You’ve probably seen ads like “Rank #1 in SERPs super fast and cheap by using our effective SEO tactics. Guaranteed!”
Tempting but suspicious, isn’t it? This is typically how pay-for-performance SEO agencies market their services.
These agencies sweet-talk about how they only charge clients after achieving what the client wants. But if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Let’s look at the pros and cons of results-based SEO—because aware means armed.
Pay-per-performance SEO: what kind of beast is it?
There are different pricing models in SEO, including:
- Monthly retainer, which is the monthly fee for the SEO package or separate services;
- Project-based fee, i.e., a predetermined cost of SEO services for the project;
- Hourly rates, meaning that the client pays for SEO services on an hour-by-hour basis.
But there is also one more pricing type to consider—a performance-based SEO program.
Pay-for-performance SEO (PFP) is a model where the client only pays if the agency fulfills their request. It can be ranking positions, traffic, leads, or anything else. You can negotiate almost anything SEO-related with pay-for-performance SEO companies.
Pay-on-results SEO pricing depends on your desired outcome. Two main metrics to look out for include traffic and keyword rankings. Here’s what you can expect after doing some market research:
- If you want to rank #1-2 for a particular keyword, be ready to pay $500-$550 when you get the result. Lower positions are slightly cheaper: #3-4 will cost you $400-$450, and #5-6 will cost about $300-$350.
- The cost of increasing daily traffic to your site depends on how many visitors you want. If you want 500 or more clients, expect to pay at least $1,000. If you’re shooting for 100 or more visits, the price may start at $650.
Let’s see how things stand with other pricing models:
- Monthly. Can be $1100 or more depending on the scope of provided services.
- Project-based. Can be $1500 or higher depending n the project’s complexity.
- Hourly. Typically ranges from $150-$350 per hour.
It’s no wonder PFP is still popular. At first glance, monthly, project-based, and hourly models appear higher in price. But looks can be deceiving.
In theory, pay-for-performance SEO should work just like traditional models. The agency should analyze your niche and competitors, research keywords, audit the site, analyze your backlink profile, perform on-page checks, and fulfill the improvements you asked for.
This model could work if the agency using it is well-renowned, uses sound SEO tactics, and they’re committed to your success.
(Spoiler: this usually isn’t the case.)
Pros of pay-for-performance SEO
There are two things many clients don’t like to hear when dealing with SEO service providers:
- SEO takes time
- There’s no 100% guarantee to get top results
Why would anyone spend their valuable resources on an agency that can’t even guarantee the results they want, right? It’s not that simple, but pay-for-performance SEO agencies would have you believe it is. These agencies promise quick results without any risks.
But let’s take a closer look at how PFP SEO companies address their clients’ pain points.
- Response to the “SEO takes time” statement
We all know that time is money. If SEO needs time to work, it also needs money to fuel it. If it takes a lot of time, then the investments increase. In the pay-for-performance SEO model, the emphasis shifts from time to results.
Agencies vouching for pay-on-results SEO say that their clients only pay for specific outcomes and not for the time the company spends working on their project.
This creates the illusion of saving money.
Pay-for-performance SEO companies also argue against SEO being a long-term process. They promise to “increase traffic in three weeks” or “get more leads in just one month,” etc. This approach creates a deceptive impression of quick results that is, however, not always correlated with quality.
- Response to the “there’s no 100% guarantee to get top results” statement
Everything is super simple here. If you get no results, you don’t pay. This way, pay-on-results SEO experts present their approach as risk-free. This is an enticing perk for website owners.
Pay-for-results SEO agencies also guarantee to their clients that they will achieve the agreed-upon results, sometimes within unrealistically set deadlines.
Using the magic word “guarantee” is a marketing trick. Agencies that use this word are trying to get you to believe that they are on the same side as you. They say they want to deliver the results you need ASAP.
But the depth of this goal is different for both sides. You want to take your site to the next level and increase profitability in the long run. The PFP agency wants to get paid for its services as soon as possible.
The “benefits” offered may seem convincing, but actions speak louder than words. Try to figure out what hides behind those beautiful words and loud promises. Not all pay-for-SEO-results companies are dishonest, but you should do a ton of research before putting your faith in one.
Cons of pay-for-performance SEO
Since pay-on-result SEO agencies usually want to get paid ASAP, they may resort to some shady tactics that bring on some short-term improvements. Consider the likely disadvantages of these tactics.
The result is a blurry concept
Performance-based SEO programs are almost entirely results-driven. And that’s the trap.
A pay-on-results SEO agency might help you achieve your surface-level goals. They may drive “important metrics” like traffic to your site but fail to consider page experience. PFP agencies won’t find effective ways to improve your UX and increase your conversion rate. You won’t be able to convert the traffic PFPs curate for you into leads because visitors won’t stay long enough for you to leave an impression on them.
It’s also debatable how “important” any SEO metric is to your company and your goals because there are other factors to consider. Pay-for-performance SEO companies might try to convince you that traffic and keywords are all you need to succeed. But other success metrics are worth tracking and reporting because you’ll achieve a good long-term result when all key metrics are pumped gradually and together.
Unproductive keyword targeting
Pay-for-performance SEO agencies may choose easy-to-target keywords instead of ones that match your marketing goals. These agencies typically use very specific medium and long-tail keywords with low search volume. The search volume metric shows how many times a month people search for your target keyword.
This doesn’t mean that long-tail keywords shouldn’t ever be used, but there’s a time and a place for everything.
Working with keywords is not just inserting a few words and phrases into the content and waiting for results to come. Trying to optimize your content for search engines without providing a valuable experience to your readers won’t take you very far either. Your content should always satisfy your readers’ end goals (intents). If you provide personable, easy-to-read, and useful content, your readers will reward you. They’ll buy your product and come back for more of your content.
