A topic often debated in SEO forums is that of what exactly an SEO should guarantee. To quote Google "Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a "special relationship" with Google or advertise a "priority submit" to Google. There is no priority submit for Google. In fact, the only way to submit a site to Google directly is through our Add URL page or by submitting a Sitemap and you can do this yourself at no cost whatsoever." More....
Google also suggest you should be wary of an SEO who "guarantees ranking, but only on obscure, long keyword phrases that you would get anyway". This one is used all the time.
If you want to check how much competition a search phrase really has ignore the number quoted when you carry out a simple search, instead put the search term in quotes like this "my search term". You could also add the intitle operator to find pages that use the phrase in their title, often considered a more accurate measure of exactly how many pages are chasing a phrase, like this - intitle:"my search term".
For example I recently saw an SEO demonstrating their ability by shouting about ranking number one in Google for the search phrase professional seo advice. They claimed there are over 2 million competing pages. In fact even on an open search there are only 340,000 pages. If you narrow the search down using quotes that drops to 1,120 pages and if you add the intitle: operator it drops to 55 pages.
It wouldn't be much of a claim to shout about being number one in Google for a search phrase with only 55 competing pages. It actually gets worse, the phrase has virtually no search volume so it's not worth ranking for anyway.
But I digress. If an SEO can't guarantee rankings what can they guarantee? Here's a list for starters.
- Remove technical barriers stopping pages from being indexed
- Ensure pages are well formed and use key SEO elements correctly
- Carry out keyword research to create an understanding of your market
- Install analytics software and help you interpret the results
- Provide a link building strategy for your site
- Work with you to get the most from your site
- Work on reducing bounce rates
- Work on increasing enquiries
- Write relevant content
- Be realistic about what can be achieved and when
There are many things an SEO can guarantee even if they can't guarantee rankings. Make sure you ask the right questions and treat the hiring of an seo just like any other professional service. If in doubt walk, if it sounds too good to be true it will be.