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Why You Should Avoid Pay-for-Performance SEO

Tempted by those pay-for-performance SEO companies promising results? You know the saying: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you’re speaking to an SEO agency and they tell you they guarantee positive results or that you’ll only pay for results — read this before you commit to anything.

Feb 24, 2024

6 m read

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a complicated digital marketing strategy, to say the least. So what should you make of SEO firms that offer a pay-for-performance model? If you’ve stumbled upon an agency that heralds their pay-for-results SEO, educate yourself on their practices and how they may impact your long-term SEO performance. 

What Is Pay-for-Performance SEO?

Pay-for-performance SEO or performance-based SEO is a payment model where you only pay for SEO once you see certain results. Agencies that offer this type of SEO service typically focus on setting goals based on first-page keyword rankings, organic website traffic, or revenue. 

This may sound great — especially for those who’ve been burned by SEO agencies in the past. Only paying once you’ve hit specific target numbers and KPIs sounds like a no-lose situation. You’ll never have to pay for poor results again, right? However, there’s an inherent level of risk involved that may not make it worth it — and may actually negatively impact your future SEO performance.

Are All Pay-for-Performance (PFP) Agencies Shady?

No, not all performance-based SEO agencies employ black hat SEO tactics or somehow attempt to game Google. Nor are all “traditional” SEO agencies on the up and up. 

Ultimately, the issue with pay-for-performance agencies and the PFP SEO model is the pay structure. It promotes quick results without any thought to repercussions or sustainability. Securing those rapid gains could create problems down the line and could jeopardize the time and money you spent acquiring them. Plus, the methods used could impact future website rankings, making it harder for your to climb back up the rankings.

Performance-based SEO pricing often raises more questions than it answers. Learn more about the cost of SEO to see how a more traditional model compares and the hard work and dedication it takes to run such a campaign.

Good SEO Takes Time

Getting a healthy SEO campaign off the ground and integrating it into your marketing strategy takes around 4-12 months. If, however, one’s income is tied to results (as is the case for pay-for-performance agencies), it may be tempting to resort to “black hat SEO” or spammy techniques such as spinning content, over-optimizing with exact-match anchor text, keyword stuffing, etc. 

These methods can provide immediate, massive ranking bumps and achieve the metrics outlined in the contract so the PFP agency gets paid. But eventually, it’s practically guaranteed that this spammy activity will result in a Google penalty.

There are various types of Google penalties, and their consequences can range from a drop in rankings for several hundred keywords to a complete site de-indexation – i.e., the removal of your website from Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs). 

If it feels like I’m coming on strong, I apologize. I worry about the impact that pay-for-results agencies have on trusting businesses. Everything I’ve learned about SEO points to the fact that good SEO takes time — anyone who tells you otherwise is willing to gamble with your website and risk your business.

Pay-For-Performance SEO Agency Tactics

Sneaky pay-for-performance SEO tactics can make it seem like your site is performing well in organic search results — at least in the short term. If you speak with a pay-on-results SEO agency that engages in any of the following, consider whether the potential consequences are worth the promise of quick results.

Tactic #1: Vanity Keywords

One tactic pay-for-performance agencies may use is to only target extremely long-tail, zero-volume keywords to show quick growth to their clients. While targeting long-tail keywords is good when a part of a larger keyword strategy, solely focusing on them results in few conversions and little organic traffic since they typically have zero search volume. Yes, targeting zero-search-volume keywords can be valuable as part of a comprehensive SEO campaign. However, going after them without targeting higher-volume keywords will result in inflated keyword rankings without a corresponding jump in traffic.

Tactic #2: Keyword Stuffing

Performance-based SEO services may also engage in keyword stuffing. This involves placing keywords that may or may not be thematically relevant on the page. There’s a good chance you’ve come across this. It generally reads unnaturally to both site visitors and search engine bots. 

Here’s an example:

Do you want custom candy? Our custom candy is handmade. We hand-make custom candy. For custom candy that is handmade, contact us at [email protected].

You can tell this isn’t a natural paragraph, and so can Googlebot

Tactic #3: Abusive Link Building & PBNs

Private blog networks (PBNs) are a controversial subject within the SEO industry. They typically consist of expired websites that people can either find or buy with the goal of sending links to their own websites. Since they were once live sites, they’ve accrued domain authority and can share link equity. People like PBNs because they’re a shortcut for getting the exact number of high-quality backlinks you want without all the hard work. And, since you own the site, you have complete control over the anchor text and surrounding content.

