Can SEO Specialists Work On Commission?

As an SEO expert, I receive offers from companies and ambitious websites on a regular basis. A question that sometimes gets asked by prospective clients reaching out is ‘Can you work on commission, based on the performance of the website?’ and the answer to that question is… unfortunately not. And most SEO specialists will reply with the same answer. Here’s why…

This question doesn’t come up often but when it does I can completely understand why clients might believe it’s a good idea. If you genuinely believe in the impact of your SEO work then surely commission would be a great deal, right? And for the client it makes the process much more risk-free since they know they would only pay out once they’re seeing the tangible results of the project.

In theory it sounds like a sweet deal for all, but in reality that’s not really how it works...

SEO by Commission: An Unworkable Model

You see, the success of search optimisation is not independent. It can be highly effective when the niche, product, service, website and complimentary activities are all being managed well. Sometimes it can drag a website up through the rankings, but most of the time it relies on the company to be doing their bit to ensure SEO can thrive.

This explanation is multi-faceted so I will break it down into a range of dependencies:

Decision Making

When SEO Consultants recommend strategy changes, site restructures, content changes, style changes, CRO improvements or even changes to the brand, the company need to make the decision about whether or not to go ahead with those changes. Sometimes the recommendations are crucial to the success of the website, I once had a client who insisted on using lime green text on his ecommerce store which was obviously a bad idea, but it was he who had to live with the consequences, not me.

Furthermore, bigger companies or busy clients can sometimes take an age to make decisions. This is awful for making a big impact. If the SEO expert is in charge of the entire company, this could be done quickly, but the fact is that we have to go through the proper channels to get approval and this is unreliable, especially if our income depends on the ability to make such changes.

I once had a big name client who used jargon as part of their brand identity, included in the meta title. I recommended the client instead use terms that have search volume, the type of terms that users search for when looking for their type of company. Whilst they agreed, it took 6 months to be signed off by their brand team. Being such an authoritative company, the results of the change were significant, as expected. But do I want to wait 6 months to be paid for my work? Do I heck.

The Product/Service

I will happily help clients achieve more organic traffic to their website, but the product or service that they deliver is entirely managed by them, not me. I have no input into the offering and I most likely don’t really know anything about it. The responsibility for the quality of product or service is not my responsibility and I wouldn’t want my income to be held hostage by somebody else’s poor judgement.

Say, for example, I am helping an insurance company to attract more leads through organic search. I can certainly help them do that, but I cannot tell the client that they should make changes to the insurance policies that they offer, because I don’t know anything about that. But that might be the reason why customers aren’t converting. It would be totally out of my hands but yet my commission would rely on it. A bad deal for me.

Proper Management of Influencing Factors

There are loads of factors that influence the success of website optimisation. Some of this is completely off-site such as good PR and backlinks, whereas other elements require the client to properly manage aspects such as website development, hosting and content writing, for example. None of these are in my control but are crucial for the success of the site.

I do not offer PR or outreach as part of my services, but we know that backlinks and citations are a crucial part of SEO. It is entirely within the client’s responsibility to manage those elements, and if they don’t or they do a poor job, I would be the one that suffers.

Similarly, more often than not a website will need a whole host of new content, produced on a regular basis. Do they expect me to write regular, comprehensive articles every other day for free? That doesn’t tempting at all. They need to hire writers, and if they don’t manage this well, again, I would be the one that loses out.

SEO Specialists will very often recommend development work that needs to be done to fix crucial issues. The client needs to get these issues fixed by hiring a developer. Whether they do or don’t manage this correctly shouldn’t affect me personally, unless they were to pay on commission.

Other Marketing Channels

As we’ve mentioned, SEO does not exist independently of everything else. Granted, it is the most effective digital marketing strategy, and it is much more all-encompassing than other digital marketing methods, but that just means that integration with other existing activities is crucial.

SEO should compliment and thrive from an active company, it’s incredibly difficult to drag a website through the rankings relying solely on search engine optimisation. Granted, it can be done, but a company who is dynamic, innovative and active in all other departments is much more likely to succeed.

Furthermore, if other marketing activities aren’t consulting the SEO strategy first, these can be highly disruptive. PPC and social ads can be great complimentary marketing methods to SEO if they are integrated with one-another. If they’re not, then they can be causing a whole mess that will impact performance and ultimately my income if I am working on commission.

Time & Lack of Guarantee

Every single client should know that SEO takes time. If SEO was easy and quick then everyone would be doing it and SEO Consultants wouldn’t be charging such high prices. What’s more is that there is never a guarantee with SEO. We use experience, analysis, judgement and research to strategise what we think will work best, but it’s impossible to accurately predict the success of those strategies.

We can use every tool and insight in our arsenal to give the site the absolute best chance of ranking well, and we should be constantly tweaking, optimising and testing to keep pushing for those top positions. But all of this takes time, and we may not see results for quite a while.

This length of time and lack of guarantee is not an attractive proposition for an SEO Consultant. All-in-all, we will do everything in our power to help your site succeed, but there are huge amounts of additional factors that will ultimately determine how the site will progress.

Making a commitment

Whenever I am asked to work on commission I always say no and wish the client the best of luck. I also know that every well-established SEO Expert will also be turning down their offer, and if they do find somebody to work based on commission, they are unlikely to have very much experience.

In the end, you get what you pay for. I work with serious companies who understand the importance of investing in their website. As a reward, they see significant increases in traffic and, ultimately, conversions.

If I were to somehow also be able to have full control over the entire website, all marketing channels, all company decisions and the product/service then SEO commission would be a much better offer. But if I were to do that, then I may as well just run my own company instead of acting as the owner without receiving all the benefits of an owner.

So, you see, conducting SEO on a commission basis is really not a good deal for an SEO Specialist. Even though it sounds like a good idea to business owners, it’s really important to understand all of the dependencies that make this an unworkable situation for freelancers.

The solution? Pay an SEO consultant properly for their work, and hold up your end of the bargain with their recommendations. This is undoubtedly the difference between success and failure for a company who is powered by their website.

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