Why There Are Little to No SEO Case Studies Out There

Tommy McDonald

Originally from Ireland.. currently chasing the sun in Spain. I've been involved in the SEO industry in one form or other for the past 5 years.

You can find me rambling about my SEO experiences, theories & opinions on SerpLogic.com

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    This is a guest contribution to Ahrefs blog. Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ahrefs team.

    Have you noticed how few SEO case studies are really out there?

    I’m serious.

    Take a minute and think about the last time you saw a comprehensive SEO case study that showed traffic growth, website interaction, conversion metrics and most importantly, how much money the search marketing campaign brought in.

    You might recall seeing one at some point, but I’m willing to bet that most people reading this just said the following:

    Wow, he is right. I can’t think of the last time I saw something even close to that.”

    What do we see instead? Ranking reports.

    Every SEO company loves to show off ranking reports that show a bunch of keywords ranked in the top few positions. The keywords are always blurred out because they don’t want to expose their clients, their websites and their niches.

    Ranking reports alone don’t prove anything. Notice that no SEO agencies every show a ranking report and then also disclose the links that they used to achieve those rankings?

    Showing only ranking reports is useless, and this is why:

    • If you were to see the actual report, you would see that most of the top ranking keywords are brand terms, like the business name or the naked URL. These terms rank with just good onsite optimization. They are terms that usually don’t bring in buyers.
    • What if one of the keywords was at the number two position when the SEO company took the client on and it then moved to the top position after 8 months and only after the previous number one website was penalized. That number one ranking suddenly isn’t impressive at all when you know the true back story.
    • Keyword rankings don’t indicate that there is any money being made. They don’t prove that there were leads generated, phone calls placed, or that the SEO investment made the business any money.

    There are many reasons why we don’t see SEO case studies.

    Here are the most obvious reasons (hint: I saved the best for last):

    1. Most SEO providers are lazy

    It isn’t that most SEO companies are horrible at what they do, they are just lazy and don’t want to take the extra time to put together detailed case studies.

    The amount of businesses looking for a SEO company (or a new one because they got burned) is always going to be high. New businesses are started every single day and in order to compete you need an online presence, so SEO is in demand.

    Also, with so many bad providers out there it creates another huge segment, which is businesses seeking a new option because they either didn’t get the results they were promised or the company tanked their website.

    The SEO industry is booming, but personally I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to shy away from showcasing abilities with detailed case studies.

    2. Most SEO providers wouldn’t know an analytics report if it slapped them in the face

    This is a major problem. I recently consulted with a company that was looking for a new provider because they weren’t seeing any sales come in. The business owner told me:

    “I don’t understand it. The current SEO company is building our traffic up every month. We have been with them for 12 months and the first month we received 1,200 visitors and now we are at over 200,000 visitors a month but sales are almost nothing. It doesn’t make sense.”

    I thought he was exaggerating the traffic numbers. I assumed the SEO company was lying to him, but sure enough, those numbers were correct.

    But there was a big problem.

    Those 200,000 visitors from the previous month were all referral spam (here’s how to cure it btw).

    After all the fake traffic was filtered out the website was receiving about 80 visitors a month and the average time on the site was a few seconds and the bounce rate was at almost 100%.

    The sad reality is that this SEO company most likely wasn’t trying to pull one over on the client. They probably genuinely believed that they were doing a great job and increasing the traffic. Opening up Google Analytics and selecting the date range will show all the traffic numbers. They might have had an intern looking up this and entering that data into a report template.

    3. Most SEO providers only understand ranking reports

    This relates back to the fact that SEO companies are so stuck on ranking reports. It’s all they know. It takes zero effort to understand or analyze a ranking report. For example, a tool like ranktracker.com produces professional reports and the only thing you need to do is input the URL’s and keywords. It handles everything. The simpler the report, the less explaining that is required.

    Note from Tim: Ahrefs has a decent rank tracking tool as well.

    Any business owner can read a ranking report and understand what is going on.

    They see the keywords, the positions, the movement over the last month and the movement over the entire campaign. You could be completely oblivious to what SEO is and fully understand a ranking report.

    If an SEO company starts to put out detailed case studies that break down every aspect of how the SEO campaign improved the business it is going to spark a lot of questions from potential clients.

