Out of my 15-year career, 7 of them were spent at a digital marketing agency.
It’s where I learned to cut my teeth, put a deck together, speak to clients properly (jury is still out on this one), etc.
Were we perfect?
Of course not, but we were honest and approached every engagement with heart and our customers best interest in mind.
I also spent the first part of my SEO career as a private consultant working with smaller businesses and approached it in the same way – with honesty and enthusiasm.
Even when things weren’t going great, I was straight with my clients and told them the good and the bad. Full transparency was key to building and maintaining those relationships.
Out there in the world, however, there are some less than honest folks who are simply looking to take your money.
Below I highlight, based on my interactions with these companies and individuals over the last 15 years, some of the ways to identify and avoid them and ensure you are working with solid SEO professionals.
1. They Ask to Own Your Data/Logins
One of the hallmark signs of an agency/consultant trying to trap you is by starting off the engagement by asking you for full control over your logins, data, and reporting.
Many companies fall for this under the guise of “I just want them to handle it, that’s what I’m paying for, for them to handle everything”, but don’t realize how truly dangerous this can be if things don’t work out between the two companies.
Let’s say you get to the point where you no longer want to work with your agency/consultant, unfortunate yes, but it happens.
What many shady agencies/consultants will do in this situation is to hold your data and logins hostage to keep the contract going.
This can balloon into legal disputes that stretch on for months, even years, and in the worst-case scenario, ends with you needing to create new logins and adding new tracking code to your sites.
I have seen this happen time and time again, especially with smaller businesses.
The lesson here: the beginning of any professional relationship should be built on trust, but it’s a two-way street.
While you are hiring these individuals to “handle everything” from an SEO perspective from you, check their background and get references, if they can’t provide any references then look elsewhere.
2. They Guarantee #1 Rankings/ Top Results
It still boggles my mind that there are SEO professionals out there winning business with the pitch “We guarantee #1 rankings”, but they’re out there and people are hiring them.
Look at this ad that showed up when I Googled “SEO companies”:
Really? First-page rank guaranteed? Tell me your secrets, oh magical wizards of search.
What they aren’t going to tell you is what they are going to get ranked on Page 1.
Any SEO worth their anxiety can get something to rank on Page 1, regardless of if it’s driving quality traffic, revenue, or leads to your site.
This is a common ruse used by less than honest agencies and consultants to get you in the door. Here is how it works:
They get you on the phone to discuss your site. This will be done by luring you in with deceptive ads like the above, a free audit that they send you, or a long-winded email about something that just happened with Google which they always position as something you should be worried about because we saw a drop in your site using their proprietary yadda yadda yadda.
You get freaked out and give them a shot because you need to fix whatever issues they have explained to you because you probably don’t fully understand all of the ins and outs of organic search and you just want someone to handle it.
Work starts. Within a few weeks you see a few keywords jump to Page 1, which fulfills their claim of guaranteeing Page 1 results. You are thrilled. You can’t believe you haven’t worked with these guys before, and you can’t wait for the business to start rolling in.
Fast forward a few months and Page 1 rankings continue to come, but no new business does. No new leads. Just rankings.
They explain that SEO is a slow burn and that you are seeing new Page 1 results every week and to be patient, but never really getting into the weeds with you to explain everything that’s going on. It’s all good news from them, everything is going great, but you aren’t seeing any return.
Ultimately after 6+ months, you start looking into the keywords you are “winning” on and realize they have next to no monthly search volume and are not that relevant to your business. You realize you’ve more than likely been duped, reach out and get canned non-answers, and begin the process of canceling your engagement.
PSA: Google’s algorithm is a giant, floating math equation out in space that is controlled by a machine learning AI that learns our search habits and modifies its results based on those learnings.
The lesson here is that no one can guarantee anything when it comes to Google’s algorithm, not even the algorithm itself. If any of us could, we would be very rich have slightly less anxiety.
3. They Tell Their Story, Not Yours
Speaking of reporting on metrics, another telltale sign of a less than stellar agency/consultant is if their reporting is always telling their story and not yours.
