Setting the Stage for You to Get Ripped Off
Preamble Disclaimer: If you are an ethical, honest website SEO professional, you probably won’t like this article. We apologize to you in advance. We’re ethical, and we didn’t enjoy writing it… but we felt compelled to do so to protect the non-tech business owner who otherwise would be caught in the lair of dark marketers. We cast the Internet Marketing profession in a very poor light throughout the first 2/3 of the article, but it gets “happier” towards the end. If you’re one of the “good guys”, though, I believe upon reflection (and trying to see things through your customers’ eyes), you’ll reluctantly concede that we’re spot-on. We’re on the same side. If you’re one of the “bad guys”, however, take your well-deserved lumps and “get right”– or get out!
Okay, here we go:
I wish everybody were honest. They should be. In a perfect world they would be. But we live in a far-from-perfect world. They’re not.
Dishonest people are drawn to easy money. The more that they can make, and the faster they can make it, the more they’re drawn to it. They don’t want to work for it. They just want to get it.
In business, it takes money (advertising) to make money. You’re in business. You want to make more money, so you need to spend money. That means you must have money to spend. Dishonest people want your money.
Following these simple lines of thought, it’s easy to see how you would be a target for people with indiscretion. Now let’s take a look at how you might not just be a target; you might be an “easy” target.
To review, let’s recall that dishonest people like easy money. There’s a caveat: they want easy money, but they don’t want to be held accountable or get caught doing something illegal and face consequences. And that’s the piece of the puzzle that gives unethical marketers a free “pass” with direct access to your wallet.
The Perfect Storm to Sink Your Budget
In advertising, there’s no guarantee of any specific results. That means, barring anything being misrepresented or libelous, advertisers can’t be held legally responsible if they do what they say they’ll do even if their efforts don’t produce results that make you happy. Search engine marketing (SEM) is technical, and complicated, and subjective, and ever-changing, and… it’s advertising. Also, the results are not directly attributable to the actual efforts of the person doing the marketing; they’re determined by independent third-parties (the search engines), and there are several of them.
Each search engine has different rules, and they each change those rules, often, at different times. All of these variables make Internet marketing very attractive to dishonest people who want to make fast, easy money without any attribution or accountability. This introduces an opportunity for plausible deniability. In other words, an unethical website marketer can feign dismay at any accusations of impropriety and claim that they didn’t “misrepresent” anything; you must have simply “misunderstood” them. Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter: the Internet Marketing arena is a fertile breeding ground for scams and fraud.
If you are a non-tech business owner with a marketing budget and the desire to move your website upwards in search engine listings, a fast-talking, semi-knowledgeable, would-be marketing person can persuasively pull the wool over your eyes with tech talk. If they can get you saying “yes” to well-scripted, leading questions and talk circles in technical jargon, it can be very easy for you to be convinced of their self-touted abilities. Translation: you could be an easy mark for unscrupulous marketing people who want to separate you from your hard-earned cash, and they can do so with you having no recourse.
I just painted a worst-case scenario. You might now think that Internet marketing people all slink around in dark, hooded robes and come out only after dark to stalk their prey. Fortunately the chances of getting scammed by someone so nefarious is reasonably slim. But that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from being a victim of misrepresentation and/or under-performance with your website’s promotion.
Time to Get Real!
Looking at a more common (and likely) scenario, large communication and media companies (yeah, your phone and TV folks) are notorious for creating sad-but-true sob stories among business owners. Almost every business has phone and internet service, and most have commercial TV accounts… and the companies who provide these services use their databases of business names and phone numbers to solicit website sales and marketing as an add-on income stream. They have the telemarketing sales force to capitalize on those databases, so using the same disclaimers and waivers of liability that they impose for phone book ads or broadcast commercials, these companies often use mailers, door-to-door, and telephone solicitations to sell website marketing services en-masse to the public.
They tend to promise the world (wide web) handed to you on a silver platter at a fraction of the cost that specialized SEO providers charge, and they push for you to sign at least a one-year, binding contract that ties up hundreds if not thousands of dollars per month. In many cases they fall short of delivering on their verbal promises, but it’s advertising, so you’re stuck holding the ball.
