SEO butthead detection in 5 easy steps

Ian Lurie

SEO is complicated, and it’s easy to fall for a ripoff artist, or someone who’s just clueless. But there are some easy ways to detect SEO buttheads. Here’s how you can tell if someone making big promises is utterly full of horse manure:

1: The spam e-mail

Butthead indicator #1: The unsolicited e-mail.
Strength: 2/5

In an effort to upgrade my karma, I’ve cut way back on outing of incompetent/dishonest SEO firms. But I got an e-mail this week that got my blood boiling:

A former Google optimization specialist! Wow!

Never, ever work with an SEO who sends you unsolicited e-mail or contacts you out of the blue.

2: The ‘former Google employee’ claim

Butthead indicator #2: The ‘We have a former Google employee’ claim.
Strength: Infinity times 10000000

This particular SEO crap artist informed me, in the e-mail and on their site, that their founder is a ‘former Google optimization specialist.’ A little digging revealed that yes, the founder is a former optimization specialist—a former Adwords optimization specialist.

Adwords is Google’s paid advertising platform. It has no relationship to the world of SEO. They worded their claim very carefully, but let’s call it what it is: A total lie.

Liar! You worked on Adwords, not SEO
Liar! You worked on Adwords, not SEO

The ‘Adwords optimization’ team at Google helps clients spend more money on Google Adwords. They sure as hell don’t help clients rank higher in the organic, unpaid rankings. If they did that, their clients would spend less on Adwords.

Never work with someone who tries to use their previous Google employment to say they have some secret knowledge of SEO. They’re almost certainly twisting their words. A Google massage therapist can’t help you rank any better than a Yahoo! massage therapist.

3: Incompetence

Butthead indicator #3: Total SEO incompetence.
Strength: 4/5

Go to the web site of your supposed SEO savior. Click ‘View >> Source’ and look at the HTML code. If you see this:

No title tag? Really?! Are you serious?!!!!
No title tag? Really?! Are you serious?!!!!

…then you’re about to be buried in SEO bullshit.

The title tag is the most important on-page ranking factor. A poorly-written one means the SEO firm in question is careless. A non-existent one means they’re either complete idiots, or they’re going to transfer your checks to the Cayman Islands and ignore you.

4: Links

Butthead indicator #4: No links. Zero. Zip. Nada.
Strength: 3/5

Links ain’t what they used to be, but I’d expect any SEO worth their salt to at least have a few sites pointing at them:

Uh oh. No more links.
Uh oh. No more links.

Ooooops. They gots no linkage! Even their own site doesn’t show up as an incoming link.

Actually, that’s a remarkable technical achievement. I gotta give them a hat-tip. I’ve never seen anyone achieve 100% link stealth before.

But wait! Maybe Open Site Explorer shows a few links:

1 link
1 link!!!

One. Link.

If your SEO firm can’t scrounge up a few links for themselves, they won’t be able to do it for you.

5: Crap rankings

Butthead indicator #5: Rankings that look like word vomit.
Strength: 5/5

Finally, do a search on Google and see how their rankings look (replace with the crap SEO site in question). If they look like this:

It's rankings crap-o-mania!

These SEO ‘experts’ are morons. Avoid.

Be careful

Even if the firm you’re talking to passes all these tests, be sure to look carefully:

  1. Talk to their clients.
  2. Search on their brand name for reputation problems.
  3. Talk to the people you’ll be working with. Make sure you can trust them.

But if they have any of the 5 Butthead Signals, don’t waste your time. Find someone who at least has the courtesy to lie creatively.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, 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

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  1. One additional note: If you ARE going to run an SEO ripoff operation, don’t spam other search engine optimization pros. They tend to take exception.

    1. This cracked me up because I feel the pain. 90% of my form spam is from SEO firms in India. This article cracked me up too.
      Btw, don’t check me on OSE, lest you think I’m a butthead too. SEMRush and Majestic treat me better. 😑

  2. Funny shit. I really like that last line. “Find someone who at least has the courtesy to lie creatively.”
    And I agree with Ian. Quit spamming other SEOs. You look like an idiot.
    And one more, if you’re going to add meta tags to your websites, Mr. Super-Duper SEO Dude, at least give your pages unique meta tags. Even unique crappy meta tags are better than the same exact meta tags for every page. But I’m amazed at how many “expert” SEOs do it.

    1. To be fair… I don’t HATE their website… I’d say it’s another case of a web design company wanting to cash in on the SEO market by spamming buzz words.
      Really funny though that they don’t even have a title tag.

    1. I looked him up on LinkedIn. No info there either. I have to wonder if the company took his name w/o his permission, and he’s not even connected to them.

  3. And when you go to the crap SEO company site, and see links on the side of individual pages, and click on them, and they ALL just point to the page you’re already on, and all the social media site icons at the top of your site just reload the page you’re on, or the “read more” link on your “how it works” page does the same thing, or the “read more” link on the bottom left of your contact page does the same thing, or filling out the contact form only launches your email software (without actually carrying forward anything you typed in the form) you have the final confirmation you need. πŸ™‚
    Yes, those are all problems on that same company’s site.

    1. I know – the deeper I dug the more I found. I finally did the top 5 and left the rest, figuring once you hit those, you’re insane to hire them.

      1. Have you considered emailing them and offering your services.
        I’d suggest using a gmail account, not providing a website to go to and then ignoring any responses.
        Or maybe just hunting them down and giving them a good slap.

  4. I love the emails that come from a generic Gmail account (no offense Matt!) and have no email signature except for a generic first and last name. Absolutely pathetic.

