7 Ways to Know If Your SEO Company is BS

This blog is largely aimed at industry professionals, but sometimes we will address SEO clients, or the general public. I think being a good SEO involves communicating well, and hopefully some of the topics covered in articles aimed at clients can be useful for SEOs when they talk to their own clientsWhen a car salesman sells a car, the car buyer knows what a car is, what car dealers are, and how to drive. With SEO there are definitely knowledgeable buyers, but there are thousands who become clients in an industry they know little about.


This means that they can become easy prey to SEO companies that don’t really know what they’re talking about. While there is a sense in which results can speak for themselves, and there’s a bottom line return on investment calculation, it still might help for small businesses to be able to protect themselves from self-appointed SEO experts looking to make a few bucks in an undersaturated and expensive marketplace. Here are some tips for someone new to SEO and who plans to work with an optimizer:

Unclear or Poor Keyword Targets

You should know which keywords your SEO is targeting. You should know where you rank for these keywords, keeping in mind that the more obscure and long the keyword, the less point (traffic) there will be in achieving a ranking, for the most part. This is why SEOs that sell their services “by the keyword” are doing something strange. What keywords? How many people are trying to rank for these keywords, and what kind of traffic can you expect from success? That said, a good SEO might be able to generate lots of traffic through a large list of longtail keywords that produce large traffic in accumulation.

Basically, specific rankings mean little without the traffic they bring, so make sure you evaluate on organic non-branded traffic. People that guarantee top ten rankings for your keywords should have you raise an eyebrow, and those that price based on number of keywords are even sketchier.

Also remember that keywords have to be useful for you. Check where the traffic’s coming from, and make sure the likely searcher’s intent is in line with your conversion hopes.

Insufficient Reporting

Your SEO should be able to justify the expense for his or her services. Establish targets and make sure your SEO gets in touch at least on a quarterly basis, with ranking progress on the chosen keywords and corresponding traffic growth. Once your site is optimized, the number of links your site has should grow. Install Google Webmaster Tools to keep track. (Also, if your SEO has never mentioned Google Webmaster Tools, it’s not a disaster, but it’s not a good sign either)

Keyword Density Emphasis

Given how much this matters (not much), SEOs that focus on this probably don’t really know how to best spend their time/your money. That said, it’s even worse if they’re keyword stuffing. If the sentence reads horribly, with the keyword used almost every sentence, find new help. Of course, this applies to content producers by trade, too.

Search Engine Submission Emphasis

Many SEO websites brag about submitting you to search engines, sometimes even with price structures that reflect how many they will submit to. This is problematic on many levels. It has minimal SEO effect, so any focus on this means they are neglecting more impotant things, or they think it sounds impressive so they pretend it’s actually important. There are only a couple of search engines that really count (Google-Yahoo-Bing). Traffic comes from people. How many search engines do you or anyone else you know use? On top of that, submitting is very different from ranking. If this is on the short list of “things they do” for you, you should probably find someone else.

Directory Submission Emphasis

Links are valuable when they come from relevant sources, and directories are just about the least relevant set up possible. Your link is included with tons of others, from a page with little content, and a large chunk are for money, against Google link-buy guidelines. Ask to see the links pointing to your site, and if they all seem to be directories, something’s wrong. You’ll see at the end of the day when your rankings aren’t great, but you might as well catch it early. This doesn’t mean all directories are a bad idea (Yahoo’s has a history of being useful), but it shouldn’t be the focus. Niche-specific directories can be useful for SEO (added link value from relevance) and direct traffic, but are generally rare.

Retainer Abuse

While a by-the-hour system has its drawbacks, it has some very trackable advantages. There is time put in for the money. That said, to land a really great SEO or team and have them on-call when you need them does take a little extra on your part, incentive for them to stay with you and give you attention. Don’t run away from a retainer model, but you shouldn’t be paying very much for nothing. If you want to go retainer, make sure you give them all they need and move their suggestions forward, and it can be well worth your time and money. There is always something to do, though, and if you’re really paying someone to be there for emergencies and questions, you shouldn’t be paying a fortune. Retainers also give a peace of mind in asking for help and suggestions, when you know you’re not always on the clock, and can be great for helping you learn about SEO. You might want to suggest a retainer model based on performance and agreed upon expectations (controlling for seasonality). If the SEO is not against the idea, it could be a good sign. If they’re against it, it’s a bad sign. Remember, the goal is non-branded organic traffic, or conversions, if applicable.

Information Hoarding

A good SEO should be confident in their expertise, and know that no matter how much they train you, they will still be of great use to you as a hire. The first SEO I met as a webmaster would flat out answer any questions I had, which was impressive and encouraging. Your SEO should be open with you, and comfortable with explaining whatever you want to know about. Being secretive about information is an indication that the person might not know that much. Plus, good SEOs want their clients to know as much as possible so that they can accomplish as much as possible together and deliver maximum results. For a good and honest SEO, a knowledgeable client is a good client.

I consider those to be the main indicators. Have I missed any?