In the event that you have the name and extension of the sales person who sold you the package, you may very well get the, “They don’t work here anymore” excuse. More likely, however, you were solicited by a nameless, faceless call-center person who’s paid minimum wage to make telesales all day. If you specify to the Complaint Department what promise(s) failed to become reality, you might get the “They’re sales people, not technicians. They don’t know all that’s involved in doing the search engine marketing” excuse. In either case, you’re out the money, and they have no responsibility to make you happy. At the end of the day, you’re just a name in their database, and there’s many more where you came from. They make their money on low-risk, high-volume rather than producing quality results.
Then there’s the independent freelance newcomer. Well-intentioned as they are, they are trying to break into a saturated market where technique and style matter, and where tribal knowledge from long-term experience prevails as significant and relevant in order to avoid obscure mistakes. Many of the newcomers read up on the topic enough to “talk the talk”, then hang a shingle on their door and posture as marketing experts. They “learn as they go” with the “fake it till you make it” philosophy of entrepreneurship. The self-help textbooks on SEO may have helped them learn to talk the talk, but where the rubber meets the road, they simply can’t get traction on making progress for you. (Of course, I’m speaking in generalities here… that’s not all of them.) Some are reputable, but inexperience comes with a cost. You (as the paying business owner) pays the price for it. Remember… It’s advertising.
Due to the overwhelming popularity of starting a career as an SEO provider, Tech schools are cranking out marketing graduates like puppy mills sell dogs to pet stores. The fresh diploma-holder is often wet behind the ears with no practical experience or successful internship. And here’s a point to ponder: 50% of Internet marketing graduates are in the bottom half of their class.
Am I trying to scare you? Yes, absolutely! But not to make you freeze in your decision making, and not to shake your faith in society. I figure, if you have cause-to-pause and it spares you some grief and expense, you’ll be further ahead for it.
So, How Do You Protect Yourself?
I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture here: dishonest scam artists, predatory companies lurking over you, and fledglings who aspire to hold your business in the palms of their hands.
Fortunately there are many savvy, ethical, and experienced freelancers and firms who aptly offset the riff-raff. And, fortunately, colleges, universities, and technical schools with good reputations typically turn out qualified graduates who gain experience under the supervision of more experienced marketers at established firms prior to hanging a shingle on their own door to make a go of it.
The question is, how do you avoid the “bad guys” and find the reputable providers?
The answer is threefold: Ask questions you already know the answers to, get references, and “trust but verify”.
Let’s explore a few of the questions you can ask. First, realize that these are dangerous questions if you ask them without already knowing the correct answers. They’re dangerous to you, because they represent a technical ignorance of how search engine marketing works and they give a lot of “wiggle room” for an unethical marketer to capitalize on that ignorance.
Sadly, these are also very common questions that business owners ask, anticipating straightforward, honest answers. That’s why non-tech people are vulnerable to fraud, because a half-truth answer can sound very convincing while giving the fraudster “plausible deniability” later to “clear up your misunderstanding” of what they told you.
But if you know the answers to the questions when you ask them, you can ask in an innocent way, allowing them to assume that you’re ignorant. Then they will show their true colors by either explaining to you what you already know (validating their legitimacy) or seizing the opportunity to try to dupe you with an empty promise in order to get your money (exposing their lack of ethics).
These questions, therefore, are good pre-qualifiers to hiring a reputable SEO marketing company.
QUESTION #1: Can you guarantee me that my site will be found on page one or position #1 on the search engines?
