How to avoid Snake Oil SEOs

How to avoid Snake Oil SEOs

I got a lot of stick recently for daring to say we Small Business types should try to do Search Engine Optimisation for ourselves instead of hiring expensive agencies or consultants.

So let me clear a few things up.

I think hiring an SEO type is fine if:

  • You don’t want to learn SEO – We all have a lot on our plates, and making informed decisions about what you do and don’t want to learn/do yourself is crucial to your business success.
  • You can afford it – You’re looking at anything from $1,000 (for the cheapest) to $15,000 or more a month. And most will ask you to commit to at least six months.
  • You can justify it – You feel the cost will be worth the return on investment.

But remember – SEO is a gamble

(In fact, if they offer any kind of “Page 1 in 6 weeks” type promise, it’s a good sign that they are f**kwits.)

Often, the only way to find out if using an SEO consultant is right for your business, is to give it a go and see what happens.

But if you’re going to take the plunge and use an SEO agency, how can you tell if they’re legitimate experts?

How can you be sure they’re not snake oil SEO salesman trying to steal your hard-earned dollars with big promises?

Here are few questions that could help you out:

How will you measure my site’s success?

If they say rankings, put the phone down immediately. While ranking is important, it’s not the be all and end all. You need an SEO type who can see the full picture and not only help your site rank but also help you turn prospects into customers.

What’s your first move?

A good SEO type will generally start with an audit of your existing site. They’ll evaluate it against a set of technical criteria—structure, content, back links, social media reach and many other factors. Then they’ll create a list of fixes.

What’s your plan?

A qualified SEO type should be able to map out what they plan to do each month, and explain why they’re following that particular plan. If they talk about a secret formula, ask them to explain it.

SEO is not a dark art that only the technically-minded can comprehend.

If they start talking in terms of numbers, such as 1,000 directory listings or 100 article submissions, be worried. Good SEO is about quality, not quantity, and one good piece of content can trump a thousand crappy links.

How will they update me?

Find out how and when they’ll be sharing results with you. Who is your point of contact? When will you meet to discuss tactics? Open communication is one of the main reasons SEO relationships fail, so it’s important to get it locked down from the start.

Some of the things you should be asking for are:

  • Link building reports – so you can check on the link quality
  • Monthly results reports
  • Quarterly reviews – where you sit down together and work out next steps.

What’s your speciality?

Most SEO types specialise in one area or another. For me, it’s content. For others, it might be link building.

Ask them to talk about their area of expertise in more detail, and why they think it’s important. If you hear passion and enthusiasm in their voice, it’s an encouraging sign.

How do you get links?

Give your SEO three link target websites, and ask what strategy they’d use to get a link from each of them. Again, listen to their answer. Are they clear or confusing? Does their answer sound feasible or fanciful?

What will the next Google algorithm update mean for SEO?

No SEO has intimate knowledge of exactly how Google’s algorithm works, and if they pretend they do they’re big fat liars. Sure they can guess, but they shouldn’t be absolute about anything. There are fine lines between confidence, arrogance and idiocy.

Oh, and as for the whole “We know someone at Google” line, I call bullsh*t.

Who else have they worked with?

Ask for the contact details of previous clients, and then get their feedback. Are their previous clients happy with what they got? If your SEO company is reluctant to give out references, I’d be a little concerned.

Anyone can get a site ranking short-term, but dodgy tactics will burn them after a while.”

Luke Chapman, SEO Manager at VroomVroomVroom

Of course you could ask many other questions, but these should give you an idea of your SEO’s character. If you want more tips, check out this excellent advice from Google themselves.

Two questions to ask yourself

1. Did they contact you?

You may be okay with a little cold selling now and again (personally I’m not). But I’ve never emailed or called a client out of the blue trying to sell my services. I get most of my work through word of mouth, so I don’t need to.

If a company has to randomly email you, what does that say about their expertise and demand for their services?

As Dave Elliott from BBI Brandboost puts it:

“If they get in touch with you through your enquiry form, RUN!”

How did you feel after the call?

  • Are they easy to talk to, friendly, understandable and calm?
  • Do you feel you were getting straight answers?
  • Did they give you time to ask your questions, or was it a monologue?

If they jabber gobbledygook about processes, waffled on about algorithms, used a heap of techie jargon and generally made it sound totally confusing, I’d recommend moving on.

If your SEO gives you a bad vibe, don’t brush it off. Trust your gut, and never ignore your instincts.

