Make It Loud Blog

Advice and Knowledge from EXPERTS

The Dark Side of SEO

I have a confession to make.

There are a lot of unethical people in my industry. Honestly, it’s embarrassing how often potential clients come to us and tell us all the ways they’ve been burned. That’s why we thought we’d reveal some of the tricks we’ve been told about.

How SEO Agencies Can Rip You Off (And How to Avoid It)

As an SEO nerd, I’ve worked with a lot of business owners to help their business gain more visibility and customers through search engine optimization. I’ve always worked hard to do right by my clients, but more than 75% of our clients have been burned by some other digital marketing agency. Far too often, they’ve been burned by some unethical SEO “professional”.

The purpose of this post is clear: to expose the dark side of SEO agencies.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of SEO experts out there who are doing right by their clients, but there are some inherent issues that can make it seem like something unethical is going on when there might not be. I’ll explain below.

What Is Search Engine Optimization?

In a nutshell, SEO is the process of making a website “page one worthy.”

That sounds simple enough, right? Yeah, no, it’s really not.

You see, as the number one search engine in the country, Google doesn’t really tell you what they want in a website that’s worthy of being displayed on page one. SEO experts have to experiment and make a lot of educated guesses. No one outside of Google knows what’s in Google’s “black box” to get a website ranked. There are 5 different search algorithms and over 400 ranking factors involved with getting a website to the first page, and both the algorithms and ranking factors change more than 1,000 times a year.

That being said, your average SEO professional has a clear need for continuous education in order to understand what works and what’s outdated in terms of tactics and strategies.

Generally speaking, SEO still begins with keyword research and developing an effective content strategy, but there are three main elements:

On-Page SEO

This is where you take the keyword research and gear your content toward your target market. You want to use your keywords in your page titles, URL structure, meta descriptions (which Google tends to rewrite), and in your content.

Off-Page SEO

This is where you work to get your site listed in various directories and work on attracting backlinks from other sites of greater authority.

Technical SEO

Since Google wants sites that function well on page one, it’s imperative that your site loads quickly and has no 404 errors or other technical problems that can negatively impact the user experience.

Most business owners don’t understand these aspects of SEO much less speak the jargon. There are plenty of SEO agencies out there that will baffle business owners with technical jargon to impress them as they try to sell them. We see this as a red flag.

While doing SEO is very technical, it can all be explained without the use of jargon or baffling anybody. Your agency needs to speak in clear terms that you understand.

How SEO Is A Numbers Game

There is no doubt that search engine optimization can be the crown jewel of your marketing mix since people turn to the search engines for nearly every need and if your business is sitting right there on the first page, you’re far more likely to get the clicks.

The more people see your website in the search results, the more likely you are to get the clicks. The more website visitors you get to your site, the more likely they are to call you, fill out a form, or buy from you.

SEO is all about getting you more, but there is no real way to guarantee that just because your site is getting real visitors they will call you. That is where it helps to have someone who can look at your site and make changes that help with converting visitors to actual customers. Not every SEO nerd knows how to do this or goes the extra step to help you with this like our agency does.

Ways Business Owners Get Ripped Off

Since we have a retail shop, we get walk-ins where people ask for our search engine optimization services occasionally. The first thing we do is take a look at their website.

Far and away, the biggest way that SEO agencies rip off their clients is that they start trying to optimize a seriously bad website. What makes it bad? We see things like:

  • The site has no call to action- no phone number, no contact forms, or any direction on how to do business with the company
  • The site is poorly coded or built with a platform that Google “hates.” We used to have people ask us to optimize Godaddy websites or even Google websites which are terrible to try and rank.
  • The site is outright ugly. Driving traffic to an ugly or poorly designed (or no design) website is just sending potential customers bouncing away to the competition.

Here are some of the other major ways we see SEO agencies take advantage of customers:

Taking On Projects They Shouldn’t

Search engine optimization isn’t viable for every business.

That’s a big statement coming from an SEO nerd, but it’s true. For our agency, we make sure that there is an appropriate return on investment for the client before ever agreeing to take on the project.

If the client’s average sale is $50 and they have to pay $1000/month for SEO, there’s not much of a chance that the business is going to sell enough products to jump out of the hole that their marketing costs are creating. If their average client is $1000 or more, it’s easy to see how SEO can pay for itself and bring a profit to the business. It’s simple economics that your SEO agency should always help you with.

Simply Not Doing The Work

When you see SEO agencies advertising things like, “We’ll get you on page one for $99/month” or anything to that effect, you can rest assured that they aren’t doing everything necessary to get your site ranked. Most SEO professionals in this country won’t turn on their laptops for less than $500/month at the very least.

The average SEO professional charges around $1000/month to do local SEO. While you may see people charge less or more, it’s important to ask exactly what they will be doing for that retainer.

All too often, we see agencies that simply change page titles and meta descriptions on the website and call that “SEO.” True SEO involves far more than that. In most cases, changing page titles isn’t enough to see improvements in your site’s rankings.

Locking You Into Long-Term Contracts

Many, many SEO agencies across the country lock their clients into contracts that they simply cannot get out of regardless of how they perform. These contracts do nothing for the business owners and only benefit the agency.

That’s why we don’t have SEO contracts for any of our clients. Is this crazy? We don’t think so because it incentivizes us to keep earning their business. Based on this, most of our clients have been with us for years.

