4 Signs an SEO Firm is a Fraud

Ian Lurie

This post started as a detailed roast of a couple of SEO firms here in Seattle. I use the term ‘firms’ very loosely. But I have my limits of meanness, and decided that they may simply not know any better. This post gives them a chance to withdraw any claim of search engine optimization expertise and retire from the field with dignity. But guys, if you keep trying to sell your ‘expertise’ to unsuspecting small business owners, all bets are off.

If you’re a small business owner, or even a big one, and you go looking for an SEO expert, it’s hard to tell the real deal from the total fraud. I’ve outed other firms before and used their promises and tactics as an illustration of what not to do. Now, thanks to a couple of SEO practitioners I just found here in Seattle, I can give you more signs you should run screaming from an SEO ‘pro’:

The keyword machine gun

If they’ve written stuff that looks like this then they’re a danger to themselves and others:
Wow. I thought I was a keyword whore.
I mean, never mind the fact that this reads like a computer developed a horrific case of the hiccups. Do you really think search engines will accept this as OK?
The keyword machine gun technique may work for a day or two. But it’s a faulty tactic that will land anyone with a long-term business plan in trouble. Avoid it.

That used-car smell

If their carefully-crafted sales copy reads like a 2nd-grade grammar quiz:
…then it doesn’t matter what they’re “given” away. RUN.
That kind of writing is almost certainly a precursor to the used car lot-style sales pitch:
…that is wrong on so many levels I’m not sure where to begin. Own the 1st three pages of Google? Lock competitors out of the search engines? Dude, what the hell are you smoking? Are you trying to tell me you can get my business to control the top 30 spots on Google, for every important search phrase?
Yes they are. And no, they can’t do it. No matter how many times you repeat ‘SEO Seattle’ in a paragraph, you still only grab 1 spot.
If you feel like you’re buying from a guy in a plaid jacket who swears his grandmama last owned this car, flee the scene.

Automatic weapons

The same consultant is connected with another person who purports to offer ‘automated web marketing systems’. Cough.
I’m not sure what they mean by ‘automated’, so I won’t go too far. But anyone claiming any automated technique for SEO should make you suspicious. And in case the folks in question post a comment below saying “Our automated stuff is for social media, not SEO”: Automated social media marketing is even worse.


Ah, now we get to brass tacks. If the SEO ‘guru’ you’re reading about can’t do SEO for themselves, that’s the clearest sign you’ll be wasting your money.
If, for example, the guru’s web site has no title tags, that’s a bad sign:
See where it says ‘Mozilla Firefox’? If the page had a title tag, it would say something else. Firefox defaults to its own brand name when no title tag exists.
So an SEO expert left out one of the most important elements of on-page SEO.
“Hmmm. That can’t be right,” I said, “I must be mis-interpreting some super-secret SEO tactic.”
So, I viewed the source code to see what’s up:
Alas. No title tag. And no description tag, which of course means no sensible search snippet in the search results. And a doctype declaration for XHTML when the page is all table-driven and barely compliant with HTML 3.
If you’re not an SEO pro, these may seem like silly details to you. But good SEO is driven by lots of ‘silly’ details that, when you put them together, spell success or failure for your campaign. And a consultant should know that.

I’m angry

I really am. I don’t care what kind of business you’re trying to open: Car repair, copywriting or SEO. If you’re opening it, you had damned well better know what you’re doing.
Otherwise, you’re ripping people off. You’re committing fraud when you try to tell unsuspecting customers that you can help them. Because you can’t. And you know it.
It makes my blood boil when I think that these guys have likely taken money from small business owners who have little enough as it is.
Go learn your profession before you practice it. Otherwise you’re no better than a thief.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. Hear, hear.
    Some people within the SEO community are probably tired of hearing about this stuff. But the fact that it’s not going away, that sleazebags like this “SEO Guru” you’ve profiled above still promote and take people’s money, is infuriating.
    I had the unfortunate experience of working for a company that offered “guaranteed rankings” when I started out. My drinking has slowed down quite a bit since I left.