What I mean by that is that they are always highlighting what went right, what they did awesome at, and why you should pay them more at the upcoming renewal.
They never talk about what went wrong, what didn’t work, and the lessons that were learned to make the current campaign so successful, which sometimes is more important than the wins themselves.
Only knowing half of the story is detrimental to your business and your own education. By not being transparent your agency/consultant has done you a large disservice by not allowing you to learn from their mistakes.
Agencies/consultants in this mindset are always afraid to tell you exactly what they are doing because they don’t want to give away their “secret formula” that is making everything work.
The truth is most of the time that formula involves many tests and missteps that allowed the campaign to get to its current state, which is super valuable for everyone involved to know, not just them.
The lesson here is to make sure you are hearing about what didn’t work, as well as what worked. Regardless if you are happy about it or not it’s better to see the entire picture.
4. The Partnership Is Positioned as Transactional
You always be mindful of how an agency/consultant pitches you, as it is very telling of how the relationship will operate.
People who want to help you will tell you they want to help you, people who don’t will tell you how much their service costs and how monthly meetings will be structured. This is the difference between hiring a partner and a vendor.
A partner is going to dig in with you, weather the storm with you when things aren’t going good, and celebrate the wins with you together as a team.
A vendor is going to send you a bill.
If an agency/consultant comes in and spends the hour or two you have given them of your time and only talks about how great they are and doesn’t give any insight into what they can do for you, the relationship probably won’t be that fruitful.
While there is nothing wrong with a brag slide or two, you should always be looking for folks who did research on your brand and provide actionable things they believe you can accomplish together supported by data. Those are the ones who care about your business and while they will still send you a bill every month, you won’t mind paying it so much.
The lesson here is to always seek a partner, not just another vendor.
5. Their Case Studies Are Outdated
Speaking of brag slides, you should always ask what year the projects/results are from. One of the greatest injustices of organic search is how long people use case studies for.
SEO changes every single day and while it’s awesome you really knocked it out of the park for Pets.com back in 2000, that story doesn’t really help me gauge your talent in 2019.
The lesson here is to always dig a little deeper on those wins and when they happened. With SEO changing as much as it does, even a project from a couple of years ago could have no relevance today.
Local search is probably more visible than it has ever been since the advent of Google Maps. Yet, paradoxically, there’s almost no consumer-facing innovation taking place. There’s Google, Yelp, Facebook (somewhat) and a range of specialized vertical apps and sites, some of which have simply survived but aren’t thriving.
Little or no ‘horizontal’ innovation. Part of the lack of “horizontal” innovation in local is likely the result of venture capital not wanting to fund anything that goes up directly against Google. The company may appear to many investors now like an insurmountable juggernaut in local/mobile search.
Any new local-consumer startups, therefore, are likely to appear in specific industries or otherwise offer specialized use cases. Such is the case with Hotspot Law, a new legal search site that hopes to bring ZocDoc-style appointment scheduling to the legal profession. It also seeks to provide a more reliable and cost-effective flow of leads to consumer attorneys.
The legal vertical has a quite a few competitors, including Avvo (Internet Brands), LegalZoom, FindLaw and several others. Despite this, Hotspot Law founder Felix Shipkevich believes he’s solving two unsolved problems in the legal vertical.
“The legal market is in dire need of an upgrade,” argues Shipkevich.
Making direct connections with lawyers. “Once you’ve finished searching online, you have to start calling,” he said. “You don’t get to speak directly to attorneys, you typically talk to a gatekeeper.” He points out that this process of getting to a lawyer is time consuming for people who need legal help. “None of these [completing] platforms directly connect the consumer with an attorney.”
Shipkevich, who is an attorney and faculty member at Hofstra Law School, said he was inspired by ZocDoc and the way it enables direct connections between doctors and patients. Similarly, he wanted to remove the friction in lawyer-consumer matchmaking. Shipkevich explained that also sees Hotspot Law as a way to make “justice” more accessible to consumers.
