Let’s face it; for the uneducated or inexperienced buyer of SEO services, the market is a minefield.

Conflicting messages, confusing language and a saturated market, where anybody from web designers to PR agencies ‘provide’ SEO, combine to make the journey of researching and recruiting SEO expertise a pretty treacherous one.

One thing that certainly doesn’t help the buyer of SEO services is the massive disparity in what you can pay for a service that, on the face of it, looks the same, along with the myriad of weird and wonderful remuneration models on offer from freelancers, consultants and agencies.

With that in mind, I’m going to take a look at a number of SEO payment models that, for me, don’t come under nearly enough scrutiny and why, in my view, they just don’t work in the context of today’s search landscape.

Fixed fee, quoted up-front

If you run a number of ‘SEO’ related searches on Google, you are likely to see adverts quoting fixed fees or packages. Frankly, bronze, silver and gold packages make my skin crawl. They commoditise a service which should be anything but.

To use an analogy, quoting for SEO upfront, based on a fixed fee model, is the equivalent of a builder proposing a fixed price for an extension without having set foot on the property.

Yet this is how a huge number of SEOs price up and sell their offering…upfront, with little or no understanding of the buyer’s business, sector, products, competitive landscape, internal resource or offline marketing activity.

But perhaps the most important factor in quoting for SEO, which is so often overlooked, is an understanding of the buyer’s financial objectives.

In my view, there should be a correlation between these financial objectives and the SEO budget required to meet them. For example, if you are a business turning over half a million pounds per annum but you want to grow that to £5m within three years, there are three main variables you can influence in order to get there:

  • Acquiring new customers.
  • The frequency of which those new and existing customers buy from you.
  • How much they spend on each transaction.

To acquire the customers in the first place, you are going to need to generate a certain volume of traffic. It is not an overly difficult calculation to work out how much traffic based on current (and projected) conversion rates and average order values.

With that traffic figure in mind, a good SEO will work with you to identify potential keyword targets to drive that volume, the level of competitiveness for those terms and the strategy and tactics that will need to be adopted to improve your search engine (and wider digital) presence for those terms.

I’ve kept things intentionally simple but you can see how some pretty basic math can be applied to make a more explicit link between commercial objectives, the SEO strategy to meet those objectives and, in turn, the budget required.

This is a world away from buying fixed fee, ‘off the shelf’ SEO packages that take no account of the needs, and more specifically the commercial objectives, of a business.

Pay-on-performance (based on rankings)

Run some more ‘SEO’ searches on Google and you’ll also see a raft of adverts with messages, such as:

  • ‘guaranteed rankings’
  • ‘no placement, no fee’
  • ‘paid only on rankings’

On the face of it, this seems like a great proposition from a buyer’s perspective and I have no issue with pay-on-performance models, per se.

However, I do question the validity of rankings being used as the foundation for that model.

This is for two reasons:

Take another look at those search results in Google. The majority of ads talk about rankings as if they are the end goal, the Holy Grail. Rubbish. Rankings are just a means to an end.

They mean very little if the rankings are for irrelevant keywords in the first place or if your website fails to convert the traffic that those rankings deliver. Yet, rankings remain the dominant message when searching for ‘SEO’ in Google, which, by default, has conditioned far too many buyers to view rankings as the end goal when, quite simply, they are not.

But what makes these models really quite useless is the fact that due to various factors, for example whether a searcher is logged in to their Google account, their location, search history or the device they are using to search, results will be personalised to the individual in some way.

Therefore, how can you base a commercial model on a metric that so readily fluctuates and differs between searchers? In turn, who determines, with absolute clarity, the position a particular keyword has achieved, of which the entire remuneration model is based.

Pay-on-performance models of this kind are out of touch with today’s search engine algorithms and more importantly fail to focus on the metrics that really matter, such as traffic, conversion rates, sales and repeat business.

Pay-on-performance (based on sales)

First things first, I’m not dismissing sales or revenue based pay-on-performance models out of hand. We work with a number of our clients in this way.

Instead, I’ll keep this one brief by simply making the point that these models are credible only if the tools, technologies and processes are in place to accurately attribute sales back to the SEO campaign.

In retail for example, a multitude of channels might be used by a prospect to research, compare, consider and finally make their purchase. The journey might take place over a number of days, weeks or even months. Search is therefore just one of a number of touch points that can contribute towards a sale.

Therefore, a critical component of a sales based, pay-on-performance model is a tool that can track this kind of complex user-journey, along with properly executed attribution modelling. This ensures that the role SEO has played in generating sales is fairly rewarded (or, on the other hand, not rewarded).

In short, the buyer must ensure they are not paying the agency for sales that would have been generated with or without the input of the SEO (sales driven via brand terms, for example) or sales that were actually driven by another marketing activity.

Consider this before committing to a sales based payment model for SEO services.

Anything less than £200 per month

For the purposes of this article I wrestled for a while on where the minimum fee level for SEO should sit (knowing it would no doubt cause some healthy debate).

Frankly, it doesn’t matter so much. I am simply trying to illustrate the point that now, more than ever, you really need to question what you are getting for your money when buying SEO services, especially in light of Google’s Panda and Penguin updates (the search giant’s most aggressive and well-publicised attempts at cleaning up their search results).

As such, many of the ‘stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ SEO solutions (which may have worked in the past) are under greater scrutiny today than at any other time in the ten years I’ve been in search.

Churning out keyword stuffed articles, mass submitting to thousands of directories or buying links, are all techniques which put you at greater risk if you are caught adopting them. They are also the techniques that tend to be pushed hardest at the lower end of the market where fake solutions and ‘snake oil’ SEO thrives.

Today’s search engine listings contain rich media content, such as images and video, and are influenced by factors such as locality, personal preferences and recommendations from your social connections. As such, SEO is not the stand alone discipline it arguably once was.

Instead, SEO strategies need to be underpinned by creative and engaging content, whilst being supported by social media and online PR. In short, SEO requires expertise across a multitude of disciplines to be truly effective, as I talked about last time around.

Does that advert offering SEO services for £149.99 sound as it it’s going to buy you what you really need to win in your competitive space? I strongly doubt it.

This is not to say that those SEOs charging just a few hundred pounds are out to rip you off. Neither am I saying that the more you spend, the less likely you are to have your fingers burnt. Life is not quite that simple.

A little research before beginning your search for an SEO provider will go a long way. There are enough great resources out there offering sound advice on SEO strategy, what to look for and what to avoid, including Econsultancy (of course!), Clickz, Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land, to name just a few.

A final bit of advice on this; avoid any email you receive with the words ‘SEO’, ‘rankings’, or ‘guarantee’ in the subject line. 99% of it will be spam or offering the kind of SEO solution you want to avoid. I know because I receive between 10 and 20 of these emails a day!

Conclusion

Since my first day in search, I have lived by the mantra ‘users first, search engine second’. In other words, anything you do to try and improve the visibility of your site in search results should also benefit the target audience.

Taking this theme further, I believe it is ‘experience’ that, in time, will separate the winners from the losers. Those businesses who deliver a superlative experience at every stage of the buying journey from awareness to advocacy will prosper. Those that don’t will fail. The role search plays in delivering that experience should not be underestimated.

With this in mind, I believe there is one question that a buyer of SEO services should ask themselves when considering an SEO proposition:

‘How will this approach or activity deliver a memorable & superior experience for my customers?’

Start with that question and you’ll be far less likely to buy SEO services that fail to meet your expectations.

Image courtesy of Jeremy Weate