This article was originally written by Simon Abramovitch.

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  1. Good points – Just to clarify because I think it’s a salient point, what you’re implying when you say “or conversions, if applicable” is that if the client has a site with barriers to conversion like poor design/calls to action/checkout, and the SEO cannot affect change (a good SEO will try), it’s not logical to judge the SEO by conversions (even though SEOs should be expected to think about conversion potential in kw selection) – yeah?

    Sent on October 28, 2009 by Naoise Osborne
  2. Good point, and I’d add that the SEO should make it clear early on that those aspects need fixing, or share some blame. But I meant cases where the site’s goals are really purely traffic based, where the primary monetization is through ad impressions. The measure of the SEOs success would still be non-branded organic traffic, and the conversion metric wouldn’t apply.

    Sent on October 28, 2009 by Simon Abramovitch
  3. These are some terrific signs from people who’ve had bad experiences with prior SEO firms.

    Another warning sign is guaranteed listings.

    While I think performance based bonuses from rankings is good incentive, any seo firm claiming to guarantee rankings is making promises they can’t deliver since its beyond their control. They are either hoping the client is unaware that no one but the search engines know what will rank or they will say whatever the client wants to hear to get the contract. This is a sign of overpromising and underdelivering on their seo service. Honest and regular communication with realistic expectations are what a long term seo relationship is built on.
    Before going into commercial keyword selection, I look for sites content strategy: what do they have, does it need work, is it an asset. Then I look at how strong the conversion of the landing pages are. Those are two of the most powerful, non-seo factors that will help or hinder success in using the traffic brought to the client.

    Sent on October 29, 2009 by Vanessa Pagan
  4. Give a chimp a computer and it could do SEO. It’s not rocket science – great content leads to great SEO. I would also add that whomever is in charge of SEO should be well versed in the tools of the trade: Google Analytics, Adwords, LBC, etc. are all great SEO tools. They are also easy enough to use that the average Joe like me can keep track of our SEO. It’s important that your SEO gives you access to these tools too!

    Sent on October 29, 2009 by John
  5. Nice post!

    I would add: look at the company’s site. Does it have analytics? Title tags? Meta descrip tags?

    If not, say goodbye.

    This topic reminds me of Network Solutions’ old pitch at the end of every call: For $500 they’d guarantee me top 10 rankings on whatever keyword I wanted.

    I always wanted to take them up on the offer for “sex”, “Google” or “Internet”.

    Seems like a great investment!

    I think they got rid of that promotion tho (or at least they don’t offer it to me anymore).


    Sent on October 29, 2009 by Josh Fialkoff
  6. I disagree with you that reluctance to take a performance-retainer model should be a strike against any SEM firm.

    Modern SEM is a process which involves clients’ participation more than ever. No longer are SEOs sitting in the back room doing mad scientist work while the client goes on with the status quo. SEMs who attach retainer payments to (very) unpredictable client participation levels are demonstrating their naivety in the industry and severely limiting their earning potential (and morale.)

    With a fixed price retainer, clients have awareness the clock is ticking, and it puts healthy pressure to give the SEM project its due priority.

    I’m not saying there should not be performance milestones in a SEM project! But I’m saying that, these days, performance against those milestones is as much a client’s responsibility as the consultant’s. If the SEM does not perform against those milestones, then the client can choose not to renew their retainer.

    Sent on October 29, 2009 by Scott Clark
  7. Great post..I still get new clients that are weary of the term SEO because of former snake oil salesmen. They get so caught up on their meta-tag kw’s and search engine submissions because the last SEO Company totally BS’d them.

    Sent on October 29, 2009 by NegativeSEO
  8. @Scott

    Fair point. Being entirely performance-based has definite risks for the SEO, for the reasons you mentioned. If there is still a base pay regardless of performance, the SEO is at least somewhat protected. If there is constant and clear communication about what the client can (or can’t) expect if their end of the bargain isn’t kept (ie. “You will get NO results unless you do X.”), I can’t imagine the client would cut off the SEO. And if they do, serves them right and the SEO should probably look elsewhere for a better client.

    A working timeline to define both SEO and client responsibilities can go a long way to help the commitment, especially early on when client participation is most key. Making it explicit isn’t foolproof, but it helps.

    Performance bonuses (as opposed to an entirely performance-based package which suffers from the risk you describe) are usually win-win, since it gives the client confidence that the SEO has something to work hard for besides just keeping the contract going. Plus, in many cases, the performance will result in the funds available to pay the extra money!

    Thanks for the feedback – the point did need elaboration.

    Sent on October 29, 2009 by Simon
  9. i would had : deliver no results

    Sent on October 29, 2009 by Remi Turcotte
  10. “add” not “had”
    sorry for my bad english !

    Sent on October 29, 2009 by Remi Turcotte
  11. a good list. will make some conclusions for selecting SEO team next time

    Sent on October 30, 2009 by Joe
  12. I understand the importance of long tail keywords, but some clients will be so particular about the targeted keywords and wouldn’t like to take the advice.
    Such cases we are helpless.

