By Lynn Evans
Some weeks ago I received a cold call from a search engine optimization (SEO) company. The pitch was a simple one: They would get my company’s website to the top of Google within six months or my money back.
Normally, I give these calls short shrift. I tell the caller I'm not interested, and gently put the phone down (but I do try to be polite).
This time, I happened to have a few minutes to spare, so I thought I'd at least hear him out. The result was an interesting conversation, and one with some lessons for anyone who might be approached in this way by an SEO firm.
In this case, the caller was saying that they would optimize our site, and bill us up front for doing so. If the site didn't reach the top of Google within six months, they would refund every penny of the fee.
But what does that mean?
Since the aforementioned fee would be a reasonably large sum, I thought it sensible for the caller to spell out the precise terms of the offer. In particular, what exactly did he mean by "the top of Google"? Most people would understand that to mean just what it says: the #1 position in Google's search results. But, with just a hint of reluctance, the caller said that they took it to mean, not the first position, but the first page.
Well, even getting to the first page in Google would be a good outcome. Or would it? By default, a Google results page shows ten sites. But searchers can configure Google to show 20, 30 or even 50 results per page. Being in the first page is not very useful if there are 49 competing sites above yours.
He assured me that, when he said the first page, he meant the first ten sites. That's fine. But I still felt that the definition was misleading. Was he talking about the first page in google.com? Or in google.ca, google.co.uk, or any of scores of other Google properties around the world? And what if personal or interest-based search results (such as "Google Search Plus Your World ") came into play? That could have a big effect on the results.
My point was that, even if I saw my site on that top page, it wouldn't necessarily mean that other people would. There are many reasons for people to see different results for identical search terms. These include geo-targeting, and whether the searcher was signed into a Google+ account. Even then, the results can fluctuate from day to day or even hour to hour.
It was clear from the discussion that my caller was completely unaware of these issues - a very telling point, given that he claimed to be an SEO expert.
Choosing the keywords
So we moved on to my next question: Who would determine the keywords that they would target when optimizing our site?
It's relatively easy to get to the top of Google if you don't care what keywords your searchers specify. Just add any obscure combination of words to your page. Then search for those exact words. The chances are that you'll see your page at or near the top of the results. But what use is that? There's no point in scoring well for keywords that nobody is going to search for in the real world. What’s important are the words or phrases that will actually be used by your potential customers when looking for your products.
This was no problem, he assured me. The keywords that they would target would be whatever words or phrases I cared to specify. Did that include highly competitive phrases like "cheap car insurance" or "mortgage without credit history"? Yes, he replied, I only needed to let him know my chosen words or phrases, and they would deliver.
Does that sound a bit too good to be true? It did to me.
Never mind. Let's assume that they would get us to the top ten positions in google.com for the keywords that are most important to us, regardless of how competitive those words are. So how exactly would their money-back guarantee work?
That was simple, he said. Six months after they finished optimizing the site, we would check Google every day. If we didn't see our site in the first page at any time during the month, they would refund the entire fee.
That seemed clear enough. But what if we reached the first page in the sixth month, but we dropped out again in Month 7? Oh, there was no need to worry about that, he insisted. Once a site gets to the top of Google, it will stay there. It can only go up. It can't go down.
I do assure you that you read that last paragraph correctly, and it represents exactly what the caller said. If I had any sneaking suspicions that this guy might actually be a competent SEO practitioner, that remark banished them for good. In fact, not only did he clearly lack knowledge of search engines, he seemed to be in want of basic common sense as well. The fact that a site can only go up in rank by pushing another site down seems never to have occurred to him.
Let me be clear about the point I'm making here. If you receive a sales pitch from an SEO firm, I'm not saying that the people in question will be incompetent idiots. On the contrary, there are many fine search engine consultants around who know what they're talking about and will give good value for money. Choose a firm carefully, listen to what they say, and the chances are that you will see an improvement in your rankings.
But do ask some searching questions during the initial discussions. Make sure they understand the issues, and they are not offering something that is totally unrealistic.
Above all, beware of money-back guarantees. In the search engine world, it is simply impossible to guarantee any particular outcome. There are too many factors involved, many of which are outside your control. After all, if there was a sure-fire way of reaching the top in Google, we would all have been doing it for years.
Needless to say, I didn't go any further with this particular cold caller. And, it seems, nor did anyone else. Before writing this post, I did a quick search for the firm on Google, but they are no longer anywhere to be seen. Why aren't I surprised?