How to Tell if Your SEO Company is Ripping You Off: Signs to Look For

thumbs up thumbs down illustrationRecently, this question popped up on one of my LinkedIn Groups from a local business who had been obviously scammed by an SEO company.

It’s a great question, and one that’s well worth exploring. I think what people are truly wondering when they ask this question is:

How do you know if an SEO ‘is not good at SEO’ or ‘is scamming you’?

As SEO experts ourselves (and having taken over many unsatisfactory SEO programs from clients’s previous SEO firms…) there are definitely signs that the SEO company trying to poach you or currently doing your search engine optimization either isn’t up to snuff or doesn’t have your best interest at heart. Here are some surefire ways to tell:

1. They cold-call you

Beware of companies that cold-call for SEO, unless you know the business and they are local to you. Most decent digital marketing agencies are growing so fast they don’t have time to cold call nationally. The ones who do are usually scammers.

Other key signs related to cold calling:

  • You never heard of the company
  • They aren’t local and they emailed you constantly without your permission or any previous contact with their company
  • Your business is not located within 50 miles of that company’s headquarters, yet you are getting non-stop calls or emails.

We have seen so many people get scammed, 75% of them never knew it.

2. They don’t ask for FTP information

How do you know — if you’ve already paid for work — if the person is actually doing it? Besides results, of course, the quickest way to pick out scammers, is that they typically don’t even ask for the FTP login information for your website. And they actually don’t do any work! This happened to a bunch of hotels in Lake George who were promised SEO for a $500 flat fee by a cold calling company. When I showed the hotel owners that it was impossible for the company to do onsite SEO without login information, they were astonished and unsuccessfully tried to get their money back.

3. They don’t know what schema is

Ask your to SEO show you how they set up the location schema and categorization for your website. If they can’t answer this on the fly and have to get back to you… they haven’t been keeping up.

4. Reputation and reviews are not discussed

If you are a local company, they will talk to you about your online reputation and how to monitor it and the importance of positive reviews and review schema.

5. Their reviews stink

Google their business name + “reviews.” First click on Maps and then look for their business on the map. Do they have less than a 4 star reputation? That is a sign that you need to be wary. What do the employees say about the organization? Google Glassdoor + their business name, again a rating of less than 4 stars should be concerning to you.

6. Their references “don’t understand SEO”

Asking for 3 references is not enough. There are many people who are easily duped and paid for. If you don’t know the business, when you talk to their references, have them go over what the business does for them each month, if the references are happy but claim to know little about SEO, then you are doomed as they only target “easy picking” clients and dupe them.

7. You don’t have real conversations about keyword selections

You know they aren’t good at SEO if they ask you for your keywords and don’t come back with a different list. They should start their SEO campaign with keyword research and help you understand how they selected the keyword phrases. And, they should be geographically relevant. You should have input, but they should come back with a better list and the reasons why it is better.

8. Short or non-existent brainstorming sessions

If your discovery call or meeting to talk about your business, buyer personas and keywords lasts less than an hour, and you don’t talk with them on a regular basis, then you are not a partner helping them and have little connection with your strategist or account rep.

9. They don’t ask about your target market or your buyer

They should talk to you about who your client is before they offer any results. If you don’t have at least a one-hour conversation about your business, your competitors, your unique selling points etc… then they really don’t get their role.

10. They don’t have impressive search results

No one can promise search engine placements like #1,2 or 3 but a good SEO can show you many clients with great results in the top of the search engines (I’m going to be unpopular for this comment) and the keywords should be competitive (at least 20,000 search results). They should also be able to produce case studies, testimonials etc.

11. They guarantee top placement in the search engines

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But anyone who guarantees you top placement for a specific keyword is most likely scamming you.  A long time ago, you could guarantee certain placements, but now that has changed significantly. Search is personalized and results change from person to person, location, etc.

12. Your paid search campaign is not connected to your Google Analytics

You should be able to login to your Google Analytics and see the results of the campaign

13. They don’t separate out branded from unbranded keywords

Going with your PPC or Paid Search Campaign, if they are bidding on your brand and generic keywords but they don’t report the difference in results, that’s a problem.

14. They use call tracking, but that call tracking number is on THEIR copy of your website

Beware of a company that wants to make a complete copy of your website.  You want paid search traffic going to a landing page that lives on your website for many reasons.

15. They use a generic business name

They don’t have their real “brand” as part of this division of the company. Instead, it is, or some other equally strange generic sounding name. And, they are not local. Granted, it’s very hard for a small digital agency to survive in a small town unless they are being honest.  It’s pretty easy to hire a large call center, use an existing sales force for a large media agency and sell a product that is less than high quality as your market is unlimited. They win some, they lose some and they own you for a year once you sign on.  Now a generic-sounding business name is not a guaranteed sign of a scammer. I’m sure there are some businesses with generic names in it that are great, but in general, it’s a tipoff if their name is a generic one that you had never heard of before this moment. It’s easier to disappear into the woodwork and avoid getting sued when you have a generic non-name.

How do you find a GREAT SEO Company?

There are a handful of things to look for in a reputable digital marketing agency that you can rely on and trust. We’ve got an entire post about that here – be sure to check it out.

Here’s the quick version:

  1. Their clients have real results.
  2. Their references are actively involved in the SEO process – true partners.
  3. They have a great reputation locally or in your niche market.

Looking for a Local SEO Company You Can Trust to Do What’s Best For Your Business?

Guess what, you just found one. We’ve been a local digital marketing agency in Upstate NY with a reputation for success for over 20 years! We’d be happy to show you results, case studies, testimonials, video testimonials, and have you talk to our clients. Connect with us today!

Want us to analyze your site? Let’s talk! It only takes 15 minutes to learn more about what will work best for your business! Give us a call at 518-743-9424 to get the conversation started.


*Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in 2017, but has been updated as of September 2019.

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