Three quick SEO scams to watch out for

  1. ‘We’ll add your site to hundreds of search engines’: No doubt your audience uses only one or two search engines.
    Which ones are they using? They’re the only ones you should care about.
  2. ‘We’ll get you first page ranking’: A page one position sounds pretty good, right? But in reality it can mean as little as 2.4% of the traffic share for that keyword.As outlined in this article ‘4 Golden Rules of Buying SEO”:“Page 1 is great, but positions 7-10 are not.”
  3.  ‘We’ll get you position one ranking for <random phrase>’: Getting you to the top spot for some random phrase (that no one searches for and has zero competition) is pretty easy.Again, from Tolliday:
    “For an obscure keyword that no one is actually using, ranking at #1 doesn’t count for much.”

Setting Key Performance Indicators

Agreeing on specific goals for your SEO company is important. So what should they look like? James Norquay recommends the following in his article ‘Tips for Selecting a company to do your SEO’.

1. Increase in organic and branded SEO traffic by x per month.
2. Increase in conversions from organic traffic by x per month.
3. Increase in referral traffic as a result of link building by x per month.

You may also have additional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for your business, such as increasing newsletter signups or subscriptions to your YouTube channel.

Self-education is STILL important

Even if you do decide to pay an expert to do your SEO, it’s worthwhile understanding what’s what.

I don’t care what anyone says. You can learn the basics of SEO in a few weeks. The Beginner’s Guide to SEO is a great place to start.

Over to you

Are you working with an SEO company? How is it going? What questions did you ask to make sure they were right for your business? Share your thoughts below.

Thanks to the people I’ve mentioned, as well as Alistair Lattimore, Kyle Bullock, Joel Chudleigh, and Neha Bawa for their thoughtful contributions to this article.

Did you like this post?

You might like my book ‘Confessions of a Misfit Entrepreneur | How to succeed despite yourself’ – buy it online here.

Want to have a chat?

If you need a Copywriter, SEO Consultant or Information Architect, then please contact me.

The Recipe for SEO Success
The Clever Copywriting School


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  • Kate

    Every now and then I have a conversation with a so-called SEO expert in my local area.

    I often hear them say stuff like ‘You’ve got to blog at least twice a week’, ‘You shouldn’t give out Do Follow links to other websites’ and ‘You only want backlinks to your static pages NOT your blog’.

    If I were to take one on, I suspect I’d end up paying them to screw up my SEO not improve it.

    • Well a some of those things are pretty much true – to some degree or another! But I often wonder why SEO companies are so aggressive in their tactics. You don’t often see designers or writers scouting for work!?

      Thanks for commenting!!

      • Kate, Yeah I get loads of those aggressive spammy-style emails from SEOs saying that they’ve done an audit of my site and that it desperately needs their help.

        For a laugh, I sometimes check out their own site, and realise that if anything they desperately need mine.

        And BTW, when an SEO tells me that I shouldn’t be giving out Do Follow links to other websites, here’s how I reply: ‘If you don’t give out Do Follow links to other sites, then how can you expect other sites to give them to you’

    • Bridie Jenner

      I have to say, I take all the “you must blog regularly” stuff with a gigantic piece of salt. First off, I haven’t blogged regularly in about 12 months and I am still climbing the ranks. Secondly, I’ve seen competitors who have had higher ranking sites for years who have never blogged at all. Yes, I do think blogging can help as it creates content for people to share and helps with other keywords, but overall I think the whole blogging thing is way over-rated.

      • Blogging is just part of the puzzle, there is no one golden ticket to success. But if you forget SEO for a minute, wouldn’t you want to share tips and ideas with your customers anyway?

        • Bridie Jenner

          Of course, but at the moment there just aren’t enough hours in the day…

      • Then you’re missing out big time.

      • Hey Bridie

        I agree with you that not at all businesses have to blog and if you’re getting good traffic already, then you’re already doing something right. But I must admit I am a fan of blogging and I do believe that there are many add-on benefits to blogging apart from SEO. I do believe that SEO together with a content marketing approach can truly position you as a leading authority in your niche. And if not many others in your niche are doing this then this also helps to set you apart from everybody else.

        That’s how Jeff Herring developed a successful relationship counselling/coaching business. He started off by writing a regular column in his local paper. None of this competitors were doing this but he didn’t need to chase business, it ended up coming to him. That’s how he set himself apart because people started to trust him and felt like they knew him, even though they never met him. Just food for thought.

        But from a SEO perspective blogging does allow you to get traffic for some really fantastic long tail keywords. It’s personal choice though so if you don’t want to do it, then don’t especially if you do have a lack of time.

        • Very well said Shae

        • I fully understand both points of view on this blogging thing – both Shae’s and Bridie’s.

          That’s why, at the moment, I make sure I blog regularly, But ‘regularly’ means just once a month.

