In a recent forum discussion someone asked what looked like a valid question. He said, “if I go to a mechanic and ask him to fix my car he will give me a price, but if I go to an SEO specialist and ask him or her to rank me top of Google, he or she can't give me a concrete cost – what kind of industry is this?”
There then followed lots of alternative analogies from said SEO specialists such as “SEO is more like surgery, you are told a price but then asked to sign a disclaimer that you won't sue if it goes pear shaped.”
The surgeon is a fair alternative to how SEO really works but the car mechanic analogy bugged me ... until now.
So why can a car mechanic give you a price for a specific job, and a SEO specialist can't?
The correct analogy
If your car won't go a mechanic can have a look at it, assess the problem and estimate a price to repair it. That's the same as a website that has a technical issue and won't launch or display correctly. A web designer can find the root problem and estimate a price to put it right.
However SEO is relative to your competition, not absolute to your current situation. I'll use the car analogy to explain this.
A car owner drives his auto-mobile up and down the highway and notices that he keeps getting passed by faster vehicles. He's not happy about this because he wants to be the fastest car on the road.
He notices most of the other cars can travel at up to 120 miles per hour while he only achieves 100 miles per hour.
So he goes to his mechanic and says “How can I be faster than everyone else”. The car mechanic looks at the engine and says, “Well if I make some changes you could get up to 130 mph, it will cost $1,000”.
“Perfect” thinks the car owner. That will make me the fastest car on the road. So he agrees to the price tag of $1,000.
At the same time many of the other car owners are talking to their mechanics because they are not happy that “almost everyone else can travel at the same speed”. Their mechanics look at their engines and announce they can increase top speeds to 150 mph for $2,000.
A week later all the cars return to the road and our original owner is very disappointed. He is still the slowest car on the road.
Without hesitation he goes back to his mechanic and vents his frustration that he has just paid $1,000 but he is still the slowest car on the road.
The mechanic, of course, tries to explain that he did not promise to produce the fastest car, only to increase the speed of this vehicle. But the customer is not listening.
The customer had said, “Make me the fastest car on the road”.
The mechanic had said, “I'll increase the top speed to 130mph”. And in that environment it was the equivalent to saying “You will be the fastest car on the road” because the other cars could only get up to 120 mph.
And so it is with SEO
In the world of search engine rankings you are all too often battling against webmasters who are carrying out their own search engine optimisation just as the other car owners were fine tuning their vehicles in the analogy above.
The owner of the Renault Formula One team cannot go to his mechanic and say “how much do I need to spend so that we can win” because the mechanic has no idea how much the competitors are spending to research new technologies.
So what can an Search Engine Optimisationer do?
Pretty much the same as the Formula One mechanic. They can make improvements to your website and to factors such as the back-link profile within the budget that you have. They can do all the things that “should” make your rankings go higher but despite all of this your rankings might stay static … or even drop!
Why? Because it depends on your competitors.
Well this brings on the question, why don't SEO practitioners go and check the competition first and then give you an accurate price depending on what they are doing in their optimisation work.
They can, many do, I do, large corporations have teams of people analysing just this. Needless to say it's very expensive to carry out this kind of detailed research. So you have a choice:
1) Pay $1,000 for SEO work that may work
2) Pay $5,000 for research and then $1,000 for SEO you know will work
These figures are provided as an example. Some companies spend millions watching what their competitors are up to. But they have to do it continually because what their competitors were doing yesterday could be different from today.
You have to remember that what your competitors are doing right now is not a guide as to what they will do in the future. While you are mulling over your SEO budget they may have just decided to treble their spend in search engine optimisation.
So when you conclude you need to spend $X to beat them, and they've just decided to start spending $X x 3 - your $X won't achieve your goal.
Complicated and Messy
Yes it is but no different to the daily battle Pepsi and Cola play to try and wipe each other off the earth. No advertising agency will tell them a fixed price for achieving their objective, no consultancy will guarantee them the elimination of their competitor, and no SEO practitioner will guarantee them a number one spot.
C'est la vie ...