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Empty SEO Promises – A Common Sales Ploy for Gullible Clients

Having learned the ropes of SEO, website construction, and how to sell on the battleground of the proverbial rat race, I have to admit one thing as I peer out from the trenches of today’s war zone: you can fool some of the people some of the time.

I’ve been running a marketing business for over 35 years. Of course, I went to college and have a degree in something totally unrelated, but what I know, I have learned in the school of hard knocks. I am not naturally gifted in salesmanship and lack some of the major requirements necessary for success. These would include self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-belief. However, in place of those missing attributes, I am proud to say I possess intelligence, the ability to express myself well and a keen talent for reading between the lines. In other words, I know when someone is lying.

So, when one of my clients of more than 32 years recently shared something with me, I was astounded that he could be so naive. Of course, he is neither in the business of SEO nor is he as savvy about it as I am. But, nonetheless, he made a rash decision about his network of companies based entirely on what he was being told.

In a nutshell, he was promised that if he allowed this competitor to do his company’s website for free, and sign up for a minimum of 90 days’ worth of SEO, they would guarantee that his company would receive up to 40 calls a month as a result.

This client had just asked me to update his corporate website to include pages to represent each of his twenty-two individual units nationwide, all aesthetically complementing the parent company’s branding and sophisticated navigation system which I had set up years ago. I had already put in a month on this project when this call came in.

He asked me to stop dead in my tracks and allow him a “short time” to determine whether they could fulfill their promises. Still reeling from this sucker-punch to the gut, my immediate reaction was to try to re-gain my composure and resume breathing.

For as long as I’ve been doing web work, I have struggled with deciding on the best way to sell such services. There are plans that sell by the page, sell by the year, sell by the bundle and sell by the outcome. Choosing to sell by a promised result, is in my opinion, a temptation to deceive – using what the client wants to hear as the irresistible bait.

My approach to sales in business has always been one of truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But, to be fair, perhaps this company in question can deliver the 40 calls per month. So let’s consider how they might do it.

Years ago, when websites were still new to the world, I had a mattress company as a client who decided to have the website I built represented on the Internet with a pay-per-click campaign. It didn’t take long, only a couple of days, in fact, for their agreed-upon budgetary quota to be completely exhausted by a barrage of clicks, but no ensuing business to speak of. How could this happen? Simple. It was their competitors who were clicking away on their pay-per-click links to sabotage their success. With no bankroll to engage in a lawsuit and no desire to continue in this cut-throat business, my client decided to pack up and move on. End of business.

This experience is the first that crosses my mind in considering the delivery of 40 calls per month. Perhaps they could hire people or get a bunch of associates or company employees to put in bogus calls to impersonate interested respondents. Since a call to my client’s business would necessitate formulating a detailed bid on time and materials, a lengthy, labor-intensive process, which could be nothing more than an exercise in futility should the “project” be fictitious or already promised to some other bidder, even several calls per month could prove prohibitive if no actual business follows. Truth be told.

Anyone who works in the field of SEO knows that there will be some search results that appear at the top of some lists depending on what terms are used with proximity to a regional center of need. So, just as the phone book can produce some calls with yellow page listings under a specific category, a website’s SEO can do the same thing. What perplexes me is the decision to predict a certain number of calls to expect. If the words “up to 40 calls per month” were used, then just one call could still fulfill the promise. Even if “an average of 40 calls per month” was the way it was promised, over a year’s period, that could possibly be achieved in a larger region, while albeit a more difficult feat.

In marketing, in financial investments, in horse-racing, no one can guarantee a result. We can describe possibilities of success and the odds of that happening. Other than that, no one has a crystal ball.

What spurred my client, an accomplished and distinguished individual with a history of success behind him, to fall for this claim? Greed? Desperation in this economy with scores of employees depending on their next paycheck?

Granted, there wasn’t much of a commitment in terms of expense so I had to agree that a gamble of this kind was fairly painless should it fail. All that would be lost would be more time and with our long-term relationship in reserve, he could easily re-engage me to complete the original project. He also confirmed that I would be paid for the work I had performed to date. (Follow-up: Received payment in full 2 days ago, I am happy to report.)

