There’s never been a shortage of scammers in the search engine optimization space. It’s the nature of the industry, unfortunately – so few people understand how search engines actually work. Small businesses especially are frequent victims. Here’s why and how you can avoid being one yourself.
“Expert Link Building & Search Engine Optimization Services,” reads the subject line. It’s an email I’m sure all of us have received at one point or another. A purported SEO professional proudly informing us that our website is terrible.
Not to worry, though! They can fix it and guarantee placement on Google’s Search Engine Results Page. They have something no one else does, after all.
Insider knowledge of Google’s algorithms. An infallible secret technique. A sacrificial ritual through which an ancient, forgotten god will rise up and strike down all competitors on the SERP.
A shotgun approach to SEO scams
This email didn’t make any outlandish claims. It didn’t promise the moon and stars. No, the claims were much subtler, though no less facetious for it.
The self-proclaimed “expert” name-dropped several major publications. Boasted about his massive link-building campaigns and guest post placements. Crooned about the enormous library of ‘high-quality’ sites and blogs he maintains.
Through it all, he said literally nothing about my business. At one point, he even misspelled my name. It was clear that this was a cookie-cutter email he’d sent out to multiple contacts at random, hoping to snag at least a few naive business owners and webmasters.
There was little doubt in my mind that if I asked him what I did, he’d have no idea how to respond.
Again, this is an email we’ve all received at one point or another. The web is lousy with snake oil salesmen. SEO “professionals” who probably either think “schema” is another word for “plan,” or else know just enough about SEO to fool those who know nothing.
In my case, I couldn’t tell if this spammer genuinely believed what he was peddling, or if he was simply another shady black hat trying to make a quick buck. At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. Spam is spam.
Yet even as I deleted the email, I knew there was no shortage of people who’d buy what this guy was selling, falling hook line and sinker for his schtick.
There’s a sucker born every minute
It’s not entirely clear whether or not the above was actually uttered by American showman P.T. Barnum. Just the same, it’s a quote that today feels more relevant than ever. And it may as well be the creed of people like the self-proclaimed expert described above.
There’s a reason people like him keep popping up. It’s because these scams keep working. All a scammer needs is a single reply, and their efforts have more than paid off.
The problem is that SEO is both deceptively simple and widely misunderstood. Because search engines like Google so zealously guard their algorithms against outsiders, there’s a lot of guesswork in the field. Even veteran industry professionals don’t know exactly how search engines rank content.
Instead, they make educated guesses based both on careful observation and what little information search engines are willing to offer up to the public. That these guesses are more often than not correct is irrelevant here. There’s always that small measure of doubt, and it’s what scammers prey on.
Just as small businesses are frequently targeted by cybercriminals, they’re also a favored victim of SEO scammers. The larger an organization, the likelier it is that there will be someone on staff who can call the scam out for what it is. Smaller businesses, meanwhile, may not even employ a dedicated marketing professional.
When someone who seems like they know their way around Google better than anyone else offers up honeyed words and veiled promises, small business owners are often easy prey. The good news is that the scam is unfailingly easy to spot if you know what to look for. SEO scammers all tend to follow the same cadence.
- Cold emails from people you have never worked with or spoken to.
- Sweeping, grandiose claims about background and expertise. True professionals let their work speak for itself.
- Tout the quantity of the work they’ve done over its quality. Anyone who claims to manage several hundred websites should immediately set off alarm bells.
- Assertions and promises that seem too good to be true. There are no guarantees in SEO.
- Ironically, poor spelling or grammar.
- Little to no direct knowledge of your business and industry.
- Overbearing pressure or persistence.
Of course, clever scammers exist as well. To spot them, my best advice is to educate yourself on the basics of SEO. Know what a site needs to be well-optimized, and you’ll be well-equipped to spot anyone who’s trying to fleece you. SEO Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO is a good place to start.
Scammers are always going to be a part of the web, especially for an industry like SEO. The good news is that with even a bit of basic knowledge, you can easily spot most of them before they can do damage to your business (or your budget).