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The Unfortunate Truth about Pay-for-Performance SEO Companies

With the number of SEO companies popping up who seem to be saying the same thing and offering the same old SEO services, the pressure to stand out from the competition is mounting, and pay-for-performance (PFP) SEO services or pay per rank SEO is one way to do that.

Many business owners look at the PFP model as a reasonable way to do Google marketing. Why pay if you don’t get the results you want, right? Not entirely.

With Google constantly changing and expanding to understand the intentions of millions of users worldwide who utilize search engines every day, the landscape of SEO is rapidly changing too. Marketing experts are forced to become perpetual SEO students to have any chance of keeping up with it all. As they study this ever-complicated practice, they realize there are some hard truths emerging about SEO that challenge not only what they thought they understood about it but how it can be used to provide services for money.

When it comes to pay-per-performance Google SEO, many companies out there, reputable and otherwise, promise to optimize and highly-rank a submitted site. On top of that, they tell the client that they only have to pay them once for their services (once their goals are met). Sounds too good to be true, right?

That’s because it is.

The Unfortunate Truth Behind Pay-for-Performance SEO

Let’s start off by saying that we absolutely love the idea of digital marketing services on a pay-for-performance basis, but some things that sound good in theory have disastrous execution consequences; pay-for-performance SEO is one of them.

Here are the reasons why acquiring the services of pay-for-performance SEO companies is a bad idea.

They Use Traffic as a Success Metric

Many pay-for-performance SEO companies structure their success based on traffic increases to your website. There are a couple of issues with this:

  • First, traffic numbers can be easily manipulated using fake sources and users.
  • Second, traffic is only part of the equation for SEO success; conversions and experiences are the other two parts.

They Use Rankings as a Success Metric

While rankings are one part of the data set that should be analyzed monthly to determine the success of an SEO campaign, only tracking rankings can limit your understanding of SEO return on investment (ROI). Not to mention, PFP SEO firms often define rankings as “results” because they are easiest to manipulate for a while before the negative business impact starts to set in.

Poor Keyword Targeting

They claim they target your top four to five keywords that have the most value for driving traffic to your website. The reality is that they usually choose mid- to long-tail keywords that are easy to rank for but provide little value toward your bottom line numbers.

Pay-for-performance SEO companies often rely on tactics that sacrifice content quality for quick SEO rankings. Simply put, if a site has no value for your users, it can’t generate value for your business. This is true now more than ever as Google moves more toward utilizing user metrics to inform rankings.

Lack of Investment in Your Business

Though they probably won’t admit it, pay-for-performance SEO companies are focused on the short term. Providing short-term results allows these companies to get what they need quickly without putting in the time (or effort) to generate long-term ROI or invest in your business success. As a client, your attention should be on long-term performance; any marketing firm you hire should have a similar focus.

Sustainable results are never achieved overnight; remember this when a firm promises instant success. A smarter SEO strategy takes hard work, builds slowly, and improves over time. As the process is refined, the results tend to improve along with it.

Narrow Focus

A site’s ranking changes so rapidly that paying too much attention to that singular element can detract from the overall goal of the optimization project. The goal is to provide users with the highest quality content in hopes that it drives return visits to your site. Using rankings as the be-all, end-all to gauge a site’s performance misses the entire point of SEO.

Pricing Structure Is Confusing

It’s a natural instinct to only want to pay for a service that provides value. However, many SEO firms use deceptive pricing practices that can leave a client paying much more than expected. Reading the fine print often highlights the fact that many SEO firms have a broad definition of “performance.”

Secrets in SEO

Many PFP SEO companies will tell you they are reluctant to share their secrets for success. Well, that’s no surprise. When it comes to SEO, there are no legitimate secrets or shortcuts. Not only that, most search engines, Google, in particular, are transparent on methods that can be used to optimize websites for their engines.

Google Penalizes for Unscrupulous SEO Practices

There are several SEO tricks that, if used, will actually harm your site’s search engine standing with Google. And since Google sites make up two-thirds of all internet search traffic, that’s not a risk worth taking. These tactics aren’t new. In fact, they are tricks used years ago to bump a site to a higher position on a given search engine. While they may have worked then, the same isn’t true now.

