SEO Audit: 7 Warning Signs of a Bad SEO Company

I find myself apologizing for my industry entirely too often. Whether intentionally taking advantage of the uninformed or simply unaware of the changing nature of SEO, there are entirely too many people providing SEO services that fail to deliver.

If you’re shopping around for an SEO provider (or already working with one), take a look at these warning signs that you’re buying SEO snake oil…

Meta Tags

I’ve written on the subject of meta tags several times in the past (see Do Meta Tags Impact SEO?). Here’s a summary: Google made it very clear in 2009 that meta keywords DO NOT impact search rankings. Anyone who tells you they’re going to improve your rankings by optimizing meta tags is years behind the curve. Don’t waste your time!

Bad Links

I have a little sympathy for SEOs that fall into this trap, but not much. See, the reasoning makes sense: search engines determine your authority and value based on the quantity and quality of links from other sites to yours. For a small business with a simple brochure-like website, it can be a challenge to get many links from other websites. Why not buy them, right? You can easily get hundreds of links for $20 or so, and problem solved! For example:

SEO low quality backlinks

Shortcuts like this used to work extremely well. Sometimes they still do. But recently, Google released an update called Penguin which penalized sites for having too many low-quality links (the kind of links you can buy in bulk, purely for SEO). We’ve seen several small business sites blacklisted recently for having paid links. It’s a tactic we’re very careful to avoid.

How can you tell if you have bad links? There are several tools out there, like and OpenSiteExplorer that will analyze all the links coming into your site. Are there linking sites you’ve never heard of? Go to a few of the sites and read the content – does it seem to serve any purpose other than to provide links to sites? A few things to look for:

  • Content that just doesn’t seem to read very well, with multiple links within the text. Often those links are totally unrelated to the text of the page.
  • A blog filled with tons of posts (typically of low quality, as mentioned above) that are totally unrelated. A post about car insurance may be followed by one about prescription medicine or home improvements or online gambling. The only thing they have in common is that they all link to sites that paid for placement.
  • A directory that lists many websites and businesses. Some of them even have names like FreeSEODirectory, blatantly confirming that they exist only to link to sites to help SEO. When’s the last time you went to a directory site to find a business? Exactly – if your site is listed just for SEO, Google doesn’t like it.
  • Any page with “Links” in the title or header, followed by links to numerous sites. Again, this site is probably charging a few dollars for each link, and the page provides no value on its own.

Getting a link on that list can put you in some dubious company.

Here are two screenshots of sites like the above that we have encountered:

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SEO link directory

What message are you sending to Google by getting links on pages like these? Is your business related to wall mount racks in India? Laser hair removal in Long Island? Holistic dentistry? Oil spills? Worse yet, Google assigns guilt by association – if one of those sites gets banned for black hat SEO tactics, you run a high risk of being banned too!

Search Engine Submission Service

This one makes me laugh. In the early days, if you wanted your site to appear on Google, you had to manually submit it for indexing. Otherwise, Google didn’t know your site was there. So, SEO companies would submit your site directly to the top search engines. Some even promised to submit to thousands of search engines – what a deal!

The reality is that your site will be indexed almost immediately if you link to it from an existing website. The simplest way would be to tweet a link to the new site – Google will see the link on Twitter, follow it to your site, and index the site’s content.

All major search engines work this way, and have for at least a few years. The thought of wasting time or money getting submitted to thousands of search engines is ridiculous – how many search engines can you name? The few that require manual submission are so small that they are inconsequential. Best to focus your energy elsewhere.

Keyword Stuffing

This is another tactic that used to work pretty well. Want to rank for “dietician”? Use that word 15 times on your home page! In fact, make sure that 8-10% of all the words on your site are “dietician.” Who cares if it makes your site read like a redundant, repetitive mess? Here’s an example of keyword stuffing in action:

Keyword stuffing is bad SEO

Sounds awful, right? It was definitely written for search engines. Google has caught on to this as well. Yes, you should use your target keywords on your site. Yes, the target keywords should be used several times, including in title tags, headers, and throughout the body text. But it should still read like it’s written for humans! By overloading on keywords, you risk angering your site visitors at best, or being banned from Google at worst.

“Guaranteed #1 Ranking!”

SEO guaranteed number one ranking

No reputable SEO company will make this promise in their marketing materials or sales pitch. What if you’re trying to rank #1 for “insurance” or “loans?” These terms are intensely competitive. Top brands spend a fortune to hold on to their rankings – how can anyone guarantee they’ll get you a #1 spot without knowing what you want?

A reputable company will discuss objectives with you, analyze your market, and tell you what is (and isn’t) reasonable for your budget. I wouldn’t trust anyone who makes blanket promises without having analyzed the specifics of your situation.

SEO As A One-Time Deal

These search engine “experts” typically use SEO as a verb, as in “We’ll SEO your site for $1200.” They make SEO a product you can purchase – a one-time implementation of SEO magic that will get you ranking better.

Two problems with this: First, SEO is an ongoing process that involves a long-term commitment to content marketing and building relationships. The up-front work these people are selling barely scratches the surface. Second, search engines are constantly changing how they rank sites – more than 400 times per year, in fact. The tactics they’re using today could be useless (or actively harmful) a year from now.

I compare one-time SEO services to one-time maid service – you might notice an improvement, but if you don’t take over the maintenance, six months from now you won’t be able to tell anything was done.

Evasive About Metrics and ROI

This is what truly separates a professional SEO agency from the crowd. Does your SEO agency forecast and measure ROI? Do they provide detailed reports showing their progress toward measurable goals? Before you start an SEO campaign, you should have clear objectives. Keywords should be selected based on ROI estimates:

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True, this type of analysis requires some assumptions, but they can usually be made based on client and market data!

More importantly, if your SEO agency is on a monthly retainer and you’re not getting regular reports, that should be a red flag. You should be getting regular updates on the following:

  • Blog content created
  • New links acquired
  • Traffic metrics and goal conversions
  • Keyword rankings

In an industry with so much misinformation, a little reporting goes a long way! With the above data, you should have peace of mind that your site is in good hands.

Conclusion – A Rule of Thumb for SEO

It’s actually pretty simple: if your SEO provider is secretive or vague, or doing things that could reflect poorly on your brand, dump them. You don’t want the sort of press JC Penney and Overstock received last year for bad SEO. You also don’t want to irritate your visitors with poor content, clearly written for search engines. Despite what some SEOs will tell you, great rankings don’t have to come at the expense of user experience!

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