    • Can you do this for my business?
    • What kind of results should we expect? Similar to these?

    There isn’t a shortage of SEO customers, so why go through the trouble of putting a case study together? Because it shows that you actually give a crap about the client.

    If you want long term clients and want to stop scrambling to fill the holes when a client leaves, then start putting together case studies that show you understand how a business can justify paying your company money every month. It’s time for a major wake up call within the SEO industry.

    4. Most SEO providers don’t know how to structure and manage an SEO campaign because they outsource 100%

    How can someone put together a case study when they couldn’t rank a website to save their life?

    My company does the actual “work” for some of the largest SEO companies all over the world. They have huge advertising budgets and win awards for sales volume, but guess what?

    They don’t know SEO.

    They know how to sell and they have amazing sales teams, but if you told them that they needed to rank a local website in order to save their business they would be closing their doors.

    I know my company isn’t the only outsource provider in the game, but I do know one thing: we deliver great results, which allows our customers to keep selling and not have to use case studies to pull clients in. They are great sales people and they have a good partner doing the service.

    But what about those clueless companies that are reselling Fiverr gigs?

    If you knew how many SEO agencies that portray themselves as industry leaders are throwing together five gigs ($25) and charging their clients thousands of dollars a month it would blow you away. If someone is using Fiverr gigs, do you really think they understand SEO or even care enough to put together a case study? They can’t do it, therefore they don’t.

    5. Most SEO providers would be out of business if they put together a case study of their actual results

    This is the reality of the current SEO industry.

    There are far more disappointed and dissatisfied customers than there are happy customers that rave about their current SEO company. The fact that there are more bad companies than good SEO providers is the main reason this industry has a black eye.

    There are some small boutique agencies that have a few clients and they remain satisfied because they do very comprehensive work and do a hell of a lot more work than just blasting a link package at a website.

    These companies tend to fly under the radar. They aren’t spending millions of dollars on AdWords campaigns and they don’t have call centers or send out mass spam mail to sucker business owners in. They keep the same clients’ year after year and in the event that they are able to bring on one more there is usually a referral waiting and ready.

    The companies that come up in a Google search and the ones robocalling and email spamming are the ones that the unsuspecting business owners hire and they are the ones that either don’t care that they are providing a crap service or they don’t know any better.

    Either way, they aren’t in the position to put together a case study. The results would look like crap and showcasing their “work” would do more harm than good.

    6. Most SEO providers do not want to admit that they build links or sell links.

    Building links to game the search results is against Google’s terms of service.

    Want to know something?

    Every single SEO company is building links.

    Links that aren’t naturally occurring. Links that aren’t the outcome of “compelling content” and all of those other fancy terms.

    SEO companies have relationships with editors and writers to drop links and they all have their own private blog networks that they use to give their clients’ websites a boost in the SERPS. Nobody is going to come out and publicly admit to doing this.

    This is hands down the number one reason we don’t see a lot of case studies.

    Links are the most important SEO factor, yet no SEO company can admit this part in a case study.

    Imagine if a large SEO company published a thorough case study and mentioned that they paid a contributor on Forbes $1,000 for a link and dropped a few dozen links on their private blog network to get their results?

    Heads would spin and Matt Cutts would probably come back from his extended leave of absence.

    So, what is the answer?

    It really all boils down to the fact that there is a never ending supply of businesses that are seeking out SEO and unfortunately they don’t know what to look for or how to differentiate a good company from one that is going to take their money and underperform.

    So, it is ultimately up to the SEO companies to decide to rise above.

    With all this being said, it is time for a change within our industry.

    I’m in the process of launching a new personal blog, and I plan to fill it with real case studies that show the good, the bad and the ugly of SEO. I believe full transparency is the future of this industry and it starts with us.

    If you are in the SEO industry I encourage you to join me, and commit to producing more case studies. Together, we can help eliminate the “snake oil salesmen” label that some business owners automatically associate SEO companies with.

    When full transparency becomes the norm, it will push the low quality providers out of the picture. The cream will rise to the top and the bottom feeders will be left fighting for the scraps.

    This post might piss a lot of the self proclaimed “SEO gurus” off, but frankly, I don’t care. The only people this post will upset are the scam artists that don’t have a clue about SEO and those that are ruining websites and businesses rather than helping them.

