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4 Ways to Spot an SEO Scam

Beth Kahlich
4 Ways to Spot an SEO Scam

Throughout my years of working in the digital marketing world, one thing that has become apparent is that a lot of business owners don’t really understand what SEO is. You’ve probably heard the term thrown around, and chances are you know that Google looks for specific keywords, but SEO has moved well beyond the days of basic keyword research.

Because Google is in such a constant state of change, you might not have the capacity (and sometimes the patience) to keep up with what it takes to do digital marketing the right way – but you know it’s important. That’s the role of a digital marketing consultant.

Unfortunately, with all the changes in digital marketing, that’s also when all the scams come into play.

Don’t be the one with the SEO gone wrong.

We’ve all heard the spiel before:

“We’ll market your business at no cost to you!”

“Don’t miss out on this amazing SEO opportunity!”

“Increase your ranking in Google search – guaranteed!”

“We see that you have problems with your website.”

As a fellow business owner, I know what it’s like to be so preoccupied with other areas of your business that these one-liners sound like the perfect answer to the ongoing question of “how can I possibly improve my site?” – but that’s exactly what these services want you think! They prey on the unsure and the overwhelmed, offering a magic bullet fix for all things SEO, when, in reality, the services they provide have little to no value – and they even have the potential to critically damage your site!

Doing SEO Right — It Really Does Matter!

It can be tempting to take the easy way out when it comes to SEO and digital marketing. Why pay an SEO expert/agency $1,000-$2,000 per month when these seemingly legitimate companies are offering their own services for a fraction of the price? Sure, it seems great, but you need to step back and have a look at the bigger picture when it comes to your marketing strategy.

Before signing up for anything, ask yourself how a company claiming to offer a valuable service could do so for little or no cost? A legitimate SEO agency might charge $1,000 per month, but if that agency can help bring in 10 new clients per month, and if each client is worth $500, then you’ve just earned $5,000 of new business. That’s well worth the $1,000 service — and you won’t run the risk of damaging your site with shady SEO tactics. We hear the phrase “return on investment” and it’s especially true for Internet marketing activities.

SEO can really be a complicated business, but that shouldn’t deter you from seeking out legitimate digital marketing professionals to help you devise a proper strategy.

To my fellow digital marketing professionals I say this: strive to do a better job educating clients on the real value of SEO or any digital marketing initiative. As practitioners, we know that SEO gone wrong can have seriously negative results — but, when it’s done right, it really does work. We will have longer client engagements and better customer satisfaction by making education a priority in our business.

So, how can you spot an SEO scam, even if you’re not familiar with digital marketing?

Here are my top four red flags every serious businessperson should look out for when it comes to digital marketing scams:

  1. Superlative, Over the Top, “Too Good to Be True” Language

Any company that prides itself on having “the absolute best” product should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism — especially those that claim to be FREE with “no strings attached.” Not because these claims are untrue (it very well could be a great service), but overhyped language is often used as a smokescreen to disguise a lousy service, or even just a way to get you to sign up for a bunch of nothing.

For example, one of my clients runs a health clinic and she received an email titled, “We Market Chiropractors For Free.” This company promised that they would provide my client with patients, and that these referred patients would pay for the marketing expenses — the only thing my client had to do was sign up for the “FREE” service.

It turned out to be a scam, of course, but this kind of language is enticing enough to make you doubt yourself (who doesn’t want free marketing?). To avoid this kind of bait and switch, just stick to the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  1. Guarantees of Any Kind

Nothing in this life is guaranteed, and that’s doubly true for SEO. As I mentioned before, Google changes constantly — if you’ve ever seen the Moz.com list of SEO updates, that’s only one small clue — and competition is always changing too. So any service that claims it can guarantee you a top spot in the search engine results page (SERP) is almost certainly a scam to get your hard-earned money. Either that, or the service provider is using outdated SEO tactics to temporarily get you the results you want — when this happens, the only thing that’s guaranteed is that your future website traffic could be wiped out when it gets a penalty from Google.

  1. Random Cold Calling (and Emailing)

Cold calls and emails are the modern equivalent to the Mad Men-era of door-to-door salesmen — and while they can be effective, there are several things you should consider before doing business with a company that employs such tactics. First and foremost (when it comes to emails) is the grammar. Check to see if there are any glaring spelling or grammatical errors. If there are, chances are it’s just an email blast written by a spam bot. I’ve actually had clients that receive emails with the greeting — “Hello [Owner_First_Name].”

If the email doesn’t have any errors, though (or if you’re on the phone), another thing to look for is where the service provider is located. Foreign companies often lean toward spammy services that can harm your site, and these companies are particularly prone to employ cold calling tactics because it’s a cheap way to hook potential customers who don’t know any better.

To be blunt, it’s just a numbers game. These companies are all about making the sale instead of really helping business owners — that’s why they use low-cost email blasts and inexpensive call centers. Don’t fall for this trick!

Bonus tip: If the person sending an email ends their message with “I am not spamming,” odds are they’re spamming.

  1. “Act Now Before It’s Too Late” Messaging

This goes hand-in-hand with cold calls/emails, but it’s important enough to warrant its own bullet point: if a company is pressuring you to sign-up for a service because of “limited availability” or because it’s a “one-time offer,” you need to hang-up your phone or send that email to the spam folder.

A perfect example of this (and one of my personal favorites) is an email one of my clients received from a video production/marketing company that wanted to turn a 5-star review into a “commercial” — but seats were limited! My client would only get a spot if she contacted them back by the end of the week. However, this “commercial” was a canned video featuring an actress holding a green card that would be used to paste the text of my client’s 5-star review into the video. This company had several other videos online, all featuring the same actress saying the same thing, with just a different review in the text box — and they were selling that as a custom commercial for business owners! If the “act now” messaging wasn’t enough of a red flag, this certainly was.

The bottom line

You need to educate yourself when considering any kind of Internet marketing service. So many people take my classes because they’re unhappy with their current SEO service. Sometimes it’s because they got roped into some of the scams I highlighted above, but a lot of the time it’s because they just don’t understand what’s going on in the SEO world.

That’s why I teach my clients the core essentials of SEO and digital marketing, so that they can then go back to their current service provider and get better service. Knowing who and what you’re dealing with is the key to having a good relationship with any service provider, SEO or otherwise, and it can help you identify red flags — like the ones I highlighted above — to avoid falling into a scammy trap.

This one little step can save you a lot of stress, and a lot of money in the long run.

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Beth Kahlich is a Dallas-based digital marketing trainer and consultant. In addition to operating the SEO training classes at the Dallas Search Engine Academy, she currently serves on the board of the Dallas/Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association (DFWSEM.org) and is a continuing education instructor for SMU. Her students have included national and international firms from Fortune 100 companies all the way to locally owned businesses. Putting technical talk in plain English, her passion is empowering people to make better decisions about their online marketing.
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I have had all order of trouble with boost-local.co.uk. They use a subscription model and make it nearly impossible to cancel. Their response to billing problems is horrible. How can one avoid companies like this?
Brent Healy
This advice could be attributed to really anything you buy, right?
Beth Kahlich
Brent Healy
Absolutely Brent - I think there are many areas where people who are uninformed, but know something is important, and get pulled in by less-than-ethical companies.
Kathleen Garvin
Beth Kahlich
For sure, Beth. At my last company, we received many cold calls that used scare tactics to try and get us to use their SEO services. As an unsuspecting business with limited SEO knowledge, this was scary ("You'll be knocked off Google!"). Good post.