  5. lol Love this post. Some other butthead detection tactics:
    Guaranteed ranking
    Guaranteed Conversions
    Title Tag Optimization
    Robots.txt Optimization
    Image & Hyperlink Optimization
    Header Tag Optimization

  6. I had a company leave a voice mail saying “we want to setup a time do your annual Google account review.” They were pretending to be Google!

  7. I do SEO and I love getting email from other companies claiming to do it. I usually find that they are doing illegal tactics and then I report them to Google.

  8. uhhh. Why are you using my name so much? heheehhudhuhuhuh. Uhhhhh. Where’s Bevis?
    Uhhhh. heheeheheheheehe. Spam Rules. Hehehehe. Hehehe. Uhhhhh. You’re like…. hurting my online reputation and stuff… heheheehe…. Uhhh…. Where’s the chicks?

  9. Great post. You’re talking my language, Ian. However, my clients wouldn’t understand any of this. I just get them to ” the top of page one”. That’s the usual brief. I never promise it, but you’re definitely helping. I blog about you man. Sharing the love and steeping honest to yourself. That’s why I like your posts.

  10. Ooooh, I love it when you get mad, Ian.
    But hey, did they not promise to increase your PageRank?
    I got one too this week which started:
    “We recently visited your website and noticed there are potential flaws that would impede how well you rank in Google’s natural search results.”
    I’m not sure what a “potential” flaw is. And there may indeed be flaws but it outranks theirs by a country mile.
    Nice to see Matt lend his weight to the fun.

  11. Classic, my largest motivation with my SEO firm and current clients is to change the reputation and image of most SEO companies. So many scammers, spammers, and cheats its ridiculous, most of it based off the premonition that people are ignorant about the web. You’ve got to build strong relationships and speak to your clients about the technical specifics and goals of your campaigns, I’m tired of hearing a potential client say, “but I saw online where I can get first page rankings in 30 days!”. Sigh,, ya and buy those 10,000 links for $10 bucks as well!! lol

  12. Crapseosites exist all over the world. I really wish there was a solid way to put these guys in a cage so they don’t mislead the world. Truth is, they are the ones that make the money quickly and leave a trail do distraction for the real SEO experts to clean up.

  13. Ok hands up. Who has done at least one of these ass hat things when they were starting out? But even worse who actually got some success from it haha. Funny stuff Ian.

  14. hahahah – nice post – love the adwords optimisation parts
    man – i do love that there are so many snake oil sales men – but its not their fault they dont know jack – i mean – least they are trying, then sell in clients – deliver nothing but open the doors to the poeple who can do something – as long as it relative…
    Like we picked up a client – been signed for 2 years at 100 per month – so small spend and the guy had got him position one on a like 20 exact searches pm – so we told client your getting ripped off – but then looking back – for 100 quid a month – the guy had got him somewhere – but the corny man had registered the .com version of the domain and ran on that – he was told the client wanted to leave by the client and then proceeded to try and hold the client to ransom for the domain.
    That is a SEO nob head if you ask me.
    Anyhows – good read – commects are good here too! thanks for the post!

  15. Late here…but loved the piece, Ian! And after a quick look/see of that site, it’s about as pretty as a piece of crap can be….again, style over substance, eh!

  16. My favourites are the emails or calls for our SEO clients that state that ‘you are not appearing on the first page of Google for your keywords.
    If they are on the phone, I then get them to actually do a search using any of the keywords – Ta Daa! Look, there it is! I then start saying they have to be careful of personalisation, and end the call telling them that I’m sure we could help their clients at our normal rates.

  17. Excellent call! I do love to look out for the spamheads (as I call them)
    To me, a surefire way is when they promise the world with all the spending budget of Greece! “We’ll make you No1 in Google FOREVER!)
    Go on then! And THEN I’ll pay you, spamhead.

  18. The ones that always make me laugh are the ones that just say they’ll guarantee number one position for your keywords. I’m guessing that they either choose really specific keywords or just use PPC to make the guarantee.

  19. Google must have employed 47% of all people that work in the SEO industry if we believed all the companies that claim to either have an ex employee of Google, are in fact Google themselves or are a credited partner working with Google.
    We see countless instances of these companies on a weekly basis, of course, all trying to sell us their services… Doh.

  20. I agree with your points on the false claims made here. That’s just wrong….
    But I’d like to ask a question: Are you saying that all email marketing is bad? Or is it just because it was just such low quality? When is email marketing appropriate?

    1. Hi Adam,
      Nooo, I’m a big fan of e-mail marketing. But I prefer it to be permission-based, meaning someone opted in to receive promotions from me. Unsolicited e-mails just don’t perform, at all.
      If I were a new SEO company, I’d look at sponsoring an EXISTING newsletter for someone like SearchEngineLand. Get my ad in there, and advertise a free SEO training series. Then let folks sign up for that, and THEN promote my services via the series. That’ll perform better and establish trust.

  21. I find it interesting sometimes: SEO was supposed to be this more organic, content relevant way to market your website. The whole idea by having good content rather than trying to cheat the system. Sometimes it feels like SEO has lost that. I think the influx of SEO “experts” (especially all the bad ones) shows in a lot of ways that they are missing the point. Not to say SEO can’t be something to market as a skill, but it’s about helping a company strategize their content and marketing. It’s a partnership more than a service.

  22. Not only was this informative, but your writing really made me laugh. I haven’t heard anyone referred to as a butthead in a very long time, but I feel that your use was appropriate, and I encourage more of it.

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