comes to SEO, none of us have complete control over the end product. We can employ best practices – just like in the Best Buy example above where they would recommend a television that is better than your neighbors’ – but we can’t stop those things from happening that are out of our control, in the same way Best Buy can’t stop your neighbor from buying an even better one the next day.

So, let’s explore this concept of guarantees in the SEO Industry further, and base it on the premise that “If it feels good, it must be against the Google Guidelines.” AND if what your SEO guy is doing is against Google Guidelines run as far away in the other direction as possible.

I love history. Let’s relive it a bit together and go back to this post written in 2008 by Rand Fishkin when Moz was “SEO Moz” and provided SEO services. The SEO metrics du jour were rankings and traffic. At a time when Gary Busey and HTML horizontal rules still had careers. He explains why reputable SEO firms don’t promise guaranteed search engine rankings.

Rand's Famous Post on SEO Gurantees

Took a while but I found it. Image source: Moz via the beloved WayBack Machine.

Gotta love blog posts from 2008, short and to the point. No images necessary :)

Let’s look at Rand’s five arguments against SEO guarantees and how they’ve stood up over time.

1: “SEO and Guarantees Have an Abominable History”

Rand calls out scammers who have used “guaranteed rankings and traffic” as “a slimy catchphrase to lure in gullible buyers with too-good-to-be-true promises.”

Guaranteed SEO and SEO Malpractice

A bit dated but one of my favorite finds ever.

It’s funny that nearly a decade later, we’re still seeing plenty of interest in “guaranteed rankings” in Google search results. About half the results are warnings and half are offers. Similar searches like “guaranteed SEO” show a few results warning of the dangers of falling for guarantees but most results, including many AdWords ad results offer actual guaranteed services including one well-known brand with a domain authority of 72.

Guaranteed SEO in Google Trends

Source: Google Trends

Why do SEO companies still do this with so little shame?

Here’s one scenario:

An SEO company offering guaranteed results could try and rank a site by doing some standard onsite optimizations accompanied by an aggressive link acquisition effort.

If this didn’t work fast enough, the company could deliver Google traffic by deploying clickbots or actual humans through Mechanical Turk style services – Rand himself did a test that revealed queries and clicks may influence Google’s results more directly than previously suspected. Even if the clicks didn’t influence search results, the company could still claim that they delivered on their guarantee of increased traffic from Google. Not very smart, but tactics like this might appeal to SEO scammers concerned only about the short term effects.

2: “The Search Engines Expressly Warn Against It”

There’s a clear and simple phrase that Rand pointed out from the official Google guidelines that states their view back in 2008:

“No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google”

The phrase is still there! Word for word, almost a decade later. How much do you want to bet it will still be a part of the Google canon ten years from now?

No SEO guarantees per the Google Guidelines

It’s still there after all these years!

3: “Rankings are Inherently Unstable”

If rankings were unstable in the pre-Panda/Penguin era when Rand made this observation, they are even more so today.

What are some things that might bring more instability to search results today?

Consider the size of Google’s index. In 2008, it was about 1 trillion. Now it’s at least 30 times that size.

There was no Googlebot-Mobile to worry about, no mobile updates or penalties, and no threat of a mobile first index.

Local results are now weighted into organic search (not just maps) so what you see can vary depending on where you are searching from.

Instability doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Perhaps unpredictable would be a better description today than the unstable of 2008. But it does have to be understood.

4: “Rankings are a Poor Metric for Overall Performance”

You rank number one in the world for a key phrase. Fantastic!

Except that key phrase brings you absolutely no potential customers .

Lots of SEOs like to tout their boosted rankings as inherently-boosted performance. But when Rand Fishkin wrote that seminal post in 2008, rankings still weren’t the end-all, be-all of SEO. Today, they’re even less relevant as a metric for overall performance.

User metrics, content-based goals, conversion rate…all of it matters. SEO is no longer about climbing the mountain top. It’s about building your own mountain and inviting people to come check you out.

5: “Making Guarantees About Something You Cannot Control Carries Inherent Ethical Problems”

The demand for SEO guarantees will never go away. People like guarantees. And those who don’t know much about SEO may remain convinced that guarantees are not only possible, but reasonable.