    Let me know what you think of this post in the comment section. I welcome intelligent and well thought out SEO discussion any day.

    Tommy McDonald

    Originally from Ireland.. currently chasing the sun in Spain. I've been involved in the SEO industry in one form or other for the past 5 years.

    You can find me rambling about my SEO experiences, theories & opinions on SerpLogic.com

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    • Sam Barnes

      I’ve got to say I’ve seen a lot of this around…

      I’m glad to say I work for an agency that does published very detailed case studies that do actually cover real detail, and not just rankings!

      (Shocking that there are still people basing their reports on rankings alone!?)

      I know they drive real leads as well.

      I guess it’s all about making sure you show potential clients what could be possible without telling them directly what is possible. That’s the key to case studies in my opinion. We use them as a representation of what we’ve achieved in the past, not an example of what we can achieve for any particular prospective client.

      • Tommy McDonald

        Exactly Sam! This is what I’ve been just saying in the other comments here.. We don’t have to be giving them an exact step by step, link by link guide.. but compiling a detailed case study is still very doable while keeping sensitive info to ourselves.

        Clients want to be confident that the guys handling their work actually know what they’re doing, have a track record for doing it and are not afraid to show that.. Case studies are perfect for showing all of this and more.

    • Do you want to see test seo? followed #seopazzo on Google+. Very good article, telling the truth in many cases.

    • Dangiordanoco

      No way an SEO company would genuinely think that they are growing traffic for an entire year when 90% of the traffic is coming from seobuttons.com and buttons4u.com…

      • Ruan Smit

        Haha Had a good laugh reading this 😀

    • Ruan Smit

      I think most people are scared that they will lose their jobs when a dip in traffic appears (hence the vague reports)…but it comes down to not being able to read and analyse data. I had a client who’s traffic declined but revenue almost doubled just because I was removing all the noise and clutter and honing in on the theme of his site/services.

      It also comes down to people not understanding Google Analytics itself and where to look for different results (Like linking your Search Console with GA to get search queries tracked) and to see increase in impressions,click throughs on valid search terms, etc.

      Keep up the great articles!

      • Tommy McDonald

        Haha very true, we might have a lot of unemployed SEOs! But I do feel that we could be a lot more see through and compile detailed case studies while at the same time keeping “sensitive” company practices private.

        Thanks for the feedback 🙂

    • Matthew Davison

      Indeed… I just read it. Awesome article and you covered some really cool techniques I had not really thought of.

    • zohair sharif

      I guess there is one another fear that restricts the SEO’s from sharing their case studies is competition, the competitors can easily follow the steps and get closer, feels like giving competitors a road path, but honestly speaking any SEO with little analytical skills can easily gauge whats been done on the website, they can track their competitors link building tactics with Ahrefs tool, (the anchor texts used, the publishers, forums)

      So hiding all that doesn’t make sense now, in fact i agree with Tommy on this that by sharing successful SEO case studies you will increase your trust and it will also let you improve by eliminating the unnecessary work in future projects

      I am junior in this field with just 2 years of experience but constantly trying to grab good insights from experts like you:)
      looking forward for making case studies, keep up the great work!

      • Tommy McDonald

        Yeah that’s a very valid point.. although case studies can still be done without giving EXACT details away. No one would expect full disclosure, some of the “case studies” I have seen by agencies boil down to “we increased his traffic”.. which certainly doesn’t count as a case study.

        Exactly.. anyone even a little SEO savvy can find most of the links coming in to their site, so there is no sense in trying to hide it and that excuse is nonsense now.

        Thanks for the feedback man 🙂

        • Just looked on your site. Think since you offer packages from $250 per month we’re probably doing two quite different types of SEO to be honest. I used to work for an agency a few years back when we worked with small business, and it was a different ball game. Some of what you say will still work in those cases so I can see why you say as you do.

          Curious though, where are these case studies you mention? — nothing I can see on your site.

          • Tommy McDonald

            Well those are for forum and wholesale buyers most of those being “agencies”.. I’d call them marketing companies, they buy links and market SEO. We cater to a number of clients then on custom packages, you can also see that on the site. Some of those are in much higher price brackets.. so I do hear you.

