Page 1 Ranking Guarantees are Worthless

By James Mawson, October 2014

If you manage a business then you're probably getting a lot of phone calls from digital marketing agencies looking to sign you up to a 12 or 24 month contract for search engine optimisation services.

The sales patter usually includes some sort of ranking guarantee. The wording varies: it might be “we'll have you ranked number 1 within 90 days!” or “be on page 1 within 30 days” or whatever. One local outfit simply guarantees to have you “on search results of google” or “our SEO services are FREE until we succeed”.

So anyway, what's with these ranking guarantees? Can an SEO campaign from a cold-calling agency really deliver these sort of results, without fail? Is it all just a scam? The short answer to each of these questions is “they're hoping you'll be impressed”, “who cares? They're promising next to nothing”, and “sort of”.

If you only take one thing away from reading this, please let it be this: guarantees for a page 1 or position 1 ranking are worth absolutely nothing if they don't specify the phrase you'll be ranking for.

Not every page 1 ranking is valuable. Ranking on page 1 for “bacon sandwiches” will bring in vastly more traffic than ranking on page 1 for “phosphorus trioxide based reverse cycle fabric softener filtration systems”. Pig meat is wildly popular, but that other thing isn't even a thing. I just made it up.

It's extremely easy to get a website or page ranked for something if you're not at all fussy about what it's ranking for - if you don't care whether ranking will bring any traffic, or if that traffic has any value to your business. If Google has crawled your website then chances are it's ranked #1 for some combination of words already, although the ranking might never bring a single visit. In fact, it's kind of weird for an indexed website with some minimal amount of unique text content to not have a few #1 rankings that don't bring in any traffic. I totally expect this piece to rank #1 for that “phosphorus trioxide based reverse blah blah blah” nonsense I wrote earlier, because until some smart alec copies it, it'll be the only instance of that phrase on the internet. That's a #1 ranking that won't bring me any traffic, much less paying customers, but hey.. it's a #1 ranking!

Usually, the easiest thing to rank you for will be your business name. This is a useful ranking to have, sure. But most of the time it's a trivial achievement. If people are searching for your business by name, and that name is unique to you, then you're who they're looking for. Google's entire business depends on being the best at showing searchers what they're looking for, so they want you to rank for this. You don't have to twist their arm. You probably have this ranking already.

Occasionally a business trades with a name that could be construed as a more generic search. The search phrase “central vic meats”, for example, might be a search for a business called Central Vic Meats or it might be a search for butchers in central Victoria more generally. Depending on how competitive the other websites are, it might take some work to rank for the business name. But because these guarantees don't specify any particular keywords, it's no worries to put you at the results page for a different phrase. It's trivial to get a site ranked for something if you're not fussy about what it is.

If all else fails, there's always a search. Nobody can outrank you on that.

When an SEO consultant or agency offers you one of these page one ranking guarantees, they are gambling that you're not savvy enough to realise they're promising next to nothing. Technically they are not dishonest - what they are offering is not, in the strictest sense of the word, a lie.

And I sure ain't no lawyerologist, so I'll be careful not to use any words or phrases like “misleading”, “deceptive”, or “douchebag con artistry” to characterise these shenanigans.

What I will say though is this: when these guys write these guarantees, I think it's pretty clear they hope you'll picture results far grander than what they're actually offering. What they're actually offering doesn't amount to much. So it's nothing to be excited by. There's no marketing value in that.

What they want you to picture is your site sitting at the top of page 1 for one of the big keywords in your market. They want you to imagine yourself overwhelmed with a barrage of valuable clicks turning into customer enquiries, sales and sweet delicious cash. This is not what they're actually offering, but it's what they want you to think they're offering.

These are weasel words: they're written to appear to offer something substantial, but they don't. The results they guarantee are results you probably have already.

Why won't anyone offer guarantees for meaningful achievements?

There are some very good reasons for not offering guarantees on genuinely competitive keywords. No SEO practitioner has a perfect and complete knowledge of current search engine algorithms. These algorithms can and almost certainly will change mid-campaign, perhaps dramatically. Real SEO is also inherently competitive: it's not just about getting your web presence right, but about outdoing the competition, and there's no way to say for certain what your competitor are going to do.

But the good reasons aren't the only reasons. These guys who pound the phones and run banner ads aren't really in the business of chasing seriously competitive keywords. Wide ranging, constantly running telemarketing and pay-per-click ad campaigns cost a bit to run, so a huge chunk of your fee will be used not to promote your website but to annoy strangers at work. They'll probably do some SEO but it really won't take much to meet their obligations under the ranking guarantee. They'll probably also send you a gorgeous, immaculately formatted report showing all the long tail keywords you've moved from page 5 to page 3. If that's not good enough for youthen you'll be able to cancel once the 24 month minimum contract period is done.

As you can probably tell, I have a fairly dim view of ranking guarantees. But if you really want me to offer one for every SEO review that I do, try this:

I guarantee to have you ranking for an arbitrary phrase within a week of your site being indexed.

But much more importantly, I also guarantee to not waste your time or mine by pretending that really means anything.

Choosing the right SEO guy is a lot about deciding where to place your trust. You are hiring someone because he or she (hopefully) knows more about SEO than you. This knowledge gap can make it difficult to know who's the real deal and who's not. What you can do is spot the shameless operators who are trying to BS you. If someone tries to win you over with a mean and sneaky page 1 ranking guarantee, you now know not to be taken in. Move on. Find someone with integrity.

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