How to identify an SEO scam?

Delicate and complex a journey as SEO is, there are plenty of wrong turns that a company can take here. From underestimating its importance and time frame to attempting to implement it without so much as a consultation. But in truth, one of the harshest mistakes that businesses can make with SEO is to get behind the wrong team. Whether you have your goals set on hiring an in-house SEO expert or a professional SEO agency, you need to make sure either one is worth the investment. And that might require some knowledge as to how best to identify an SEO scam and avoid any fraudulent “experts” in the process. In this article, we cover the most common SEO scams and how best to steer clear from them.

The usual red flags that can help you identify an SEO scam?

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By understanding the universal red flags for SEO fraud, you will be equipped to identify an SEO scam.

Despite being such a wide area of expertise, with tens of thousands of agencies and individuals competing for bragging rights, SEO operates much like any other industry. The same rules apply when it comes to spotting red flags, and you really need is the most basic of knowledge, and perhaps a third-party opinion to confirm your doubts. And it falls on the business owner or its employees to recognize the universal signs for scams. Of course, it never hurts to have a professional digital marketing agency to consult with on the matter.

As an agency that offers a wide variety of services, Digital Dot understands the inner workings and tactics of those are only interested in a quick payday with no results to bolster it. After all, every niche has its fair share of companies that take advantage of clients, using their inexperience against them to earn a payday. To help anyone that wants to avoid such a fate, we have a simple list of red flags that can help you identify potential SEO scams:

  • Unrealistic verbal promises with no actual guarantees
  • Bold claims of having insiders where it matters most
  • Hiding behind complex terminology
  • Use of outdated techniques and strategies
  • Undefined pricing plans
  • Lack of references or portfolios

These are all universal red flags for the most part. However, let’s see just how exactly they fit inside the world of SEO:

Unrealistic verbal promises with no actual guarantees

Painting an optimistic image of what an individual or agency can do for you is a well-established sales tactic. However, there is a line between positively optimistic expectations and outright claims of complete success. With SEO, businesses need to understand that no results come overnight and that nobody can make guarantees as to just how successful those efforts will be.

Google’s algorithm and those of other search engines hold the dominant role here. Add to that other factors such as industry type, competition, choice of keywords, quality of your products/services, etc. – and you get a lot of different possible outcomes.

The more realistic scenario

Legitimate and effective SEO strategies are those that are planned upfront and long-term. Even agencies that are focused on a single industry will take their time to research your market and current rankings before offering an actual plan of action. And even when they explore your efforts so far, your website, and all the external factors, they will still refrain from making any guarantees of results in a short time frame. Instead, you need to be prepared for predictions at first, ones that will be analyzed over time and potentially converted into actual goals.

Bold claims of decoding Google

This is one of the most absurd claims that you can hear from both digital marketing agencies and freelancers. The simple truth is that nobody has knowledge of how Google’s search algorithm works. Some SEO specialists understand certain fragments of it through research of various updates and past experience, but nobody has the entire picture. That is why any such claim should be dismissed as a desperate attempt to sign you as a client.

The more realistic scenario

Good and reliable SEO specialists understand just how unpredictable and complex Google’s algorithm can be. That is why they invest time and resources in constantly testing strategies, conducting research, following new updates, SEO trends & statistics. No one has insider knowledge, but those with years of experience and a rich portfolio can offer claims of understanding what works and what doesn’t.

Hiding behind complex terminology

One of the oldest tricks in the book is to confuse potential clients by using complex terminology and definitions to hide behind. Companies start asking questions about certain steps and tactics, wanting to learn more about what they’re paying for or simply to double-check the reasoning behind it all, and alleged SEO specialists start using complex explanations and reasoning that only serve to confuse you even further.

If you want to identify an SEO scam, all you need to do is ask them for an explanation of their strategy. The more experienced and reliable ones will be able to offer you a simple explanation, no matter your pre-existing knowledge of SEO or lack of it. If someone can’t simplify their plans and strategies to a point where anyone can understand them, then there is definitely cause for a red flag.

