July 4, 2017

Before Google started getting serious about cracking down on “black hat” SEO tactics like buying thousands of backlinks, if someone was aggressively selling you SEO services, there was a pretty good chance they were going to do something that would one day get your website in trouble with Google.
Starting around 2010-2012 when Google started issuing more severe penalties and filters like Penguin and Panda, those fly by night spam scams began to wither away.
Or did they?

The most obvious rip-offs that had email pitches like “I see your website is not on page one of Google and we can make you number one in a week…” did virtually disappear. But some of them just got a little more sophisticated, and some even manage to continue to show up in the search results using schemes that are against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (“The Rules”).

You may be thinking, “if those things work, why not do them?”, and that’s a good question. Here’s a good answer: “Eventually they won’t work and you will have a difficult time fixing that problem.” I know this because since 2012, about half of my SEO workload has been cleaning up the messes made by not just the shady scammers, but even some previously-respected SEO firms who somehow honestly failed to understand those Rules. Once you get on the wrong side of Google, it is very difficult to come back. What’s worse is that some SEO con-artists will use scare tactics about those penalties – such as claiming Google penalizes all kinds of things which they do not – just to rope you into their “foolproof” scheme.

How can you tell which ones are good and which ones are not?

Another good question! Some of the old red flags of a bad SEO still apply:

How to Be an SEO Detective

  • Cold calling with fear tactics. Good SEOs usually don’t just call or email you out of the blue because so many fake SEOs do exactly that.
  • Promising high rankings for only a few keywords which are not really difficult to rank for, or promising high rankings in a very short time.
  • The service costs less than you should reasonably expect someone with real expertise to be paid for several hours of work, the salesperson guarantees specific rankings, or makes other “too good to be true” claims.
  • Charging per keyword is a sign that they won’t be optimizing your site, but will just be using keywords in links to your site to give an artificial ranking boost.
  • If they say your rankings and traffic will go away if you stop paying them, that is not SEO. They are probably just putting links to your website on sites they own.

A little common sense goes a long way, but some scammers have a lot of experience in misleading consumers.

Here are a few ways to play detective and spot SEO rip-offs that you can do in just a few minutes’ time.



whois private registration

Why hide?

There are several websites which can provide you with the details of who really owns a website and how long it has existed. I like whois.domaintools.com, but most of the whois websites will give you the same info. Just type in your prospective SEO provider’s website and see if the registration info matches their story. Did they say they have been in business for 10 years, but the domain is only 1 year old? Do they say they are in your city but the address in the whois results say another country? Is the owner not the person listed on the website? If the registration is “private”, why are they hiding?

Google them

Do a search for the business name to see what comes up. You should find a lot more than just their own website. If you are lucky you will find all kinds of references to the business. Ideally, you’ll find some real reviews of the company that were not written by the owner’s relatives and did not all get published at the same time (most fake reviews show up in a short time frame). If you find a lot of “rip off reports” or other things that make you uncomfortable, that’s a deal breaker.

Google the owner

Get Rich Quick Schemes

Some self-proclaimed SEO gurus started out by spamming various get rich quick schemes. That is not SEO.

It is pretty easy to create enough smoke & mirrors to make searching for the businesses a little less useful than it could be. If the owner has been up to no good, it may be a little easier to find some dirt on them as an individual. Search for the name – both in quotes and not in quotes and see what comes up. If the owner’s name is not very unique, include other words like “SEO” to narrow it down to just the Joe Smith who is in the SEO biz, and “fraud” or some other criminal keyword to find if he has been accused or convicted of anything.
You might find that they came from a background of selling bogus weight loss products or some get-rich-quick scheme driven entirely by spam tactics, which they think qualifies them to do SEO for your business. That may be OK with you, but is it really appropriate for a legitimate business  to be represented by some huckster who shouts at the camera about how wonderful his products are?

Look at how they promote themselves

Do they run multiple websites for multiple businesses that are really the same? Do you find the company name or links to the website on some really inappropriate of crappy looking websites? How about a few dozen YouTube videos that make no sense but have nonsensical collections of keywords as the titles and descriptions? If you don’t want your business to look like spam, don’t hire people who make themselves look that way.

Do all of those sites/businesses have names like “SEO (City)”? It is also easier to show up at the top of searches for a keyword when that keyword is the name of your website. If their strongest selling point is “Look – we rank number one for “SEO Pittsburgh Expert Marketing Service Providers”, keep in mind that nobody is competing for ridiculous phrases like that. They are hoping you will be impressed that they outrank nothing.

A good SEO won’t need you to change your business’ name or maintain a separate website for each and every search phrase you want to be found for in Google. Click To Tweet This


Online plagiarism checkers like CopyScape.com can reveal some ugly truths. Run a few pages of the SEO’s website through a plagiarism checker. If they have been stealing the hard work of others, don’t expect them to suddenly become creative and ethical when you hire them.

Get references

References may not be the best way to research an SEO’s previous work since the references could just be their friends shilling for them, but if you can get them to provide you with 3-5 real references who are people who own businesses similar to yours, you can talk with them and take a look at what was done to their websites, and how well they show up in Google searches.


Despite the shady nature of this business, there really are good SEOs (some don’t like to be called that) who truly enjoy doing real optimization and marketing to help you grow your business. I hope these tips help you steer clear of SEO frauds, hacks and other disappointments which are very avoidable.
There are also some SEO myth-busting articles here.

Be safe out there!