Are You “Low Hanging Fruit” For SEO Fraud?

Let’s begin with a case study:

I had a client who had me build a website, and then we optimized it for the search engines. After a few short months, the site was achieving prominent placement on the search engines, both organically and in paid-for listings. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, I received a call from the client that he had signed a contract with another search engine company and was no longer going to use my services. When asked what had made him unhappy with his current placement, his reply was “nothing.” He was perfectly happy with the work performed on his site, but this new company boasted “cutting edge technology” and offered a “guaranteed placement” on major search engines. They also provided him with a “report” on his website and arranged the report in twelve categories, grading each category in a “Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor” matrix. Of course, they marked his site as “fair” or “poor” for all categories, promising him that they’d fix everything. I had equipped his website with Google Analytics, and subsequently was able to watch his search engine traffic plummet 78% over the next month. His positioning on the search engines continues to slip, and his Google PageRank is no longer progressing in the right direction either. Consequently, he got scammed and is now contractually bound to pay the “intruding” company for six more months. The ironic part is that the former client is an attorney and admittedly has no recourse from a legal standpoint to correct the damage that has now been done to his business. He has become a statistic: another victim of a “too good to be true” search engine sales pitch.

Do not put yourself in the same predicament. To prevent a similar scenario from happening to you, you need to know enough to be an informed consumer for your business.

What makes you “low hanging fruit”?

As soon as you participate in pay-per-click advertisement, or as soon as your website begins to become visible in the organic (natural) rankings, you are vulnerable. By taking measures to promote your website, you unwittingly have “pre-qualified” yourself as a target for SEO and SEM solicitations. Some solicitations are legitimate, but many (if not most) have an underhanded element to them. Reputable SEO and SEM providers get a lot of business by word-of-mouth referrals or by incoming phone call requests from their advertisements. They remain pretty busy. In comparison, if you are receiving telemarketing calls, unsolicited emails, and junk mail ads, there is a pretty good chance that you have been identified as “low hanging fruit.”

How did you become “low hanging fruit”?

There are several ways that result in targeting you for SEO/SEM solicitations. Here are a few of the most common:

  • You placed a pay-per-click ad on the search engines, thereby letting solicitors know that being found is important to you. They therefore call you or email you and make lofty promises, or promise to save you money.
  • You registered a domain name recently. Many companies monitor the registration of new domain names, and then target those businesses with solicitations to get your website optimized and marketed.
  • Solicitors do searches for common topics, products, services, etc. and then target whoever shows up. It is simple for them to do a search and then quickly skip down 10 to 20 pages and “cherry pick” companies who are obviously trying to improve their positioning.

As a general rule, the more easily findable you are, the more solicitations you will get. By pre-qualifying yourself and making progress on the search engines, predatory search engine companies already know that 1) search engine positioning is important to you, 2) a lot of the “heavy lifting” work has already been done in order to attain the position you have, 3) they can solicit you and get your attention by suggesting better results for less money, and 4) they can take your money while riding on the momentum achieved by your prior efforts, knowing that you probably won’t recognize that that’s what happening. By signing you into a contract for six months to a year, they virtually guarantee themselves an income at your expense, and as your search engine position and traffic begins to slip, the damage is already done. You lose the momentum, and you’re financially obligated to buy your way out of a contract in order to recover.

Common ploys to convince you to give away your money:

Emails that begin with “I just looked at your website and we can help you get better search engine placement.”

These kinds of emails are usually false. I have multiple email addresses, myself, and it is very common for me to receive five or six such emails from the same source within a minute or two. They are spam. Sometimes these emails are more personalized, citing exact placements on the search engines. For example, the email might read, “Your website is showing up in position 162 on Google, but we can help you get to number 1.” Keep in mind, the email is spam. I must ask, Position 162? For which keyword phrase? Did these guys actually take the time to look and sort through seventeen pages of search engine listing just to contact ‘little ole me’ because they are so helpful and they want to see me do better? No, of course not… The position number might be accurate for one phrase or another, but it is simply pulled from the search engines by a computer program and automatically pasted into the body of the email. Although it may look personalized and appear as though the sender is being helpful, you are likely just the target of a bulk advertising email campaign. Such companies that practice this technique often are banking the fact that you don’t realize this. If you contact them in reply, they probably see you as gullible, and “low hanging fruit.”

