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Advice and Knowledge from EXPERTS

How SEO Firms Can Rip You Off

It’s no wonder that people in marketing feel beat up sometimes.

Here’s the raw truth: There are a lot of charlatans out there giving those of us who are trying to do good things a bad name.

Given that, when I say I “do SEO”, there are small business owners out there who just roll their eyes. I used to wonder why and get a little offended until I realized for myself how many people out there really do rip people off.

Now, I get it.

I even speak to it directly with potential prospects. I briefly outline a lot of the different ways SEO firms rip their customers off.

But, it took me a few years to get to that place. I felt like it was time to share what I’ve learned.

Remind Me Again, What Is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a marketing tool designed to help businesses of any size consistently land on page one of the search results. This marketing element helps smaller companies compete with some of the big companies out there.

Not to get too deep into how search engines work, but if you think of Google as the 900-pound gorilla of search (which is fair considering we turn to Google around 87% of the time we search anything online these days in the U.S.), the purpose of SEO is to help your site look like the best bunch of bananas any self-respecting gorilla would want to put on the first page of their search results.

Ok, it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.

The point here is that “good” SEO is supposed to help your site check as many boxes on the list of ranking factors as possible and since no one knows what all those ranking factors are and they keep changing all the time, you’re beginning to see how complex the job of your average SEO nerd really is.

Stay In Your Lane Bro

Before you can fully understand much about SEO, it’s important to understand that web designers aren’t SEO nerds. A lot of people don’t actually know that web designers, well, they design stuff. Web developers take those designs and build the website. It’s not uncommon to find web designers who design & develop the site, but it’s rare to find a web designer who is also an SEO expert.

Can it happen? Sure

But, more often than not, web designers and SEO professionals are two distinctly different people. The reason this is important is because people often think web designers know all there is about SEO and SEO experts are also web design professionals. Not so much.

We’re not saying a web designer couldn’t know anything about SEO. That person would simply be an outlier more than the norm- sort of like finding a unicorn in your front yard.

Here’s How SEO Is Supposed to Work

SEO is the process of using keywords and a lot of other steps to encourage search engines to see your website as valuable to a person searching for content on that topic.

Think of SEO like this. Your business provides a solution. With all the things that SEO does to make your site attractive to your customers (and Google), SEO puts your site in front of the very people that are looking for what you do. It puts you on page one of the search engine results and brings organic traffic right to your digital front door. This is what we refer to as “targeted traffic”.

It’s actually one of the most sought-after online marketing tools in the field of digital marketing.

Google & SEO

So, if SEO is so important and you need it, why do you hear so much bad about it? There are many reasons for this, and we hear about them every day.

First off, it’s probably fair to say that Google isn’t a huge fan of SEO. If you look at their business model, you can understand why.

Alphabet, which is the company that “owns” Google makes the lion’s share of its money through Google Adwords or pay-per-click ads. We’re talking around $147 billion last year. That’s more than most of us have stuck in our Lazy-Boy.

Given that, Google would LOVE for us all to click on those ads again and again. But, that’s not really what most people do. Clearly, some do though.

So, it’s fair to think of Google and SEO as kind of on the opposite ends of the spectrum from the start.

There was even a time when you could say Google’s nerds hated SEO nerds, but when Google’s nerds control the game and all the rules, it’s sort of not a fair fight.

But, over time, the atmosphere has shifted to Google not only expressing a softer side for SEO pros, but they even hired a few to represent Google to the SEO industry. Was that a peace offering to the SEO world? Meh. Sure, we’ll go with that.

The Reputation of SEO

From the beginning of the internet, there have been numerous companies that have abused the optimization of their website in order to trick Google into getting traffic to their website. Maybe, just maybe, tricking the world’s largest search engine wasn’t the best way to start a relationship.

In the early days, it wasn’t uncommon to have a lot of keywords stuffed into content that offered very little value to the reader. That meant that when a person landed on the website, they got nothing from it. There was no quality information anywhere.

What are some of the reasons why SEO has a bad reputation? Here are a few:

Unsolicited emails: It’s not uncommon for SEO experts to send a lot of emails to you, many of which offer nothing but heavy promotional comments that simply don’t apply to you. If you are a website owner, you know the importance of sending authentic and valuable messages, not gimmicks.

Black hat methods: Some of the worst offenders of SEO promote black hat SEO methods. These are methods that Google specifically bans, such as overstuffing keywords and using other tricks. They often provide a short boost to rankings, but then, when Google recognizes what’s happening, they can lead to delisting your website.

Lack of quality content: Some SEO companies focus heavily on keywords and often lack true value. Think of your website as a tool that lets people know who you are. You want someone visiting to have access to really high-quality content that they can immediately use and value. Keyword stuffing is hard to read and often doesn’t make sense.

Buying links: Backlinking is an important part of SEO. It’s the process of getting links to your website on other websites. It helps show Google that other people value your site. However, buying links (and sometimes sending a lot of money to do so) doesn’t help. It’s just another way to manipulate the search engines.

Fraudulent activities: There are some companies that use hidden text or links as a way to draw in the search engines. Others use doorway pages and cloaking, both of which can ultimately hurt your website.

All of this sneakiness hasn’t exactly helped improve the reputation of SEO. Yet, it’s critical to realize that, in every industry, there are bad players who simply try to abuse the system. There are plenty of SEO experts out there who are following all of Google’s rules to make your website worthy of page one results and get more traffic to your business.

