The problem is that any business area or profession that experiences unusual growth (think ad-supported "free" online services in 1999, or real estate from 2002-2008) inevitably attracts, along with some very bright people committed to their new craft, a less savory crowd of opportunistic, incompetent or even unscrupulous entrants as well.
Here are seven characteristics to help avoid hiring one of those types for your next SEO project.
Irrelevant experience. Given the still relative newness of SEO as a profession, any SEO practitioner over the age of 30 probably did something else before SEO. Most of the good ones came out of either marketing or IT. Beware of those who tout their success in some completely unrelated field (e.g., real estate, automotive, wedding photography, sports writing, air travel, nutritional supplements) as evidence of their SEO prowess.
Number of Twitter followers. I randomly checked the Twitter followers for 10 prominent SEO experts (the kind who present at the big conferences and whose writing is frequently noted in the best of SEO posts here). Of the 10, none have more than 14,000 followers; four have 3,000 followers or more; two have between 1,000 and 1,500; two have less than 600; and two aren't on Twitter at all! Bottom line? There's simply no relationship between Twitter following and SEO prowess. Someone who tries to impress you with their 20,000 or 30,000 Twitter followers is good at attracting lots of Twitter followers (likely of varying quality), but isn't necessarily any good at SEO.
Guarantees. Other than Matt Cutts (who isn't for sale)—or perhaps someone with compromising photos of Google's search engineer—no one can guarantee any specific rank for a website on any given keyword. No reputable SEO consultant or firm will even offer such guarantees.
Price. Yes, of course it's important, but as in most other areas of life—you (generally at least) get what you pay for.
Instant results. If you positively must rank highly for a specific search phrase TODAY, buy it on AdWords. SEO is a longer-term investment. The search engines simply take time to reindex your website and all of your links. Granted, a news site may get ranked very quickly for a breaking story, but for a competitive term on a commercial website, it can take weeks to move search position appreciably, and months to get it into the top five. As with guarantees, cast a wary glance at anyone who promises instant gratification from SEO.
Excessive ego. Not to suggest that self-confidence isn't a positive attractive attribute in an SEO consultant, or even that there aren't perhaps a few talented SEO practitioners with slightly overinflated egos, but if a consultant's web page or Twitter bio reads like a second-rate late night infomercial, approach with caution. Better to have someone versed in content development and link building than someone who's spent too much time at self esteem-building seminars. SEO is a complex and constantly changing field, so a certain degree of humility is in order.
Excessive automation / "turnkey" package. Of course, good SEOs use a variety of tools to automate routine, mechanical processes such as search engine position checking, keyword density, backlink checking and keyword selection. However, the overall practice of SEO is a blend of art and science, and the "art" portion—writing compelling copy, crafting effective headlines and meta tags, obtaining high-quality links—simply can't be automated. SEO in a box is like wine in a box; it's cheap and convenient, but you'll regret it in the morning.
If you're shopping for SEO services, hopefully this list will help you avoid hiring the wrong person or firm. If you're an SEO provider, feel free to comment on any other suspect factors.
Contact Mike Bannan: email@example.com