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  • Why Pay for Performance SEO Is a Bad Idea

    There’s a reason you want to practice search engine optimization (SEO).

    You want to see results.

    You might want to see higher keyword rankings. You might want to see higher rates of organic traffic. You might want to see higher revenue. You might want all three, and then some.

    So it makes sense that you want to pay for an SEO agency based not on what they do, but on what they help you achieve.

    On the surface, it’s quite sensible.

    But in reality, this approach – which we call “pay for performance” SEO – is a bad idea.

    In the short term, you might get exactly what you want.

    But in the long term, you’ll pay a hefty price.

    Let’s figure out why – and introduce a much better alternative.

    The Basics: What Is Pay for Performance SEO?

    As the name suggests, pay for performance SEO is a particular approach to SEO that requires clients to pay not for specific services or hours worked, but instead for results that are achieved.

    As an analogy, this would be like paying a professional basketball player a fixed amount for each point they score, rather than paying them a salary for the year.

    Generally, pay for performance SEO agencies charge you money based on their achievements in one or more of the following areas:

    •       Keyword rankings. Pay for performance SEO agencies usually prioritize keyword rankings, charging you based on the number of rank-one positions they achieve or the number of page-one rankings they achieve.
    •       Organic traffic. They may also charge you based on organic traffic, allowing you to pay only for organic traffic increases they measurably provide.
    •       Revenue. Some pay for performance SEO agencies go a step further and charge you based on additional revenue generated by their services. This is a bit harder to calculate, but it can still be done.

    The Understandable Allure of Pay-for-Performance SEO

    The general idea of pay for performance SEO makes logical sense.

    You can technically do SEO yourself, for free, and see decent results.

    So why should you pay money for an SEO agency that doesn’t bring you results?

    And why should you pay an absurd amount of money for an SEO agency that barely does better than you can?

    Pay for performance SEO is a meritocratic system that works in the interests of both parties using it, presumably.

    The SEO agency is inclined to attract and keep more clients, and clients are incentivized to seek these agencies, so they can ensure that their SEO investments pay off.

    If you’re only paying for measurable results, it’s impossible to waste your money.

    And if pay for performance SEO agencies are only making money when they achieve results, they must be doing good work.


    The Dark Side of Pay for Performance SEO

    Unfortunately, this type of system has a dark side – and quite an ugly one.

    The apparent appeal of this strategy rests on its incentive structure. On the surface, it looks like SEO agencies are incentivized, by this model, to produce the best possible results.

    But there’s an important caveat here. Pay for performance SEO agencies are incentivized to produce the best possible results within a given timeframe; they aren’t necessarily incentivized to seek results for the long term, nor are they incentivized to pursue sustainable SEO strategies or follow best practices. On top of that, if you’re paying one of these SEO agencies for achieving results in only one area, they may neglect other areas.

    It’s not hard to imagine examples of how this plays out – and we’ve even seen some of these examples in real life.

    Imagine that you pay a pay for performance SEO agency for each page-one ranking they help you achieve. But because of this incentive, they only go after extremely niche, long tail keyword phrases that have minimal search volume and traffic; as a result, your organic traffic doesn’t really increase.

    Imagine that you pay this type of agency based on the new organic traffic they send your way over the course of a few months. The agency builds a bunch of spammy links, skyrocketing your traffic, but eventually causing your rankings and your reputation to plummet.

    Imagine that you pay this agency for the revenue they generate for your brand. They optimize your website for conversions and produce a relentless stream of keyword-optimized content – but after a few months of decent revenue increases, your search rankings collapse and your customers begin to leave.

    Realistically, pay for performance isn’t inherently bad.

    It’s just associated with really bad outcomes when this type of agency exploits incentives in violation of best practices.

    And unfortunately, this happens a lot.

    And since today’s SEO is more difficult and complex than ever, it’s best to operate under the auspices of sustainability rather than get-ranked-quick gains.

    pay for performance SEO
    Pay-for-performance SEO tactics can create short-term wins at the expense of long-term, sustainable results.

    Pay for Performance SEO vs. Sustainable SEO

    The antithesis of pay for performance SEO is sustainable SEO.

    Sustainable SEO is designed to be followed and appreciated in perpetuity.

    It promotes white hat strategies, general best practices, and tactics that build a positive reputation and trust.

    In other words, sustainable SEO doesn’t care about immediate results or vanity metrics.

    In fact, practitioners of sustainable SEO don’t care about a few slow months; they’re more interested in the long-term benefits of doing things right.

    Does this mean all sustainable SEO practitioners are better than all pay for performance SEO practitioners?

    Not necessarily. You can find bad examples of the former and good examples of the latter.

    What’s important is that you realize pay for performance isn’t necessarily a good thing and should never be your sole determining factor when choosing an SEO agency. In fact, unless you have good reason to suspect otherwise, the pay for performance model should be considered a red flag.

