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Say No to Bad SEO: SEO Best and Worst Practices

Editor's Note: An edited and condensed version of this post appeared on SEOmoz in January. Here's the original, uncut article.

If your company is thinking about hiring an outside firm for search engine optimization (SEO), please read this post. If you work for one of the many reputable SEO agencies in the market, please have your prospective clients read this post. If, however, you offer the type of SEO "services" described below...then in the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, you may want to go home and rethink your life.

Search optimizing your website has become an essential part of doing business. In both B2B and consumer markets, most prospective customers will use a search engine at some point in their buying decision process. And most of those searchers will click on at least one of the top organic search results.

Smart business people know that SEO is increasingly critical to the success of their businesses. But most such people aren't SEO experts; they're experts at pizza or plumbing or building gadgets or selling insurance or whatever their business is. So they turn to SEO firms for help.

Unfortunately, legions of scammers and spammers know all of this as well, and prey on marketers, entrepreneurs and managers who just want to focus on their own businesses and entrust SEO to someone else. The result, too often, is that:
  • Good business people end up with bad SEO results;
  • SEO scammers end up with money they don't deserve;
  • Reputable SEO firms lose out on business unfairly; and
  • Businesses end up with a negative image of all SEO providers.
How to Avoid Bad SEO

In How to Avoid a Rogue SEO Company, the Orange Soda blog offers some excellent advice on practices that serve as a warning signal for illegitimate SEO practices, such as guaranteeing a #1 ranking on Google (SEO expert Rand Fishkin has provided a detailed analysis of why reputable SEO firms don't promise guaranteed search engine rankings), offering to sell keywords in the address bar or failing to distinguish between organic and paid search results.

Failing to provide useful reports, using jargon and focusing on the wrong metrics are other indicators of SEO incompetence or dishonesty.

It's also a bad sign if an SEO firm claims they have "secret" methods (there aren't any; everything is public as even Google has published advice on proper SEO practices); plans to get your site ranked by writing content specifically for search engines (as opposed to content written for your prospects that also happens to be well-optimized); or can't provide references who have achieved measurable results.

SEO Worst Practices

Just as there are best practices in SEO, there are also worst practices—tactics to watch for and avoid. For example, integrating PR with SEO efforts and analyzing competitors' strategies are two best practices in link building. Automating the link acquisition process, on the other hand, is a worst practice. Messages that start with "Dear Webmaster" (even when the site administrator's name is easy to find), request links to unrelated sites, state that they are "not spam!" and are sent from a free email account are automated, worthless junk.

Practices such as hoarding SEO knowledge or failing to work cooperatively with other groups (like IT, graphic design, and advertising) are additional signs of a bad SEO relationship.

Illegal black hat SEO methods, such as cloaking (presenting different content to search engines than to human visitors) and link farms, are worst of all as they can get a website blacklisted.

The Next Wave

The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. As Roderick Ioerger at Marketing Pilgrim recently noted, the compelling ROI of SEO coupled with increasing acceptance of it as a legitimate marketing tactic is increasing demand for SEO services. At the same time, turbulence in the broader economy has left more people looking for new opportunities. Ioerger quotes Andrew Shotland's comparison of SEO today to the real estate market of a few years ago: "SEO is now going to start attracting a large number of people who previously had jobs at start-ups, banks, real estate agencies, possibly auto makers, etc. Don’t be surprised if the guy who just turned you down for a loan offers to get you to page one of Google for your keyword."

Indeed, when even Sam's Club starts offering SEO services, you know the concept has gone mainstream. The problem is that while the services Sam's Club is providing (search engine submission and listing in local business databases) may be worth the $25 per month fee, they aren't SEO. The fact that some small business owners will buy them as such is likely only to produce more confusion, disappointment, and misplaced suspicion even of reputable SEO vendors.

SEO isn't as simple as placing a Yellow Pages ad or baking a cake. There is more to it than the slick talking telemarketers for shady SEO wannabes let on. Good SEO isn't cheap either, although it is very cost-effective over time. The cost structure almost looks like a long tail graph (though not quite that dramatic), with a sizable initial investment in rebuilding a site to bake in SEO followed by an ongoing program of link building, social media marketing and maintenance activities.

The Solution

If you're with a company that is looking to hire an SEO consultant, do some research first to help compile a list of questions to ask, and the answers to look for. Minneapolis-based SEO guru Lee Odden provides a great starting point in How to Hire a SEO Firm - According to Google. James Maguire has also offered helpful guidance, and more generally, you can develop a good basic understanding of SEO issues and terminology by following the top SEO blogs for a few weeks.

If, on the other hand, you're a reputable SEO consultant struggling to convince cynical prospects that you're not just another SEO scammper, check out Alhan Keser's 8 Arguments to Convince Jaded SEO Clients That You Are Trustworthy. Among Keser's most important points are explaining your methods, demonstrating past success, and providing ongoing reporting.

There you have it—how to avoid being victimized by SEO spammers and scammers. At the risk of being that SEO jerk, I've called out the practices of the bad SEO world in the hope of connecting honest SEO providers with clients who need expert assistance in maximizing their online business success.


Contact Mike Bannan:


Nicolas Prudhon said…
I love this post, there's just so much scammers outside that it makes me sick! Some people or big companies tend to look down on the real SEOs due to the bad image and reputation generated by those cheaters. I like it so much so that I added it as a reference to my readers, so the trackback is on its way too!
Tom Pick said…
Thank you for the kind words and glad you found value in this post. It's unfortunate that consultants who provide valid SEO services have to explain to prospective clients that while no one can (legitimately) promise a #1 rank on Google, SEO remains one of the most cost-effective online marketing investments available.

Your blog is very helpful as well!

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