Emails and junk mail that begin with “We have performed a free analysis of your website, and we can help you get better search engine placement”, accompanied by a report of some kind.

Think about it for a moment. Is there really a company out there that will really take the time to analyze your website (which typically takes several hours to do it right) at no cost to you, then provide you with a meaningful report that can be used as a decision-making tool? My guess is, “no”, especially when you consider that such companies are sending out hundreds or thousands of such “reports” each month. A company that would actually take the time to do that many hours of work for free would undoubtedly go out of business. Those reports are nothing more than marketing propaganda, designed to get your money.

Of course, the initial reports are all peppered with “fair” and “poor” marks. Be sure to examine what is actually being assessed in the report; you will likely find that you are “graded” in categories that do not even apply to the current content of your website. If you hire that company to work on your site, how do you think they grade themselves after they finish taking your money? My bet is “excellent”, which makes you feel good about the money you’ve spent until the next company solicits you and says “We’ve noted several problems with your website, and we can help you improve.” At some point, buying into these kinds of deals will make you feel “burned”, and for good reason: you have been.

Emails with promises or links to websites that “guarantee” your placement on major search engines.

First, be aware that there is a different meaning between “top placement on search engines” and “placement on top search engines”. Top placement (or any specific ranking) can’t be guaranteed. Placement on top search engines can mean just about anything. The words “top”, “best”, or any other such qualifier is very subjective, and is open to interpretation. If there are 3 million listings for companies similar to yours, “top placement” may be assumed to be anything that is in the top 10 percent. And if your listing is the 3 millionth one on Google, you would have been listed on a “top search engine”. Tricks on words are commonplace, and the interpretation will conveniently be in favor of the company that takes your money.

Both “top placement” and “placement on top search engines” tell you nothing about any particular sets of keywords. There’s a whole lot of wiggle room for the SEO/SEM company. And how can they possibly guarantee you top placement for keywords that they haven’t analyzed or evaluated. When two companies both guarantee number one results, how is it possible that they can each deliver, especially when your business isn’t the only one they’re soliciting? In short, they can’t. A common ploy is that your site will be marketed under some obscure word or phrase that none of your legitimate customers would search for, and the SEO/SEM company earns you the number one spot for a useless term in order to take your money. Or perhaps they show you that your company’s name appears number one when searched for, and they use such results to document that they earned the money. Even without optimizing your site, your company name may likely be found in some searches with zero effort, but the fact that 1) the SEO company made a change to your site, however small, and 2) you were found in the number one spot, in any capacity, they can legally take your money, even if the search rankings did not result from their efforts.

Flat rate package deals that are offered by telemarketers, email solicitations, and junk mail flyers advertising that claim that the solicitor will optimize your site for $X (some specific amount of money).

Buyer beware. Search engine optimization and search engine marketing is not a commodity. It isn’t something that can be boxed and shrink wrapped, then labeled with a one-size-fits-all price tag. Every business is unique, and every market is different. Companies that offer pre-packaged deals are certainly not going to price their packages in a way that will make them lose money. If you understand that to properly optimize and market a website involves individual market research based on your locality, your business type, etc., you will realize that there is absolutely no way to rubber-stamp your website. To do the job right, it has to be a custom job. Interestingly enough, this is one area where a custom job, done right, should actually cost you less money than a package deal. In other words, if the package deal costs less, it’s probably done half-baked or is a scam. For the package job to be done right, it would typically be over-priced to cover any unforeseen contingencies in order to “beat the odds” so that the solicitor remains profitable. In comparison, a custom job, done right, is only going to cost you for the work that is done.

Blanket solicitations that offer search engine submission to X number of search engines, using X number of keywords, for the flat price of $X per month or year.