        • Bridie Jenner

          I agree, and I never said I didn’t like blogging or that it doesn’t have other benefits, but I read all the time “you MUST have a blog to improve your SEO” and from my own experience, it’s simply not true.

  • Nicole Leedham

    Great post (again) Kate. I can’t believe people actually ever say “yes” to the SEO cold-callers/emailers. But they must, because they keep doing it.

    • Thanks Nicole, perhaps they are the same people who transfer their life savings to Nigerian Princes?

  • CharlotteCalder

    Genuinely authority with warmth and approachability as usual, Kate! Also tweeted one of your gems.

  • Yasser Mohamed

    Well done Kate. As a small business owner who has met his fair share of snake Oil SEO’s I applaud your article. I got so sick of handing out money to these guys that I decided there are no honest SEO’s left in the world and I would have to do it all myself. After all no one is as passionate about my business than I am! I have taught myself the basics of SEO and you are right it isn’t that hard and I am now ranking in positions 1-3 on page 1 for many keywords and getting lots more conversions, so it can be done by a complete novice. However since joining Google Plus a few month ago, I have come to realise there are honest, amazing, wonderful SEOs still in the world and for that I am very grateful, because at some point I know I am going to want to hand the reins back to someone else so I can get on with other areas of my business. Having read this article and worked on my own SEO I now know what to ask and understand what makes a good SEO consultant and will be happy to pay for quality when the time comes.

    • Ah thanks Yasser – I think many SEO types act like precsious princesses. They seem terrified that if they admit there are any aspects of SEO that real humans can do themselves – they will lose all their business. It’s not true. To use a Plumber analogy – I can learn how to change a washer, but if I want to put in a hot water system I’m calling an expert.
      Your self education will be hugely useful when you do hand back the reins. You’ll see right through the bullsh*t!!
      Thanks for your comment and connecting on G+

  • Hi Kate, this article is completely on point. Great job. This is a post rankings world. The sooner small business owners realize this the better. I recommend measuring three things transparently. A little TLC never hurt anyone. Traffic, Links, Citations. ( sometimes I say clients and bundle citations up with links).

    • TLC I love it!! Thanks for commenting JB!

  • The Sydney Copywriter

    Great post. On point as per.

    Be interesting to see how long these ‘of the moment’ SEO businesses will last/evolve in the future. If at all.

    • From what I’ve seen they are all evolving into content production and blogger outreach agencies. More work for the likes of us!

  • BEKDiscordia

    Great article, Kate. I think any form of marketing (SEO included) is like a relationship- it has to build over time, genuinely, and with mutual benefit in mind. Anyone who thinks they can force rankings immediately, explode all over the shop with random links, and with no respect for Google, copywriting or how people search clearly doesn’t understand what they are doing.

    Do you think the deliberate attempts to make SEO sound like some big mystery contribute to people being sold the myth of the snake oil rankings? Or is there a degree of impatience on the client, too? If they are a little impatient and don’t want to make the 6 month time investment, what do you say to persuade them?

    • Well I always say that SEO is like a puppy, it’s not just for Christmas it’s for life. Yes, fixing your site is a one off job, but it will need tweaks to keep it up with the latest technology (for example responsive sites just weren’t an issue 3 years ago). Content needs to be written, but if you stuffed keywords in a few years ago, it will now need a rewrite to meet the new algorithm rules. And generating new, enaging content is something that needs to happen FOREVER!

      So yes I think that some clients are impatience, they want the results without the effort. They see SEO as ‘free’ advertising, but it is anything BUT!

      A good SEO an explain this in a rational clear way, a bad one just bamboozles!
      Thanks for your share and comment!

      • “And generating new, enaging content is something that needs to happen FOREVER!”

        God bless you.

  • So many good points Kate. And I’m with you – if your product/service is any good, you don’t need to ram it down people’s throats. Good marketing and word of mouth should see customers coming to you.

    It also makes me laugh when I get emails from SEO companies who say they’ve found my website online (hmmm.. probably because I’m already page 1 for many of my desired keywords) – yet they don’t have a website of their own, or a company name I can search.

    Credibility? ZERO! (particularly when said email is sent using a gmail address or worse)

    It really upsets me to see honest business owners who don’t know better get taken in my these clowns – which was part of the reason I was involved with a series of seminars to help educate local business owners on what to look out for. Having a client say to me “wow – I always thought this was so complex, but you make it seem really easy” was validation of everything you’ve just been talking about.

    Nice work chicky 🙂

    • Hey yes, I get those too. ‘Your site doesn’t rank for any of your chosen keywords.’ – Erm have you even LOOKED at my site dumb arse?