Use of outdated techniques and strategies

This red flag might prove more difficult to identify without some basic SEO knowledge or a professional consultation with a third-party SEO team. Not to dive too deep into the history of SEO, but as Google introduced new updates and upgraded its algorithm, it condemned certain tactics as harmful and red-flagged them. And most of these outdated techniques and strategies usually fall under blackhat SEO strategies, some of the most typical examples being:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Buying backlinks in bulk
  • Using Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
  • Creating false reviews and listings, etc.

Although some of these techniques can have some short-term effects, they are far from effective and can often bring about more risk of penalties from Google than gaining actual value.

Vague and undefined pricing plans

This is a very universal occurrence with the digital world and the services it offers. Most niches (SEO included) don’t have an established pricing rate for their services, as they can vary widely. However, that doesn’t stop legitimate SEO agencies from doing a simple calculation of the tailored plan your business needs and providing you with a monthly expense estimate, or an annual pricing plan. On the other hand, vague pricing estimates and reservations when it comes to offering contracts with estimated prices are clear signals. So, always ask for a pricing plan and contract to be in a better position to identify an SEO scam.

Lack of references or portfolios

This is a matter of simple business reasoning. You always want a strong SEO company with a rich portfolio and a strong reputation – one that has a plethora of references. You need to find an SEO specialist that you can trust and not have to micro-manage. So, in conclusion, no portfolio or references = red flag.

10 most common SEO scams to look out for

Businessman with black mask and money bag in front of him
This is our top 10 selection of the most common SEO scams you can identify and come across.

Understanding how to identify an SEO scam based on red flags is only one half of the journey. The other half is to arm yourself with the knowledge of the most popular types of fraudulent SEO sales pitches and tactics. And here they are – easy to remember and recognize:

#1: The guarantee of ranking at the top

When you have a global industry that has the sole purpose of aiming for the same goal, there is little to no point in making guarantees of grandeur. However, not all business owners understand just how difficult it is to reach the top position on search results, let alone keep it. And there are all too many fraudulent SEO advisers out there that are more than willing to present the challenge as a walk in the park, just to sign you as a client.

Just consider your niche and your competition. Consider those that hold the top positions and how much they invested to get there, and how much they continue to invest to remain there. Even local SEO can have a highly competitive environment that offers no real guarantees unless you commit to it long-term. After all, if it were that easy to rank on search results, there would be a new #1 each day. Instead, you should focus on SEO agencies that offer a progressive climb along the “search results ladder”, perhaps slow but steady and strong.

#2: The magical SEO potion for success

There is no such thing as a bulletproof SEO strategy that guarantees success to everyone. Each niche and client is unique when it comes to optimization. Therefore, each requires a custom-tailored strategy based on research, analytics, past activities, competitive SEO analysis, etc. We already explained that nobody has a claim over how Google’s algorithm operates, let alone how to dominate it. And if an SEO agency avoids to include you in their activities or provide any explanation, it’s cause for concern. This is how you identify an SEO scam – by asking simple questions such as “How” and “Why”.

#3: Unsolicited offers via email or contact forms

You have fraudulent companies that aim for quantity over quality. It’s like fishing with dynamite – you scare for as many email addresses as possible and send out an automated email campaign to see what you’ll catch. Another option is to automatically fill out contact forms on the website of other businesses, offering them your expertise in the process. Both of these approaches are unsolicited and outright spammy, and you should ignore them. The one positive conclusion that can come from this is that the more successful you are online, the more of these campaigns will you receive.

#4: The Google insider

Google does not offer any partnership programs for SEO companies or individuals. The most a marketing agency can hope to get is a Google Partnership, which requires creating a profile, passing a certification, and meeting specified standards in terms of performance and investments. And even then, you only get an account representative to help you with your Google Ads. So, this is a pitch that only gives value to PPC agencies and strategies. As we explained earlier, not even Google employees fully comprehend how the algorithm operates, so there is practically nothing that can come from knowing anyone in Google.