Again, beware. Optimizing your website means “preparing it to be search-engine-friendly.” A website must first be optimized before it is marketed in order to be found effectively in the organic rankings, or found cost-effectively in the pay-per-click rankings. Search engine optimization is a pre-requisite to search engine submission. When you get a flyer in the mail (or email) that offers some flat rate amount (like “$75 per year” or “$50 per month”, etc.), if your site has not been optimized, you are throwing your money away. If the advertisement specifies that you are paying for submissions to the search engines versus optimization, you really have no recourse because the company is actually doing what they are advertising, even though they know that submitting an un-optimized website actually potentially damages your search engine placement, but does nothing to help it. They don’t care. They got paid.

Contracts that bind you into some minimum term for service:

How does the typical scam, deal, or unethical company assure themselves of an income? They make you sign a deal that commits to using their service for some defined period of time. Not every company that has you sign a contract is unethical, but again, buyer beware. If they are doing their job, why do they need to hold you hostage? What if you are not satisfied with the results after a month or two? The song and dance you’ll get is that “it can sometimes take several months to see top results on the search engines.” That doesn’t answer the question. The real reason is that such companies 1) want your money, and 2) know that someone else will be calling you (or emailing you) shortly with the next best offer, so they are solely interested in protecting their own interests, not yours.

“That’s shameful,” you might be thinking. Well, it should be, but keep in mind that in order for these people (freelancers) and companies who use these techniques to feel shamed, they must first have a conscience. Somehow, when their cash flow is booming, they don’t seem to have much trouble with their consciences. What it amounts to is “search engine malpractice” at the expense of YOU, the unsuspecting business owner. But unfortunately, the legal system has not yet caught up with technology. Therefore, there are not yet any significant laws in place to penalize such unethical practices. That puts YOU squarely at risk for the money you spend on SEO and SEM, because search engine companies cannot ethically guarantee any particular placement in the major search engine listings.

Here is the paradox, where you are caught in the middle:

  • If a company makes such a guarantee for search engine placement on any of the major search engines, they are not being ethical. No such guarantees exist.
  • If a company disclaims any search engine placement guarantees (which they must in order to be ethical), they can legally take your money and are not really liable for anything if your website does not achieve good placement.

Does that scare you? It should.

Here’s the funny part, ironically:

If you know enough about what to ask, you will be amazed at the “tap dancing” that results from questioning some of the solicitors. In the telemarketing world, the person who is trying to sell you a package generally is unfamiliar with the actual process of SEO and SEM, so your questions are met with circular reasoning, babble, and scripted responses to common objections. When I receive such phone calls myself, they usually begin with the same “flavor” of conversation: the solicitor identifies him- or herself as being with a search engine expertise company, and further explains that I am “losing a lot of business in my local area” because my site is not optimized. (I live out in the “middle of nowhere”, so I’m always amazed/amused at how I could possibly be losing a lot of local business when there are more cows than people in my rural town.)

There always seems to be a sense of urgency and concern in their voice that I take immediate action to fix the problems, especially “in this economy”, as I’m often told. When I question them as to how they found me to let me know about this huge revelation that my site is in some kind of problem status. Many times, their answer is that they were looking online and “came across” my site, and they “happened to notice” that it wasn’t optimized well, could be optimized better, or other such thing.

My response: “So, if you happened upon my site inadvertently and you managed to find it, how can it possibly be so poorly optimized? Did you spend hours trying to find a site that you didn’t know existed?”

Now the flopping and twitching begins. Sometimes they’ll change gears after a few moments of wrestling with the question, and they’ll tell me that they can save me money on my optimization and marketing. Really? “How can you tell me you’ll save me money when you don’t know what I’ve paid to optimize and market my site?” More flopping and twitching.

Maybe I should be kinder about it, not giving the telemarketer such a hard time by asking sensible questions. I just find it disgraceful that such scams, deals, pitches, and packages are sold to the unsuspecting all the time. When I let them know about my own experience with SEO and SEM, the telemarketer thanks me for my time, apologizes, and hangs up– or just simply hangs up, depending on how embarrassed they are.

