Unfortunately, if you're not experienced with SEO, it can be difficult to identify bad practices. Even if you have your suspicions, many shady SEO firms are familiar with smooth talking a hesitant client into closing a deal.
It's also difficult to say for sure whether a company will use shady practices before they start working. That means, sometimes, you won't see the tells until after you've made an investment.
Fortunately for you, there are some common signs you can watch for before and after to identify a less-than-ethical SEO.
If you notice these signs in scoping out a company, they probably don't have your best interests in mind.
1. They Solicit You from a Shady Email Address
This is the most common tell of a bad SEO provider, and there are actually two issues here. First, approaching you without any prior actions on your part. They'll send you an email that says something like,
"This is Blah Blah SEO Firm, we took a look at your site and it could use some work, it's not optimized, and your rankings are shite. If you hire us/give us your site login info/send us your social security number, we can get that fixed up for you right quick."
This is a major no-no in the SEO world. However, if you like the sound of their email, make sure you do thorough research before signing any contracts.
The second issue here is the weird email address. You'd be surprised how many people think DanTheMan420@yahoo.com is an acceptable business address. Do not trust an unofficial email address. Period.
2. Their Pricing Is Unbelievably Good
There's affordable SEO, and then there's cheap SEO. One gets you results for a decent price, one costs you way more than it's worth in the long run. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
SEO is very much "you get what you pay for." It's a service, and you're paying for hours of skilled work. The more you pay for each month, the more time the company will allot for your website. See these infographics (#1, #2) on the cost of SEO for more information.
3. They Make Grand Promises
Beware of an SEO who promises "#1 rankings in just a few days!" or any other huge, speedy results. Those promises may sound fine to an SEO newbie (after all, what are you paying them for?!), but the truth is you can't predict anything about SEO.
Google is a moody overlord and no one but Google understands exactly how Google works. Most of the time, Google doesn't release details about its algorithms and updates, and we rely on expert analysts to track patterns and figure out what changes have been made to the search engines. It's kind of like weather forecasting.
However, although we may not know how or why Google does what it does half the time, you're pretty darned safe if you use organic and ethical tactics. In other words, you want to be the tortoise in the Tortoise and the Hare. Rushing and forcing results is a good way to get burned.
Turtle good, rabbit bad.
4. They Don't Ask for Anything from You
SEO providers can't just waltz off and do their thing once you give them the go-ahead. They need certain things from you to do their job properly. Most importantly, they'll want:
- Names of your closest competitors
- Target keywords
- Access to your AdWords, Webmaster Tools, and social media accounts
- Access to your CMS
- Info on any past SEO work you've done yourself or hired out
- What you want to accomplish with SEO
Your SEO company will need complete access to your digital business to do their thing and track the results. If they don't ask for these things, they're probably involved in link buying schemes and you don't want to touch that with a 40' pole.
If you've already hired a company and you're having doubts, there's probably a good reason. Here are the most common signs of shady work in progress.
5. They Don't Tell You What They're Doing
What's the big secret? Not telling you what they're doing doesn't make them some wise and all-powerful Google shaman. It just makes them look suspicious.
When you ask about their methods, you should get detailed, easy-to-understand answers. This isn't rocket surgery, and there's no need to use big fancy words to mystify clients. If they tell you they're doing a "website audit" or "keyword optimization," they should also be able to explain what that means.
6. They Plagiarize or Duplicate Content
Speaking of the Tortoise and the Hare, stealing and copying content is a total hare move (turns out, he's kind of a dick).
"That's not very nice..."
Google has gotten quite good at picking up on duplicated and otherwise suspicious content. Remember how plagiarizing was an automatic fail in high school? Google isn't much different.
Your content should be original, unique, relevant, and valuable. Not just for the sake of your SEO, but for the sake of your visitors and customers. Google rewards websites that create useful content for humans, not for search engines.
If you notice content copied on multiple pages of your site, that's a very bad sign. It doesn't hurt to check for plagiarization either. Simply copy a few lines of text and pasting them into a Google search to check.
7. Their Main Tactic Is Link Building
Inbound links are the most influential component of an SEO campaign - if they're high-quality and organic. Back in April 2012, Google's most infamous algorithm update, Penguin, launched. Penguin brought the hammer down on link building schemes: sites that buy, sell, bribe, or otherwise inorganically obtain inbound links.
Before Penguin, this was the fastest way to get guaranteed results. So, a huge majority of SEO providers did their best to gather as many links as possible. When Penguin dropped, those tactics were severely penalized.
Today, there are still SEOs who think link building is the way to go. However, if they get caught, the consequences are far worse than the immediate benefits. If you find links to your site on unrelated websites, chances are your SEO provider is using these tactics.
8. Rankings Are Their Only Concern
Rankings are not the end goal of SEO. Any SEO agency worth its salt will be more interested in using rankings as a tool to increase traffic and lead generation.
Rankings tell you nothing other than your position in Google. So you've achieved position #1 for certain keywords - are you making more sales? Connecting with more influencers? Driving more useful traffic? What's the purpose of being #1 if you're not seeing benefits for your business?
High rankings with no results is a sign of our next issue: weird keywords.
9. You're Ranking for Strange Keywords
It's better to be #3 for highly relevant keywords than to be #1 for keywords unrelated to your business.
What does your business do? Do you provide manufacturing services, IT support, tourist information? No matter what you do, you should rank for keywords associated with the things you produce and the services you provide. None of the businesses listed above should be ranking for "organic dog food supplier" or "how to get into the baseball hall of fame."
If you notice your business showing up in search results for completely irrelevant terms, it's probably time to have a chat with your SEO provider.
10. You Get Penalized
This is the most obvious sign, and the hardest to come back from. If you've been penalized for your SEO agency's shady tactics, all you can do is fire them and find someone who can help you fix it.
Google will penalize websites that use tactics such as link building, keyword stuffing, spammy content, and other methods that create a bad user experience. Penalties can range from getting knocked down a few pages in search to being completely removed from search results, even for the name of your company. As you can imagine, it's pretty hard on business when you don't exist in Google.
Trust Your Judgment
These are ten of the most common signs of a shady SEO provider, though they will vary from agency to agency. All you can really do is trust your gut and keep an eye out - if something feels fishy, trust your judgment. Your business is too important to risk penalties and a bad reputation over some seedy SEO.