These days you can pretty much throw a stick in the air and it’ll land on someone who’s been ripped off by self-proclaimed SEO experts.
The damage is usually a hefty sum of money, and at least 12 months of wasted time.
In the most extreme cases of accounts we’ve taken over, it’s resulted in a website that had to be completely rebuilt just to get rid of all the horrible work that had been done by the previous provider.
One of our current clients literally burst into tears the first time we spoke to her on the phone because she was afraid she was going to lose her business after getting stung by 3 other agencies one after another.
It’s become such a problem that the ACCC published a report warning people about SEO scams.
If you’re not familiar with SEO, this next section will get you up to speed.
What exactly is SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation, and when done properly it helps move your website higher in the organic (non-paid) search results in search engines like Google.
People do it because they want more website traffic, and all the trappings that go along with it…
Typically new customer enquiries, and sales.
What is the impact of a #1 ranking?
If you rank first for whatever your chosen keyword is, it has the potential to create endless floods of new customers and sales coming from a fire hose of free search engine traffic.
To illustrate this point in a more tangible way, let’s take this example keyword…
A quick bit of research shows (in the chart below) that there are about 1,900 people each month who are looking for this service on the Gold Coast.
We used the that location because our Gold Coast SEO agency is physically based there.
We also know that the website that’s ranked in the #1 position will capture about 30% of all the clicks.
Next let’s assume that the average invoice value for an electrician is about $500.
With that information it’s actually quite easy to calculate the potential value of being ranked #1 for that keyword…
(30% click-through rate) x (1,900 monthly searches) x ($500 invoice value) = $285,000/mo
So in a nutshell on the Gold Coast there is $285,000 worth of electrical work going to the #1 ranked business every single month!
As you can see it’s an extremely lucrative position to be in, hence why people are prepared to spend large sums of money to get there.
And the shady operators know it!
Types Of Dodgy SEO Providers
In my experience the people out there who are routinely ripping people off with dodgy SEO pretty much fall into 2 categories.
1. SEO “experts” who don’t know, what they don’t know
These days you can learn pretty much anything online, and SEO is no different.
And let’s just imagine some enthusiastic bloggers who jump onto Youtube to find videos about how to do SEO using blogging.
They watch a few of those and think “hey I know how to write articles, I can offer SEO”
The same goes for web designers who watch a video showing how to optimise a website for search engines.
They think to themselves “hey I’m pretty good at building websites, I can offer SEO!”
Little do they know they have no idea about things like…
- Keyword ratios
- TF:IDF analysis
- Cumulative layout shift
- Bounce rate
- Crawl budget
- Canonicalisation strategy
- Schema markup
- Page redirects
- SSL certificates
- ALT tags
- TITLE/META strategy
- Backlink analysis
- Internal linking strategy
- Conversion tracking
- Content silos and much, much more…
There are over 200 (known) factors which search engines like Google use to figure out where a page should be ranked when someone types a certain keyword in.
What I’m trying to illustrate is that SEO is a massive multi-faceted discipline requiring years of experience in a variety of areas in order to offer a service that will actually get results for clients.
But it’s easy to see that by jumping onto Youtube someone could develop an incomplete perspective on what is actually involved in delivering SEO.
I have a small amount of sympathy for people who fall into this category.
2. SEO “experts” who know they aren’t experts (but offer it anyway)
These are the sales-first organisations.
The ones who have 1 or 2 people responsible for the SEO of hundreds of clients.
The ones that will sell SEO to 2 businesses who are in direct competition with each other…
They’ll sell you anything as long as you’re happy to hand over your cash, and as soon as you do you probably won’t hear much from them until it’s time to renew your 12 month contract.
That’s when the flashy reports will come out showing amaaaaaaazing results for…
…and PAGE VIEWS!!!!
All metrics which don’t mean jack to a business owner.
The sales rep trying to get the client excited about metrics that don’t mean anything…
But they sure do sound impressive.
And they make it very hard for inexperienced clients to confidently pull the plug on a dud campaign.
Top 5 Dodgy SEO Tactics
Now that we understand a bit more about the SEO landscape as a whole, it’s time to arm you with the ability to spot the warning signs indicating that you may be dealing with one of the SEO “experts” mentioned above.
There are several extremely common tactics and warning signs that you should be aware of when you’re thinking of engaging an SEO agency.
Or if you’re just trying to critically evaluate your current agency’s performance.
1. Reporting on meaningless metrics
For most businesses they have a very simple, and logical way of measuring the effectiveness of any marketing campaign.
They want to see customer enquiries (usually in the form of phone calls or contact form submissions), appointment bookings, and sales.
Whatever the desired action the client specifies, it is simply tracked as a “conversion”.
Many SEO experts however will report on things which have zero tangible meaning to a business owner.
- They simply don’t know how to measure conversions or;
- There are no conversions and so they need something else exciting to talk about in the report.
2. Requiring 12 month contracts
As an agency owner why would you want to make money simply because you’ve convinced your client to sign a contract, even if your work gets terrible results?
It doesn’t exactly show confidence in your work if you have to force them into a 6, 12 or even a 24 month contract.
3. Offering SEO to your competition
What’s the big deal here?
Quite simply, there can only be 1 website in the #1 position in search engines.
