SEO scammer typing on Mac

Don’t be SEOckered: 8 of the Slimiest SEO Scams

Are you worried about enlisting the services of a SEO company because of all the bad things you’ve heard they do? It is understandable that you would be a little hesitant, however, as long as you are aware of the major tactics that some SEO agencies use to swindle businesses, you should be on your way to eliminating some of these bad actors. Just know that there is no shortage of SEO scammage out there, but those who utilize these shenanigans prey on beginners looking for quick results. We see them nearly every day on the Internet, in our inboxes and yes, even creeping into traditional marketing like radio and phone. This is not to say that all agencies are prone to scams. There are good agencies. But, as Google warns “some unethical SEOs have given the industry a black eye through their overly aggressive marketing efforts and their attempts to manipulate search engine results in unfair ways.” This is why Google pushes so hard for consumer education.

These are some of the most egregious SEO scams that bad agencies pull. No more suspense. Let’s dive right into the cesspool.

Secret Paid Links SEOck

Your rankings are doing better.  That nemesis competitor of yours is finally where he belongs–under you in Google. Suddenly you’re getting more leads. The phone is even ringing for the first time. You’re telling your business friends things are finally taking off. You’re hiring and it’s time start making those dreams for expansion a reality. Funny, your social life couldn’t be better. And all because that new SEO agency you hired did some things behind the scenes that you really don’t understand and don’t want to understand because life is so good. You’ve never been technical. You’re about business.

What’s really happening? Links help websites rank. Getting more link credits from good sources can take months and years of creating exceptional content and getting the word out about it. Google gets a little touchy when you “cheat” by taking the shortcut of buying links instead of earning them.

Despite the risks, paid links remain one of the more popular tricks that the more nefarious agencies use to show quick results. Although, paid links to your website are not always harmful, they may cause a substantial performance loss if Google suspects you are manipulating rankings. Google even encourages users to report paid links. Be assured that competitors feel especially tempted to follow this advice and report your paid links (even though they may be buying links themselves).

Please understand that no one is saying that the act of buying links is a scam. The “Secret” aspect is what makes this practice a scam. The biggest problem with paid links is that many SEO agencies don’t tell you that they are making these purchases.

Thinking of switching to a new agency? What do you think happens to paid links when the budget runs out? Yeah, you got it. Sadly, many victims are never even aware that their current company has been artificially pumping up rankings with paid links that search engines can discover, filter out and use to score your website negatively.

Make sure any agency you work with provides a report of all links they acquire and by what means they obtained them. This will come in handy in case you receive the dreaded unnatural link warning from Google.

Who Your SEO Really “Knows”

In the informal conversations after the pitch, you learn that the agency you are about to hire for SEO has a connection. They won’t say much about the specifics but you’re able to piece together that it’s someone at Google. It must be nice to be able to pick up the phone and call one of the guys behind the curtain who can pull an algorithmic switch to flood your company with leads or dry up your main competitor’s revenue stream. You overhear that this person might even be hired on by your agency and sitting right next to you in the conference room. These agency guys must be pretty epic. The not-what-you-know-but-who you-know stuff is about to explode your business to the next level.

If a SEO agency tells you they know where to get cutting edge search trends because they know someone at Google or have a former Bing employee working with them, be very skeptical. Most employees of search engine companies do not even begin to know the nuances of the algorithm.

Some agencies and their vendors make the case that they are whitelisted because of the high standards that come from having an association with Google or a former Google employee working with them. There are exceptions, but Google certainly doesn’t want to be seen as picking favorites. Why would a large search engine compromise their integrity for an agency’s profit?

One such SEO company packaged their high quality paid linking service to agencies as a premium, white hat, service suited exclusively for enterprise SEO needs. This was not your ordinary, cheap automated link generation network. They charged thousands per month to get listed on just a handful of top brand sites.  This particular company made it known that at least one Google former employee was now working for them and implied that the leading search engine provider looked the other way because they only listed links on high authority or established brand sites. Still, this obvious violation of Google quality guidelines portended risk ahead. It took many years for the train wreck to occur.  Just  before Matt Cutts publicly called out the company on a forum for selling links that pass PageRank, the company dropped out of the link building business completely.

If your agency knows someone at Google, he’s probably an AdWords account rep. Every full-service search marketing firm knows someone like this. Be assured, the AdWords rep will be discussing the agencies spend in paid search, not the secret sauce of the algo.

You don’t need to know someone to get results in search. You can do it yourself or hire someone with a demonstrated track record. And, you certainly don’t need a name-dropping agency with bogus connections.

Gimme My Domain!

The guy at your SEO agency got your business on the radar. You might even say he did a fairly good job. But now it’s time to take that business of yours to the next level. Your. Yep. Sad to say, but you’ve outgrown your old SEO guy. It’s time to stop dancing with the one who brung ya. When you tell him the news that you’re moving to a new full service search marketing agency, he smiles and wishes you well. Weeks later you ask him for the login to your domain so the new agency’s recommendations can be implemented. He informs you that the domain for the brand you’ve been building your business around for all these years belongs to him. If you want to check the whois registration record of your domain, it is of course available to view online. He’ll gladly release the domain to you for a premium.