    Sent on October 30, 2009 by IMGuru
  13. Yeah the deals that are $49.95 per/month and come with guarantees are ones to really watch out for as well.

    Sent on October 30, 2009 by Nick Stamoulis
  14. I’m a little mystified by the “never mentioned Google Webmaster Tools” remark. I can’t speak for you, but many of my clients don’t even care to know about Google Webmaster Tools.


    My clients have a business to run. They don’t want the company website to eat up their time. They don’t want to learn SEO and webmaster duties. That’s why they hire me.

    [ You could say that about the plumbers, electricians and other trades people a business might hire as well. They don't want to learn the nuances of their trade, just get the job done right. ]

    Interesting enough, even my analytic reports are often met with a furrowed brow. Simply searching Google using the desired keyword phrases provides my clients with most of the information they want.

    Charts and graphs look sexy, I’ll be the first to admit, but require mental cpu cycles my clients have committed to being the best they can be in their markets. The charts and graph and metrics are for me to parse and create actionable suggestions.


    Sent on October 30, 2009 by SEOCopywriter
  15. Something to be said regarding the “long tail keywords”.

    It should not be the first thing an SEO will concentrate on, but long tail keywords are very important … let me say that again … very important.

    When someone starts a search it is usually a little vague. I like to use the Nike sneakers example. First search is for sneakers, then nike sneakers, then red nike sneakers, then high top red nike sneakers … I want the person who typed in “red nike high top sneakers” to arrive at my site … obviously they are specifically looking for something and this makes them a qualified lead, or purchaser.

    Exactly the type of visitor who will result in a sale.

    -Robert “BK” Kelsey

    Sent on November 1, 2009 by Ethical SEO
  16. I have to say the last two replies are spot on. The reason clients are paying someone else to do their SEO is because they’re busy running a business. It’s all well and good suggesting that they take time quizzing their SEO on best practise and methods, but I face an uphill battle every day trying to get clients to find twenty minutes for a brief chat about the essential things we need to get done.

    And Robert Kelsey’s spot on. Anyone who completely disregards long tail search and focuses on “traffic” as opposed to “conversions” is missing a trick.

    Would you rather be top of Google for something that gets you 1,000 hits a day and 10 conversions, or 500 hits a day and 15 conversions? I know which I’d choose.

    Sent on November 2, 2009 by Andrew FirstFound
  17. Hi your post is amazing, It’s incredible, I learned a lot about SEO and Man, this thing’s getting better and better as I learn more about internet marketing. Also as part of my ongoing mission to find the absolute best tools to make money, this is without a doubt at the top of my list. Everything happened so fast!

    Sent on November 3, 2009 by SEO Wanna Be
  18. @seocopywriter – well, a client still has to give access to Google Webmaster Tools, so the SEO has to mention it – if they don’t, it means they don’t use it – bad sign.

    Sent on November 14, 2009 by Naoise Osborne
  19. Nice Post! I was able to understand on how clients disagree of long targeted keywords.

    Sent on December 11, 2009 by Pamela | link buidling services
  20. Great article with some very valid points that anyone who is considering enlisting the help of an SEO service should reflect on before acting. I would say that you should, if possible, get a word of mouth referal. If this is not available ask for references (over 2 years old) that can be followed up and investigated. You should then check the references for their current PR and positions for their meta keywords.

    There are definately some honest SEO’s out there, but they are not usually the cheapest or the ones that call you up.


    Col :-)

    Sent on March 5, 2010 by Colin from Norwich
  21. Definitely good points. It’s been a huge problem in the SEM industry for consumers to know if they are dealing with a reputable SEM company.

    There is a new service that audits SEM companies so that the consumer can feel safer doing business with them. Google verified SEO for more details.


    Sent on March 19, 2010 by Charles
  22. I agree, these are great points. If only there was a way to educate the ignorant that are only searching for low prices, instead of quality results…

    Sent on February 18, 2011 by Steve | Toronto SEO Service
  23. Good discussion. It’s great that you make this forum available. As I see it, the portrait of the client presented in the initial post is now dated. Any Director of marketing should know by now what is and how to measure SEO. In addition, if a Director of marketing does not know how important his Internet presence is to his ultimate success in the market, he or she needs to retire. SEO consultants that have the best prospects have learned to be collaborators. Clients now know what you do, and need experience helpers not SEO-ZARs.

    Sent on March 8, 2011 by Stephane
  24. I think the biggest problem today is that everyone thinks they are an SEO expert. These so called ‘experts’ ruin it for the rest of us. But that shouldn’t scare us, as these burnt clients will eventually fall into the hands of a good SEO company.

    Sent on April 10, 2011 by Naveed Chaudhry
  25. I agree that before enroll in any business or being a client of any service you should be aware with their some important points. You have clarified all those points. Also if you are a client you should understand, there is no rocket science to generate traffic very fast, it takes time.

    Sent on April 24, 2011 by Geeb | Twitter Marketing
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