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June 19, 2007

Swallowing Google Guarantees – Forego The SEO Chaffing

I think Google is on to me – how can one person be allowed to download pictures of Jessica Simpson while simultaneously performing searches in different browser windows for “data recovery” or “New Haven lasik eye surgeon”? It’s pure genius, and true, you can do lots of neat things with Google, but can or even should a search engine optimization company guarantee you listings within the world’s most popular search engine. Let’s make sure we are all on the same page, first by getting some basic definitions and assumptions out of the way.

Guarantees can imply vastly different semantics depending on what context you are using. A real estate transaction or a debt obligation is one thing – in this article we are only concerned with guarantees as they relate to Search Engines, specifically Google – and organic search engine rankings at that. We’ll be clearing our minds of PPC, banner advertising, or any other form of online marketing as they are not the direct focus of this discussion.   
To begin, my current favorite definition of guarantee is “a written assurance or pledge that some product or service will be provided or will meet certain specifications.” Written and signed guarantees are typically enforceable in courts of law within the United States of America. Guarantees are also in most cases financially binding. If a guarantee is not met, there must be some benefit associated with the breech of agreement. A guarantee is different from a promise. In most cases a promise is usually verbal- it can be over the phone, in person, maybe even in some cases written in a text message or through instant messenger. Promises have no associated signatures attached to them and in most cases damages are difficult to recover in the SEO realm. The legalese definition (sorry guys) is in contract terms- a promise is essential to a binding legal agreement and is given in exchange for consideration, which is the inducement to enter into a promise. A promise is illusory when the promisor does not bind himself/herself to do anything and, therefore, furnishes no consideration for a valid contract. In layman’s terms, promises do not hold much water in disputes specific to hiring an SEO firm without both parties’ signatures.  
Ok, now our basic definitions are out of the way, so let’s read Google’s official commentary on offering SEO guarantees:

“No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google. Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a “special relationship” with Google, or advertise a “priority submit” to Google. There is no priority submit for Google. In fact, the only way to submit a site to Google directly is through our Add URL page or through the Google Sitemaps program, and you can do this yourself at no cost whatsoever.”
The key take away here is:

Guaranteeing a #1 ranking in Google, means specifically that. There is no mention of first page rankings, conversions, aggregate traffic improvements, revenue, profit, branding, or other specific marketing goals or metrics.
We’ll make the assumption based on Google’s language that offering a custom SEO guarantee outside the scope of that Google commentary can be logical, reasonable, appropriate, and potentially viable for both client and SEO practitioner.

Prepping Your Guarantee’s Battlefield

Start with your business. Custom SEO guarantees should not be drafted without the SEO practitioner understanding your business, industry, and marketing goals. I cannot stress this point enough. A lack of information is equivalent to a surgeon operating with a blindfold. A SEO firm should ask pertinent questions and actually listen, record, and analyze your answers. What was your corporate revenue last year? What percentage of your revenue was driven from the website? What are your revenue goals for the next year? How much profit do you typically record per order or transaction? What percentage of your clientele are repeat customers? How do you rate your firm compared to your industry competitors? Where do you see your industry headed within the next few years? Where do you place your own firm within that industry? Why are you choosing to hire an SEO company? Are phone orders more important to you than web based orders? These questions are a sample set of the meat in which every SEO practitioner should get at before preparing a custom SEO guarantee – the questions might seem a bit intrusive at first glance, but they aren’t if you desire a solid working relationship.   

What Metrics Can A SEO Practitioner Reasonably Expect To Control? / Scope Of Guarantee

Now, it is the SEO practitioner’s job to really flesh out what goals are most important for your business- it then must be determined if the SEOer has direct or indirect control over those goals or parameters that are critical to you. Remember, internet marketing firms have no direct control over algorithms or search results, but they can do a lot to shake things up indirectly. Here are a few examples of potentially reasonable metrics that an SEO practitioner may be able to indirectly control:

1) Number of first page listings within Google given a specific sample set of keywords.  Your SEO practitioner should check competition levels, quality of competition, and state of affairs of your website.
2) Percentage of keywords listed within Google’s first page given a specific sample set of terms.
3) Search Engine visibility percentage increase (commonly used along side a third party program called web-position. If used, this program should be utilized responsibly, as it does query Google’s database automatically).

