What is Pay-for-Performance SEO?

    Pay-for-performance SEO or performance-based SEO, simply put, is a payment model where you only pay for the 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, traffic, or revenue. This may sound great — especially for those who have been burned by SEO agencies in the past. Only paying once you’ve hit certain target numbers and KPIs sounds very tempting as it seems like a no-lose situation. You’ll never have to deal with paying for poor results again! However, with anything that sounds too good to be true, there’s a level of risk involved that may not make it worth it.

    Are All Pay-for-Performance Agencies Shady?

    No, not all performance-based SEO agencies employ spammy techniques. I’ll be the first to admit that even amongst more “traditional” SEO agencies, you’ll find suspicious tactics. Ultimately, the issue with pay-for-performance agencies is the pay structure. It promotes quick results without any thought for repercussions. Couple this issue with your time, money, and website rankings, and it may be too much of a risk when evaluating SEO as a pay for results structure.

    Good SEO Takes Time

    Integrating a healthy SEO campaign with your company takes around 4-12 months. Since pay-for-performance agencies profit off of results, there’s a high likelihood that they may not make anything for up to a year. Due to this, many performance-driven agencies resort to “black hat SEO” or spammy techniques such as spinning content, over optimizing with exact-match anchor text, etc. These methods provide immediate, massive ranking bumps, and therefore achieving the metrics set forth in the contract and getting the agency paid. But eventually, this spammy activity will result in the website getting penalized by Google – virtually guaranteed. Penalizations range from dropping for several hundred keywords to a complete site de-indexation – not being able to find your website on Google’s search engine results pages. This is why good SEO takes time.

    Pay-for-Performance Tactic #1: Vanity Keywords

    One tactic that pay-for-performance agencies may use is only targeting extremely long-tailed, zero volume keywords to show quick growth to their clients. While targeting long-tailed keywords are good when a part of a larger keyword strategy, only focusing on the results in little conversions and traffic since there’s typically zero search volume for them.

    Pay-for-Performance Tactic #2: Keyword Stuffing

    Another tactic is keyword stuffing. This involves placing keywords that may or may not be thematically relevant in an unnatural manner on the page. Read the following sentence:

    Do you want custom candy? Our custom candy is handmade. We hand make custom candy. For custom candy that is handmade, contact us at

    You can tell that this isn’t a natural sentence and so can Google. Click here to learn more about keyword stuffing and other spammy techniques Google will penalize.

    Pay-for-Performance Tactic #3: Abusive Link Building & PBNs

    PBNs (private blog networks) are a controversial subject within the SEO industry. They typically consist of expired websites that people can either find or buy with the goal to send links to their own website. Since they were once live sites, they have accrued authority and can share link juice. People like them as they’re a shortcut for getting the exact number of high-quality backlinks you want without all of 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 as possible. When you get caught, you can expect to lose all of your first page rankings or even be sandboxed.

    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, a subsequent Google update dropped their keyword ranks to the lowest they’ve been in two years.

    This is why good SEO agencies require what may seem like long-term contracts. We need the time to run crawls, implement fixes, optimize the site, and make tweaks. We understand that 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 methods 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 on Results versus Partnerships

    One of the drivers of a successful SEO campaign 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 consultants and partners. This removes a lot of their value. There is also no active participation and little emotional investment between the two parties when the relationship is results-based. It may even inspire a “me versus you” or company versus agency relationship. Ask yourself what trust looks like to you and if this 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?

    1. Realistic Goals

    SEO agencies that guarantee first page rankings for specific keywords or incredible traffic growth overnight are lying to you. Like I mentioned before, SEO takes time. You won’t be able to rapidly achieve radical organic growth. Instead, aim for healthy growth over a few months time.

    2. Long-term Outlook

    Make sure to 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 harder objectives that take more time. 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 agency is doing 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 results SEO. Have a campaign sync call with the agency and make sure that everybody is on the same page regarding goals, methods, and understanding of the tactics. The best SEO agency should be able to thoroughly and easily explain their processes to someone that doesn’t have experience in SEO. If the gap cannot be bridged, think about possible next steps with a different agency. Read this article for more qualities to look for in a SEO agency!

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