So how can an agency possibly run an ethical operation while telling 2 clients in direct competition with each other that they’re getting the absolute best efforts to get their business into the #1 rank.
What’s likely to happen is that the client who pays a little bit more money will be the one that gets more effort allocated to their account.
Why do they do it?
Probably because a sales person wanted to get a fat commission bonus for signing up a new client.
Sales first, clients results second.
4. Proving ability by ranking easy keywords
Another one of the slimiest tactics is providing some kind of guarantee like “don’t pay anything until we get you onto page 1”.
Sounds like the perfect safety net for the client right?
The thing is that keywords are not created equal.
If they try to get a page to rank for the keyword “diamond rings” it will be extremely difficult because there are hundreds of millions of other pages attempting to rank for that keyword.
However if they pick a highly obscure keyword, they’ll be able to produce a page 1 rank in no time!
Just to prove the point we went ahead and created a page dedicated to that keyword, and within about 24 hours, BOOM!
We now rank #1 for that keyword with about 5 minutes of work.
If we had a client who had signed up on the basis of use getting them on page 1 for the keyword of our choosing, they’d be legally obligated to pay whatever our monthly fees were.
5. Guaranteeing a specific result
This is one of the biggest red flags there is.
When someone starts making promises that they can get you onto page one, or into the top 5 ranks, or any specific result in a certain time.
Run away as fast as you possibly can and never look back!
Ethical marketers know that this is a cardinal sin, and instantly brands the provider as a dodgy operator.
- Search engines like Google don’t publish the formula that they use to rank websites.
So it’s impossible to be 100% certain that any change you make will have a specific impact on rankings.
- Search engines frequently change the way they rank websites.
That means that you can’t bank on the results you’ve achieved, staying the way they are for any amount of time.
- Your competitors are also likely attempting to improve their own rankings.
So the rankings will be constantly shifting purely due to changes that your competitors are making in their own SEO activities.
Essentially the entire landscape on search engines is constantly in motion, which makes it impossible to make any kind of predictions, promises, or guarantees about getting a specific result.
What’s the risk of low quality SEO?
Maybe you’re wondering if it’s still worth running the gauntlet with an SEO agency that has some of the characteristics mentioned above.
After all they’re probably offering services which are quite cheap which could be tempting.
And worst case if they don’t get results, it probably can’t make things worse for your business right?
“There can only be one website ranking in the #1 position so in my book that’s a glaring ethical issue.”
Doing low quality SEO isn’t the same as publishing a post on Facebook that doesn’t get many likes or shares.
You can’t just take it down, or post something else and forget about it.
When someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing starts making moves which relate to your organic search visibility there are long-term impacts.
Here are the most likely outcomes of bad quality SEO.
1. Things improve, but not in any meaningful way
This is probably the best case scenario, but it’s still awful.
You may see some rankings improve, but there’s not enough keywords getting onto the first page of search results.
Which means that while it might be nice for your ego to see some things move up a little, traffic doesn’t improve, leads don’t improve, sales don’t improve.
You’re still spending money each month on the campaign, but since you’re getting zero benefit, all you’ve really done is incur extra expenses each month.
Not to mention you’re wasting valuable time while your competitors improve their position.
2. Nothing changes
This is a common result when agencies are outsourcing all the SEO work overseas to improve their margins.
In this case either the work being done is so minimal that it changes nothing in terms of the visibility in search engines, or there’s just simply no work being done whatsoever.
Either way, rankings don’t change over time, traffic stays stagnant, and conversions don’t improve either.
3. Your website visibility becomes more volatile
Search engines like Google release small changes to their ranking algorithm every week.
But a few times each year they release major changes to how they rank websites in their search results.
They do this to provide better, more valuable results and improve the experience for their users.
When these major changes occur, many low quality websites will experience rapid drops in their rankings as the search engines reshuffle the deck based on it’s new definition of a high quality website.
Sites which have undertaken low quality SEO work are often caught in the net, even if they temporarily experienced some improvements in their rankings and website traffic.
This is because low quality SEO often focuses on one area of importance, and neglects the rest.
- Publishing low quality articles to the blog section of the website and ignoring off-site SEO factors.
- Not resolving technical issues on the website which are known to have a negative impact on rankings.
- Stuffing keywords into website pages.
These are some of the areas we frequently see bad SEO agencies focusing on, instead of taking a holistic approach which reduces the impact of algorithm updates.
4. Penalties are applied
This is the worst case, nightmare scenario that should keep you up at night.
If the SEO work being done is of such a low standard, and in large enough volume the search engine may actually apply a penalty to your website.
This means your website will be effectively removed from organic search results altogether.
It’s not the same as simply having your rankings get worse.
Your website is deleted from the search engine…
There are no rankings.
A great example of this is if a website is copying large amounts of others’ work, or creating huge numbers of low quality backlinks.
If the body of work becomes so large that the search engine feels that it is essentially becoming internet spam, it will simply remove your website altogether.
I have personally never see such an event happen.
But I’ve heard many stories and it’s something I never ever want to experience.
If you’ve read this article through to the end you should now be able to see the warning signs of a possible dodgy operator.
Or at the very least ask some targeted questions and see if you’re comfortable with the answers or not.
If that’s the case then I’m confident you won’t be the next person I talk to on the phone telling me about how you got ripped off by a dodgy SEO “expert”.