Here are some areas that are a bit grayer and may not be solidly under an SEO’s umbrella of control – hence, considering these metrics should be done with much caution.
1)    Aggregate traffic level increases throughout the website (having access to a real-time tracking system is critical).
2)    Overall revenue increases (an SEO practitioner should have a robust conversion tracking system) that are directly tied in to the specific internet marketing efforts.
3)    Overall profit increases (an SEO practitioner should understand business margins fully and must believe in the credibility of the client before entering into such an agreement).
4)  Form submissions (tracking each page where a form exists is highly recommended).
5)  Aggregate number of telephone calls (client should have a strict protocol in which phone representatives ask on every call where they found the website and what search term they typed in to find it. A guarantee along these lines is extremely difficult to track. Asking a lay person whether they clicked on a PPC ad or an organic listing might leave you with a particularly long phone silence. Again, use common sense before looking for a guarantee stipulation along these lines).

Minimum Expectations / Accountability

Another type of SEO guarantee can be deemed the minimum expectation guarantee. I am a huge fan of these because they are good for both the client and the SEO practitioner. What is better than knowing, given worst case scenario, what your SEO company is accountable to achieve.   

Remedy For Breech Of Agreement

Remedies for breech of contract should be specific, clear, and reasonable. Having dates clearly outlined also aids in minimizing confusion.

A good example of a remedy stipulation is below:

…If we do not achieve our ranking goals within Google, as mentioned within this agreement, our firm agrees to provide 30 man-hours of additional work per month to said client. We will include hourly reports on the specific nature and progress of this work sent on a bi-weekly basis. If after two additional months of contract goals not being met, client will receive a credit for 50% of monies paid out to SEO company over the course of the campaign. This credit will be issued within seven days after this non-performance deadline.  

An example of a poor breech of agreement remedy is below:

If contracted goal is not met, we’ll work diligently and thoroughly until we achieve the stated goal.

This remedy is nebulous at best. There is no mention as to a refund or any specific action or timeline. It is unreasonable.   

Paying For SEO Services That Contain a Guarantee

When paying for SEO- always use a major credit card – Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover all have useful ways to protect their customers from failed expectations that are clearly outlined within an agreement. If your SEO practitioner fails to abide by contract stipulations, you can look to these credit card companies for assistance- they are typically fair in their assessments and genuinely look to make their clientele happy. Remedies for breech of contract if you used any form of check, wire transfer, or direct deposit payments may be limited to your local courthouse. These disputes can be much more involved and can cost you a tremendous amount of time, energy and money.  

Summing Up Custom SEO Guarantees for Google

A well crafted guarantee has a few key attributes:

  • Specific
  • Realistic
  • Offer custom guarantee only after researching or performing due diligence of your business, industry, and specific marketing goals
  • Make you feel comfortable
  • Mention both companies by official name
  • Adhere to Google’s SEO guarantee advice
  • Use clear language
  • Are explained slowly by an SEO practitioner to client before signing
  • Clearly state the nature and scope of the guarantee
  • Mention Google by name
  • Have a specific, reasonable, and clear remedy for non-performance
  • Is signed by both parties
  • Contains a time element

A poor guarantee also has a few key elements:

  • Nebulous or ill-defined
  • Unrealistic
  • Offer a boiler plate guarantee without researching or performing due diligence of your
  • business, industry, or specific marketing goals
  • Make you feel uncomfortable
  • Do not mention one or both companies
  • Violate Google’s SEO guarantee advice
  • Use vague language
  • Are never mentioned to the client before signing
  • Does not mention the scope or nature of the guarantee
  • Does not mention Google
  • Have vague and unreasonable remedies for non-performance
  • Are verbal
  • Does not contain a time element

Lastly, please remember that although the amount of effort put into crafting a custom SEO guarantee may seem a bit intensive, the long run advantages to having both you as a client and the SEO practitioner “on the same page” well outweighs the initial time investment. Taking your time and using common sense as a guideline will ensure a higher probability of a successful working partnership. 

Author:  Brian Ortiz is the CEO of SEOMatrix: Ethical Search Engine Optimization. He has been specializing in search engine marketing and most notably conversion analysis for both national and international clients for over five years. SEOMatrix is a Connecticut search engine optimization company. To receive a free optimization or conversion rate analysis for your website sign up for our report. To receive Brians monthly articles sign up for our newsletter at