This very old scam hurts oh so bad. It’s not just done by search engine marketers, but often perpetrated by web developers, webmasters and designers. The most common victims are online newcomers just getting into websites and SEO. A beginner may not understand that he has to take ownership of his domain by registering it or getting registration transferred to him… until it’s too late. Getting it back from a scammer who purposely hid the registration may result in an ugly legal battle.

Some companies tell you that you up front you must register the domain name with them or they insist on registering it themselves. In most cases, there is no need for a agency to have access to your domain registrar account. Hosting account? Maybe. If an agency says they need your domain registrar account password, start interrogating them intensely. Make sure you and only you control your domain from the beginning, one of your most precious web assets.

Blog Networks: Client Gone, Links Gone Scam

You don’t really need the services of this agency anymore. You’re ranking. You have links, both natural links and links that these SEO guys built for you. You even have a list of the links they built for you over many months time. What a nice set of foundational links to have in the bag for the long term. Or so you thought. A few months later, your rankings turn south and you’re frantically looking for answers. Hmm… where did you put that list?

There are many names for this scam but they all work the same way. The title says it all. The way this works is the client (You with the website) will pay for the services of the SEO agency. Normally, they won’t tell you where they are getting the links but in this case they get your links through private blog networks. The sites can also be niche properties in your agency’s portfolio designed specifically for plugging in client sites. They may show you a nice list of links every month that they’ve attained for you, but neglect to mention that they all come from one source.

One of two things happens here:

  1. Your agency’s blog link network has been discovered and filtered by Google.
  2. The agency has unplugged your site’s links from their network.

Both of the above cases have precipitous consequences for the client. They are completely avoidable and reflect poorly on agency ethics. In both cases, your website moves up in rankings rather nicely but  once Google busts their blog network or you want to stop using their services, any benefit received from the links goes away. If a blog network is making your sites move up the search engines, then you will see a sudden drop in rankings when it goes away. Some unscrupulous SEO agencies use this Mafioso tactic to get clients to come back to them and never leave them again. It is because of this that the “Client Gone, Links Gone” scam works so well and why so many have fallen victim to it.

Hello This Is Google Speaking

You just stepped out to refill your morning coffee and get back to your desk and there’s a message from none other than Google! At least, you think you heard him right. Google wants to talk to you about something very important. You’d be a fool not to return that call, right? When you reach this “Google” person, he turns out to be some guy from a SEO agency. You rationalize. Okay, he wasn’t calling from Google, but he sounded sincere about the service he offered and it seems to be something your business really needs.

Did you know that if you register a domain name and don’t bother to pay to have your information private, then anybody can see who owns the domain name? That means cold-callers (some SEO agencies hire call centers too) get your address, phone number and email to do with as they please. You may be on the do not call list, but registering a domain without privacy puts your info in the hands of anyone with an Internet connection. Why pay for qualified leads when you can scrape fresh ones from the whois records for free? This is one of the easiest scams to perpetrate on new website owners.

Scammers and sales people of all sorts want to speak to the website owner about their SEO package or system that’s no different from the one they’ll sell the next sucker. Now, you may be thinking that this sounds too much like a scam to even work, but you are wrong. New website owners are so shocked that Google is actually calling them to give them the opportunity to get their website ranked number one that they actually fork over their credit card information to the scammer in many cases. The point is, someone who is willing to lie or mislead on the initial call, cannot have anything good to offer.

Classic Guaranteed Rankings Scam

Things are dragging with this new website. And you’re scratching your head because this is the best looking website, hands down that you’ve ever seen. And, it functions just like you want it to. This thing just works, but you’re sweating. Why shouldn’t search engines want to send my awesome site traffic? Then someone from a so-called SEO agency explains that despite the impeccable aesthetics of your dream website, it has not been optimized for search engines. You sort of knew this but your developer said he’d “build in SEO.” Well, let’s face it, you didn’t have the budget at the time. And now, even lack of budget can’t get in the way the success you deserve. This agency guarantees rankings! They even put it in writing. Any company willing to stand behind their service with a guarantee is a company you want to do business with. Nuff said.

How would you like to rank on page 1 in Google? What if a SEO agency ranks your website for this search phrase, “Orange spiced pepper bubble gum sandwich”? Would you like to rank for that term? I bet you can imagine just how much search traffic you are going to get, eh?

You can see the scam coming. Scam SEO agencies guarantee they will rank your website for a certain number of terms per month. This sounds really good, however, they don’t specify which search terms. When it comes down to it, if anything, you will rank for obscure, low-traffic terms: “long-tail” keywords instead of “head” keywords. Probably not what you had imagined, right?’