I reminded him that the “free” website could in itself require several months if not longer to put together before testing could begin. He didn’t think that would occur. (This episode began in March 2012 and it is now June 2012, which is 90 days on the nose, and after a quick Google search, I find no website for any of his units other than ones I have constructed.)

In the final analysis, it all comes down to semantics. I had priced my web work by the page since I know how many hours are involved in writing engaging text that not only sells the company’s services but is written in such a way as to capture search engine interest by using important keywords in paragraph composition; and how many hours would be devoted to utilizing new technology to avoid resorting to the dreaded flash animation (recently a victim of Apple Computer’s deliberate ban from its iPad, iPod, and iPhone) in favor of the beautifully performing and universally welcomed Jquery animation instead, with endless testing to check all-browser functionality. Google Analytics is brilliant in its detection of duplicated page titles and descriptions, which has taught me that I must describe each page in a different way while basically saying the same thing, in order to placate the search gods, writing to attract the robots with words that will represent how everyone on earth might search for this company.

This work takes hours upon hours yet is hardly recognized in its value by oblivious clients watching their bottom line. So when the word “free” is used to price web work, it’s no wonder a price-conscious client would jump at the opportunity.

My web work priced by the page includes the coveted SEO while the competition sold their SEO for big bucks and strings attached with the lowly web work thrown in for free. Apparently, how one presents what one is selling translates into the perceived value.

In my opinion, if clever SEO brings you to a poorly conceived website where visitors quickly lose interest because of a lack of organization, intelligence, or appeal, how brilliant was the overall marketing strategy? I am convinced that you need both: the right SEO which delivers you to an excellent website where visitors find what they need and respond accordingly.

However, since it has yet to be established whether this competitor can deliver both an effective website as well as the necessary SEO to produce the promised return on investment, they may very well out-do me on all fronts. We’ll see.

Still, another question lurks. Who profits more? The contractor selling web work by the page with SEO included or the competitor giving it away for free but charging dearly for the SEO? The answer depends on a number of things. If the contractor is a coward like me who avoids the client-intimidating, long-term contract strategy and charges a mere pittance by the page despite the inclusion of the highly-valued SEO, the edge of profit is a sparse and finite number, ending with the project’s completion. If the competition’s time-defined “strings” include a commission, a fee per click, or even a revenue-sharing clause tapping into new business brought in, all spelled out in a multi-page, legally-binding document, the potential for profit seems greater than the project-based package. That is, unless their SEO promises fall flat, failing to produce the results needed, souring the client’s expectations and ultimately rendering the demise of the relationship, regardless of how inextricable the contract may appear. If a client is unhappy, the contract only exacerbates that tragedy.

I admit that my failure here is in salesmanship: the inability to cloak my services in the emperor’s new clothes, by promising extraordinary results that a client hardly dreams possible. My preference is to do the work as excellently as I can, advising the client that even the most realistic of projections can be subject to gyration, keep the price in a tolerable range without any long-term commitments, and hope the future produces the impact my client desires most. While more modest in total amount billed, the project is done, I get paid and the client is free to move onto the next horizon, whether involving me or not. I know this is something my clients can live with.

While my decision to resign myself to a less profitable way of charging may seem to be a failed attempt at this highly competitive occupation, in the long run, I find it to be a more successful way to conduct business, since my clients regard me as their ally with their best interests in mind, rather than their enemy, out for my own good alone. And that is something I can live with.

About the author: Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing, based in Holmes, New York, has been developing strategies for business success for more than 35 years. A professional writer and graduate of Bard College, she has won numerous awards for excellence in marketing, photography, graphics and web design. As a specialist in branding, many of her clients rely on her expertise to manage their social media and public relations initiatives. In addition, she handles e-commerce for a number of online merchants not only on their own websites but through eBay, Amazon and others. View her work at

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