SEO Firms, the used car salesmen of the Internet

This is little more than a rant, you will find nothing here to assist you in your search for Search Engine Nirvana, just some stories about my experiences dealing with “SEO experts”. For the record, if any one tells you that they are in fact an SEO expert, and they don’t work for Google (or Bing, etc.) it is okay to giggle and or snicker. For more information on SEO marketing, we recommend to read this post about How to Do Marketing for Small Business.

I’m not trying to offend every used car salesmen out there.  I’m sure most of them are fine, hard working Joe’s, just trying to earn a living and finding the perfect commutermobile for their fellow man. No, the used car salesman I’m referring to is the one who takes a totaled out mess and pretties it up, just enough. Then when that anxious young college student or that desperate single mom stops by who really needs dependable transportation, he pounces on them like a man-eating tiger. After some “negotiation”, the anxious buyer pulls off the lot with a 28% interest rate on a loan that is only slightly above blue book (if the car were 2 years newer, not totaled, and had 80K less miles, that is). You know, the kind of salesman that would answer the phone 10 minutes later (when the car broke down before even making it to the buyer’s home) and remind the buyer that the purchase was ‘as is’ and he can’t possibly be responsible for anything that has already left his lot, learn about the top 3 benefits of using payroll services.

Okay, enough with the car salesman stuff, my rant is for the SEO firms out there that are taking advantage of the small business owner who dreams of making it to the Google top 3 before his startup runs out of dough. When you start interviewing SEO ‘experts’ you discover that they are each somehow different then (all the other) vermin out there who give SEO a bad name. They are smarter, more honest, trust worthier, more experienced, and more insightful then you or anybody else for that matter. They know people. They have inside connections. They know the system.

And guess what? They love your site! It’s awesome, it’s perfect, it needs them and they know exactly what’s missing. You discover (from them) that your site is a prime candidate for their SEO pixie dust; you’ll be seeing results in no time. You are going to be so freakin’ happy with the results.

Here’s the truth, most SEO peddlers require you to sign a contract for 12 months, period. From what I’ve seen, the going rate is usually more that $50K for the 12 months. There’s no out clause for their incompetence. There’s no discount, there’s no refund. Before you even get home with your SEO contract, you realize that it is a huge, stinky ‘as is’ turd.

Every SEO firm that our company has hired in the past 3 years has used a highly intelligent (he’s one of us guys!) geek to sway us.

Case 1, the geek was a partner in the company. The geek quit the firm because he had a conscience. The company did not tell us for months, but instead led us to believe that he was still working behind the scenes. They came clean after we asked them point blank about his new job.

Case 2, the geek did not even work for the company, he was a consultant that took another job and stopped consulting before the ink was dry on our contract. Once again, the SEO firm did not tell us, but instead pretended he was not only still around, but an actual employee. After weeks of us demanding a face-to-face meeting with him, they came clean.

Case 3, the geek is the only one at the company that has a brain. As such, he was more a member of the sales team then the support or SEO results team. He was there to talk the talk.

The best thing I can say about Case 3 is that they offered a trial period. Not free, mind you, but 3 months to decide if they were worth a 12 month commitment.  During the 3 month trial, you got lots of access to the geek. There were lots of talky talk, lots of plans and even a small test around a small campaign to gauge their effectiveness. Someone in their dimwit department thought we had signed up for the 12 months, because we transitioned somewhat and lost access to all intelligent life forms. Lucky for us, we got that preview just in time to cancel.

It was a sham. They’re (possibly) all shams. They promise you quality links on relevant sites, like it is some big marketing promotion. What you end up with is crap, crap links on crap sites. By crap sites I mean, crap sites. One was actually titled  ‘my site’ (seriously) and quite possibly the only legit link they reported to us was a tweet from a loser account with a dozen followers.

Google has waged war on these techniques and I hope they hurry up with it. Good honest search results will force these guys to find something else to peddle, maybe some Katrina cars or something.

Just like used car dealers, I’m sure they’re not all bad. Maybe our bunch has just been unlucky and hooked a piranha every time out.

Here’s my first 2 questions I’m going to ask the next SEO firm, if I’m ever forced to start interviewing again:

1)   When I Google SEO, why is your company not on the first page?

2)   Can you give me a reference list of 3 clients who have renewed their contract after the 1st year?

Here are some tasty nuggets that have left me so jaded

  • Company A was stuck with $100K software package from a deal that went bad. They tried really hard to convince us that we needed it to be successful, never once mentioning their stupid predicament.
  • Company B’s technical expert thought the slashes in a URL were folders on the server. There was no way to make him understand the dynamic URLs of our highly specialized Zend Framework implementation
  • Company B actually told us that backlinks have very little to do with SEO, I think it was the 10th item on their priority list
  • Company B bought a fancy new indexing tool to help them better understand our site, I think it is the same tool that hackers use for dos attacks.
  • Company A told us that our URLs were rubbish, so we changed them. It took some planning considering there are tons of links and social shares out there, but hey, if it makes Google happy. . .no problem.
  • Company B told us that our URLs were rubbish, so we changed them again. This time, less planning, but what are you going to do
  • Company C told us that our URLs were rubbish, so we changed them again. I just realized, we’re 1 SEO firm away from changing them back to what we had to begin with.

Company B told us that they don’t have any renewal contracts because part of their service is educating their clients so that they won’t need any more SEO help. That’s probably true, everything useful that I’ve learned from an SEO company, I’ve learned the first week.

My non-expert advice: listen to Google, read the search engine blog, and believe what they say. Spend some time with Social Boosting and engage your audience.  The tricks will only get you so far and may end up costing you big time in the long run. Be honest and sleep easy at night. Dealing with SEO companies always stops being fun way before the contract expires and you will hate them even more when your writing them a check for $5K every month and all you get in return are some fancy graphs and a bad mood.