    The Most Common Pay for Performance SEO Agency Tactics

    We’ll stress this again: pay for performance SEO isn’t always terrible, and pay for performance SEO agencies aren’t always bad.

    But many pay for performance SEO agencies engage in questionable, or even outright bad practices that end up sabotaging your brand reputation and setting you back years.

    These are some of the most notorious practices to watch for:

    • Valueless (but achievable) keywords. If you’re getting paid to rank for keywords and phrases, you’re naturally going to be incentivized to choose the keywords and phrases that are easiest to rank for. Unfortunately, these low competition keywords also tend to see low search volume – and may not even be relevant to your core strategy. Good SEO strategies focus on valuable keywords, rather than the most achievable low-hanging fruit.
    • Aggressive keyword stuffing. Keyword optimization is good, but keyword stuffing can sabotage your entire campaign. In a desperate effort to pump up keyword rankings temporarily, some pay for performance SEO agencies are willing to spam keywords and spam content indiscriminately. Sometimes, this can result in a quick and measurable increase in your rankings for those keywords. But it’s usually not long before Google catches on and you see a corresponding dip in those rankings. In some cases, these practices can compromise your reputation for years to come.
    • Private blog networks (PBNs). Private blog networks (PBNs) aren’t always a bad thing, but it’s easy to misuse them. With this strategy, pay for performance SEO agencies tap into an existing network of interconnected publishers, which are often owned by a single person or entity. Instead of publishing high quality content on relevant websites, they post mediocre articles on websites that will accept almost anything. Again, this is capable of giving you a short-term boost in brand visibility and measurable authority, but it’s not the right strategy for long-term gains.
    • Spammy link building. Other spammy link building practices can also benefit pay for performance SEO agencies, while serving as a detriment to your SEO strategy. Irrelevant links on questionable sources are going to bog down your reputation until you remove them.

    How to Find a Better SEO Agency

    So if you’re not supposed to work with pay for performance SEO agencies (or, at least, not the worst offenders in this category), what types of SEO agencies should you seek?

    Look for the following as you do your due diligence:

    • A focus on partnership. Good SEO agencies focus on partnership. This isn’t a churn and burn model; it’s two organizations working together for mutual gain. Any organization that simply wants to hit a number and leave isn’t going to be invested in your long-term prospects. A genuine partner is going to naturally optimize for long-term results.
    • Long-term contracts. Marketers and business owners everywhere understandably resent long-term contracts. But in the SEO industry, it only makes sense. If you do SEO right, it could take months, or even years before you see the best momentum from your efforts. If an SEO agency has a mandatory minimum engagement period, you can bet they understand this.
    • Realistic, achievable goals. Reliable SEO agencies also have realistic, achievable goals. They don’t promise a specific organic traffic number, nor do they guarantee specific rankings within a specified time period. They may use vague language when discussing results initially, but this is because SEO results aren’t concretely predictable. And when they start working with you to form more specific goals, they’re going to be realistic and avoid sensationalizing their own work.
    • Strategic transparency. Quality links are hard to build – and any competent SEO agency knows it. If you ask an SEO agency representative how they approach link building, they should have a complete and transparent answer. If they dodge the question, if they respond vaguely, or if they refuse to give you details about their methodology, it should raise your suspicions.
    • A good reputation in the industry. Word gets around in the SEO industry. You can often gauge the relative expertise of a given agency by seeing how they’re acknowledged and discussed by other SEO agencies. If a pay for performance SEO agency resorts to spammy, black hat tactics to get short-term results, you’ll probably hear about it somewhere.
    • Good reviews and testimonials. Similarly, it’s important to pay close attention to reviews and testimonials. Pay for performance SEO agencies often suffer from high client churn – but reliable agencies hold onto their satisfied clients in long-term partnerships.

    Work With a Great SEO Agency – Not a Pay-for-Performance SEO Agency

    Not to toot our own horn, but we happen to adhere to all the important pillars described above.

    With our SEO pricing, we don’t charge based on performance because we know that the strong, long-term planning and best practices necessary for sustainable SEO make it hard to see quick improvements to vanity metrics.

    When you work with SEO.co, you’ll get access to some of the top minds in the industry, and you’ll have an opportunity to finally outcompete the rivals who have made it difficult to get the visibility you need.

    Everything starts with a free consultation.

    If you’re ready to get started, contact us today!


    Chief Revenue Officer at SEO Company
    Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams for SEO (search engine optimization) services - including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing, assisting in everything from SEO for lawyers to complex technical SEO for Fortune 500 clients like Wiley, Box.com, Qualtrics and HP.

    Tim holds expertise in building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams.

    When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii.

    Over the years he's written for publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, ReadWrite and other highly respected online publications. Connect with Tim on Linkedin & Twitter.
    Timothy Carter