Building topic relevance and creating quality content are long-term strategies that work. But these strategies are too labor-intensive and time-consuming for pay-for-performance SEO companies that want to deliver results fast and get paid.
There is nothing short-term about SEO. It takes time and dedication to see results. You should be wary of any agency that promises results overnight—even if they deliver. It’s likely that any results you see from the pay-per-results model will be fleeting at best.
The rewards for using time-consuming but ethical optimization practices instead are long-lasting.
The short-termness of pay-for-performance SEO can even hurt your business in the long run. But that is the price you must pay for relying only on the “expertise” of PFP agencies. They too often use not-so-clean methods to achieve the quick results they promise.
Black-hat SEO tactics
Some pay-on-results SEO companies use black-hat methods. These are unethical tactics that can lead to penalization by the search engine.
Some well-known black-hat methods include:
- Cloaking, i.e., displaying different content to users and search engines;
- Keyword stuffing, i.e., loading your content with keywords to manipulate the page’s ranking;
- Paid backlinks, i.e., purchasing and selling links just for the sake of a link;
- Plagiarized content, i.e., duplicate content or using someone else’s content as your own;
- Private Blog Networks, i.e., a group of websites used exclusively for building links.
Even if these tactics “work,” search engines are smart enough to detect them. Search engines won’t hesitate to penalize you for using them either. This will cause your site’s rankings to plummet or disappear from the search results altogether. You can fix this, but it will take time. It’s better not to get caught up in this mess in the first place because time means traffic.
Lack of transparency
SEO agencies that use standard payment models take the time to put themselves in your shoes. They help you define your low-level SEO goals, high-level business objectives, and suitable ways to achieve them through optimization for search engines. They show you how well their strategy is working by providing progress reports. PFP SEO agencies won’t do this because they’re more interested in getting paid.
Pay-for-performance SEO companies also use vague pricing policies. Good luck sifting through a maze of the unclear pricing information. You may end up paying more than you initially expected and even more than with traditional SEO pricing models.
No initial investment = no resources to ensure quality
Content quality is the name of the game when it comes to SEO success. Your content should be unique, fresh, and valuable to your client. This can take a lot of time if you’re doing it yourself. If you’re looking for good writers, you get what you pay for. Cheap labor typically means cheap results.
It’s a good practice to allocate 25-30% of your marketing budget to content marketing. But the US Small Business Administration recommends that companies that make less than $5 million a year in sales spend 7 to 8% of their gross income on marketing. But that’s still a lot of money.
It doesn’t matter how confident pay-on-results SEO agencies are about their pricing model. Requiring no initial investment is risky business. If you want quality content, you have to do your research and then invest in the company you choose. Paying the agency from the start is like giving them a handshake. You understand that you’re getting what you pay for, and the agency understands that they have an obligation to provide the services promised. Otherwise, who knows how your content is being produced or who is producing it.
Is performance-based SEO always bad?
It can be a viable option for websites that are authoritative in their niche. Maybe your popular website recently launched a new service or product, and you need to outsource your manpower to promote it. Be careful though. Pay-for-performance SEO can only be an additional approach to promote that specific part of your website.
It’s human nature to look for easier ways to achieve goals, but this doesn’t always work for SEO. Boosting traffic to your site and improving rankings, among other metrics, can take up a lot of time and resources since SEO is a complex, ongoing, and data-driven process that considers a holistic approach. But that’s your ticket to growing profits.
If you decide to work with a pay-on-results SEO agency, stay cautious and see how transparent the agency is. It might work out if you can discuss in detail your goals, tactics, reporting, and pricing.
Tips to avoid SEO scams
Good SEO improves your website and increases the number of customers and conversions. Many companies operating in the SEO market offer both traditional and pay-for-performance SEO plans. There are some reputable ones, but there are also lots of scammers. Watch out for agencies promising quick optimization. That’s the biggest red flag. Most agencies who make this promise are trying to “pump out” money from gullible customers.
Here are some tips on how to choose a contractor so you don’t run into a scammer:
- Check the company’s background
Read case studies and reviews about the company on third-party resources. You can also contact previous clients to get firsthand information.
- Avoid companies that guarantee results
There are no guarantees in SEO because there are many variables. Each market holds unique challenges, buyers have distinct needs, algorithms have rules that can be updated, etc. And the word “guarantee” is just a marketing ploy to attract more SEO clients.
- Check your potential contractor’s website performance
If their site is poorly optimized, then use that as a benchmark for what you can expect your site to look like.
- Talk to the company representative
The company should be transparent regarding processes, tactics, reporting, and pricing models. Talk to the company heads and ask all the questions you have.
And one more tip: study SEO. It will be easier for you to scope out shady agencies if you understand the basics of SEO.
Do you remember that ad from the article intro?
Here’s the updated version:
“Rank #1 in SERPs super fast, but short term, and cheap, but you may end up paying more than you expected by using our effective, but not always ethical, SEO tactics, which may get your site penalized. Guaranteed, but not for sure!”
This is more like the truth.
SEO paid-on results might look like an all-inclusive solution to your SEO concerns, but it isn’t. De facto, it can do more harm than good and might even charge you a heftier price than traditional SEO.
Don’t look for quick results and 100% guarantees if you’re trying to save money. Look for a transparent company with a clean portfolio. An ethical, patient, and resilient SEO company realizes that the road to SEO success isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.
Lack of transparency is a real issue here. Working with PFP agencies, you rarely get direct answers to questions, let alone tracking progress. Having tried it myself, I decided that this was not my way.
Can’t agree more, Amelia. The transparency of most PFP agencies ends as soon as the client starts figuring out the details.
Never thought about PFP SEO that way. Thanks for detailing all the cons of this model.
You’re welcome, James. We should always consider the flip side of the coin.