How to Avoid SEO Scams


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Let’s be honest. Search engine optimization (SEO) looks a bit like a scam on the surface. Google is a search engine designed to give people the best, most relevant and most reliable results possible. SEO is a set of tactics designed to “play with the system” in a certain way, ensuring that your site ranks higher on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

In practice, SEO is not only ethical, but beneficial for the online ecosystem as a whole. To rank higher in search engines, you need to create amazing content, improve your reputation, and serve users better.

The problem is, not everyone who works in the SEO industry lives up to high ethical standards. In fact, many SEO companies (and freelancers) deliberately use low-quality, spam-like tactics for their clients – and have the nerve to charge for the service.

Related: How to choose your first SEO keywords

So what can you do to detect and avoid scams if you are working with a service provider?

The threat of scams

Most industries have to deal with fraud and scams in at least some areas, but in SEO the problem is particularly prevalent. Plus, the consequences of working with an unethical company can sabotage your long-term potential.

For example:

  • Penalties. Violating Google’s terms of service or SEO the wrong way doesn’t just lead to lack of results – there are negative consequences in the form of Google penalties. In the best case scenario, you will lose rankings and lose visibility. In the worst case scenario, you could be manually removed from Google search results completely.
  • Reputation damage. Spam companies will link shoddy content and manipulative links to your brand name. One or two breaches may not make a big splash, but over time a bad SEO provider can seriously damage your reputation.
  • Lost money. Of course, you also risk losing money in the process. Poor quality SEO agencies are generally cheap, at least in comparison, but with no results to show you could still lose hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Due diligence when finding SEO services

Fortunately, even a little due diligence is enough to spot scammers and unethical practitioners in the SEO industry.

  • SEO fundamentals. First of all, it is important to learn the basics of SEO. If you know what it takes to increase your rankings (and do it responsibly), you’ll be in a much better position to determine if your provider is following the correct process.
  • Staffing and process. You will need to investigate the staff and processes of each potential business. In other words, who is the team responsible for doing this work? What job will they actually do? It is not enough to trust the vague promise of “better SEO results”. How are they going to get there?
  • Reviews and testimonials. You will also need view reviews and testimonials, which serve as third-party indicators that an institution is trustworthy. Reviews and testimonials can be faked, but if a company engages in illegitimate or manipulative tactics, you’ll eventually hear about it somewhere.

Related: 7 reasons why SEO is important for every startup

Red flags with SEO providers

When doing your due diligence, these are some of the bigger red flags to look for.

  • Big promises. SEO is a strategy that takes a lot of time and effort. It often takes months, or even years, to come up with a ranking for a competitive keyword. If someone promises you fast or guaranteed results, you should be skeptical.
  • Low price. In the SEO world, you get what you pay for, for the most part. If an agency offers a service at a much lower price than their competitors, there is probably a reason for this.
  • Non-native writers. The best written content comes from experienced native speakers. Too often SEO companies outsource their work to inexperienced copywriters in developing countries to cut costs; and in most cases, that content just isn’t good enough to help you rank.
  • Unclear process. Is this SEO provider ambiguous or unclear about the processes they are following? Are you having trouble finding details on their website? If so, it’s a red flag.
  • Willful Violations of Google’s Terms of Service. Google makes its Terms of use rather clear. Keyword stuffing, link spamming, and other such tactics should be avoided at all costs.
  • Lack of transparency. When you ask this supplier questions, do you get a clear answer? Or is it difficult to get an honest answer?
  • Vendors in a hurry. Shady SEO agencies often employ arrogant salespeople who push you into signing a contract as quickly as possible.
  • Reputation issues. Bad reviews or a negative reputation in the industry should speak for themselves.

SEO scams aren’t always very obvious, but if you’re willing to do your due diligence, you shouldn’t have a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff. The more experience you gain in the SEO industry, the easier it will be to spot unethical scammers.


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