Key points you must know:

  • The better and more effective your search engine efforts are, the more solicitations you will receive. It simply makes sense that the more visible you are online, the more solicitors will find you to try to get your money, and you have already pre-qualified yourself as a prospect for them because you have shown active efforts in SEO/SEM.
  • There is no such thing as “guaranteed placement” on major search engines.
  • Package deals where you pay a flat rate to optimize your site are frequently scams, and are often overpriced to favor profitability of the service provider, rather than consider the unique needs of your business
  • To market a site effectively, it must first be optimized. Solicitations for submitting your site to search engines without optimizing it being optimized first are deceptive and can do damage to your ranking.
  • The better your search engine placement is, the more solicitations you will receive. The fact that you have good placement is how many scams and unethical companies find you.
  • Email solicitations that claim to have evaluated your site or provide you with an analysis report of your site are usually automated, computer generated spam from companies that prey on the unsuspecting. The fact that you call them to inquire is a good tip-off to them that they are dealing with “low hanging fruit.”
  • As a general rule, be wary of solicitations and telemarketers that contact you. If they call you, you may be a target for SEO/SEM scams or deceptive practices. You should seek out a provider and ensure they are qualified.
  • Proper SEO and SEM on your site cannot be done until your site has been individually analyzed with relevant market research for your industry and your location. It therefore can’t be priced without an appropriate consultation.
  • The market analysis of a site is part of what is necessary to define the best keywords to use. If a company asks you to provide the keywords rather than help you define them with statistical data, buyer beware.
  • Always get references. View a portfolio. Ask challenging questions. Do something to qualify the company as being legitimate.

What you should do about it to protect yourself and your business:

Please, for your own benefit, get familiar with the common deceptive practices that run rampant in the SEO/SEM world. Most web developers and search engine companies are reputable, earning an honest living. They are not typically the ones who are predatory, calling and emailing you with unsolicited spam. In fact, a good sign that you are working with an honest, ethical company is that you called them for help, not the other way around.

Every web development and search engine company that is ethical should be forthcoming with information that is verifiable. Most will want to provide a free consultation prior to accepting your job. They should provide you with options, working with you closely to determine the best strategy that meets your needs within your budget, rather than throwing an arbitrary, packaged price on the table before they get to know your business.

Avoid 6-month or yearly term contracts if possible. You may be asked to sign an agreement that defines the scope of work for your project, but avoid the six-month or one-year commitment that typically contains penalties for early termination. Some contracts might define the scope of work to be done each month, but there should be a penalty-free out clause that gives you the right to “fire” the company if they aren’t performing.

Be sure to have your website equipped with statistical analysis tools so that you can see the results that your SEO/SEM provider’s efforts are yielding. You need this data in order to make good decisions. Usually, the information is available in the form of graphs and charts, so you do not need to know much about the Web to be able to determine how effective your marketing efforts are (or aren’t). If you see upward trends in traffic, and if there is a corresponding positive impact in business transactions, new customers, etc. then you should smile. If the trend remains flat or declines, then you should ask questions, make adjustments, or find a better provider. Having website analytics reports available to you will help eliminate or reduce the “artificial traffic” resulting from the unethical practice of a service provider visiting your site to fabricate results, because you should be able to determine the source of your traffic. If all of your traffic comes from the same source, and/or if your site is getting a flood of repeat visitors but few new visitors, it’s a hint that something shady may be happening.

Have your site evaluated by a professional you seek, rather than a solicitor. If your site has already been optimized, in some cases you may actually have good traffic numbers before an adjustment to your current optimization, but the traffic may be mostly from the wrong audience. This is a common result from some of the package deals from being “low hanging fruit.” Sometimes a re-optimization will yield less traffic but more sales, as is typical with niche market businesses or some seasonal businesses. This simply means that the adjustment resulted in re-targeting your website’s promotion to find the right audience that contains more buyers and fewer “tire kickers.” In most typical businesses, however, more traffic equals more sales if the SEO and SEM were done right.

