Scams are on the rise, and unfortunately, the SEO world is no exception. Because SEO has a low barrier to entry, self-described “experts” have flooded the market as the field is in demand. This leads to SEO scams and unethical practices from agencies that aren’t always reputable.
The local SEO team and I are always on the lookout for potential scams and dubious claims. To help dispel myths about SEO and get the word out about these SEO scams, let’s break down what you need to know, things to watch out for, and how to protect yourself from being scammed.
SEO Scam #1: Fake listings in Google Maps
There’s a local SEO unethical practice that happens when agencies create fake business listings in Google Maps. False competition in Google exists for the purpose of intercepting traffic and reselling this organic traffic back to local businesses. This practice of buying traffic happens to a big extreme in Google Maps.
If you’re on the buying end of this transaction, what will often happen is the company you bought from will charge you more and more for traffic as you start to see results. As soon as this redirected traffic from fake listings is turned off, those listings can now be redirected to someone else—such as a competitor—but now, the fake listings that once helped you gain leads are competing unfairly against you.
Here are questions to ask yourself if you think a Google Maps listing might be fake:
- Does the business have a physical location?
- Is there an established date or legal documentation on the business?
- Are there any online reviews for the business?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, there’s a good chance the listing you’re looking at is fake. This is a “smoke and mirrors” game of local SEO where traffic from fake listings is repackaged and resold, and false competition takes over the top ranking spots again.
To protect our clients from this issue, we conduct regular audits of their rankings and competitors’ listings. If we detect an issue, we immediately report it to the client and to Google. Fake business listings are prevalent in the home services and retail industries and are seen throughout all markets within Google Maps. In the field of law firm SEO, fake listings have been an issue for car accident attorneys, but keyword stuffing is a bigger issue for this niche right now.
SEO Scam #2: Offer to remove negative reviews
First, let’s dispel a big myth in the SEO world: no one can remove negative reviews from Google Business Profiles.
If a review happens to be negative and fake, or negative and in violation of Google’s terms and conditions, that’s another thing. But if it’s a regular, real review that happens to be negative, you can’t get rid of it because this defeats the purpose of online reviews.
Remember: Google’s objective is to offer a third-party view into a business to increase transparency and trust. Search engines fight to maintain reviews from real customers so users can see feedback on the goods and services a business provides.
SEO Scam #3: Promising results within a specific time frame
Related to the promise of removing negative reviews, we also see offers from agencies saying they can guarantee a listing to rank within a week, or a set number of days. Making any kind of guarantee should always be a red flag, so don’t fall into the trap of these fly-by-night companies promising big results in three days.
While it might be possible to move the needle on a low-volume keyword within a short period of time, this is very different from ranking for a high-value keyword with a heavy search volume. SEO is a long game, and businesses spend a lot of time, money, and effort to rank for valuable keywords to attract leads.
Unless your business has zero online presence, higher rankings and call volumes within one week simply isn’t realistic. Most businesses have some established web presence, and some black hat SEO tricks might work, but 99% of the time, it’s a tactic Google hasn’t caught on and flagged it yet.
SEO Scam #4: Pricing that’s too good to be true
You know the adage: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This is absolutely the case with digital marketing and SEO.
If you’re getting offers of tons of Google citations for your business for $30, this is highly suspect. It’s the same concept as looking for an apartment: if you’re seeing a $500 listing in a market where $2,500 is the norm, it’s a scam.
So, how much should digital marketing cost? It will depend on your goals and which digital marketing services you decide to employ. A quote of $400 a month is suspicious, considering all the moving parts that go into a comprehensive digital marketing plan.
Consider all the moving parts of a digital marketing agency. Hennessey Digital has a global team of more than 140 professionals, each with a specific skill that contributes to our clients’ success. If a single person is claiming to be an expert in all things SEO and digital marketing, this is a huge red flag.
A reputable agency has a team of people working together on SEO, paid media, content marketing, and other aspects of digital marketing. One individual saying they’re a full-stack agency just isn’t realistic, so watch out for this.