Google’s Part

The nerds at Google aren’t exactly innocent of trickery themselves.

While it’s clear that Google doesn’t like people messing with their precious search results. It affects their business model which is:

  • Present great search results
  • If you do that, people will keep coming back
  • This means we can charge more for ads

This is why the simplest website on the planet is actually the most complicated site online today. It’s why Google appears to fall all over itself to give you the exact search results you’re looking for.

Keep in mind, that it’s Google’s world and we’re just living in it. They make the rules, and if you don’t follow them, they can throw your website out of the search results. Sure, they publish “guidelines” about SEO, but like any good bureaucracy, these rules are far from complete or universally applied.

Take for example the “ranking factors”. Everywhere you read, you’ll see, “There are over 200 ranking factors…” but the truth is that there are far more than that. Some say there are easily over 400 ranking factors. This is why there are so many persistent myths about SEO that even the best of us still struggle with.

To make things interesting, Google changes its algorithm over 500 times a year just to keep things interesting for SEO nerds. Sometimes, they even introduce two updates at one time which is super fun to try and figure out why your rankings dipped after that.

Here’s a fun fact, there isn’t just one algorithm. There are at least five algorithms at play, so when you read that Google has just updated their search algorithm, which one? It’s not like they announce it and whenever they do, you can bet it’s a tectonic shift.

While most SEO experts have a general feel for many of the ranking factors, no one but Google engineers knows all of them (and probably not even them since there are multiple algorithms playing together). It’s like using 5 different contractors to build one house. A precious few people know what the entire house is supposed to look like.

The Current State Of Affairs

So, with all this trickery on both sides, where do things stand now? Eh, let’s just call it detente. There’s not a war, but there’s not exactly peace either.

Most modern SEO experts would just call it a working relationship where we do all we can to make your site attractive enough for it to land on page one of the search queries.

Warning Signs Your SEO Agency Sucks

When you’re working with a web design company or SEO company, and they are making some pretty big promises, you expect to see results. How do you know you’re not getting taken advantage of? Here are some warning signs that you need a different web design or SEO agency.

They guarantee the service they offer. When it’s Google’s game and they make the rules, it’s hard to guarantee something that isn’t in your control. Any company that is guaranteeing first-page rankings within 30 days is definitely overpromising. Is it even possible? Yes. Is it routine? Not at all. Not even close to typical. They may get those rankings, but your website could be at risk of being delisted if they are using black hat methods.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We always tell people to ask a lot of questions, but the sad truth is that SEO is so technical, that most people don’t always know the best questions to ask.

They are not using analytics. One of the great things about ranking on Google is that there is so much data available to you, you have answers to all of your websites. Google Analytics is an excellent tool to help with knowing how your site is doing. There are a host of ranking tools out there that can be used to track the progress your site is making (or not making). You don’t want recommendations for improvements that don’t come substantiated with analytics or other data. They could be just guessing at the expense of your site.

They can’t explain a strategy to you: Real SEO services will develop a digital marketing strategy for your company. This outlines what they will do and includes keyword research, content planning, and much more. If they cannot tell you what they are doing, chances are good they don’t have a plan.

Who is writing content?: Good SEO requires good content. A major demarcation line between good and bad SEO agencies is whether or not they are writing content- and a lot of it. You’ll most likely need landing pages, blog posts, and a host of other content to get you to the top of the results page.

Tricks SEO Nerds Use to Rip You Off

There are a few more examples of what SEO firms are doing to rip you off.

  • They say they will get you ranked for 100 (fill in the number here) keywords, but they are using keywords that are not relevant to your business. In short, they are just trying to rank for everything. If you’re a plumber, you’re not going to get much business from ranking for “pink tutus”.
  • They make promises for ranking well, but you don’t see any changes happening on the website. Since SEO often takes several months, well, several months go by before you notice nothing’s happening.
  • Your website is packed full of keywords and content, but the content doesn’t have much to do with what you actually do. Your business isn’t represented properly.
  • They tell you that you have to pay a lot of money for the latest SEO trend. Beware of any agency that speaks in jargon. Anyone can understand SEO to a point. Make them use plain English.
  • They don’t address technical SEO – which is critical to developing a strong platform. Technical SEO is about how your site is coded, page load speed, etc. A slow loading site will cause visitors to bounce away losing business for you. Even the best-optimized site will lose visitors if it’s slow.
  • Putting limits on your content- this is where we see SEO pros tell you things like, “We’ll give you one landing page and one blog post a month” or “we’ll only spend 8 hours a month on your site”. Now, this could be fair if you’re paying below-market rates for SEO and have an expectation that it will take longer to get the results you want.

There are many things that “bad” SEO services offer, but this doesn’t mean that SEO itself is a bad marketing tactic. In fact, having your website present exactly when and where your customers are searching is a great thing.

Remember, good methods of SEO take time, build your brand, and help you to have a website that you know fits your business. It supports your business and targets your most likely customer. If that’s not happening for you, it’s time to move on.

Make It Loud can help. Reach out to our digital marketing firm for real advice and quality results. We can show you the good work we’re doing. Contact us to learn more.


author avatar
Cliff Tillery COO
Cliff Tillery, MBA is the Chief Operating Officer and SEO Director at Make It Loud which is a digital marketing firm located outside of Atlanta Georgia. More than 15 years ago, he started search engine optimization at this award-winning agency and has taught digital marketing skills to interns and new employees, business owners at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center, and other groups.
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