How to spot and avoid the top SEO scams.
In my decade of experience, I’ve spotted my fair share of SEO scams. Some scams are actually quite intricate, but none are as intricate as the algorithms developed to detect and penalize those who try to game the system. Believe it or not, some of these tactics actually work, but the results often times fade quickly and leave the clients worse off than if they did nothing at all. Unfortunately, there is much more to lose than your retainer. Even if you end up firing your scammy SEO agency, the negative aftermath of their toiling can linger for months, if not years. It’s time to start asking questions about what your SEO agency is actually doing.
In this blog I will teach you about the top SEO scams and how to avoid them.
Scam Number 1: Data Manipulation
This is by far the most common scam on the market. Slick talking snake oil salesman prey on victims who don’t have experience working with a real agency.
Here’s how the scam works: After the contract is signed the scammer adds the domain to a reporting portal and send automated keyword ranking reports to the client – essentially “setting it and forgetting it”. This part is not the scam since reporting is an important part of every SEO campaign. The problem is, many of these reporting tools can be manipulated by importing long-tail keywords which weren’t already being tracked in the software. Once the niche, longtail keywords are imported, then voila, a sudden spike in keyword rankings appears and it looks like the agency pulled off a brilliant maneuver when in fact they simply manipulated the rankings and the client is none the wiser.
How to check for it: The bad news is this scam is hard to detect without hiring an agency first. The good news is if they haven’t done anything on your account, reversing the black-hat strategy won’t be necessary. You can speak with their referrals or review case studies, but those could be fabricated. If you’re wondering about your current SEO agency, you should be leary if you don’t speak with an actual project manager to review the actions taken on the account or decipher the data they are sending you, you might be getting scammed.
2. Content Spinning
Content is, and always will be king. Providing original content requires a well trained and paid writing staff. Many scammers claim to create and publish high-quality content on a clients website, which is an important part of any SEO campaign, however, not all content is created equal.
Here’s how the scam works: Content is either copy-pasted from a reliable source or created once and slightly modified using content spinners and published on all their clients websites. Who cares as long as it works, right? Unfortunately Search Engines have been savvy to this technique since the Panda update. Don’t believe me? Check out Google’s policy on Duplicate Content.
How to check for it: Fortunately there are a cornucopia of free SEO tools out there which can help you audit your website for duplicate content. I recommend Siteliner or this Plagiarism Checker tool.
3. Link Farming
If your SEO agency is pitching backlinks as the answer to all your problems, you should raise an eyebrow. Yes, backlinks are a crucial part of good SEO strategy, but there are still agencies who try to game the system.
Here’s how the scam works: After you’ve paid your retainer, the agency turns around and submits your domain to a link farm which distributes your website across a network and voila, you’re websites now #1. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. The good news is, you’ll get a ton of backlinks and could potentially outrank competitors in the short run. Unfortunately, Google’s Penguin algorithm update identifies backlinks and attributes the quality of the links to the websites “trust score”. Good backlinks = higher trust score, whereas bad backlinks = poor trust score. Fixing this is costly since you’ll have to pay a professional review and remove all those spammy backlinks to your site. This can cause long-lasting harm to a domain and requires a significant amount of work to reverse the bad karma.
How to check for it: If you’re already a client of an agency incorporating a backlink strategy, you can use a tool like Ahrefs Backlink Checker to run a report on the backlinks to your website. You can also use a tool like Monitor Backlinks to identify the quantity and quality of backlinks.
If you’re vetting an agency who is recommending a link building strategy you can run these reports on their website and current clients websites to better understand if they are implementing a white-hat link backlink strategy. You should also get a list of websites they plan to get backlinks from and find out how they plan to get you the links. Often times high-quality backlinks will require a level of PR or guest blogging to obtain them – work that scam artists can’t afford or don’t want to do.
4. Optimizing a completely separate site and making it look like your own
Good SEO tactics can be expensive and time consuming to implement. Agencies are always trying to figure out ways to retain clients without the high cost of operating a white-hat strategy. The solution is creating, managing and owning a version of the client’s site which is essentially taken hostage if the client ever wants to leave the agency.
Here’s how it works: If a scammer is hired to optimize www.website.com, they will create a version of your website that looks identical to your site and put it on a subdomain or subdirectory.
- Subdirectory: www.website.com/page.
- Subdomain: www.page.website.com
Heres how the scam works: How this is done is not important, but what you need to know is the scammers have full control over the new site they have built. They might even use white-hat strategies to get this site to rank, which could potentially be quite beneficial. This part is not the scam. The scam is when the client decides they don’t want to renew a retainer and the agency pulls the site, effectively reversing all the work the client’s paid for.
How to check for it: You’ll need to read the fine print in your contract and make sure there’s a clause “in the event of a contract cancellation the client retains all work supplied throughout the life of the contract” or something along those lines. The best way to avoid this scam is to own your website domain and website hosting. You could purchase both of these through a provider like Godaddy and allow your SEO agency access to work in an environment owned by you – the client.
Note: Creating/managing a separate website is actually standard practice for most agencies so they don’t have to manage the client’s site in the event it goes down or gets hacked. Just because an agency creates a separate site, doesn’t mean they are scam artists.
The sad truth is the digital marketing industry is saturated with these types of scams which poisons the well for those of us who work hard to build a trustworthy reputation. It’s unethical and downright rude!
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