I have written about how to spot a shady SEO offer a few times in the past, but usually focused on the fly-by-night operations and flat-out search engine marketing scams. Lately I have been hearing from a lot of businesses who are dealing with overpriced search engine optimization and placement packages that yield a negative return on investment – and they are talking about major players in the local and small business marketing scene!
Old-school big book directories used to be the first place people went to find a local business. Need a contractor, dentist, lawyer, whatever? Grab the book. It often made sense for small businesses to make the commercial phone book the first step in marketing a new business. But who uses the yellow pages anymore when Google, Bing and Yahoo are readily available on your computer or mobile device? The Super-Yellow-Books all have their own directory sites, but those probably don’t get much more use than the printed version. It is easy to see why these companies are trying to stake out their claim in the modern world of search engine marketing. Like newspapers had to adapt to their readers migration to the web, yellow pages directories must know they need to evolve or face extinction.
The phone directory companies are now proclaiming themselves SEO experts and behaving just as badly as many of the other self-proclaimed gurus. They have ridiculous monthly fees, scare people about losing their position in search results if they stop paying, charge per-click rates and claim to lower your rank to keep you under budget. Wait, what?! Per-click?! If they are really doing search engine optimization, why and how would they do that?
NOBODY can guarantee specific positions in real search engine results, so what are they actually doing? Maybe they are just managing an Adwords campaign for you, or maybe just pretending that their directory listings are real search engine results.
Whatever it is smells fishy – just like the fraudulent SEOs who will “remove” links to your site if you end your contract. That isn’t search engine optimization, it is called “buying links”.
Even worse, businesses who don’t already have a website are often talked into hosting a site with these bloated dinosaurs, making it even harder to get away when it becomes obvious that it was a bad investment. It seems like they are hoping their business customers stay uninformed and afraid of the unknown, and blindly stick with these trusted names. After all, they have been in local business marketing for years, so of course they would be the best at this newer medium that has nearly destroyed their entire way of doing things, right? Um… yeah.
Think about it – do they really want you to succeed online with good results from SEO – or would they rather have you think “I tried marketing on the interwebs but it doesn’t work for a business like mine” and continue buying ads in their print directories?
A quick audit of what these companies actually do for clients shows that they don’t do very much. Some businesses had just a few links to their website after a year of service, none of which had anything to do with the directory service. None of them had any optimization done on their website, which would be one of the first things a real SEO provider would do! Some had the type of useless garbage links you would get from those shady offers you get in spam emails. So these big local search marketing experts are either not doing anything, or outsourcing to some pretty lame providers. Sure, they can offer great placement on their own website, which I guess they can call a “search engine”, but that just isn’t what their customers are led to believe they will get.
To be fair, if you have a business that does not really need its own website but you just need to get your contact info and list of services on the web, then by all means hit all the local business directories for their free listings. And look at MerchantCircle, Manta, CitySearch, Angie’s List and the dozens of other local biz listings. Most of them offer some type of free listing. And if you really want to have your information where people are actually looking for it, set up a Google Places page, which will cost you nothing. Don’t fall for that phone scam from people claiming to represent Google who have “noticed your listing is incomplete”. They want to charge you for what is actually a free listing. This should probably be a whole other article since it has become pretty common, but it warrants a mention here. Now if they are offering to set up your Google Places listing for you and they are not claiming to work for Google, that is a different story – plenty of legitimate online marketing companies do offer Google Places/Maps set up (we do, but usually not as a stand-alone item since it is pretty easy for you to do yourself). Just avoid the ones that cold call you with scare tactics.
The worst part is these big book directory companies don’t seem to deliver anything close the results they promise, and they are charging premium rates for an alleged improvement in your position in Google, Yahoo and Bing. They definitely do not offer anything that compares to the solid, lasting results that real SEO can do for local small business marketing.