Out of my 15-year career, 7 of them were spent at a digital marketing agency.
It’s where I learned to cut my teeth, put a deck together, speak to clients properly (jury is still out on this one), etc.
Were we perfect?
Of course not, but we were honest and approached every engagement with heart and our customers best interest in mind.
I also spent the first part of my SEO career as a private consultant working with smaller businesses and approached it in the same way – with honesty and enthusiasm.
Even when things weren’t going great, I was straight with my clients and told them the good and the bad. Full transparency was key to building and maintaining those relationships.
Out there in the world, however, there are some less than honest folks who are simply looking to take your money.
Below I highlight, based on my interactions with these companies and individuals over the last 15 years, some of the ways to identify and avoid them and ensure you are working with solid SEO professionals.
1. They Ask to Own Your Data/Logins
One of the hallmark signs of an agency/consultant trying to trap you is by starting off the engagement by asking you for full control over your logins, data, and reporting.
Many companies fall for this under the guise of “I just want them to handle it, that’s what I’m paying for, for them to handle everything”, but don’t realize how truly dangerous this can be if things don’t work out between the two companies.
Let’s say you get to the point where you no longer want to work with your agency/consultant, unfortunate yes, but it happens.
What many shady agencies/consultants will do in this situation is to hold your data and logins hostage to keep the contract going.
This can balloon into legal disputes that stretch on for months, even years, and in the worst-case scenario, ends with you needing to create new logins and adding new tracking code to your sites.
I have seen this happen time and time again, especially with smaller businesses.
The lesson here: the beginning of any professional relationship should be built on trust, but it’s a two-way street.
While you are hiring these individuals to “handle everything” from an SEO perspective from you, check their background and get references, if they can’t provide any references then look elsewhere.
2. They Guarantee #1 Rankings/ Top Results
It still boggles my mind that there are SEO professionals out there winning business with the pitch “We guarantee #1 rankings”, but they’re out there and people are hiring them.
Look at this ad that showed up when I Googled “SEO companies”:
Really? The first-page rank guaranteed? Tell me your secrets, oh magical wizards of search.
What they aren’t going to tell you is what they are going to get ranked on Page 1.
Any SEO worth their anxiety can get something to rank on Page 1, regardless of if it’s driving quality traffic, revenue, or leads to your site.
This is a common ruse used by less than honest agencies and consultants to get you in the door. Here is how it works:
- They get you on the phone to discuss your site. This will be done by luring you in with deceptive ads like the above, a free audit that they send you, or a long-winded email about something that just happened with Google which they always position as something you should be worried about because we saw a drop in your site using their proprietary yadda yadda yadda.
- You get freaked out and give them a shot because you need to fix whatever issues they have explained to you because you probably don’t fully understand all of the ins and outs of organic search and you just want someone to handle it.
- Work starts. Within a few weeks, you see a few keywords jump to Page 1, which fulfills their claim of guaranteeing Page 1 results. You are thrilled. You can’t believe you haven’t worked with these guys before, and you can’t wait for the business to start rolling in.
- Fast forward a few months and Page 1 rankings continue to come, but no new business does. No new leads. Just rankings.
- They explain that SEO is a slow burn and that you are seeing new Page 1 results every week and to be patient, but never really getting into the weeds with you to explain everything that’s going on. It’s all good news from them, everything is going great, but you aren’t seeing any return.
- Ultimately after 6+ months, you start looking into the keywords you are “winning” on and realize they have next to no monthly search volume and are not that relevant to your business. You realize you’ve more than likely been duped, reach out and get canned non-answers, and begin the process of canceling your engagement.
PSA: Google’s algorithm is a giant, floating math equation out in space that is controlled by a machine learning AI that learns our search habits and modifies its results based on those learnings.
The lesson here is that no one can guarantee anything when it comes to Google’s algorithm, not even the algorithm itself. If any of us could, we would be very rich have slightly less anxiety.
3. They Tell Their Story, Not Yours
Speaking of reporting on metrics, another telltale sign of a less than stellar agency/consultant is if their reporting is always telling their story and not yours.
What I mean by that is that they are always highlighting what went right, what they did awesome at, and why you should pay them more at the upcoming renewal.
They never talk about what went wrong, what didn’t work, and the lessons that were learned to make the current campaign so successful, which sometimes is more important than the wins themselves.
Only knowing half of the story is detrimental to your business and your own education. By not being transparent your agency/consultant has done you a large disservice by not allowing you to learn from their mistakes.
Agencies/consultants in this mindset are always afraid to tell you exactly what they are doing because they don’t want to give away their “secret formula” that is making everything work.
The truth is most of the time that formula involves many tests and missteps that allowed the campaign to get to its current state, which is super valuable for everyone involved to know, not just them.
The lesson here is to make sure you are hearing about what didn’t work, as well as what worked. Regardless if you are happy about it or not it’s better to see the entire picture.
4. The Partnership Is Positioned as Transactional
You always be mindful of how an agency/consultant pitches you, as it is very telling of how the relationship will operate.
People who want to help you will tell you they want to help you, people who don’t will tell you how much their service costs and how monthly meetings will be structured. This is the difference between hiring a partner and a vendor.
A partner is going to dig in with you, weather the storm with you when things aren’t going good, and celebrate the wins with you together as a team.
A vendor is going to send you a bill.
If an agency/consultant comes in and spends the hour or two you have given them of your time and only talks about how great they are and doesn’t give any insight into what they can do for you, the relationship probably won’t be that fruitful.
While there is nothing wrong with a brag slide or two, you should always be looking for folks who did research on your brand and provide actionable things they believe you can accomplish together supported by data. Those are the ones who care about your business and while they will still send you a bill every month, you won’t mind paying it so much.
The lesson here is to always seek a partner, not just another vendor.
5. Their Case Studies Are Outdated
Speaking of brag slides, you should always ask what year the projects/results are from. One of the greatest injustices of organic search is how long people use case studies for.
SEO changes every single day and while it’s awesome you really knocked it out of the park for Pets.com back in 2000, that story doesn’t really help me gauge your talent in 2019.
The lesson here is to always dig a little deeper on those wins and when they happened. With SEO changing as much as it does, even a project from a couple of years ago could have no relevance today.
Good luck out there!
Screenshot taken by author, May 2019