If you advertize online, you’ll eventually be contacted by SEO companies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; as an SEO expert myself, I know how much value there is in ranking well. However, for every legitimate SEO company out there, you’ll probably hear from half a dozen SEO snake oil salesmen. These people give the industry a bad name by offering services that are valueless at best and damaging at worst. Thankfully, they’re often easy to spot if you know what to look for. Learn these five key indicators and you won’t be fooled next time an SEO snake oil salesman comes calling.

  1. Black Hat Tactics
    I’ll go ahead and start with the obvious. If your potential SEO advocates the use of methods like manipulative cloaking, link farming, keyword stuffing, shady redirects, doorway pages, and the like, just say no. Not only are such tactics becoming less effective by the day, but they have the potential to do permanent damage to your site’s rankings. Black hat SEOs care only about the short-term success of your website, not the long-term consequences of their manipulation. Even if your focus is only on the short term, do you really feel comfortable trusting your website to someone who doesn’t have its best interests at heart?
  2. Guaranteed Rankings
    Nobody, and I mean nobody, can guarantee rankings. Period. If your potential SEO provider claims to have some secret method or special relationship that allows them to do so, you should walk away. They’re lying, and you probably don’t want to be in business with someone like that. Even if their ranking guarantee is based solely on confidence in their abilities, however, you should still be suspicious, because they’re either guaranteeing rankings for worthless keywords or they’re taking a major risk by making promises that they may not be able to keep.
  3. Rankings Focus
    Guarantees aside, even good SEO providers will talk about rankings. The difference is that good SEOs regard rankings as a means to help you achieve your business goals. SEO snake oil salesmen, however, want to wow you with ranking for ranking’s sake. In the end, it doesn’t matter how highly or for how many keywords your site ranks; like any other marketing channel, all that matters is your bottom line. How much does the service cost you? How much business does it produce? What’s the return on investment? Remember, rankings are worthless outside the context of your business objectives.
  4. Secrecy
    There are no secrets to SEO. The methods for achieving high rankings are well-documented. Mind you, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily simple enough to undertake without an expert. It just means that you should be suspicious of experts who sell SEO like it’s indecipherable voodoo known only to an elite few, or those who claim to have some proprietary method that sets them apart from everyone else in the industry. Any reasonably intelligent person can understand SEO, and you should have no qualms asking for details about what your SEO provider plans to do for your site. If they’re unwilling to explain, you should be unwilling to do business with them.  (Update 10/9/08: Check out this comic on SEOmoz for a great illustration of this point.)
  5. Exclusive On-Site or Off-Site Optimization
    Good SEOs recognize that rankings are achieved through a combination of on-site and off-site optimization. If someone tries to sell you rankings based solely on visibility analysis, keyword research, content development, and meta tag optimization, you should be suspicious. The same applies if someone tries to sell you rankings based solely on links. You don’t get real results through one or the other; you need both.

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