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How to spot and avoid bad SEO agencies

By Alexandra Gavril - September 29, 2014

There are just too many small businesses out there that are getting swindled by search engine optimisation (SEO) agencies that are either crooked or completely ignorant of good SEO practices. This needs to stop!

While as a smart small business owner you know that SEO is a critical tool necessary to “advertise” your site to robots and compel your visitors to click through to your site, you’re probably not an SEO expert (otherwise you’d do things yourself and not hire an SEO agency). You’re an expert at plumbing or building apps or selling travel packages or whatever your business is, so you turn to an SEO agency for help.

Unfortunately, not all SEO agencies are good. There are legions of spammers and scammers who can’t wait to get their hands on a contract with a small business that doesn’t know much about SEO best practices and just wants to focus on other aspects of their business and entrust SEO to someone else.

The results? Too often, good businesses end up with bad SEO results while SEO scammers end up with your money, money they don’t deserve.

So, let’s get down to business and see what are the red flags and how you can avoid hiring the wrong SEO firm and getting ripped off.

The eight warning signs

SEO firms warning signs

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A red flag should go up anytime an SEO company makes certain claims, promises or guarantees. The following list of eight things to avoid will help you detect a bad SEO company and avoid getting scammed:

1. Sending unsolicited emails

Anytime you get an unsolicited email from someone who claims to have visited your site and been so impressed that they want to help you be more successful and rank higher, and has a deal to offer – put the email where it belongs: in the spam folder.

Here’s a hilarious example of an email sent to Google’s Matt Cuts by a SEO specialist who wants to improve google.com:

Google.com funny SEO specialist email

Spammy SEO firms buy lists of email addresses or scrape the internet for them and then send out thousands of emails every day. These emails are not even sent by a human, but by a computer programme that sends millions of them every month, hoping that one in a million will respond. Companies like these are only interested in quickly making money off naive clients. Don’t be one of them.

Oh, and what’s ironic (and definitely a red flag) is that while you didn’t give them your email address or permission to contact you, they’ll almost always include some type of disclosure such as:

Note: We are not spammers and are against spamming of any kind. If you are not interested then you can reply with a simple “NO” and we will never contact you again. (Ha!)

Check out this article for more signs to help you spot SEO pitches you can ignore.

2. Making promises that are too good to be true

Many small business owners are tempted to work with agencies that guarantee top rankings for very competitive keywords, offer specific traffic increases, or that claim they’ll improve your position in as little as 30 days. Beware of firms that make these kinds of promises.

No reputable SEO agency will ever guarantee #1 rankings, quick results, or make other promises that sound too good to be true.

Rand Fishkin, founder of SEO software company Moz, has provided a detailed analysis of why reputable SEO firms don’t promise guaranteed search engine rankings. Plus, rankings shouldn’t be a more important metric than search results that drive relevant visitors to take a desired action such as buying a product or signing up for an email newsletter.

SEO is not a quick-fix technique to deliver results in a matter of days. It’s an ongoing process. So, anyone who guarantees incredible results in just a few days or weeks could be using shady SEO tactics that might result in a quick boost in search engine results. But it won’t last or worse, you’ll get penalised by Google for using black-hat techniques.

So, instead of going with an SEO agency that overpromises and guarantees fast results, choose one that talks logically about what they can achieve and maps out how they will be achieved.

3. Claiming they have “secret” methods

SEO secret methods

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Avoid any SEO firm that claims they have “secret” methods (there aren’t any; everything is public, and you can download and read Google’s guide on proper SEO practices to see what the search engine giant is looking for in a website). If they say they know things no other SEOs know, that’s a sign that you shouldn’t be doing business with this agency.

Also, definitely avoid SEO firms that claim they “have an inside contact at Google”. That’s ridiculous! Every single employee working at Google has to sign a confidentiality agreement. To blab could land them in jail.

4. Building thousands of links to your site

There was a time when everyone was building hundreds of links and spamming the web with repetitive or poor content rewritten using software. SEO agencies were all about link building, link farms, directory submissions, bookmarking and many more. It worked really well for a while. But then it didn’t because Google realised that using these techniques meant users were getting useless, irrelevant search results.

Links are no longer influencing rankings as much as they used to so avoid agencies who boast about how many links they can get for you.

It’s no longer about the quantity but the quality of the links. Ask yourself this question: are 10,000 bad links better than one good link from the BBC or the Times or some other authority site in your industry? Of course not.

