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Let’s be honest. Search engine optimization (SEO) sounds a bit like a scam on the surface. Google is a search engine designed to give people the best, most relevant and most authoritative results possible. SEO is a collection of tactics designed to “game the system” in a way, ensuring that your site ranks higher in search engine results pages (SERPs).
In practice, SEO is not only ethical, but beneficial to the online ecosystem as a whole. To rank higher in search engines, you have to create amazing content, improve your reputation and serve users as well as possible.
The problem is, not everyone working in the SEO industry holds themselves to high ethical standards. In fact, a lot of SEO companies (and freelancers) deliberately use low-quality, spam-like tactics for their clients — and have the gall to charge for the service.
Related: How to Pick Your First SEO Keywords
So what can you do to detect and avoid scams if you’re working with a service provider?
The threat of scams
Most industries have to deal with fraud and scams in at least some areas, but in SEO, the problem is especially pervasive. Moreover, the consequences of working with an unethical company can sabotage your long-term potential.
- Penalties. Breaking Google’s terms of service, or practicing SEO the wrong way, doesn’t just lead to a lack of results — there are negative consequences in the form of Google penalties. In a best-case scenario, you’ll drop rankings and lose visibility. In a worst-case scenario, you could be manually delisted from Google search results altogether.
- Reputational damage. Spammy companies will tie low-quality content and manipulative links to your brand name. One or two infractions might not make much of a splash, but over time, a bad SEO vendor can do some major damage to your reputation.
- Lost money. Of course, you’ll also stand to lose money in the process. Low-quality SEO agencies are usually cheap, at least comparatively, but with no results to show, you could still stand to lose hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Due diligence when sourcing SEO services
Fortunately, even a bit of due diligence is enough to detect scammers and unethical practitioners in the SEO industry.
- SEO fundamentals. First, it’s important to learn the fundamentals of SEO. If you know what it takes to increase your rankings (and do so responsibly), you’ll be in a much better position to determine whether your vendor is following proper procedure.
- Staffing and processes. You’ll need to investigate each prospective company’s staffing and processes. In other words, who is the team responsible for doing this work? What work will they actually be doing? It’s not enough to trust the vague promise of “better SEO results.” How are they going to get there?
- Reviews and testimonials. You’ll also need to look at reviews and testimonials, which serve as third-party indicators that an institution is trustworthy. Reviews and testimonials can be faked, but if a company is practicing illegitimate or manipulative tactics, you’ll eventually hear about it somewhere.
Related: 7 Reasons Why SEO Matters for Every Startup
Red flags with SEO providers
As you’re doing your due diligence, these are some of the biggest red flags to look for.
- Big promises. SEO is a strategy that takes a lot of time and effort. It often takes months, or even years, to get to rank one for a competitive keyword. If someone is promising you fast or guaranteed results, you should be skeptical.
- Cheap prices. In the SEO world, you get what you pay for — for the most part. If an agency is offering a service for a much, much lower price than their competitors, there’s probably a reason for it.
- Non-native writers. The best written content comes from experienced native speakers. Too often SEO companies outsource their work to inexperienced writers in developing countries to cut costs; and in most cases, this content simply isn’t good enough to help you rank.
- Unclear processes. Is this SEO provider ambiguous or unclear about the processes they follow? Do you find it hard to find details on their website? If so, it’s a red flag.
- Deliberate violations of Google’s terms of service. Google makes its terms of service quite clear. Keyword stuffing, link spamming and other such tactics should be avoided at all costs.
- Lack of transparency. When you ask questions of this provider, do you get a straight answer? Or is it hard to get an honest response?
- Pushy salespeople. Shady SEO agencies often employ pushy salespeople who push you to sign a contract as quickly as possible.
- Reputation issues. Bad reviews or a negative reputation in the industry should speak for itself.
Scams in SEO aren’t always super obvious, but if you’re willing to do your due diligence, you shouldn’t have trouble separating the wheat from the chaff. The more experience you gain in the SEO industry, the easier it will be to spot the unethical scammers.