In any case, look before you leap. Check references, and don’t fall for a sales pitch that includes, “we respect our customer’s privacy and therefore can’t provide you with their contact information.” Yes, of course it is important (essential) to respect customers’ privacy. However, any website developer or search engine optimization company worth its salt will have customers who agree to be cited as references. (Make sure it’s a third party business and not a family member or friend. Ask about their relationship). In the high-fraud, “no guarantees” environment of SEO and SEM, solid references are about the only certainty you have that a company is going to deliver on what they tell you they’ll strive for, but can’t ethically promise.

Much like the wild west, Internet marketing is a wide-open frontier that still being developed and explored. Consequently, there are plenty of traveling charlatans and swindlers who will call you with convincing presentations to sell you “snake oil” as the cure for all that ails you. They know more about search engines than you do, generally, so that puts you at a disadvantage. In a lot of industries, the expression “you get what you pay for” is used to justify spending more money or to explain how lower prices might offer less value. It’ takes on a bit of a nasty spin in the search engine and Internet world, though. Even though a price you’re quoted might seem better than others you have received, sometimes with search engine optimization and marketing, you don’t even get what you pay for. It is almost completely “buyer beware.” Your dollars are at risk.

Someday there will undoubtedly be better laws and several lawsuits to set a precedence for ethical SEO and SEM, and I look forward to that day because it will “clean up” the industry. In the meantime, however, you must do everything you can to protect yourself from being cheated. Unfortunately, it often costs more to try to get your money back through legal channels than it does to walk away from the money as a “lesson learned.” Spare yourself the grief by asking the right questions and doing your due diligence in consumer research before you buy. Don’t get sold a bill of goods. It doesn’t mean that you need to become an expert. You just need to know enough to sort out fact from fiction.

Your SEO Service, Ethical SEO, and Competitor Monitoring

When a company undertakes a search engine optimization program, whether it is performed in-house or outsourced to an SEO service, most of the attention (and rightly so) is focused on the company website. This is the one aspect where there is a feeling of control–once a website is released into the wild, the company will have to see how its site fares against all the other websites out there, whether the other sites are using ethical SEO tactics or not.

Apart from changes made to the company website, the assumption is often that the company and, if it is using one, its SEO service, has zero control over what appears in search engine results. However, this is not usually the case. Often, you or your SEO service can have a direct effect on search engine results by monitoring your competitors and reporting them to the major search engines when the SEO techniques used on their site fall outside what is popularly referred to as ethical SEO. (Please note that while I believe that the word “ethical” is tossed around too often, “ethical SEO” has become the standard phrase to describe white hat techniques, and so it is the phrase I use throughout the article.)

Primary Competitors

To start with, let’s define competitors. Almost every company has at least a handful of other companies that it considers to be primary competitors–the ones that sell the same products and services, that are of similar size, and so on. It is important that the SEO efforts (or lack thereof) of these competitors, whether they are using ethical SEO techniques or not, be monitored on a routine basis. If they have not hired an SEO service of their own, or if they have not started doing SEO in-house at all, you will have peace of mind knowing that the use of this channel, for the moment, is yours. If your competitors begin an SEO campaign, with or without an outside SEO service, you can learn much about their sales and marketing tactics by evaluating the keyphrases that they target. And you can also investigate whether they are using ethical SEO practices in their campaign.

Your Online Competitors

It’s important to keep in mind that it is unlikely that searchers are going to decide only between you and the primary competitors you have listed. They are going to consider any company that matches their particular needs and that shows up for their search term. This is why your criteria for a competitor online should broaden to encompass any company that offers products or services like yours that outranks you for any of your targeted keyphrases. If your in-house staff or your SEO service not only continually monitors your search engine positions but also analyzes the companies that appear above you in search results, you can often identify forward-looking competitors of which you were previously unaware–your primary competitors of tomorrow.