Now, shady practices like the following will cost you:

  • Anchor text overdo
  • Article syndication
  • Cloaking
  • Comment spamming
  • Content duplication or spinning
  • Directory submission
  • Excessive internal linking
  • Fake social signals
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Low-quality backlinks
  • Thin content

How do you know if you’ve been penalized? Monitor your site’s progress. If you notice that the traffic you normally enjoy evaporates overnight, that is one symptom. If your site no longer ranks for its keywords or brand name, that is another very telling sign. If your page rank drops sharply or is completely removed from Google’s results cache, there’s a strong chance you’ve been penalized, and you’ll want to look into what steps to take to get back in good standing, including writing a reconsideration request.

Competition Is Fierce

Logically, there are only a limited number of top ten slots for websites in any given search. That makes competition fierce and big promises suspicious. Pay-for-performance agencies who say they can predict ROI for their services do so to offer a smokescreen to hide the truth from their clients. They can’t make such predictions to prove their services are working or not. Companies making such fantastic promises may be doing so because they need the business.

SEO is a Lot More Than Just Rank

The search engine rank of any website changes constantly, and focusing solely on that keeps one from seeing that it’s just one component of results-based SEO. SEO done correctly does so much more than help your site attain a higher ranking. Good SEO also promotes your website’s brand and visibility. Most searches only yield the top results, and if a prospective client keeps seeing your site in their results, curiosity will have them taking the next step. When you keep appearing in a visitor’s search results, your credibility is bolstered in a good way.

Read the Fine Print

If you’re still considering pay-for-results services, read over any agreements carefully. Vague and broad language about “performance” can lead to a larger bill than expected for results that were allegedly defined in the initial agreement you signed. Ask very specific questions about the results promised for set prices. It should be, in most cases, an interesting and educational conversation.

SEO is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Many pay-for-performance agencies advertise their SEO services from a short-term perspective; something for the right dollar amount that can be achieved quickly and easily. Nothing could be further from the truth. SEO is a long-term objective. The algorithms used for search engines are constantly changing and the wise site owner keeps up with those changes. With mobile technologies ever expanding in today’s market, SEO further changes to accommodate that. Add to all of this your competition and the constant need for fresh, relevant content, and you can easily see why SEO is anything but a short-term marketing effort.

Content is More Important Than Keywords

When it comes to results-based SEO, particularly for Google, remember that content is one of the most important factors in your efforts. While this isn’t new information, there’s a noticeable shift from keyword-focused content to natural, fresh, relevant content. Studies have proven that, on average, just over half of the top twenty queries on most searches use keywords in their titles, and less than half are using them in their H1 tags. This is a significant change in SEO practice from just a few years ago. With so many PFP SEO agencies out there heavily touting keywords, be aware that times are changing.

Rankings Are Easy to Achieve

Any pay-for-performance agencies that claim they can easily attain a high search engine ranking for your website need a closer look. Not only does it take a lot of time and great effort to rank a website on a given search engine, keep in mind there are only a limited number of spaces on the front page, so they can’t all be on there.

Queries as a Whole

These days, Google’s focus is on semantic search, which seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding the intent of individual searches and the contextual meaning of search phrases. Their recent algorithm, Hummingbird, was developed around semantic search. The concept is that when optimizing a site, the business needs to understand the language prospective clients might use to search for their products or services. Here, PFP SEO is risky because there is often no focus on intent or client desire at all but only on the keywords they think will do the job. But this is SEO from the past and doesn’t take into account the sophistication of today’s algorithms which look at an entire search query and try to answer, “What is the intent here?”

SEO Takes Time

When you pay for SEO results and are told you’ll see results practically overnight, beware. Successful SEO experts know that time is needed for their initial website and competitive audits, setup efforts, and baselines; then recommendations and adjustments are made, and it takes time to see if the changes were beneficial or not. It’s a process that takes time and builds over time.


When you pay for SEO results, mostly you’re paying for an outcome that can’t be guaranteed. If you acquire the services of a digital marketer or marketing agency, vet them thoroughly. Also, keep in mind, if they are reputable with a good track record,  they can only advise you on what you need to do to maintain or increase your traffic flow and search engine ranking. They can’t actually make this happen for you because they don’t know your business as well as you do.