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August 17, 2011

Warning Signs of Bad SEO – Who Can You Trust?

Can SEO Companies and Consultants Be Trusted?

We get a lot of inquiries about search engine optimization services from people who have been “burned” by bad SEO and are understandably cautious about working with another search engine marketing company or SEO consultant. The level of mistrust should be increasing since the New York Times exposed link spamming by some very high profile online retailers, most likely through paid links. Paid links are when someone pays a website for a link to their own for the purpose of improving search engine rank, a practice which Google considers webspam and can get a website banned.

There are plenty of scammers in the online marketing business and just as many unqualified practitioners who do not realize that they are clueless.

A while back, I wrote an article about how to choose an SEO that covered some ways to avoid black hat and otherwise shady SEO companies and consultants. I left a lot of things out, so now seems like a good time to throw a few more out there.

It is usually pretty easy to spot the really bad SEOs. They are the ones making wild promises of overnight top Google positions, guaranteed search engine rankings, and internet marketing success beyond your wildest dreams – all for a ridiculously low price. But even some of the more legitimate SEO companies should be seriously scrutinized. Some of them may have known what they were doing at one time, but search engine marketing is a constantly changing landscape. What worked great to get a website to the top of Google last month may get your website banned from the search engines today. This type of search marketing consultant may mean well, but most people in the online marketing business are naturally know-it-alls. The good ones are able to recognize that they don’t really know everything and must continue learning. And of course, some are just as shady as the fly by night outfits, they are just better at looking legitimate.

Here are some ways you can check the quality and trustworthiness of SEOs:

Unbelievable Claims

Do they promise things like guaranteed #1 position, submitting to thousands of search engines (can you name more than 5?), “beat Google,” use of millions of dollars worth of proprietary technology or anything else that sounds too good to be true?

Do they advertise that they use known bad SEO practices like automated writing or duplicating of content, cloaking, doorway pages, buying links, or offer to include you in their network of sites (also known as a “link farm”)?

Or does the SEO company itself engage in any of those techniques for their own site? They probably won’t state clearly that these are known bad or black hat techniques, but instead act as if these are great innovations they will implement for your site.

Deceptive or just misinformed – either way, avoid them.

Ask a Trick Question

Make up a “just launched” Google feature like “Google Retention Manager” and ask if they are experienced with it. Or ask about an out-of-date, no longer useful technique like pagerank sculpting. Their answers will tell you much about their honesty.

Does their website have lots of stock photos of very good looking blonde haired blue eyed “business people” holding a phone to their ear or sitting at a conference table? This is often just lazy web design, but can indicate they have something to hide – maybe they are not located where they say they are and all the work is outsourced to foreign countries. Call and ask to meet with the people in the picture and see what happens. This is almost as much fun as asking telemarketers uncomfortable personal questions (yes, I need a healthier hobby).

Google the company’s name and look for contradictions Do they claim to be “ethical and organic” yet their site appears in a ton of paid link directories, brag about Google bombing in an interview, or have 3 or 4 different sites with different bogus company names that all eventually lead to the same contact page?

Everything is a Big Secret

Of course, many SEOs have techniques they would rather not make public, but when it comes to working with clients there should be no secrets. Don’t expect your SEO consultant to give you every little detail about what they do for your web site, but you have the right to know what techniques are being implemented and what it means to your website. You deserve an SEO that is open and honest with you. Bad SEOs want to keep you uniformed in order to avoid accountability.

Too Narrowly Focused on Rankings

There is more to the success of a website than search engine rankings, but a lot of SEOs don’t get that. Rankings are a good way to show progress, but should not be the end goal. Rankings are a means to an end and if those good keyword positions are not bringing in targeted traffic that leads to conversions, then what is the point?

Rankings are an important part of internet marketing but should not be used as the only metric of success.

They Only See SEO as Keywords and Backlinks

The job of the SEO is not to convince everyone that the ugly duckling is a beautiful swan, but to help the duckling become a swan, and make sure everyone knows about it. There are many paths to online marketing success that are off the map of standard search engine optimization. Social Media, for example should now be considered as an integral part of promoting most websites. While many strategies may fall outside the scope of their abilities, a search engine optimizer should keep all such options in mind for your long-term success and be able to make recommendations on how to implement them or at least where to start to look for complete web presence management.

No Follow Through

When they have exhausted their handful of sure fire link building techniques and other magic tricks and the real strategizing needs to begin, shady SEOs will often find simpler and greener pastures with new clients. Sure, sometimes all a website needs to rank better is some on page SEO housecleaning and a few links from high quality websites, but long term growth requires some dedication, innovation and adaptation.

There is always more to do. Bad SEOs get burned out working on a client, but continue to charge full price for minimal work.

They Don’t Understand What “Service” Means, but They Know How Much to Charge for It

Of course, there is nothing wrong with SEOs making money, but that should not be the only motivation. Good SEO consultants also do it because they enjoy it and want to help other people do well. It is much like the level of trust people have with auto mechanics. There are plenty of mechanics who will take every opportunity to rip you off, but there are many who love to work on cars and love to be of service to you. SEOs are very much like mechanics – we can fix your site or maybe even turn it into a high performance machine. Some will fix problems you did not have, and make more problems for you in the long run.

I like to see it as an opportunity to apply my knowledge, talents and experience in a way that can help others achieve their goals. You the client have a great product, service, or message and I know how to make sure everyone who should know about it has no problem finding it which helps you succeed in your business. That makes me feel pretty good and since it can pay my bills, that makes it even better.

In internet marketing and SEO, like most things, if something sounds to good too be true, it is probably crap. There is no “magic SEO system” and automated $29 solutions may work on very rare occasion, but are very likely to be ineffective at best, and damaging in the worst cases – unless of course you are looking to spam some knock off UGG boots or something like that. There are good and bad practitioners in just about any business, and there are plenty of good search engine marketing companies to choose from. You just have to do a little homework, and avoid looking for a cheap and dirty path to success for your business.

Nick Ker operates Ker Communications, a Pittsburgh SEO and internet marketing company dedicated to combining social media, high quality web design, insightful marketing, and high quality SEO to get real world results.