Violations

This brings us to the key issue of ethical SEO. Search engine optimization is still a very new concept to most companies. Even the most respected companies can make mistakes in this arena, either by choosing the wrong SEO service, or by trying to avoid hiring an SEO service altogether by bringing it in house with well-intentioned but unqualified people. For example, BMW’s German site was recently removed temporarily from the Google index for using doorway pages–something that is not considered an ethical SEO practice. It stands to reason that your competitors are also not immune to violations.

Bad Firms

There are very notable examples of otherwise smart and established companies hiring an SEO service that put them in a worse situation than before they pursued SEO–by getting their site removed from major search engines for violating the engine’s terms of service, for example. Not long ago, there was a well-publicized example where most of the clients of a Las Vegas SEO service were penalized. Almost all of the clients claimed that they were not informed that the firm was not practicing ethical SEO and that they were therefore at risk.

SEO firms are generally divided into two camps–those called “White Hats” (those that use ethical SEO practices and will never knowingly violate a search engine’s terms of service) and those called “Black Hats” (those that do not use ethical SEO practices and that will attempt to unravel the latest algorithms and exploit any loopholes to achieve rankings at any cost). Neither approach is invalid–it is not against the law to violate the terms of service of a search engine. Moreover, black hat techniques can be quite effective. However, the tactics are risky, and anyone hiring an SEO service that wears a black hat and does not use ethical SEO practices should definitely be apprised of this risk up front.

Internal Resources

Firms are often tempted to avoid hiring an SEO service by performing SEO in-house, and the project almost always falls onto an already overburdened IT department. The problem with approaching SEO from a strictly technical mindset is that the strategies employed, such as the keyphrases targeted, will not necessarily be in line with the goals of the marketing and sales departments. In addition, an IT resource will usually approach SEO from a purely technical standpoint, without being aware of ethical SEO practices, and this can lead to trouble. Penalization is a very real possibility, and it is hard to get back onto an index once your site has been removed.

Monitoring

A thorough SEO service will monitor not only the handful of competitors that you deem crucial but also the sites that appear higher than you for any of your chosen search phrases. This may be somewhat controversial, especially to any SEO service or webmaster that uses tactics forbidden by the search engines’ terms of service. However, many white hat SEO service firms consider it an obligation to their clients to routinely monitor the sites of any competitor found on the engines to be sure it is using ethical SEO techniques.

There is a reason that every major search engine has a form to report sites who do not use ethical SEO tactics and who violate the terms of service so that these sites can be subsequently penalized or removed. Spam filters cannot catch all violations without also removing a large number of good sites. Search engines rely on their users to help them to keep their indexes clean and free of sites not using ethical SEO tactics. There are many techniques to spam an engine–far too many to list. However, a good SEO service not only knows what all of these techniques are but knows how to identify them when it sees them so they can be reported to the engine accurately.

The End Result

Business is business, and your interests often run directly counter to that of your competitors. When you report a website that is not using ethical SEO, it is very likely that it will be removed. This means there is one less company that you need to worry about in the online arena, at least for the time being. If the site in question outranked yours, you also get the added benefit of seeing your rankings improve as the violating pages are removed–provided, of course, that you are using ethical SEO techniques and steering clear of violations yourself, or you may be reported by a competitor of yours or its SEO service!

The engine also benefits from users reporting violations. Engines do not like people trying to trick their indexes, since there might then be pages showing up for particular search terms that are not actually relevant to those terms. Clearly, search engines understand this benefit–if the engines thought they could weed out all the spam themselves, they would not provide a reporting system. Supporting such a system, after all, is not free. Real people employed by the engine have to visit the offending pages to confirm that they are not using ethical SEO tactics.

In the notable example cited earlier of the firm that got most of its clients penalized, the owner of the SEO service in question was quoted as saying, “Google can kiss my ass. This is the Wild Wild West.” He may be right–maybe it is the Wild Wild West. But there are a whole bunch of new sheriffs in town–and they are wearing white hats.