#5: Absurd website traffic promises

Yes, when properly implemented, SEO can significantly influence your organic traffic and the number of users that come to your website. However, when someone outright offers you “targeted visitors” in the hundreds or thousands on a daily basis, you can identify an SEO scam right then and there. Traffic comes from both actual visitors and bots, and it changes nothing if your conversion rate stays the same.

#6: Instant link building

Gathering links from other websites leading to your own offers great SEO value, and can significantly influence your online rankings. However, link building is no simple process and requires a network of websites, years of experience, and quality of service above all else. Anyone can come up and offer you hundreds of backlinks overnight, but those links will either be very low-quality, irrelevant to your business, or downright falsified. If you want to identify an SEO scam, you can always start from the link building approach they offer.

Since the introduction of the Google Penguin Update, a lot has changed when it comes to link building. Black hat SEO tactics such as buying links or using PBNs no longer pass the bar with Google’s algorithm. And this has put quite a thick line between legitimate SEO service providers and those that are looking to scam their way through the industry.

#7: Dominant presence on multiple search engines

This is an offer that sounds powerful but is, in fact, barely passable. The fact is that Google has been dominating the search engine market share in the past decade. With more than 86 percent of the global market share, your primary concern should be ranking high on Google. Other search engines such as Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, Yandex etc. have a minimal share in comparison with Google. And fraudulent SEO companies will tend to even make up statistics about retired or fake search engines, only to supply the effect of quantity in their sales pitch.

#8: Web developers and designers claiming SEO knowledge

Today, it seems that everyone is racing to proclaim themselves as SEO experts. And as a result, you have web development agencies or web designers that claim to understand SEO. They offer secondary SEO services to boost the price on their primary services, without any real value that they can bring to the table.

The only believable scenario here is professional digital marketing agencies that have separate teams and departments to handle a variety of services. If someone is a professional web developer, they should stick to that and leave the SEO to those that dedicate years of time and energy to it. Otherwise, it would be like hiring a handyman to remodel your home – they have basic knowledge of it, but not nearly as much as a specialized contractor does.

#9: The free trial offer for SEO services

This is another common occurrence that you can see in offers from “SEO experts” – a 30-day free trial basis. Sounds simple enough – all you need to do is provide the admin access to your website and credit card information. What you might not realize is that no legitimate and reputable SEO agency will even consider offering a free trial for their services. They might offer discounts or negotiable packages, but never a free trial. Additionally, 30 days of SEO services will offer little to no value and won’t show anything in regards to the quality of work.

#10: Undermining your current SEO service provider

SEO is not a single action or activity – it is a way of doing things. Each agency has its own approach that can require more or less time, resources, or effort to show results. And without specific knowledge of these activities, other SEO specialists can’t drop in and claim they can do it better and at a lower cost. This is a textbook example for you to identify an SEO scam – the “We can do it better and for less!” chapter.

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Undermining competitors and offering lower pricing plans has its own risks and concerns.

Switching digital marketing agencies has its own concerns and consequences. We touched on this subject in the past. And among those consequences is the fact that effective SEO has its own momentum. So, even when you stop with the activities, it might take months for you to feel the effects of that. And a new SEO agency can easily claim these months of old momentum as the result of their own work. In the end, they might as well as do absolutely nothing and you will still see improvements from the old strategy. Before you realize how much of a loss you took when making the switch, it will already be too late for you to stop the downgrade.

Lay a legitimate and strong foundation for your SEO efforts

Once you learn how to identify an SEO scam and how to avoid that, the next logical step is to find the right fit for your business. Digital Dot is an agency that offers you a transparent and custom-tailored combination of digital solutions that can help your brand grow. Grasp the key benefits of SEO and how best to use them to grow your business with our professional consultations and pricing plans!

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