  2. Wow, that was hilarious. Great SEO page…. for Yahoo! KW stuffing still works like a charm in Yahoo and MSN unfortunately. But WOW, what a hack job. Saw your tweet about it whilst you were writing this post.
    These are the idiots giving the industry a bad name. Honestly I no longer get upset with untrusting clients and prospects. I would be suspicious too with all of the crap out there like this.
    In fact there are some rather large SEO firms that are just as bad unfortunately. Its not just these small guys that are hacks!

  3. Hell I’m just a simple novice blogger & I know better! Great article 🙂 I have a distinct disgust for the Twitter SEO self proclaimed gurus too, they’re not bringing people in–they’re annoying us the hell away, far far away.

  4. Well said.
    And if it’s too good to be true then there’s something fishy.
    Good digital marketing, whether it is SEO, social media, writing good content etc .. is hard work!

  5. Awww, Ian, you’re given these poor ‘iddle SEO Gurus a bad name. You may humiliate the poor dears into given up SEO. We can but hope. 🙂

  6. I’m sorry…but I absolutely adore these posts. Someone has got to speak up about these frauds because they are making the rest of us look bad. No wonder people/businesses give SEO a bad name. If you dealt with an idiot like this, you would doubt the power/use of SEO too.

  7. This is great.
    I’ve had a couple of SEO prospects come to me recently after dealing with a few of these fraudulent firms.
    Best way to process clients, especially the abused ones, is to put them on an educational autoresponder series teaching them some basic SEO stuff, and on what your SEO strategy/philosophy is.
    I tell them that one thing to look out for if you suspect a fraud or incompetent SEO firm, is whether they touch on helping you convert traffic. Getting rankings for keywords is fine, but if they don’t convert to leads and sales, SEO is worthless.
    They have to understand the marketing side of things, and how to test for keywords that convert. There needs to be a holistic approach.
    I’m wary of hiring any firm that does only SEO. From a business and revenue perspective, it makes no sense to do only SEO.
    Hope this helps.

  8. Great post and very informative comments from your readers too! I’ve been doing my own SEO but was considering hiring an expert. Your article is just as helpful when screening a perpective vendor as their client references.
    One of my favorite SEO sales pitches is “People can’t find you in the search engines. We can help”
    My response…”Oh Yeah? How did you find us?”

  9. I couldn’t agree more!
    It is frustrating when a new client comes to us after suffering through the false claims from SEO’s like those in your post. I agree with what Eamon stated above: Good SEO stems from hard work and proven techniques. GREAT SEO results in not only higher rankings, but higher conversions and sales as well.
    But the #1 thing a prospect should consider is whether or not the SEO firm they are considering is able to rank themselves for *their* targeted keywords and whether their site is optimized.

  10. I was just pitched an automated service from a reputable agency that deals with many yellow pages and directories.
    Their solution claimed to get sites listed in less than 24 hours by adding to relevant conversations on the Web. These additions are posts with links to your site.
    Most social media sites and blogs will no-follow these links. Is there any truth in their claims?

  11. @Hilger This sounds to me like automated comment submission. Some sites (like mine) ‘dofollow’ links in comments. In theory this could work, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but if they’re automatically submitting comments (aka comment spamming) that’s not good.
    It is POSSIBLE they’re also using software that simply creates a profile for you on major social media sites. That is pretty legit as a brand protection tactic and might help with SEO.
    One last thing – the whole ‘get sites listed in less than 24 hours’ sounds like snake oil to me. It’s not actually that hard to get listed in 24 hours. Getting decent rankings for non-branded keywords is much harder, and no amount of blog spam will help.

  12. GREAT article. I’ve been on a real rant lately because too many bozos are selling innocent folks a real ball of crap. I hate people taking advantage of folks who don’t know any better. Just as bad are the Internet hucksters. Still, as Barnum said, “There’s one born every minute.” Keep up the good work.

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