Small Business Beware! The SEO Scam

SEO is 80% Scam - How to Protect Yourself


Been SEO scammed already? If so, you’re not alone.

I’ve now been involved in SEO for about two decades. Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve worked with literally hundreds of businesses, large and small, from Amazon to individual realtors, from Zillow to small industrial-equipment companies. Many of these businesses came to me after reading SEO for Dummies (or Search Engine Optimization for Dummies as it was named for the first five editions).

[For those of you who’ve been living in the proverbial cave for the last few years, SEO means Search Engine Optimization, and refers to techniques use to convince search engines that when somebody searches for blue widget, or whatever, your Web site is listed at the top of the blue widget search results.]

The refrain I often heard from these businesses was “we need help with our SEO,” and consequently I got to hear about the SEO experiences of numerous small businesses. What I quickly learned was, many of these companies were getting scammed.

Years ago, I posted an article on my Web site titled The SEO Business is 80% Scam. This led to various conversations with people in the Web-development and SEO business. I was initially nervous about this, assuming I’d get some push back at best, anger at worst. But what amused me was that overwhelmingly the response from colleagues was something along the lines of “really, only 80%?”

So let me be quite clear for you small business owners out there. It is well known in the Web-development, digital-marketing, and SEO arena that many of the SEO services being sold to small businesses are worthless (or at least worth far less than the fees paid).

There Are Decent SEO Firms & Consultants

Before I continue, let me just state that there are honest, knowledgeable consultants and firms out there.

They’re just in the minority. Sorry, but that’s the fact. How do I know? Because I’ve had the opportunity to see the results of numerous real SEO campaigns, shown to me by small-business owners. More commonly than not the SEO campaigns were useless… really bad on-page optimization, and useless links pointing to the business’ Web sites.

[SEO can be divided into two areas, “on-page”–things you do to your Web pages–and off-page, getting links from other sites pointing back to yours. With no good links pointing to your site, it doesn’t much matter what you do “on-page,” your site is unlikely to rank well in the search results.]

SEO is real. There really are things you can do to push a Web site up in the search results. It’s not that SEO itself is a scam; it’s that the business is mostly scam.

Two Types of Scam

There are essentially two types of scams.

The first is the outright scam. The company providing the service has little or no intention of providing anything of genuine value. Many small businesses think they need SEO (and often they do), but few small-business owners know what SEO really is. So they are easy to blind with science; a good salesperson can sign you up, and by the time you realize you’re not getting anything of value (because your Web site still can’t be found in the search results), you’ve paid months of fees, possibly thousands of dollars. The outright scam is, sadly, very common in the SEO world.

The second is the “accidental” scam. The barriers to entry are low; anyone can claim to be an SEO consultant, anyone can set up an SEO firm. So there are many, many people out there who really aren’t very good at what they do. They may have the best intentions in the world, but they simply can’t deliver.

A Special Category: Web Development Firms

Within the second category is an important subcategory; Web-development firms. It’s common these days–in fact has been for years–for Web developers (in particular Web-development firms rather than individual developers), to claim that they can and will “do the SEO” on your site for you.

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This is almost always untrue. Here’s an example. Not so long ago I was working with a Web-development firm that was developing a site for one of my consulting clients. This firm, like many (perhaps most), listed Search Engine Optimization on their Web site as one of the various services they provided. In fact they knew next to nothing about the subject. It was a battle to get them to implement the most basic SEO techniques. They had to have their hands held every step of the way. If I hadn’t been involved, my client’s site wouldn’t have been optimized in even the most basic way.

This is not an anomaly. Years ago the owner of a large Web-development firm confided in me that “we sell SEO services, but we don’t really know much about it.”

Here’s the takeaway: Regardless of what your Web developer says, you can’t rely on your Web-development firm to “do” SEO for you! That doesn’t mean there aren’t some developers who can do it; but most can’t.

How to Protect Yourself

So what do you do to avoid getting ripped off?:

  1. Educate Yourself: Learn the basics of SEO so that you don’t get blinded by science, so you can talk to Web developers and SEO firms and know whether what they are saying makes sense, and so you can evaluate the work being done. I have an 8-hour course on the subject on Udemy; learn SEO here for $10. You might read my book, SEO for Dummies. Or sign up for some other kind of training. But you, or someone in your organization, needs to be educated!
  2. Don’t Rely on Your Web Developer: I explained why above; before you let you developer deal with SEO for you, you need a good reason … they need to convince you they know what they’re doing (see #1, above).
  3. Check References: It’s really important to work with someone who has a track record. Don’t simply work with someone who you ran into at a seminar, or who contacted you by email and offered SEO services. You have to have a reason to believe that who you are working with knows what they are doing. The ideal is to work with someone with glowing reviews from a friend or colleague.
  4. Understand What They Are Telling You: It always amazes me how many business owners don’t know what they are getting for their money. If the firm can’t explain it clearly, you shouldn’t be working with them.
  5. It’s All About Links: I’ll write later about my theory that you should never pay a firm to “optimize” your site. But you may need linking services. If you buy linking services, you need to understand what kind of links you’re getting. If the firm won’t show you, or only creates garbage links (another subject I’ll cover later), you shouldn’t be working with them.
  6. Check, Check, Check: Keep an eye on what’s being done. You need regular reports, showing exactly where links are being created, and how your site’s rank is improving in the search results. (Again, I don’t believe in buying on-page optimization services… I’ll explain why in a later post.)

Worthless SEO services are the norm. The good news is, forewarned is forearmed. You don’t have to be one of the thousands of business owners who’s poured money into the SEO black hole!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.