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April 6, 2007

Systematic Theft – One SEO Firm’s “Nasty Surprise”

Let’s face it – any search engine optimization company knows that the industry has carried a collective black eye for many years. This is unfortunate, because there are many firms out there that do outstanding work and who must struggle for simple legitimacy simply because there are so many fly-by-night companies and snake oil salesmen out there.

This is compounded by the fact that the sleazebag outfits are almost always less expensive than legitimate firms, so that a price-sensitive company’s first experience with a search engine optimization company will likely be a negative one. They may see no results at all, or the shady firm may actually get the site penalized on search engines by using unacceptable tactics. Paying a search engine optimization company to get your site penalized is much like paying an auto mechanic to take a blowtorch to your car’s gas tank, except you don’t get to see the cool explosion — and the bad search engine optimization company, unlike the charbroiled mechanic, generally escapes unscathed.

There is, however, yet another way for a search engine optimization company to earn a negative reputation – by stealing from other, legitimate search engine optimization companies. What follows is a scenario that recently happened to my company.

A man (we’ll call him “Mario Vargas”) approached my search engine optimization company, claiming to be a potential prospect and asking for proposals and sales materials. Since he had an email address from what appeared to be a legitimate website in California, we eventually complied. After some time, “Mario” finally said that his company had decided to go in another direction, even though he had “recommended” us.

Soon after, another prospect of ours (this one actually real) let us know that they had received a proposal from another search engine optimization company in Atlanta, and that this proposal was exactly the same as ours, except that the logos had been changed.

As it turns out, Mario had misrepresented himself to us in order to get our materials, since he was opening up a search engine optimization company in Atlanta. This alone is not particularly disturbing – companies do it all the time, and imitation is the sincerest (albeit most annoying) form of flattery. What is disturbing is that he re-branded our proposal without changing hardly a word. Particularly vexing is the fact that he was so clever about the way he went about stealing our materials but was so monumentally dumb that he never considered that we may pitch the same prospect someday.

Mario has a new website that has a blog on which he boasts about how he is going to crush his Atlanta competition, and how that will be a nasty surprise to us all. His blog certainly has some nasty surprises – I recently wrote an article about resource areas on websites and why they are important. The day after that article went public, there was a new article posted on his blog about – you guessed it – resource areas on websites and why they are important. There’s that annoying flattery thing again.

What is the lesson to be learned? Well, for one, that Mario may have skipped his Business Ethics classes. More importantly:

  • I am not a lawyer, but I recommend that you copyright all of the materials on your website, your proposals, and your sales materials. Do it before you make them public. If someone copies your materials and you have the official copyright (and the person is worth anything) you will likely get a lawyer to take the case on contingency.
  • Use a service like CopyScape (www.copyscape.com) to regularly monitor your website and make sure that others are not plagiarizing from you. When you find plagiarism, and you own the copyright, you again may be able to get an attorney on contingency.
  • Do regular searches on your company name and your trademarks. Many people get unpleasant surprises when they see how their company is being misrepresented on competitor sites, or how their competitors are using trademark names eerily similar to theirs.
  • If you can afford it, run Dun and Bradstreet checks on all the businesses that solicit your business. Further, call the business personally and verify that the person who originally contacted you does indeed work there.

These are just a few things that you can do to protect your materials, trademarks, and brand, whether you are a search engine optimization company or you run any other sort of business. For more detailed advice I would suggest speaking with an attorney that specializes in this type of infringement (as I have).

So where did we leave things with Mario? After my attorney sent him a cease and desist letter, we turned the tables, went undercover ourselves, and solicited a proposal from him. The proposal he came back with was substantially different than the original, but still used much of our content verbatim.

The Atlanta SEO community is a small one, and the ethical SEO practitioners stick together. Even though we are competitors, we recognize that there is plenty of business out there and that it is in our best interest to attempt to raise the bar in the industry. My company put some feelers out and discovered that Mario had stolen not only our materials but also materials from at least four other firms (using the same premise). The additional materials in the second proposal we had seen from Mario were copied verbatim from another search engine optimization company. Mario didn’t appear to be getting any smarter – in fact, he was weaving a larger, more dangerous web of ineptitude.

Using only known facts, we informed every search engine optimization company in town exactly what we knew – that there was a new company in Atlanta that was stealing proprietary materials and using them to try to get clients, sometimes going up against the very firms from whence the materials were derived (in these cases, as you may suspect, Mario doesn’t do so well).

I could sue Mario, but a quick check reveals that he really isn’t worth anything. He certainly isn’t worth any more of my time. But I’ve done what I felt needed to be done. I’ve warned each search engine optimization company in the city about his practices and provided them with all the materials they will ever need to prove that he is an unethical person and that any prospects should probably look elsewhere. After all, given the choice, who would opt to work with a thief over a company with a stellar reputation?

Mario, given his well-deserved negative reputation throughout the Atlanta SEO community, would almost certainly be better off changing the name of his search engine optimization company, buying a new domain, and starting over – this time actually doing the work himself and writing his own materials.

Of course, I’m not going to tell him that. Let his lack of business be a nasty surprise to him.

Author:  Scott Buresh is the founder and CEO of Medium Blue, which was recently named the number one search engine optimization company in the world by PromotionWorld. Scott’s articles have appeared in numerous publications, including ZDNet, WebProNews, MarketingProfs, DarwinMag, SiteProNews, SEO Today, ISEDB.com, and Search Engine Guide. He was also a contributor to Building Your Business with Google For Dummies (Wiley, 2004). Medium Blue is an Atlanta search engine optimization company with local and national clients, including Boston Scientific, Cirronet, and DS Waters. Download Medium Blue’s latest exclusive whitepaper, “Adding Search to Your Marketing Mix,” for more insight.

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