Whether you’re actively seeking or being approached by an Online Marketing or SEO firm, it can be difficult for small businesses to know what’s real, what’s important, or what is just a big old scam. Friends approach me around town all the time, “Hey, I got this email – is it true that Google isn’t ranking me right?” or “Is this worth the money?”

Fishing Hook catching AmpersandIt is a tough situation for small businesses who are used to doing business out there in the real world. That’s a world you know and this whole online thing – well… that’s the whole online thing. That very fact was one of the reasons I wanted to start this site in the first place. Last week, we talked a bit about whether you needed professionals to build your web site or not. This time we’ll look at marketing and some of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The first thing to understand is that not all of those unsolicited emails about ranking your site are bad. A lot of reputable and very qualified firms (both small and large) do outreach programs. The trick is to decide which of these may be worthwhile and which are ones to send quickly to the spam folder. The same is true even if you’re out on the web actively seeking someone to do SEO or Marketing for your web site. There are a lot of sites out there which seem to be promising something great – but are they really? Some of the tips below may apply only to outreach type mailings or contacts, but many of them will help you along if you are actively seeking, too.

Let’s take a look…

The List O’ SEO/Marketing Red Flags

  1. Messages like “Your Site Isn’t Ranking for Some of Your Keywords!” This is a useless observation. There isn’t a site in the world that couldn’t find some more keywords to try to rank for. Now, if someone actually lists a few keywords that you might want to give a try – that’s a somewhat better sign. It may or may not be worth the money to try to go after those words, but at least you know that the sender took a moment to actually look at your site, understand what you do, and come up with some things that can help you – and not just a vague sentence that you can cut and paste over and over gain to a million potential clients. This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good, but specifics are a good sign. Vagaries are not.
  2. Promises of #1 (or top) Rankings: First of all – #1 Rankings where and for what? No one can promise #1 rankings for organic search results. Sure, I can probably get you there for a whole bunch of different searches, but unless you’re the only business doing what you do, you can’t possibly hope to be #1 for every term related to your industry. Ranking #1 in the Local Search 3-Pack is another one. Here, ranking is as much about location as anything else. If you’re sitting in your business and searching for “<my business type>” then, yep. You’ll probably show up first since you’re the closest one. Move across town, though… and that’s another story. Or, maybe they are talking about PPC advertising. Pay Per Click campaigns can be a great way to generate new leads or sales – but a promise to give you top ranking is useless. Yes, if I pay, I’ll be #1 sometimes. If I’m not already paying then, no – that’s why you have observed that I’m not ranking #1. Duh.Beyond that, being #1 is not even a useful goal. From last week, take a look at the “What’s a Website to Do” part. These are some useful goals. Ranking #1 for an appropriate term is a nice way to help measure something along the path toward your goal, but it’s a useless goal by itself.
  3. Promises of Lots of Traffic: It’s one thing if the promise is to give you “qualified” traffic or something along those lines. But traffic in and of itself is of no use. I can easily send hundreds or even thousands of people to your web site – but are they interested in what you have? If you own a car dealership, it does you no good if I send you 100 customers per day who are just looking to buy a loaf of bread.
  4.  White Hat Black Hat Photo (curtesy of Pxhere.com)Anything That Talks About “White Hat SEO”: The concept of “White Hat” and “Black Hat” SEO comes from the early days of search engines. White Hats were the ones who followed the prescribed guidelines, made safe and conscientious decisions, and generally played by the rules. The Black Hats were the ones who took what they knew about how the search engines worked and utilized little tricks and things to manipulate the system to achieve rankings. To this day, there are little tricks that can be done to give you a boost in the right places, but those come at a risk. They might work really well today, but with the next update, you could find yourself in the penalty box and need to spend more money to get out of it than you spent and earned to get there in the first place. Some techniques carry a low risk, others carry a very high risk (but often paired with a very high, but usually short term reward.) If you’re in the game for the long term and you’re trying to build a brand name for yourself, I recommend avoiding Black Hat techniques. That said, it’s really up to you if you decide the short term rewards are worth the long term risks. You don’t want to hire the folks I work with if you decide to go that route, but there are plenty out there who will help you.So, why is a claim that something is “White Hat” a red flag warning? Imagine you meet me on the street for the first time and I reach out and shake you hand while saying, “I’m an honest guy! Nice to meet you!” Honesty is the assumed default position. It doesn’t always work out that way, but if I feel I’ve got to tell you that I’m honest upon first meeting, it’s a clear sign that I probably don’t have a good track record there. Otherwise, I’d open simply with, “Nice to meet you!”

How To Find a Good SEO/Marketing Company, Then?

We’ll be looking into this a lot over the coming weeks, months, and years. As of this writing, this blog is still pretty new so I don’t have a lot of resources here to point you to. I’ll try to keep this post updated as we go.

I’m not about to leave you high and dry, though! The following video is a good 13 minute primer on what you can do. It’s by Rand Fishkin and was one of his White Board Friday videos from a few years ago: How to Choose an SEO Company. I’ve known Rand from around the web in various hangouts for many years and while we sometimes disagree on some of the little details about things, you can always count on him for good advice. Even in the things we may disagree on, it’s not bad advice – we just approach things a little differently. SEO and Marketing is as much an art as it is a science.

Thanks for stopping in! Don’t forget to Like and Follow Us on Facebook to keep up with the latest updates and feel free to rate this post or leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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