This carries some inherent ethical problems. SEOs looking for a quick buck are happy to offer guarantees if there are minimal consequences for not meeting them. You’ve never seen a “website replacement guarantee if penalized” mentioned earlier, have you?

A good SEO will be upfront with you about the process. They’ll talk to you about the complexity of your goals. They’ll come up with a plan to attract real business to your site.

They won’t guarantee rankings.

Rand’s statement about ethical problems around SEO guarantees remains just as true today.

All five of Rand’s points remain true. I would even say more so today with numbers 3 and 4. Rankings are even more difficult to lasso, can take longer and be an even weaker metric with today’s web analytics.

But If Best Practices and Google Guidelines Are Followed, Surely That Can Guarantee SOMETHING, Right?

Nah.

Even if search engine guidelines allowed guarantees, they still wouldn’t work. Why?

Google updates its algorithms between 500 and 600 times a year. And, when they throw out a big change – like a Penguin or a Panda update – what worked yesterday can go right out of the window. It may simply not be effective in a week, a month, or even a year.

There’s also the fact that rankings aren’t static. They change based on your location, browser, and personalization. For example, as Search Engine Watch pointsout in this article:

“Someone in the US searching for ‘football’ will get results about American football; someone in the UK will get results about the type of football that Americans would call soccer”

Which can be frustrating for an American in London looking for Football Results, as well as an Englishman in New York trying to see how their team did at the weekend, too.

We must also account for the fact that results are temporal. While you’re mounting an SEO campaign for a product, keyword or query, so is your competition. And it doesn’t take much for the needle to move and for you to drop to third, fourth, fifth or even the second page. Or, it could just come down to one of those Google algorithm updates I just mentioned.

So, if you are new to SEO, and providing services, don’t boast about getting on the first page of a search.  Trust me, I learned to keep my mouth shut about that the hard way.

What Can an SEO Company Guarantee, Then?

While results aren’t something an SEO service provider can guarantee, there are a few things that they can guarantee. It all goes back to what they have full control over, and here’s a list of some:

  • A timeline for deliverables
  • A list of keywords or topics that position you to specifically target your audience
  • Findings and recommendations from an onsite analysis that follow industry best practices
  • Well-researched quality content
  • Efficient code
  • Accurate reporting
  • Consistent communications
  • Free coffee in the conference room
  • That they won’t offer a guarantee

As guarantees go, these are not “get a six pack in six weeks” sexy.

But in business, nothing is sexier than actual results.

Published 02/05/18, Edited 02/09/18.

About Emory Rowland

I'm an Atlanta SEO consultant and founder of Leverable. SEO has been part of my life for over a decade and always will be. I love helping people improve their search performance aka "lift for the good guys" through Leverable. I believe in the empowering capabilities and rewards of effective SEO. Follow me at Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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12 comments

  1. Hey Emory!

    You are right!

    There is no guarantees when it comes to SEO.

    That’s because the search engine’s algorithms and ranking metrics are always changing and evolving. Even the best SEO guru in the planet knows this.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this and the real truth!

    Best regards! :D

    • Hi Freddy, thanks for weighing in. I hope this helps people not to let their guard down when they see the word “guarantee.”

  2. Emory, I really like the analogy with Best Buy and the throw back to 2008 before Panda and Penguin. Well done!

    A post like this begs the question “So how should SEOs charge for services?” And I think you have that one nailed as well https://leverable.com/seo-pricing/.

    • Thanks Tom. So much changes with SEO, but a lot of the business/value sort of stuff stays the same.

      Instead of “rank or you don’t pay,” I’d want all of my money refunded, but I doubt that has ever happened :)

  3. Great post Emory! Very informative. Thanks!

  4. Best line ever… “a time when Gary Busey and HTML horizontal rules still had careers”.

    This is such an informative article. Please tell me that you will share your wisdom at my Meetup someday soon.

    • Looks like horizontal rules aren’t quite deprecated and Busey is still making movies :)

      Honored to share at your Meetup, just need to nail down the right topic and timing – thanks Kathy!

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  6. Hi Emory!

    Great piece of content!

    I myself working in SEO for 12 years and it has become a passion now. However, no one can guarantee or I should say no one should even guarantee even knowing that they can get #1 because our industry doesn’t have control on the work correlated to the performance.

    Keep writing the good stuff!

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