Imagine for a moment that we traveled back in time to the 1800s, into the dusty center of an old Wild West town and transported the local snake oil salesman right off his wagon, forward into 2015. How hard would it be for him or her to adjust to the present day? Possibly not that challenging, actually, for there are still plenty of decent (though uninformed) businesses searching for SEO answers.
Before I ruffle too many feathers, it's important to point out that there are many SEOs who are doing great - and ethical - things for their clients when it comes to helping them be more visible on the web. They know their stuff, they charge fair prices, and they get results. In fact, search optimization is an important part of what we do throughout our inbound marketing and lead generation efforts.
And yet, hardly a day goes by without me hearing another sordid SEO tale. It's even driving me a little bit crazy. A few of recent examples:
- A local business was being charged $1,000 per month for "SEO services", but was never given a progress report, SEO consulting, or any other proof of performance. (Instead, they simply received an invoice.) Huh?
- A company paid $99,000 over the course of a year for a pay-per-click campaign that generated 40-ish leads (none of which resulted in a sale). As each month passed, the SEO's recommendation was to increase the PPC spend (the SEO was paid on commission) to improve the chance of earning a higher quality lead. Anyone shaking their head with me?
- Another company came to us with a list of 100 links their SEO had been setting. Yes, link-building through free directories - in 2015! It took us 13 hours to undo the damage.
In each case, the decision-makers involved probably should have stopped paying for those "services" long before they finally did. But the ultimate blame falls on those who would consider us peers (not even close) - the snake oil-selling vendors spewing rankings promises or outdated tactics. After all, it's our job - as ethical SEOs and marketing partners - to help our clients get the results they need, not to fleece them because they don't know any better, or because they are just another billable docket.
With that in mind, I'd like to present to you with a dozen blindingly obvious signs your SEO partner totally sucks:
#1 Their Reporting is Vague or Nonexistent
If a company is doing great work for you, they're going to want to show you exactly why and how they are delivering, so they can retain your business. If your SEO team isn't giving you the details, there's very likely a reason why. Make transparency and reporting a requirement of your business relationship.
#2 They Don't Outline - or Refine - Their Plan of Action
It's easy to talk a good game when it comes to improving your Google ranking, but make sure you know exactly what the activities are going to look like before you start paying for them. The truth about SEO today, is that it's largely based on your content, which needs to be topically relevant and supported with regular updates and activity. SEO isn't about keywords the way they used to be, way back in 2012.
#3 There Is a Lack of Contact or a Failure to Respond in a Reasonable Amount of Time
It's probably a red flag for any business relationship if your vendor disappears once you start writing checks, but it's especially important that you get regular progress updates. They should want to tell you what they're up to, and want to know how it's affecting your business. Plan at least one meeting per month to review progress (or lack of), the competitive environment, and to plan or prioritize next steps.
#4 They Confuse PPC with SEO (or Try to Confuse You with the Difference)
Paid ads and organic search listings are distinctly different. If your vendor tries to show you that you've "reached the top of the rankings" outbidding your competitors, you know you've taken a very wrong turn. While you can pay Google to show your ads, you cannot pay Google to rank you organically (which is our number 1 goal).
#5 They Link an AdWords Campaign to Your Home Page
With an AdWords campaign, you are paying for every click that comes to your website. Those visitors need to be directed to high value landing pages where they can download information, learn more or make contact. Sending them to your home page is usually a waste of time and money because it'll be an extra step in your visitor's info-gathering process. Google will reward you for better link destinations with lower bid wins.
#6 They Burn through Your Budget Using Generic or Obvious Keywords
People will search using phrases that suggest intent. Focusing on higher-volume or common search terms means there'll be more competition, which means higher cost per click. A smart SEO will look for lower hanging fruit, and seek out search opportunities that the others are overlooking.
#7 They Use Keywords Associated with Your Company in Reports
If you don't rank organically for your own business name, you have a bigger problem than improper keyword/topic selection. In most cases, your website is going to rank very highly for your business name, brand names, and employee names regardless of what kind of search optimization you do. Don't let an SEO vendor pass off progress in these areas as value for your money.
#8 They Don't Ask You about Your Business at Least Once or Twice a Month
SEO only works when your business is seeing an increase in qualified leads. So your vendor can't know whether it's working unless they talk to you on a regular basis. They should be asking you to report as well. On a side note, this has to be one of the more challenging aspects of being an SEO or inbound marketer. Make it easier: the more you share, the more we can help.
#9 They Don't Inform You About SEO Updates
Google and the other search engines are constantly changing and evolving. If your vendor isn't telling you about these changes, they either don't want you to be able to manage it on your own, or worse, aren't keeping up with these constant changes themselves. Ask for updates and subscribe to their blog. If they are on top of it all, they should be sharing it.
#10 They Charge Commissions for Ad Budget Increases
Once a pay-per-click campaign is in place, increasing your advertising budget is often as simple as clicking a mouse. Sure, there can be more to it - especially if they don't have it set up properly, but just the same... Don't let a vendor charge you big money for work they should have done at the onset. Ideally, you should pay for campaign setup and a bit more for regular maintenance and keyword monitoring/tweaks, but it should be tied to effort, not how much you spend.
#11 They Hold Your Accounts Hostage
If your SEO, developer, or marketing company holds the keys to your analytics account, social profiles, or web hosting and is reluctant to share them with you, your business is seriously at risk. You need to hold the keys, and any access you grant them must be as a guest or manager in your account - with their own keys. Never tell them your passwords. In fact, don't even tell you mother what your passwords are.
#12 You Never See Any Real Results
One of the new clients I mentioned in the opening of this article would occasionally complain to their vendor and surprisingly see a few leads appear shortly afterwards. If you're seeing poor results, don't be swayed by big talk or a short-term bump in leads shortly after you complain or question (there are ways to game the system for a few days before Google catches up - no, we are not going to tell you about those!) :-)
In closing, I'd like to re-state that there are many ethical, helpful, and competent people out there honestly wanting to help you with your site's search optimization. At the same time, there's an endless list of less-than-ethical SEOs still engaged in the Wild West of SEO, plying their outdated trade. So if your SEO shows any of these warning signs, ask questions... If you don't get answers that make sense, start looking for a partner who deserves your business more.