Why you should care. Legal lead-gen is costly.Shipkevich believes that existing legal sites and ad solutions don’t serve lawyers particularly well either. “PPC advertising can be extremely expensive; in New York it can be $60 to $80 per click.” He adds that “Yelp is expensive. Sometimes it takes $2,000 to $4,000 to bring in a case.”
He wants to solve that problem with simplified reasonable pricing for lawyers who may be struggling to find clients. But he also sees Hotspot Law evolving into a platform to help attorneys manage existing clients. Currently the site only operates in New York, with plans to expand geographic coverage in the coming months.
For the time being Shipkevich will need to rely on SEO for discovery but over time he hopes to build a branded consumer destination. It will be very challenging given the current structure of local SERPs. One has to admire the ambition and chutzpah.
About The Author
Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He researches and writes about the connections between digital and offline commerce. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.
About one year ago, everything changed for me and for our community.
A tragedy that struck home so hard it shook us to our core.
A dear friend, brilliant mind, adored father, respected colleague … the list goes on, left us in a way that hits straight to the heart and wakes you up like very few other events can.
I certainly woke up that day. That alarm screamed as loud as it could and I still hear it to this day.
I know I wasn’t alone. So many of my peers experienced similar emotions, sensations, and reactions.
We Could No Longer Ignore the Problem
Sadly, this wasn’t the first tragedy we’d encountered that year – we lost other friends and colleagues as well.
But we knew we couldn’t stand to lose any more amazing people.
We couldn’t look away. We couldn’t just carry on anymore.
So we started talking.
I have been blown away by our internet marketing community. Many of us have never even met face to face and yet the comradery, the friendship, the support among us run rampant!
Never before have I seen a group of people come together so quickly and so openly as when we were forced to face this tragedy.
Groups were formed. Calls were made. Texts were sent. Face-to-face get-togethers were had. Columns like this one were created.
And the best part of it all? It didn’t stop!
We saw the need to stay connected. We recognized that we are a family that needs to support each other. And, perhaps most of all, we saw that we were not alone in our struggles.
It has been amazing to see the openness and honesty that has become so commonplace over the past year. I have seen people that once felt they couldn’t risk being seen without their mask on break down and lay themselves out in the most vulnerable ways.
I include myself in that list. I have become more able to reveal myself to the world around me. That has only been made possible by others sharing in that journey with me.
In leading up to this piece, I knew that I wanted to really find a way to focus on the positive changes that our community has seen because of Jordan Kasteler.
I wanted to honor him in a way that really brought some form of good to this incredible loss that we all experienced due to his passing.
Where Are We Now? Thoughts from Our Community
I reached out and asked a few people in our community if they would share some words of how they have been changed for the better as well as how they have seen our community as whole making changes to support each other over the past year.
Here is what they had to say:
“Working days, nights, and weekends was normal for me a few years ago. However, at that time I couldn’t say that I was really happy. I didn’t understand at the time that my work-life balance was completely off, and I now know that that could have developed into something truly horrifying.
I eventually reached such an emotionally unstable point that I hit a time where one week I was super productive, but the following week I felt hugely demotivated and absolutely miserable. (I know this is a familiar story with many others as well, I hear people telling similar stories and sharing similar experiences regularly.)
Over the past while, I have been working diligently to save myself from this emotional trap. This new focus has led me to investing more time into things that are not related to work and putting more time into the things that help to create a happier life for myself.
I can see that more people in our community are becoming more aware of the need to make this sort of a switch to their schedules and priorities as well, which is brilliant to see!”
“In the past year, I have noticed a massive shift in our community not being ashamed to reach out and ask for help, advice, or just a kind word. I feel like masks have been dropped, and people are not embarrassed to discuss what make them “real”; I love it!
I think many people used to feel they had to have public persona that was acceptable, and now they know we all have issues and it is OK to talk about.
I have a picture of Jordan out that I see every day. I moved past the guilt and the pain when I looked at it, and he is now a daily reminder to stay present with my friends as much as I can.