            You can find some of my case studies on BHW. The site you are looking at is only just one of the projects I’m involved with. I’m currently working on a blog to ramble on, I’ll be working on some case studies there.. keep an eye out for it.

      • There seems to be some confusion. Our agency is not ‘scared’ of using case studies. We have them and we use them for pitching, etc… With permission of the business concerned.

        However, we don’t publish them. The only ones that do get published is when it’s to do with awards.

        The reason for this is not fear from our agency but client preferences about sharing their strategies. Yes, these could be uncovered with some work anyway, but it’s understandable I think, to not make that easier for competitor analysis.

        • zohair sharif

          Agreed, Clients should be asked as sometime’s they don’t want their competitor to know that they even invested on SEO, but on the other hand SEO;s want to share the success to inspire other businesses (maybe clients direct competitor too) to invest in SEO and gain benefits, in order to increase clientele.

          For this reason i would advise clients to be in contract for longer terms and don’t just end the contract if they have achieved the goal.

          Case studies however are the best way to inspire other businesses and even if the competitor of your client get to know what you doing, he cannot go with the same strategy easily, but i still agree that we should try to keep it ambiguous for competitors.

    • I did a case study not too long ago … not afraid to share different case studies https://www.seoplus.ca/blog/live-seo-case-study-ranking-a-lead-generation-website/

    • People tend to see the world in what they experience around them. I’m afraid that’s why the author feels that ‘most SEO providers’ do XYZ. But actually that’s not true. It means most providers he notices or comes across (especially as an admitted frequenter of BHW) are that way… that doesn’t speak for everyone else.

      Our agency has tonnes of SEO case studies, but like other such agencies we can’t publish most publicly because it’s against the client’s wishes and we’re usually under an NDA. Large brands do not want their strategies revealed to their competitors.

      Most SEO ‘providers’ I converse with stopped buying links pre-penguin because they already figured out it had a shelf life and was a poor long term strategy… and they’re all massively into their data, so expert with analytics, etc…

      If the author wishes to generalise about ‘most’ people of an industry including tens of thousands or more, he should probably walk in some different industry circles first. Personal experience is never representative of anything.

      • Tommy McDonald

        No not necessarily Steve.. While I do frequent those forums the majority of our business is done outside of them. We’re also used by some very large agencies that outsource most of their work to us. So I see a lot of sides of the industry and there is a lot more going on “around me” than you seem to think.

        Great.. But you don’t need to use a clients site though to do a case study. Set up some sites of your own then full disclosure is no issues.. right?

        People may claim not to be purchasing links, but I can tell you now they’re all still reaching in to their wallets and buying links hand over fist. This is huge business man and if you think it’s not going on then you are seriously misinformed.

        Again I’ve seen more of the industry than you seem to think..

        • The amount of time, resource, & funds required to replicate a large functioning site with existing brand and product awareness to make a relevant case study, which would also require other marketing channels active to show attribution and context would be crazy. Might as well suggest we make a new business and build it up for years to make a case study out of it. Might work for small business sites but that’s not what I’m referring to, and I can only assume that your suggestion to do that must mean it’s only what you’re referring to.

          Also, calling BS on non-link buying SEO merely demonstrates my point. If you genuinely believe that everyone’s doing it, when a vast number aren’t displays a somewhat cocooned view of the industry.

          I used to do it and know plenty who still do, but the majority who did, no longer do. And many agencies would not risk their clients in that way… not to mention many businesses are more clued up now and wouldn’t risk it themselves.

          Having done many link clean ups for companies that were penalised after link buying from previous agencies, I can assure you that they’re careful not to go down that same path again.

          • Tommy McDonald

            I think you’re over thinking it. We don’t have to build fortune 500 companies here to do a few case studies.

            A site can be built up over time, most large case studies I have followed have done just that.. updating them weekly or monthly. I’ve also written smaller ones myself targeting affiliate products. It’s all relevant.. it’s all showing clients what you can do and elements of how you do it.

            No not everyone of course not. There is some people out there that don’t. From what I’ve seen though.. A LOT have bought and continue to buy links.

            They buy links from all manor of sources. So I’m not necessarily talking low quality here that would end up with you penalized like you mention.

            Good luck getting a link on the likes of Forbes, Inc, HuffPo etc without getting your wallet out. Agencies are paying for these sorts of links all the time.