Whenever a SEO agency guarantees something you should know right there that you risk being scammed in some way. SEO professionals improve rankings by virtue of their skills and experience, but no one has the kind of control over search engine variables to be able to make the claim with certainty. Google is very clear about this:

No one can guarantee a number 1 ranking on Google.

If someone guarantees you a search engine ranking, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have some abilities to make your website perform well. It means that they are out of touch with search engine guidelines or likely don’t have the client’s best interest as a priority. Stay away from guaranteed rankings scams!

1,000 SEOweet Directory Listings

You know your site needs some lift, but the kids are in college and your wife just bought a time share over the phone. You’ve got to get the word out on your website’s product offering. You want to see links. Lots of links. A little quantitative easing of the pain of not showing up anywhere. Then, eureka! You stumble upon an add that says you can get your site listed in 1000 directories for $10. What an amazing service this must be. 100, yes. But 1000? These guys must be rock stars. It’s almost as if they were reading your mind.

This historic scam that some SEO agencies still offer is to say they will list your site on a very large number of article or link directories. This may sound good, however, 99% of these directories won’t result in any traffic or long term benefits. You guessed right. It’s the quality. Do you think Google is going to let someone with 10 bucks and an automated directory submitter make a fool of the world’s most advanced search engine? Not these days. It is actually because of all these garbage directories that Google has started to factor in negative links. The idea that bad links can hurt rankings is a reality. In fact, this has given rise to the nefarious discipline of “Negative SEO.” If you want to get some good directory links, then do it manually so you can control the quality. Don’t get scammed just because the price of $10.00 is too good to pass up.

Classic Link Exchange Scam

To say that you are busy is an understatement. You know things are getting more social on the web. Online relationships are important but you just don’t have time. That’s reality. Amazing though, this SEO agency says they can do all this for you, promising thousands of link “partners.”

The link exchange scam is about as old as Google itself. Getting links this way is less effective than days of old and carries more risks. It’s easy for Google to calculate reciprocal link relationships among sites and discount any benefit from them. The way this may work is the unscrupulous SEO agency will install a script onto your website. This script then pulls in the links that they have in their system’s inventory and adds them to your site.

This may not sound so bad, except a lot of the links that are being placed on your site are to other websites using the same tactic to manipulate rankings. These risk being detected and wiped. Google lists this as one example of a link scheme:

Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you.”)

You don’t need a reciprocal linking script on your company’s website. Any agency that presents reciprocal linking as a strategy should be at best questionable and more likely in scamming territory.

As you can see, there are many SEO scams out there that agencies try to pull. It is up to you to know which ones are good tactics and which ones are not. A lot of people lose their investments by trying to take the shortcut to getting rankings, but the truth of  the matter is that modern SEO has no shortcuts and never will.

Published 24/09/12, Edited 08/06/14.

About Emory Rowland

I'm the founder of Leverable. SEO has been part of my life for over a decade and always will be. I love helping brands improve search performance and providing "lift for the good guys" through Leverable. I remain a passionate believer in the empowering capabilities and rewards of effective SEO. Circle me on Google+, follow me on Twitter or connect at LinkedIn.

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6 comments

  1. 9. The Broad Keyword

    This is another I’ve seen at past agencies I’ve worked for and it’s down right dodgy and goes hand in hand with the guaranteed rankings for low volume keywords.

    Instead of showing the exact match results from Google’s keyword tool they show them the broad match but don’t clarify the difference!

  2. The typical business owner finds SEO a mystery. They are easy prey for the “guaranteed rankings” scam, because a guarantee sounds like it’s “safe”. How can a guarantee be a scam, right?

    I also agree about the link-exchange scams, but now people have taken it to the other extreme and are afraid to exchange any links. I think modest and targeted link exchanges are still very valuable, especially if they involve useful content exchanges. Offline, this is called partnerships and referrals, and it is a good thing. Ditch the script – any automated linking is bad – and look for partners that are in related businesses or in a similar geographical area.

  3. Recently an old client of mine told me about a scuzzy practice of an agency he learned about. The agency brings on interns and pays them nothing because they want the experience in the SEO industry for their resume. When an intern leaves another quickly takes their place. And the owner lives in a mansion.

    No wonder people doubt the claims they hear from SEO agencies.

  4. Emory Rowland September 25, 2012

    Great points, guys. That broad match vs. exact match is a good one as is the intern scam – whole business models are built around this. I can think of a few more. Maybe a part 2 is in order.

    I think a certain amount of reciprocation is natural. I’ve seen sites that approach 100% reciprocal links using a script. Pretty funny.

  5. Emory, I didn’t know any of this. This makes total sense as to why I get the spam offers “links” that I do. Looking forward to that how to do it right blog!

    • Emory Rowland May 31, 2013

      Becky, you’re not alone. Seems the typical business owner misses a lot of this stuff.

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