And, it is a reminder to me to stay focused on my well-being as well. I tend to overwork and do too much for everyone and end up exhausted. I take steps now to take care of me more than ever before.”
“Though I’ve been in the industry for years, I’m still a somewhat newer member of the SEO community. Call it fear of rejection, social anxiety, whatever, I’ve always been nervous to put myself in a position to be judged by my peers.
It really wasn’t until I was invited to an amazing Facebook group made up of a small close-knit group of industry peers focusing on supporting each other through the day-to-day struggles that I realized that nearly everyone shared the same fears, anxieties and experiences that I have.
What a relief it is to know there is a place where we share what we are feeling and have so much empathy! Finally I have a place I can turn to where people understand me.
Even if I don’t share as much as others, I have peace of mind knowing there are people there ready and willing to listen and help, where there’s no judgement, just open arms.”
“We’ve definitely made a lot of progress over the past year as a community. However, if I’m being completely honest, we still have a long way to go. I’m still hearing about issues of bullying. I’m seeing people piling on people they disagree with on Twitter.
While, thankfully, these are in the minority, the polarization and black-and-white thinking needs to stop. The judging and assuming needs to stop. The trolling and “mob mentality” needs to stop.
We need to stop fighting each other and start lifting each other up – treating everyone like human beings. Nobody is perfect, but I hope we will continue to see more people be able to let go of their hate and negativity to accept love and positivity into their lives. I know that will continue to be our aim with Friday Focus – to remind everyone that they are not alone in their struggles.
Ultimately, though, I am so happy to be a part of something so positive in our community – and it’s great to see so many others jumping onboard, too.”
Kim Krause Berg:
“It’s easy to assume that your peers are generally doing better than you, making more money than you, and are super successful in every way. It is only in the past few years that I realized this is baloney.
I respect people who remove their masks and show who they really are. We are people with lives and struggles, heartache, depression, and pain.
In the past year I have opened up more and made new friendships as a result. We have more in common with each other than we might think.”
“Over the past year I’ve seen an incredible shift in our community.
Social media itself breeds an environment where we see only the best of our peers and post the best of ourselves and being in marketing, needing to be on social media, needing to market ourselves on social media and seeing only the best version of those trained in presenting the best version of themselves – one can feel very alone in difficult times. Compounding that we face an often isolated profession where even sitting beside someone, we are focused on a screen and all they contain.
Sadly, we all know too well what that leads to, and over the past year we collectively recognized that we are human. That those around us are human. That others need support and perhaps most importantly, that we do too.
We finally heard the words spoken all too often after those tragic events, “If only they had asked for help.” And we took it upon ourselves to do so.
We finally knew to listen, to watch and to find out how those around us were doing, lest we face the loss of another friend who we would have dropped everything for, ‘If only they had asked for help.’
The community has grown it’s heart and soul over the past year.
There is still a lot to do. There are still many who don’t know where to turn. Many who don’t know who to talk to. But each time we reach out and each time we talk about challenges openly, share our own and listen to theirs … each time we do that, the community grows it’s heart a little more.
It has been a incredible year of change. While we will forever mourn the spark, the now burning fire keeps us all warmer.”
“One thing that has changed dramatically in our industry over the last year, is that as individuals, we’ve become a lot more vocal about asking for help when we need it.
I think most people are more than willing to help each other. They just have to know that someone needs help. Now that people are starting to open up more about their personal struggles, the community is able to better support them.”
I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you – whether I know you in person, whether I know you online, even if I don’t know you at all –- thank you for being here.
Thank you for caring and sharing and being a part of the positive change that we are all working so hard at creating.
Keep being a force for good in our community.
Together we will make a difference.
This piece is written in memory, honor, recognition, and gratitude of Jordan Kasteler. For all that he gave us, shared with us, taught us and left us with. We are eternally grateful.
***PLEASE DO NOT STRUGGLE ALONE! Reach out, ask for help and know that you are valued. CLICK HERE for a list of phone numbers for Suicide Hotlines around the world.***