Pay for Performance SEO

“Do you work SEO as pay-for-performance? We think it would be a good idea because everyone wins” — Every now and then, the same question arises, again and again. If we apply the pay-per-click account management logic to an SEO consulting model, it’s easy to understand how someone can easily reach to this argument. But the reality is quite different. Usually (and unfortunately) there is a much higher number of variables involved in an organic optimisation effort.

But before we move ahead, it’s important to understand what really drives someone to suggest to work with SEO as pay-for-performance during a negotiation; there are several reasons. Among the most common are:

  • The client wants to be sure it will pay for results;
  • The client doesn’t have an allocated budget for SEO;
  • The client has a partial understanding of everything that is involved in SEO;

The client wants to be sure it will pay for results

Probably because they had bad experiences in the past. From dealing with SEO professionals, who sold their services with great fanfare, but in the end failed both in expectation alignment and the delivery of positive results.

The client doesn’t have an allocated budget for SEO

In pay-per-click it’s relatively easy to transform investment into a result. You invest X on one side and expect X+Y to come out on the other. Unfortunately, in SEO the scene changes slightly as the number of factors involved makes it more difficult to calculate a reliable prediction, or quantifying achievements and results. While this perception does not change, it will be difficult for SEO to get the same level of investment of a pay-per-click campaign in mostly any search engine.

The client has a partial understanding of everything that’s involved in SEO

This is usually by far the most common reason. The client is not aware of all the areas and business departments involved and influencing a good optimisation work. This “limited understanding” can arise for various reasons, however, by far the most common is linked to bad experiences or low value of deliverables with previous consultants. After all, many of the big digital marketing agencies continue selling SEO purely as keyword research, titles, meta descriptions and meta tags; or you know, just “link build it”. Transmitting a notion that SEO is a one-sided job and the need for a client-side effort will be mostly non-existent. Things will happen as if by magic, and in two or three weeks, the site will already be enjoying the best rankings in search engines! — Think again!

Why don’t I usually work SEO as pay-for-performance?

SEO work in the performance model is not as simple as it might seem.
 While in pay-per-click that might work because, in a way, you have direct control over what is displayed in Google’s sponsored search results and, at the same time, you don’t depend so much on IT to make necessary technical changes to increase your chances to achieve said results. In SEO, the dependence on third parties is much bigger and almost always inevitable.

Consider the following examples, and think about how this may influence the perception of quality of work for each side:

  • If the server where the site is hosted stops responding, or even if there’s a problem in the CDN? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If the domain suffers some kind of problem with the DNS? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If the recommendations are implemented at a slower than desirable rate? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If the recommendations are not 100% implemented? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If an error occurs after the implementation and homologation? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If the team Web Design or UX teams make changes without communicating, and they have a negative impact? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If the Web Analytics team implements a slow or conflicting tag? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If the sales team sets a product in the wrong way? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If Google changes the search results interface? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If the website has a history of bad practices and that hinders the recovery and overall performance? Does this disqualify my work?
  • If the website is hacked, infected with malware, or starts distributing phishing attacks? Does this disqualify my work?

I think you got the point. These are just a few, among a huge number of factors I like to raise whenever the topic “SEO as pay-for-performance” arises.

In general, working in an SEO as pay-for-performance model creates — especially on the client side, and even if unintentionally — a lack of commitment, or lack of interest, in making things work within the defined terms, because if that happens it usually means the SEO consultant will get paid fat bonus. But this is only one side of the coin, and perhaps even the smallest of problems. Many clients also ignore the fact that there are also plenty of pseudo-professionals ready and willing to say “yes” to everything just to close the deal, but in the end will aggressively pursue all means just to show results… Any results! Even if, in the near future, that kind of aggressive work results in a manual or algorithmic penalty on your site.

Just as there are ways to manipulate search results, there are quality guidelines that must be followed in order to avoid troubles and serious problems. However, not all professionals can recognise the limits on how far they can push. A professional (or even agency) working under a “give me performance, show me results” whip will not worry too much with what can happen to your site in the search results after the end of the contract, especially when this means they won’t get the bonus.

The SEO industry still has a questionable reputation — Yes, it was worse a few years ago. For a long time, a lot of professionals resorted to manipulative tactics to sell a service that was seen as “technical tricks and gimmicks”. Nowadays, if you want to achieve good and lasting results, one must include a strategic side, a deep knowledge of marketing, usability and technology; a holistic approach. SEO is no longer what we knew back in 2005. SEO in 2016 is, above all, digital presence.

I still want to work SEO as pay-for-performance

Right! It is possible that in some — very specific — cases it makes sense to work that way. But this is something that each of the parts (client and agency) must set according to the established goals. What I recommend here on the blog, and I describe above, is intended to only serve as a brainstorming exercise on what’s done or recommended in Digital Marketing in general and SEO in particular.

Remember that a working with SEO as pay-for-performance usually involves three essential things:

  1. A solid alignment of expectations and scope of work;
  2. A contract stating what will not be assessed, what will be evaluated and how;
  3. Good measurement tools (preferably always more than one), which will assess results and market potential — It is good to remember that a good performance work implies having a vision of the potential, not just the result.

Originally published at on June 23, 2016.

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