            • We manage it through creating original and newsworthy content, often with new data, and of course PR. Not in the sites you’ve mentioned there to-date but plenty of others of similar authority, and often smaller local or niche news sites.

              I’m afraid I still don’t see the point in building up our own sites for the sake of case studies. We simply don’t need to, so why bother.

            • Re the building of sites for case studies… since our clients tend to have hundreds of thousands of pages and are in highly competitive markets, we wouldn’t be able to replicate that very easily enough to make the case study relevant for them. In fact if we pitched to them with some site we built as a case study which bore no comparison to their size, they’d probably think we’re not right for them anyway.

            • Andy

              I have got links of both of those sites without paying — I do agree with the article. but i disagree about getting links from the top sites without paying, its hard and not as easy as getting the wallet out but it can be done.

              I even managed to get one from themetro to my personal blog site by having something useful on their, something a bit different

      • Damir Khamzin

        I think Steve and Tommy are both right. There is a huge presence of link buying and borderline blackhat tactics, and these are more effective at fooling clients and taking their money than providing good SEO. On the opposite end we have real OPM companies that actually do what it takes to help their clients achieve their goals.

        I think that educating the market for SEO services about SEO services is one of the biggest hurtles of the SEO industry. So many people just have no idea — and scoff when they see a quote — the reality hits them, and so they try to wander off the right path, and fall down a thicket and into the swamp, where the companies that Tommy describes dwell, waiting to prey on small and big business alike.

    • Agreed, to be successfully at SEO or anything you need to “LIKE” what you do and not care all about the money. Yes there is a lot of potential to make $$$$ but you will never offer the best services or have long term business if your just doing it for money. That being said if your doing SEO just for quick buck then its probably time to get out! And good post by the way!

    • Hi Tommy,

      Nice stuff, You have mention that point which are currently practice by numerous of company in term of SEO service vs top rank in Google SERP. I want to ask how do you think that you are different from search engine marketing ? while you are also selling traditional and only promotional SEO package. which is nothing more than lucrative some else

    • jaredsbanz

      Unfortunately, these are very valid points. It’s sickening when I read Forbes posts or other large sites and I can spot a “paid” link. To validate it, simply look up the author in LinkedIn and see if they freelance. Then look up the questionable link in Ahrefs and spot 10 other similar articles. It certainly changes your perspective on journalism.

      • Tommy McDonald

        Finally someone with a bit of sense and not afraid to speak it. This is big business man.. I’m not sure if the critics on this post are unaware or prefer it not spoken about 🙂

    • This SEO is now considering taking her business elsewhere. Why would I want to give my money to a company that thinks so little of what I do? That places more value on a piece of garbage linkbait than on understanding what honest SEOs need from them? Honestly, why would any of you? It’s appalling to see such a well-established company stooping so low.

    • This article is bang on. I used to offer up case studies and even disclosed publicly a few clients … until those clients started getting hit with negative SEO and all kinds of weird tactics.

      The industry is in for a change, what worked last year regarding PBNs does not work the same way today.

      Bloggers and publicity can be so openly bought right now it just comes down to systemizing and scalability.

      The web, and society (now with social media and everything shared) is developing a CREDIBILITY system. But it’s not there yet. And the SERPs certainly aren’t yet either.

    • a really great case Damir, I really wish there were more like this.

    • Case studies are good — but I don’t have the time to create them… I really don’t, and that sucks 🙁

    • Its kind of shame for low level SEO Firms.

    • Loved this article! Just about to put together some case studies myself (not just ranking reports!) and am excited to dig in deeper to my past projects and processes and get it on paper.

    • There are so many low quality SEO firms out there.Most of them overseas selling the same canned packages that do more harm than good and give us all a bad name.It’s funny that prospective clients are price shoppers thinking all SEO Gigs are the same.Great article!!

    • Very interesting article. There are very few actual case studies that I’ve seen that really show any kind of ROI for the client which is the whole purpose of Client SEO. Most agencies say they won’t disclose any of their proprietary tactics which usually means no verifiable case studies to show. I suppose the only real proof of skills an agency can show is to rank first in your local area for SEO for an extended period of time.

    • Most of companies don’t want to disclose any of their proprietary tactics. They are just showing rank position in search engine to their clients.