SEO Scam #5: Charging for things that don’t actually work
Related to the issue of unrealistic pricing, many agencies that charge lower amounts will include line item charges for things that don’t have any effect on SEO.
Injecting images with data is a prime example of this. Uploading keyword data and image descriptions to Google through an image upload doesn’t mean Google is obligated to do anything with it, and the variables Google considers ranking factors are constantly changing.
But there are agencies that will promote low-value or no-value actions to create a list of important-sounding line items to sell a large package of work. Google is not transparent with what they’re doing with data behind the scenes, so don’t trust an agency or SEO practitioner who says they know exactly what Google does with all the data you give it.
Another example of a bogus charge is Google image map directions put into a program to point to your business. This is a spammy tactic to get citations: sometimes, nothing will happen, but sometimes a negative impact happens as a result. Watch out for this if someone tries to sell you on it as it could have a negative impact on your Google business listing.
Unethical SEO practices
We also see things that, while not outright scams, should be classified as unethical practices that you should be aware of.
We get these requests all the time, and it usually means working with a third-party website to get presence onto their site. More commonly, you pay someone who has a list of hacked websites that are brute forcing their links onto your website. A guest post might “look” normal, but a hacked site might show content about your business and 20 links back to your site.
Price point will indicate whether you’re working with someone legitimate or not. To get onto a quality website like Forbes, for example, it may cost thousands of dollars for a link like this. Reputable guest post services know their worth and will get it.
At face value to any business, an offer of guest posts will look the same, but their low price might indicate that they’re working through black hat techniques and/or hacking websites to get links.
Google Maps tricks
This one is difficult to trace until after the fact, but some unreputable agencies will keyword stuff Google Maps accounts to get results. Doing this can get you to rank in the Google Map Pack, but this practice could get your Google business account suspended. Be aware of the negative effects that keyword stuffing can cause.
Another questionable practice is opening “virtual offices” so that you appear in more places on Google Maps. This is a bad idea because one ranking factor is people engaging with your address: if you create 10 fake virtual office listings online, people won’t drive to them, and you’re already at a disadvantage.
Charging for a demo
Sometimes shady agencies will do a small demonstration of their work or provide “free” advice, only to turn around later and charge you for it.
Pay attention to the signals that something is a scam: if an SEO practitioner offers a free demo of their work and then sends you a bill, that’s a good indicator of something being off. If you’re looking to hire a company to improve your website and their website has no effort behind it, that’s a red flag.
If something looks awry, it probably is!
Protecting yourself from SEO scams
When we catch wind of unethical SEO practices or if clients bring something to our attention, we take it very seriously. My team and I are sensitive to these shady practices and potential scams. Being scammed is a violation and a terrible feeling, and we do everything in our power to protect ourselves and our clients from falling victim to a scam.
So what can you do to protect yourself from an SEO scam? Here are our top tips from our cumulative years of SEO wisdom and experience.
- SEO is a long game. If an offer to get your website to rank in five days for $50 comes your way, it’s a scam. The reality of SEO is that it takes some time, especially if you’re starting from zero.
- Digital marketing is dynamic. What works today may not work tomorrow, and this is why we always advise potential clients to choose an agency for their expertise, even if it’s not Hennessey Digital.
- Google isn’t explicit on how to succeed. They keep their secret sauce to themselves as they’re a for-profit business. People have theories on how Google works behind the scenes, but don’t succumb to the “quick win” mentality from someone guaranteeing results.
- Trust your instincts. If you research a company online and can’t find anything about them, it’s a good indicator it’s a scam. Reputation means a lot, especially in the SEO industry, and it’s what Jason Hennessey founded our agency on.
It’s human nature to want to take the shortcut, but SEO success doesn’t happen overnight. Look out for promises that aren’t realistic. It all comes down to managing your expectations, knowing what to look for, and finding a reputable digital marketing agency to partner with for the long term to give you lasting results.
If you’ve received an email with an offer like what I’ve shared here and are questioning its validity, send it to us. It never hurts to ask, and it’s our job to vet potential partners and digital marketing vendors.