Not Writing Content (Or Cranking Out Low Quality Content)

In the 15 years, I’ve been doing SEO work, I’ve seen a lot of business owners hire SEO agencies that don’t write any content for them. Since a solid content strategy is one of the basic foundations of SEO, we think this is missing the basics.

With all the AI tools, we’re now seeing content that’s being automatically generated and put on the website without any human editing which is also not good. Google has been clear that they don’t mind AI content as long as it’s helpful, but without editing what AI gives you there’s a strong chance that it’s anything but helpful.

Duplicate Content

Last week, we were speaking with someone who was locked into a long-term contract with an SEO company that “specializes” in doing search engine optimization for that industry. Keep in mind, that doing SEO doesn’t change across industries at all, but this is a sales tactic for some agencies that seems to work.

The problem is that some of these agencies will create industry-specific content and put it on many different sites across the country. This puts Google in a position where they crawl the content and have to “decide” which is the original content and which is the copy (or copies). Because of this, Google simply devalues the duplicate content and it doesn’t help your site at all.

Black Hat Tactics

We don’t see this as much as we used to because there have been some pretty big legal cases, but there used to be quite a few SEO agencies out there who were using tactics that were directly against Google’s guidelines for SEO.

Part of why we don’t see this as much is because there have been cases where the business has sued the SEO company for getting their site de-indexed and won millions of dollars. Why would any SEO agency take that chance in 2024?

SEO Packages

This is a personal beef I have with SEO agencies that sell “packages”. Typically, these companies sell no less than 3 packages that look great on paper but most don’t actually include what’s necessary to get your site ranked. Based on that, it doesn’t matter what you pay, the chances of it getting your business on page one is very low.

It’s also not uncommon for agencies that sell predetermined packages to also sell “Custom SEO” at a higher price than all the packages. This is nothing more than a way to talk you into paying what the rest of us are charging for full SEO services.

Charging You By The Keywords

There are still SEO agencies out there that will charge clients by the number of keywords that rank for. While there are some ethical agencies out there that work with you to decide on the keywords that are best for your business and industry, others will choose keywords for you based on the fact that they are easier to rank your business for.

To us, this seems like sneaky business given that keyword popularity can change over time. Take the HVAC industry for example. depending on where you live, air conditioning-related keywords are the priority between April and September some years while heating-related keywords are emphasized during the cold months. Your agency needs to be flexible enough to make the transition without charging you more.

Vanity Metrics

There are a lot of agencies out there who will talk to you about impressions, clicks, rankings, etc. Let’s be honest here, the only real metric that means anything to a business owner are calls and new customers.

If your SEO experts have gotten you on page one for many different keywords but you’re still not getting any calls, it’s time for a chat to discover why. It could be that your website is lacking in some way. It could be a conversion issue. There are a lot of different reasons why that might occur, but your agency should be willing to dive into the mystery with you versus simply shrugging and doing nothing.

SEO can bring a flood of qualified leads to your website, but some agencies might exploit your lack of SEO knowledge to line their own pockets. Hopefully, the list above will help you realize if you’ve got a good agency or not.

The biggest red flag? An SEO agency that keeps you in the dark. Vague reports, technobabble explanations, and a complete lack of transparency about what’s being done for your money are signs of trouble.

Finding Your SEO Champion

Now, let’s talk about how to find an SEO agency that truly does right by their customers. Here at Make it Loud, we believe in complete transparency. We’ll explain our strategy in clear terms, provide regular reports you can understand, and keep you informed every step of the way.

We only use white hat SEO techniques because frankly, we don’t want to do anything that could get us sued. That, and while black hat tactics can get you temporary results, we have no way of knowing when Google will catch those tactics and toss your site out of the index for good. it’s simply not worth it. We focus on creating valuable, informative content that resonates with your target audience. This approach ensures sustainable, long-term growth for your website.

Content quality is what our team is all about. We prioritize original, well-researched content creation that provides genuine value to your audience. Forget about keyword-stuffed garbage – our content is designed to engage, educate, and convert.

We not only focus on your website but your Google Business Profile as well since this piece of property can drive more customers to your business. Our team will not only help you create a profile, but we’ll help you optimize and maintain it.

While many SEO agencies are simply about search engine optimization, we started as a web design company that began doing SEO roughly 5 years after we started, so we can make suggestions to you about ways to improve conversions (i.e. turning site visitors into actual paying customers!).

Finally, we offer flexible pricing models based on the competitiveness of your industry and the geographic area you want to be seen in. Clearly, there’s more work involved with national SEO than there is with local SEO.

Our entire team understands that when it comes to search engine optimization as well as the rest of our digital marketing, we have one goal- to make you more money. Period. Because that’s our focus, we build long-term partnerships with our clients, and our success hinges on theirs.

Don’t Let Shady SEO Agencies Steal Your Money

Choosing the right SEO agency is an investment in your business growth. Don’t get caught in the trap of empty promises and underhanded tactics. Make it Loud is committed to ethical, client-focused SEO that gets real results.

Ready to ditch the frustration and experience the power of good SEO? Contact Make it Loud today for a free consultation and let’s get your website singing!

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 14 years ago, he started search engine optimization at this award-winning agency and has taught digital marketing skills to business owners at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center, and other groups.

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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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