Building thousands of bad links will not help your site rank well and you might even get penalised by Google. This happens when a site is using certain bad techniques to try to manipulate search results. So, instead of spending your hard-earned cash to build a great reputation for your site, you’ll be spending even more just to fix the Google Penalty.

5. Writing content strictly for search engines

Anyone who constantly talks about numbers and rankings and content that’s optimised only for search engines is not someone you want to be working with. Instead, choose an SEO firm that talks about your target audience and ways to attract them to your site through educational content that is optimised for your prospects first, and then for search engines.

The smart money is on choosing an agency that has marketing knowledge across the board because just stuffing keywords or building links won’t ever work in the long term.

6. Offering flat-rate, low-cost fees

SEO cheap rates

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High-quality SEO work is time-consuming and definitely not cheap. So, if a SEO agency offers flat-rate, low-cost plans to optimise your website, expect to get what you paid for.

A good agency will spend long hours analysing your site and your industry and studying your competition before even giving you a price estimate. Yes, proper SEO work can be expensive but it gets results.

Then again, if you don’t have a big budget and can’t afford to hire a professional SEO firm, learn to do SEO yourself. You are more likely to get better results on by doing it yourself than by hiring a cheap, spammy SEO company.

 7. Not being able to provide references

Don’t just take their word for it. Writing website copy that overpromises or paying for a press release to be distributed across the web isn’t difficult. But that’s not proof that they have achieved results.

Ask for examples. Ask to see some of the content and campaigns that they have managed. Only by looking at the quality of the work they have produced for other companies can you determine what they can help you achieve. Review their SEO strategy, their case studies, and see if they’ve managed to achieve measurable results. If they can’t or won’t provide references or if the results aren’t measurable, then what reason is there to hire them?

8. Forcing you to sign up for a long contract

If they promise you the world to get you to sign. “You’ll be at the top of Google’s search results page in no time. And don’t worry, you won’t have to lift a finger, we’ll manage everything for you.”

Or if they pressure you into signing quickly before the next Google update ruins your business.

Then you should be sceptical.

A good SEO agency will not need to resort to such sales gimmicks to get you to buy their services. They should provide you with quality information and options and let you make an informed decision whenever you are ready.

So, whichever SEO agency you choose: 1. Avoid overly long contracts; 2. Remember you are entitled to ask for weekly or monthly reports on what they’re doing and 3. Make sure that you aren’t being fooled by some fancy reports to hide the fact that no real work is being done.

Make sure you also read these extra tips on how to avoid SEO and digital marketing scams.

Tips for finding a good SEO agency

Always do your homework first. If you know or read about other business who rank well online, ask which SEO agency they’re working with.

Here are some obvious indicators of a good SEO company:

  • They’re happy to provide you with references from former clients that you can contact
  • They are highly recommended by others
  • They have multiple recent reviews on their site and on other trustworthy sites
  • They constantly publish educational content, hold webinars and training sessions
  • They contact you using a professional email that’s personalised to their domain such as contact@companyname.com (and not a free email like @gmail, @yahoo, @hotmail etc).
  • Their site and emails are error-free.

So when you do your research, choose an SEO firm that:

Talks sense

SEO isn’t that complicated. It’s hard work, yes, but it’s not rocket science.

This means that the SEO agency you’re looking to hire should be able to explain in simple terms what they can achieve and how. If they make it sound like it’s complicated or aren’t willing to get into the details of their “scientific” techniques, then they are probably trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

You need a content strategy, a social strategy and a well-planned mix of on-site SEO, technical SEO and reputation building. That’s it!

Understands the bigger picture

It’s not about numbers. It’s not even about rankings and traffic volumes. It’s about understanding what gets a website to convert traffic into customers and what a business needs in order to become successful online. What matters is finding out what your target audience wants, how it searches for you online, how it interacts with your site and how can use all this information to generate sales.

Get educated!

The only way to avoid being scammed by spammy, unscrupulous SEO agencies is to get educated about SEO. I’m not saying you need to become an SEO expert (unless you want to handle all SEO tasks yourself) but educate yourself to some degree so that you won’t get easily tricked or manipulated by bad SEO firms that promise you the world.

Here are some articles, written by myself and others, to get you started with SEO:

Your turn now

Have you had any bad experiences with SEO agencies? Tell us about them in a comment below.