What A Shady ‘SEO Agency’ Will Say To Win Your Business (Don’t Fall For It)

Weeding through search engine optimization services is pretty confusing.

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All legitimate SEO experts know search engine optimization takes time. As convenient as it would be, there’s — unfortunately — no method that’s going to make your company bounce overnight to the top of search results. There are, however, a range of strategies to gradually turn your website into an SEO powerhouse.

The fact is much is at stake when you select a partner to boost your online presence. If you end up with a shady SEO agency that seeks to game search engine algorithms, you will certainly draw the attention of Google — but for the wrong reasons. Sustained use of so-called black hat techniques will get your site hit with a Google penalty which will severely damage your efforts to outrank the competition.

How can you tell which one is the best partner for you, and what are some things to look out for?

A telltale sign of shady SEO agencies is the big promise. To get your attention these types of companies tend to pledge a lot but deliver little. They may say they can get you:

  • to the first page in Google within a short time frame
  • thousands of backlinks

The big promise can be hard to resist. Most companies understandably want results quickly. We recently had a client that was approached by an agency that claimed to guarantee a top-of-the-page search placement. This should raise a red flag. While your SEO team can certainly position you for success, you’d be wise to steer clear of anyone who throws around guarantees.

Beware of black hat SEO

Why? These companies typically have nothing to back up their promises or they rely on black hat methods. Black hat SEO may not be illegal, per se, but it does violate webmaster guidelines set out by search engines.

Even big companies have over the years paid a high price for breaking the rules, especially since Google has become increasingly adept at uncovering and penalizing those engaging in black hat SEO. J.C. Penney, for instance, once received a Google penalty that resulted in a drop of 70 positions in Google for keywords like “living room furniture.”

Hubspot, the digital marketing platform, points out:

“…if you engage in black hat SEO, you must be willing to get hit with a nasty penalty as punishment. Getting a penalty from search engines will cause your website to drop down in the search results or worse, it could be removed completely. This means your website will gain less traffic and ultimately, fewer customers.”

So, how do you distinguish between a legitimate and a shady SEO agency?

Learn to recognize black hat SEO techniques

Black hat SEO is the unethical practice of trying to gain a higher site ranking by using methods that don’t comply with search engine guidelines. But as we outlined above, it will eventually hurt rather than help. If you run across a company that you suspect is engaging in any of the tactics below, find another, legitimate partner.

  • Keyword stuffing

    Not only does it read poorly, copy stuffed with keywords hurts your SEO. In fact, Google’s new content update is specifically targeting this practice, called “search-engine-first content,” in favor of high-quality, helpful content written for humans.

  • Cloaking

    Have you ever clicked on a link expecting to read content related to your search term only to find something totally different? Then, you have experienced cloaking, the practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines.

  • Link farms

    Link building is good for SEO but not all links make the cut. Done wrong, your site will suffer the consequences. If your SEO company makes use of link farms — sites developed only for link building — it puts your credibility and rankings at risk since search engines like Google can easily detect them. White hat SEO tactics, like producing intriguing content that naturally acquire backlinks, require effort but generate a lot of value over time.

  • Paid links

    The buying and selling of links is a big no-no. This includes both sending free products in exchange for links, or paying someone else to link to your content. Doing so puts you in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and leads to penalties for both the buyer and the seller.

  • Bad content

    Content should deliver value to the searcher. Plagiarizing content, inserting “invisible” keywords, and “bait and switch” tactics to trick search engines to deliver visitors to a page that doesn’t correspond to their search, are bad both for users and SEO.

Check their own SEO

When we say this, we don’t mean check their search rankings, though that’s certainly a factor. If they have a newer site, or are in a really competitive niche, they may not rank on the top page, especially if they’re white hat—it can take a year of hard work to have strong, consistent rankings. Rather, check to see if they do the little things correctly.

When you search for their company name, are they the first result? What are the other pages that come up with their branded search—have they taken the time to set up pages on Facebook, Yelp, LinkedIn, and elsewhere? Does their meta description—the text just below the site’s title—make sense and make you want to learn more? Have they properly set up their Google My Business page so that their business is described in the sidebar of Google’s search results?

Look at their portfolio of previous work

Do they actually list clients they have worked with? Do they provide case studies? Are there customer reviews on other sites that reflect their claims? There are some reasons to keep your clients private, but the majority of SEO clients are more than happy to have their name and link on the SEO firm’s site. After all, it’s free publicity. If you can’t find any evidence of them doing work for real companies, there may be a reason.

Ask for clear deliverables

The rates charged by SEO firms vary widely. You’ll find firms that charge by the hour, offer monthly rates, or charge a fixed one-time price. Regardless of their fee structure, a reputable firm will provide a clear and concise description of what their services include, how long it will take, and what their goals are. Make sure you understand the deliverables. As a general rule, very low or very high quotes accompanied by vague work descriptions or wild “guarantees” do not bode well for success.

Prepare to answer questions

What kinds of questions did they ask you? A trustworthy SEO firm will strive to understand your customer base, your site’s current performance (they will often ask for access to your site’s analytics), and what your goals are for your website and your business. In turn, they will lay out reasonable goals.

They won’t guarantee first page in a set amount of time, but they will work to maximize the ROI of your investment. Oftentimes, when you walk into an interview with a solid SEO firm, you’ll find that they’re the ones asking the questions. Don’t be intimidated. They are just trying to understand your business on a technical and cultural level, because they know that SEO isn’t a one-size-fits-all process.

Keep monitoring search engine rankings and your overall performance

If you hired an employee, you would make sure you could work well together long-term during the probationary period. You should do the same with the agency you choose. Make sure they report to you on what they’re doing, and the results of their work.

Understand that you’re trusting your online reputation with another company–make sure they have your best interest in mind, not just their bottom line.

If you vet a company you’re considering using the methods described above, you’ll likely find yourself with a great agency that is dedicated to growing your rankings, your leads, and the profitability of your business.

Questions?

Do you have questions for us about SEO or any other digital marketing needs? We’re always here to help. Contact us today.