While most people laugh at the obvious nature of the foreign lottery types of scams, scammers have gotten more clever over the years. They can create legitimate looking websites and often use proper spelling and grammar. One of the newer scams is where a company offers SEO services via email, often with “free analysis” that gives generic, unspecific advice such as “keywords not ranking” (Which ones?).
But email marketing is a classic marketing technique and one that many legitimate businesses use. How can you tell when it’s fake? With clever, targeted scams, it can be difficult. Fortunately, when you know the signs of the scammer, it’s a lot easier to avoid falling into their trap.
Online scammers try taking advantage of people in all kinds of industries, and some of them even do it legally. One area where this is particularly concerning is Search Engine Optimization. Scammers know that most people looking for SEO service have a vague understanding of the process at best, and use that to their advantage. And with so many businesses offering this as well as direct emails offering great deals, which ones are worth your time and will give you something of value? Like other business types, scam SEO companies often come with their own warning signs.
Google themselves claim that no one can guarantee a #1 ranking. And often this how the scammers start. They often couple this unbelievable guarantee with the unsolicited email tactic. But if it’s so easy to spot, why do people repeatedly fall for it? One of the primary reasons is because many people simply don’t know how SEO works. So when someone sends an email blasting them with acronyms like SEO, SEM, PPC, NAP, CRO, and so on, it might seem like they know what they’re talking about, when really they simply try to sound knowledgeable.
$50 a month to get a guaranteed top spot with 24-7 support would be an incredibly good deal. Impossibly good even. And they promise results in weeks or even days! Before recent Google updates, some SEO scams actually did do some work for their clients, but did so using black hat tactics. These would provide a temporary boost in rankings, during which time they would get the unsuspecting client to sign a long-term contract. Shortly after, Google would catch on and penalize the site, and suddenly, poof! That 24-hour support magically vanishes.
A company that specializes in making other people’s businesses visible should have their own SEO handled well and be easy to find. With SEO scams, this often isn’t the case. Many of the unsolicited emails don’t even include a business name or contact information! Presumably, the only way to get in touch with these people is to reply to their email.
For more complex scams, they may give the illusion that they have an abundance of clients because they have a well-designed website and testimonials of people vouching for them. But on third-party sites like Yelp, they’re mysteriously absent, without a Google+ Profile or any way to verify their claims from an unbiased source. While it’s possible that the company is new, any quality SEO company should build a strong portfolio quickly and have their name out there for people to find easily.
Having an inside perspective is a huge bonus in a lot of industries. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for SEO. Some companies claim to “know someone who works for Google” that gives them the secrets no one else knows. Most people who work for Google don’t even know all the secrets, and if they do, they would be required to a sign a non-disclosure agreement. If that has expired, and the ex-Googler really does have this special knowledge, they would likely run their own SEO company instead of working for someone else.
Some “proprietary techniques” are black hat tricks that are risky at best. Many of these shady companies create pages in open violation of Google’s quality guidelines, creating poor-quality content aimed at search engines instead of users. Google’s own explanation for pages asks if the page would make sense if search engines didn’t exist. If not, then they’re attempting to manipulate the algorithm. Some companies employ these legal but ethically questionable techniques in combination with a non-disclosure agreement or fine print in the contract absolving them of responsibility if and when the pages are noticed by Google.
Some people are prone to aggressive high-pressure sales tactics. And some scam SEO companies do whatever they can to entail a sense of urgency, sometimes going as far as being downright illegal by trying to extort money from you. These techniques are frightening, which is how one scammer managed to extort dozens of companies before finally getting caught, landing him in prison with hefty restitution fees.
The more complex scams do this in more subtle ways. They have actual people backing them up, and may go as far as to create live presentations and host webinars. Through these presentations and webinars, they do traditional hard-selling techniques like limited time offers, huge discounts, and industry secrets, but only by acting now. Some even go as far as having scripted responses on their “live” feeds that make it appear that dozens of people are actually involved, and even have a fake interactive chat feed –only they conveniently never answer your questions, because the chat doesn’t actually go anywhere. These “participants” will be actively engaged at scripted points and happily purchase the “limited” product or service in the hopes that you’ll be pressured into doing the same.
Unlike physical service-based industry scams from part 1, it’s much more difficult to bring down the Scam Hammer on SEO scams. Reporting the email address will at best make the scammer create a new one. And proving malicious intent for the more elaborate scams as difficult, as they often use wordplay or specific terms and conditions that shift the blame away from them. Often when enough people figure out the scam, the owners can simply repurpose their assets under a new domain name and use a different pseudonym.
Many times, the best course of action is to simply move on. You can always try to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, but don’t be surprised if nothing comes of it, especially when the business doesn’t do anything that’s technically illegal. At the very least, you can prepare yourself with common techniques scammers use and share them with people you know, so they don’t fall victim either. And instead, go with a top-quality SEO company with a proven track record!