As private blog networks got popular, a different type of PBN appeared: public blog networks. Now, anyone could purchase a link through a PBN with little effort and some spare change. However, at the tail end of 2014, Google severely hit PBNs and deindexed hundreds, if not thousands, of participants. Even after this scare, PBNs are still widely used to this day, but the question regarding them isn’t what if Google penalizes me, it’s when.

It’s easy for someone to trace a purchased link to a public blog network, making it very risky. Not to mention that the learning curve for navigating the world of PBNs (public or private) is steep and expensive if you want to do it with the least amount of risk possible. When you get caught, you can expect to lose all of your first page rankings or even be sandboxed.

Steer Clear of Shady SEO

To see an example of the effect of shady SEO tactics, look at the graph below. A previous prospect of ours decided to work with a performance-based agency, and while they saw quick growth at first, a subsequent update dropped their keyword ranks to the lowest they’d been in two years.

pay per results seo

Those quick wins felt great in the short term, but ultimately, the prospect felt betrayed by the pay-on-results SEO company.

This is why good SEO agencies require what may seem like long-term contracts. We need the time to conduct keyword research, run audits, implement fixes, optimize the site, and make tweaks to continually improve performance. 

I know it can be frustrating when you’re two months into a six-month campaign and the results aren’t where you want them to be. However, good SEO takes time. Without contracts, agencies would feel pressured to resort to quick and dirty black hat SEO tactics to make any money. You’d see results like the graph above. 

Instead, what good SEO agencies provide to their customers is sustainable and healthy growth with contracts that help them stay accountable to their goals.

Pay-Per-Results SEO vs. Partnerships

One of the drivers of successful SEO campaigns is working with your agency like they’re your partner. When you focus only on results, you strip your SEO agency of being able to serve as a consultant and partner. This removes a lot of their value. 

When a relationship is centered around results-based SEO, there’s no active participation and little emotional investment between the two parties. It may even inspire an adversarial “me versus you” or company versus agency relationship. 

Ask yourself what trust looks like to you and whether the paid-on-results SEO model inspires trust within you. If it doesn’t, don’t pursue a relationship with an agency that fits that mold.

What Should You Look For in an SEO Agency?

Looking to boost your search visibility on Google and other search engines? Want to drive more organic traffic to your high-value pages? 

1. Realistic Goals

Sorry to be blunt, but SEO agencies that guarantee first-page rankings for specific keywords or incredible traffic growth overnight are lying to you. As I mentioned before, SEO takes time. You won’t be able to rapidly achieve radical organic growth without putting in the work. Instead, aim for healthy growth over a few months. 

Consistent growth built with data-driven SEO strategies is more sustainable and will be better able to weather Google algorithm updates. Pay-on-performance SEO simply doesn’t deliver in the long term. 

2. Long-Term Outlook

Find an agency that focuses on both short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals are necessary to set the foundation for reaching those more complicated objectives that take more time. After all, if you’re just getting started with SEO, you can’t expect to immediately rank in the top spot.

When an agency focuses on the long-term, you know that they’re not in it for just a quick buck. They value your trust and the relationship between the two parties.

3. Total Transparency

It’s not normal to be confused about what your SEO company does for you. If you don’t see the value of their work or they constantly throw around buzzwords that ultimately don’t mean much, it’s time to reevaluate your partnership or pay-on-result SEO. 

Have a campaign sync call with the agency and make sure everybody is on the same page regarding goals, methods, and understanding of the tactics. Also, look around their website to see if they offer educational resources to help you shore up your SEO knowledge.

The best SEO agency should be able to thoroughly and easily explain their processes to someone that doesn’t have experience in SEO. If you can’t bridge the gap, think about possible next steps with a different agency. 

4. History of Successful Collaboration

Any agency you consider partnering with should be able to point to their successes and share them with you. Case studies are critical for highlighting an agency’s tactics and showcasing how they work with their customers. Read SEO case studies to uncover how they approach problems and apply solutions.

Connect With a Partner 

The best SEO agencies don’t make pie-in-the-sky promises — they offer data-driven SEO strategies that are built on sound principles and previous results. If you want to improve your search engine ranking, know that it will take time, but when done correctly, the results will pay off in dividends. Connect with a true partner committed to your long-term success. Learn more about how Victorious supports its customers with comprehensive SEO strategies built around their goals and needs — schedule a free SEO consultation today. 

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