      And yes I totally agree it’s about making things as easy as possible. There are of course a lot of super clever advanced SEO tactics that it’s best to leave to the experts, but simple things like strong title tags, crawlable pages etc any SMB owner should be able to manage.

      • I actually got in touch with one of these guys to ask which keywords he was using to search and what he would suggest I needed to be ranking for.

        Surprisingly he got back to me, but his list included things like copywriting jobs, copywriting courses, how to become a freelance copywriter, etc. etc. None of which I have any desire to rank for because they’re completely irrelevant to my business.

        Perhaps they should rewrite their spam to “Your site doesn’t rank for any of OUR chosen keywords”.

  • Glenn Murray

    Hear, hear! It sux that there are so many snake-oil SEOs out there. A client of mine recently got taken for $22k for a year’s worth of ‘SEO.’ All he got was some badly spun bullshit articles, resulting in some very dodgy backlinks on some even dodgier sites and directories. Some of which were actually no-follow. My client has engaged a lawyer…

    BUT I do disagree with you on one point…

    I hear a lot of people saying SEOs shouldn’t be talking only about rankings. That they should be talking about conversions too, and helping you convert more. You said it here too – that increased conversions should be a KPI. But I think it’s fine for an SEO to focus only on getting you a better ranking. Assuming it’s for the right phrases. Here’s why…

    Conversion is mostly about:

    1) Your offer;

    2) The story your site tells. Its design, copy, calls to actions, information architecture, interaction design and imagery; and

    3) Your ability to convert phone calls / emails into customers.

    I’ve never seen an SEO company that can help you with all of that. Never. In fact, SEOs who can help you with ANY of that are as rare as hen’s teeth! (And they’ll charge a LOT more than $1k per month to do it.)

    Most SEOs are concerned only with on-site search-friendliness and off-site factors. I know there are a few out there who do conversion optimisation too, and some, like you, who do great content, but even those few can only help you with the second conversion ingredient above. And that’s best-case scenario.

    IMHO if you’re serious about conversion, get an expert to do it.

    Of course, all of the above assumes that by ‘increase conversions’ you mean ‘increase conversion rate?’ If you mean simply increase the number of conversions, then a good SEO should be able to help you with that, just by increasing the volume of qualified traffic. So, yes, if you want to split hairs, they are actually helping with conversions, not just rankings. But even then, I’d say the KPI should be around traffic, not around conversions.

    • Hey yes good point Glenn, even the most awesome SEO can’t do everything.

      At the end of the day your site design, sales funnel, copy, pricing and offer are a vital part of the conversion process, as is the email and phone interaction and you’re right I wouldn’t expect an SEO to help with that!

      So if your product is crap and badly price and your site looks like a dogs dinner no about of great Search Engine Optimisation will help.

      SEO is not a golden ticket and is just ONE PART of the marketing and sales mix.

      So I guess I meant it more as a connection thing. More traffic should lead to more conversions. But I agree with your sentence ‘if you’re serious about conversion, get an expert to do it.’

      Thanks for reading and commenting Mr M.

      • Glenn Murray

        Cool bananas. We’re on the same page then! 🙂

        • Great minds and all that.

          • Glenn Murray

            Group hug!

          • I do all of these things, but I don’t do copy. That’s Kates job. (joins group hug)

          • Kate does more than write copy. Check out her services page 🙂

          • John loves to pigeon hole me 🙂

          • Glenn Murray

            Hi John. Thanks for the reply. Can you just clarify. You handle ALL of the following, except copy???

            1) The client’s offer;

            2) The story their site tells. Its design, copy, calls to actions, information architecture, interaction design and imagery; and

            3) Their ability to convert phone calls / emails into customers.

    • He should have come to me.

    • That is a really good point Glenn because I must admit I’ve wondered
      about this too. I’m now really focussing on SEO and I’ve taken it upon
      myself to become really good at this and learn as much as I can to
      deliver an exceptional SEO service (IMHO I rather be really good a one
      thing than be a generalist in many things). While I can certainly help
      people get found and hopefully get conversions FROM the search results
      page, I’m not a conversion expert and it’s beyond my skill level to
      educate people what they should do once they reach your website and
      there’s still no sales or conversions. Of course I know conversion at a
      broad level but it’s one thing to get found (traffic), which is great
      but if you’re still not converting them once they reach your website,
      then I do also think that’s a separate skill set altogether. But perhaps
      I need to rethink my business model too. 🙂

      But I do agree that while getting traffic is great, at the end of the day businesses need to turn traffic into conversions.

