Updated May 2023: Much of this is still going on and now more.

A majority of this post was written in 2014. I keep updating and adding on as I see things in the market when I run into new clients and see how they have been serviced with SEO prior to coming on board. 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 spent considerable time over the years looking at prospects’ SEO plans and even looking at expanding some of my clients’ exposure.  This allowed me to see what some of the other SEO companies are doing, 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 campaign where they stuff you in a category and just use the same thing that everyone else does. Worse yet, they don’t do anything except send you analytics reports each month.  As of 2023, I’m seeing that more and more, which is quite scary. I recently came across a company paying $1,800/month and we looked at their reports and couldn’t find any actual SEO work that had been done in months.

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: 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 to 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. On top of that, as search has evolved and we see more individualized rankings, you can rank #1 for a term in one place and not even show up on the first page 3 blocks away. It isn’t about rankings. It is about quality traffic. Rankings are just symptoms of that, but are always fluctuating.
  • 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. It is ok to use tracking numbers, if set up properly, but be careful distributing information as important as the way to contact you, if you don’t own that number.
  • 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. The basic version of Google Analytics is free and easy to set up. You should have that on your site and own it and access it with your own account.  Nothing hidden behind closed doors.
  • Enormous Commissions or Markup: For many of these companies, the major base of your traffic is from just using Google Ads 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. Again, make sure you have access to your account so you can go in and see what the true costs are.  People that are good at helping you with this can cost money, but they should be transparent on costs and what they are for.
  • 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 partner for Google Ads. At one time I would say this would be helpful, but with changes in recent years forcing “partners” to make decisions for their clients that help Google more than the client, I would actually stay away from these partners too. I was a Google partner for years,but I could not continue with the program with good conscience because I knew it wasn’t best for my clients. In fact, I would generally say it is a bad idea to follow Google’s suggestions on your account when they call you with tips. They are acting in their own best interest, not yours.
  • 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.
  • Google Business Only Companies: There has been a growth in recent years of people that say you only need Google Business to succeed. In markets that have little to no competition, this can be the case. However, the content on your website that is attached to your Google Business Profile is more and more important for your rankings, so don’t let anyone tell you that Google Business is all you need to succeed.

When you sign on with any 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.

Written by a human being