Updated January 2021: Unfortunately, it still holds true.

A majority of this post was written in 2014, with some minor updates today. The sad thing is that many of the scams that existed back then still fool small business owners today.  The hopes of instant success at a cheap initial price are often too tempting for people to pass up. In the long run, it can cost you important time and money that could have been going to help you actually succeed.

I have recently spent considerable time looking at prospects local plans and even looking at expanding some of my clients’ exposure.  This allowed me to see what some of the national or large regional local SEO companies are doing again, and unfortunately, it is very disappointing. I wanted to point out some of the negative things that they do so you can shop smartly when picking tools like this.

Granted, these programs can have immediate success, which is what they count on.  If you have never had online exposure and sign up with one, you will get online exposure. However, in the long run, you will often be stuck with them and are paying extremely high fees that you don’t need to pay for what amounts to a cookie-cutter local campaign where they stuff you in a category and just use the same thing that everyone else does.

Below are a few things you should always be aware of and avoid when looking for a local search company.  Keep in mind, that though there are a lot of basic things every local site should have, being unique and differentiating yourself on top of that is important.

  • Guaranteed #1 Ranking (updated 2021): This is the oldest trick in the book.  When people think about SEO, they think of ranking highly.  However, companies guaranteeing a top-ranking are ones to avoid right off the top. It is easy for anyone in SEO that knows what they are doing to get “a #1 ranking” on Google. The problem is that they don’t get rankings and traffic from keywords that actually matter for your business.  They simply say, “Look, we got you to #1 for [useless keyword], so that was our obligation”. You need a company that improves your standing for important and competitive keywords in your industry, not just any random easy to rank for keyword that nobody searches for.
  • Use Your Own Site: Many of these companies will either create a copy or build a new site that you don’t own to send traffic to.  The risk here is you aren’t building up any traffic strength to your own site, and even more risky is if they copy your site you could end up getting your own site penalized for duplicate content if Google views this copy site as the original.  I’ve seen it happen.
  • Use Your Own Phone Number: Make sure you have control of the phone numbers you use for marketing. You don’t want to build up a following for a phone number somebody else owns, especially if calls are a big part of your business.
  • Direct Access to analytics: You should be able to directly see your site traffic through analytics or some tool.  Don’t let them just send you canned reports from an analytical tool that you don’t have direct access to.  Even if you don’t understand the numbers, you should be able to bring someone in to look at the numbers to make sure you get what you pay for.
  • Enormous Commissions or Markup: For many of these companies, the major base of your traffic is from just using Google Adwords and other pay per click tools. From seeing some prospects’ plans and comparing them to Google’s actual costs per click, I have seen obscene markups of more than 200%, though that isn’t common.  I do regularly see 100% per click.  I recently saw a client who was being charged $7 per click for clicks that cost $2 directly from Google.  Hiring someone to come in and set up your own account with Google and paying for them to keep it going directly is the best answer.  You can see directly what each click costs and pay a direct fee for managing your budget properly.
  • They Don’t Work For Google: Many companies will even say that they are Google or that they have a deal with Google to get them better placement.  This is not true.  The only relationship they may have, if they have one, is as a Google certified partner. I am a Google certified partner but I would never tell someone I work for Google. It is just an accreditation that means you know how to use their tools.
  • Uniqueness: It is important for your advertising and even your local link structure to stand out and differentiate you from the rest of the crowd.  Most of these companies use generic ads by industry so you will basically be showing the same ad with a different name as anyone else they have.  One of my clients insisted on changing the wording of the ads because they put him in an industry category where he didn’t belong and he could not get the ads changed, making them pretty much useless, and at the exorbitant markup.

When you sign on with any local search professional, be sure to make sure they are actually taking care of you and spending time on you specifically. I would recommend going with a consultant with a proven track record rather than any of these cookie-cutter national companies unless you are sure you are going to be with them forever and don’t mind the high prices for not having to worry about what is going on.