Those of us in the search community who have been around for a while can probably attest to this scenario: we’re at a trade show, speaking at a conference, or even having a drink at a bar and someone comes up to us to ask, “I’m paying $500 per month with an SEO company and I’m not happy with the results, can you have a look and let me know what you’d do differently?”
Unfortunately, assumptions, strategies and tactics change so rapidly in our industry that it’s hard for most small business owners to keep up, let alone try to research all the current news and advice that floods the blogosphere.
Accountability is something that is near and dear to most of the writers here on Search Engine Watch because we realize that as an industry, it's our duty to not only address all of the current search marketing and SEO issues for do-it-yourselfers, but also provide the know-how SMBs need to manage contract workers and agencies.
Whether you're considering hiring an SEO, or have already hired one, here are the top five giveaways that can help you identify SEO con artists and some tips on how to protect yourself.
1. The "Bait and Switch"
This is a classic SEO con-artist tactic whereby traffic is purchased from paid online marketing services as reputable as Google AdWords. Savvy coders might even rewrite the traffic coming from AdWords to make it appear as legitimate organic visitors in logs and web analytics reporting.
Expert advice: Use a combination of web analytics reporting and web logs to try and determine where the true referrer of traffic is coming from. Install Google Webmaster Tools or Bing Webmaster Tools (better yet, both!) on your site for a true search engine view of organic traffic and rankings.
2. Hijacking Affiliate Codes
Much like the bait and switch, an SEO con artist may also opt to rewrite affiliate tracking codes for SMB websites that have active affiliate programs. This will make their “efforts” look good, and affiliate traffic look much worse.
Expert advice: Affiliates that send traffic to your site that converts relatively well won’t vary much from month to month. Ensure you communicate with your top-converting affiliates on a routine basis, in some cases they will notice something awry sooner than you do. If you're on a first-name basis with them, they’ll tell you; otherwise they’ll just start referring traffic to the competition.
3. Social Media Smoke & Mirrors
Social media is a hot topic lately with the emergence of Google+ and the increasing persistence of personalized search results tied to your circles. Many SEO con artists will often push the need to set up a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and/or a personalized blog as the answer to your SEO woes. Creating a blog and making it appear legitimate can be executed rather cheaply, but that cheap content can also sink your rankings (and traffic) to the deepest depths of the search engines.
Expert advice: Unfortunately, without persistent updating and the social aspect of building a real community of followers – something only you can really do – most of these efforts fall flat.
4. Bare Minimum Meta Tags
There are still those companies that ask large sums of money to update meta tags on a website and that’s all they do. Updating meta tags is probably the easiest and most ineffective task any SEO can do, it really is the bare minimum.
Expert advice: Ask for an SEO audit of your site that includes a comprehensive list of recommendations with time and material estimates for each. This audit should list out all the changes the SEO intends to make on your site and their reasoning for making them. At the end of the day, you should feel comfortable what was promised was actually delivered based on the “before” audit of your site and even examples of source code.
5. Here One Minute, Houdini the Next
The classic con artist doesn’t stay very long in one place, so it isn’t uncommon that SEO companies disappear after 2 months into a year-long contract.
Expert advice: Go after reputable firms in the industry by asking for references. Engaging an SEO shouldn’t be any different than researching a contractor for improvements to your home. Pursue the same due diligence. Look for experts in all the right places, such as conferences, trade shows, sponsored webinars, and on industry organization websites such as SEMPO.
Have a horror story you’d like to share for my next column? Have any questions on how to detect a con artist? Leave me a comment below!