      • Jeez Shae don’t come on my blog and compliment Glenn!
        Agree get me the traffic and I’ll worry about the conversion

        • Kate I think you’re awesome too. I’m just thinking in terms of my own business model – I know that businesses want and need conversion (rightly so) but I’m also honest enough to admit I’m not a conversion expert and don’t feel qualified to dish out that type of advice.

          • Ah cool. I’ll let you off then and we can’t be experts at anything, well not everyone can. Apart from Glenn and I 😛

  • Bec Christensen

    Great article Kate, I particularly liked how you recommended that everyone try to educate themselves even a little on SEO. I think if small business owners knew even a little more instead of consigning it to the too hard pile, it would be harder for the less reputable types to ‘baffle us with BS’.

    • Exactly and while I do agree that occasionally a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, I don’t really think that by learning the basics of SEO you can really get in too much trouble.

  • Genevieve Burnett

    Hi Kate. This is a great piece. Basically, it is extremely valuable for anyone trying to conquer the SEO monster. I was horrified that some people gave you a hard time for telling small business to do their own SEO rather than outsource it. I thought it was really good, practical advice. I suspect the biggest issue for small business is whether they have the time to do their own SEO. As we all know, it is a lot of work and it is ongoing. However, now you’ve given people a guide to avoiding the pitfalls if they do outsource. I am sure it will be much appreciated. Three cheers for you!

    • Yes it’s all about time and where best to spend your money, some businesses write their own copy, others do their own book keeping and others their own SEO. Of course it would be marvellous if we all had the funds to outsource everything other than our core skill, but that’s not always possible.

      Thanks for your kind feedback!

  • Aaron Agius

    This is a great post Kate.

    As we all know, the industry has had a bad name through all of the dodgy practitioners out there who make all sorts of guarantees and then do whatever it takes to get a site ranking on the front page of Google, all the while breaking Google’s TOS and lining up the site for a penalty that will take a reputable SEO company months to repair down the track.

    For what it’s worth on the whole trying to get small businesses to take care of some of their SEO themselves – i think it’s spot on. Small businesses generally learn a little bit of accounting, admin, sales, management and all the other things that are needed when setting up a small businesses and you don’t have the funds to pay professionals to take care of these tasks. As the income grows and they can hire professionals for different areas of the business, they are at an advantage because they know enough to know whether or not their proffesionals are reputable and doing the right job. Why shouldn’t this be the same with SEO?

    If people knew enough to know when their provider was doing the wrong thing it would save a load of problems further down the track.

    I think your advice in that post was good and was a good stepping stone for those wanting or needing to know a little more about SEO before they can afford to bring in the professionals.

    …and yea i agree, i would generally recommend avoiding SEO companies making 1st page gurauntees. The more reputable firms make guaruntees on things like ROI and profit increases through search traffic, after they have taken the effort to understand the businesses real goals and needs.

    • Thanks for commenting Aaron – great to have feedback from one of the SEO goodguys. Take note people!!

  • Emily Read

    Great post as usual! I would also add that knowing a bit of SEO doesn’t just benefit the small business owner – it also benefits the SEO they employ, because that SEO won’t have to explain every little thing to them. Makes everyone’s life a little easier!

    • Thanks Emily – that’s a really really good point!!

  • Nice work, Kate. On the money, and we need to keep getting this message out there. You put together a pretty compelling “argument” for helping people stay away from the SEO ‘fluff-n’bluff’ tactics. Thanks! -Ron.

    • Fluff and bluff – I love that. Thanks for reading Ron 🙂

  • james

    Great comments, and so many…snakeoil SEO is a subject that gets people excited…here’s to its extinction.

  • Mez Homayunfard

    Hey Kate, great article one which I will definitely share with our clients:-) I think “self education” and education generally is an important factor, probably the most important and where most buyers tend to slip up.

    The majority of business owners out there do not understand what is involved in the SEO process and this is where a lot of the trickery and hurt hopes and dreams occur. This is a great guide for the questions these guys can ask to arm them with the right info to make a good buying decision 🙂

    Great work as always.

    • Thanks for reading Mez, and I 100% agree with your comment. Self education can save a lot of confusion.

  • Ian Fong

    Ask the agency straight up for a reference/testimonial from a client – if they’re worth their salt they’d have proven case studies!

    • Very true Ian, thanks for reading

  • Spook SEO

    Totally agree with Luke Chapman, I’ve proved it myself, i like to experiment with any method including the shady ones, and yes it’s pretty easy to rank within 2-3 weeks any idiot can do it, but it never last too long.

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  • Possibly one of my Favourites. Nicely worded and straight to the heart of my anxieties. Cheers.

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