While necking barely palatable coffee at a networking event last week, I got chatting to a lady who runs a commercial laundry service. As soon as I mentioned 'digital marketing', she visibly winced. I quickly established that it wasn't the coffee that caused the wince, but the memories of a recent and harrowing SEO experience...
Like most industries, commercial laundry (especially in the hotel sector) is highly competitive. The lady in question (we'll call her Valerie), was taking a real battering on the SERPs (from first page to page 5 for many terms) and set out to try and fix this. After doing some research, Valerie asked a number of SEO service suppliers to supply quotes, and settled on one that agreed with her budget. She also stated that the guy 'seemed genuine and to really know his stuff'. Once all had been agreed, the first thing that Val received was a list of sites and directories that the SEO Guy was going to attempt to get to link back to her site ('around' 1500 sites). Val was slightly suspicious as a number of the sites were completely irrelevant to her business, but SEO Guy assured her this was a good tactic and proceeded to establish these links. The agreed budget (over £6k), was broken down into two key areas - 'management time' and 'link procurement'. SEO Guy bought links. Loads of them. He emailed Val on a daily basis, very excited about the fact that numerous sites 'had agreed to link to her site and were delighted to be working with her business'.
Val's phone rings, it's a friend of hers who had been trying to find her site via Google to pass a specific link onto a friend who needed table restaurant linen cleaned, but Google wasn't returning any results. Poor Val panicked, called her husband and asked him to carry out a number of searches - he found her site in lower echelons of page 10 and below. The site hadn't vanished from the SERPs, but it had been relegated to a far worse rank than before. Clearly Google had applied a number of penalties due to the shady tactics employed by SEO Guy.
Val called SEO Guy. No response to a number of messages. She eventually got him on the phone and he claimed that the site must have been 'blacklisted' due to malicious activity such as a number of failed hack attempts and other such nonsense related to defacing and so on. Val checked with her site hosts and they had no record of any issues. SEO Guy was passing the buck, taking her money and ripping her off.
Val is fighting with SEO Guy to get her money back (next stop court most likely) and taking advice from the right people (not me at this stage) on how to recover the situation. I'll be giving advice once the clean-up has taken place on how to make things happen in a nice, non-purchased, non-rule breaking fashion soon. You can imagine the panic and angst that Val has felt due this chump's work and nobody deserves to be taken for a ride like that, but the fact is, that bad advice and bad people taking money for shoddy SEO work is still rife. That coupled with a lack of understanding among those buying these services is creating a nasty circle.
While tucking into my caviar and Elf's ear sandwich earlier today, the office phone rang. It was a chap looking for 'SEO services'. I explained our approach to SEO (in a nutshell - create great content, and the SEO will happen for you - that sounds far too simple, but it's the crux of our attitude to SEO) and after a slightly awkward conversation, the chap said 'yeah, but how many links will I get for my money?'. I explained that thinking like that is very old-school and may well lead to serious issues. He ended the call with 'well I just want links and soon'. So I bought him 4219 links and he is now on page 2129 of Google. I didn't really. I tried to educate but it was like speaking to a brick wall.
I don't know what the solution is to a) the 'experts' out there that are still shilling dangerous SEO services b) the perception within (some) businesses that these old practices are still valid and acceptable? Does Google have a job to do? Sure, Mr Cutts and all try to educate as much as they can, but busy business people aren't necessarily party to the blogs and videos they produce. Is there some kind of industry standard required to make sure that people who claim to be able to effect the SERPs aren't putting businesses in danger? Danger isn't over-egging it by the way, the wrong advice can cause serious damage. Maybe an open register of shoddy SEO suppliers that people who have been burned can name and shame the perps on?
If you do want some excellent SEO education, I'd suggest reading the MOZ blog and having a good look through their resources.
The lady in question (fake name) was happy for me to use her tale as a warning to others.
What do you think? What can be done to help? Has your business been burned? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.