- To answer the question in the spirit in which any business owner asks it, the correct, ethical and responsible answer is, “No“. That’s because when someone asks the question, they’re typically wanting some kind of assurance that when someone does a keyword search for the products and services they sell, their website will appear in a prominent position in organic (non-advertisement) rankings of search results. The problem is, there are typically only 10 organic listings on the first page of search results for a given keyword, so if someone promises you that you will be found there, it’s a pretty arrogant claim without any credible basis.Consider this: No one outside of the search engines has direct control over organic placement, so assuming they somehow could market ten different companies in your area of expertise for the same keywords, what do they tell their eleventh customer who asks the same question? And what are other marketing companies telling their own customers for the same question. If you do the math, common sense dictates that the answer “Yes, I can guarantee it” is a completely false claim. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get to page one for one or more of your keywords, but it would statistically be highly improbable to be on page one for every keyword that you want to be found under. Here’s the rub: Explaining the “no” answer to you that way during a sales pitch for marketing services may come across to you as a lack of confidence or “already making excuses” rather than revealing the truth. It’s not the answer that you want to hear. So unethical marketers will “twist” it a bit.
- The answer every business owner wants to hear is what the shady marketer will tell you: “Yes, I can guarantee you’ll be on page one.” The problem with their answer is… they’re telling the truth, too. Sort of. When (not “if”) your site eventually does not show up on page one for all, most, or any of your keywords, you’ll understandably be upset. An unethical provider knows this, but they already have their canned answers ready for you. There are a few ways they can demonstrate that you are on “page one”.
- First, they can do a search for your company by name or by your domain name. Guess what? You’re on page one, probably even number one. (In SEO “geek” talk, this is what we call an EMD… Exact Match Domain listing.) It’s not magic… It’s a simple matter of keyword relevance for a company to show up by its own name– with zero effort, work, or influence from marketing.
- Second, they can market you under obscure keywords that have little competition in your marketplace, and it’s very likely that you’ll show up on page one– for something no one tries to find.
- Third, they can do searches for long-tailed phrases (multiple words rather than a single keyword) for unique keyword combinations that are only found on your website, and your site will show up on page one for that search.
- And finally, if you are in an extremely niche market, the odds of being found by a skewed keyword search are pretty good. For example, if you are Andy, an aardvark farmer in Arkansas, then it’s a fair bet that your website, “Andy’s Aardvarks” will be prominently listed for “Arkansas aardvark farmers”, but how meaningful or realistic is that? Most businesses have competition and aren’t in such a unique market position.
- An unscrupulous marketer knows all of this. Telling you the truth as it applies to what your intentions are doesn’t make for a good sales pitch, so they can (and will) take a gamble that they’ll earn your business based on a false promise and probably be able to deliver on some of your desired keywords, but as a fail-safe, they can demonstrate that they delivered on their promise in several useless ways (as I just illustrated). That’s when they’ll caveat the truth with reality as they explain their way out of your “misunderstanding” (plausible deniability). Basically, they’ll take your money, fail to perform, give you a tap-dance explanation, and have the audacity to make it your fault… as they graciously “educate” you on the nature of search engines after-the-fact.
- They know you’ll fire them. But they’ve got your money, and you have no recourse because…. it’s advertising. Next victim, please.
- A better way to phrase the question to the prospective search engine marketer would be to ask, “Can you guarantee me that my website will place organically, page one, on search engine ‘XYZ’ for each of the keywords and keyword phrases I want to be found under?” The only truthful answer to the question this specific is, “No”. But that takes all the fun out of it, and they’ll know you’re trying to pin them down. So ask the general (ignorant) question instead, and if the would-be service provider traps themselves in their own words, dismiss them.
QUESTION #2: When you say that you are “Partnered with Google”, what does that mean?
- This question, obviously, is in regards to a marketer who would convey to you that they are a “Google Partner”. Their answer to this question will be very telling as to whether the marketer is forthright or misleading.
- Google offers a professional affiliation program to certify Internet marketing professionals who are familiar with their products and services. You can read more about the program here. Basically it gives marketing providers tools and resources to help with selling Google’s products if the provider meets certain requirements like passing an exam and spending enough money with Google’s advertising programs. In exchange for meeting the criteria and promoting Google’s products, the marketing provider gets to display one or more “Google Partner” qualifications as applicable. It’s a mutual benefit to both companies, the provider and Google.
- The provider earns the right to display the Google brand, and Google earns more money through the provider’s business. That’s an over-simplified version of it, but it’s the gist of the program, much like other strategic partner programs. It’s how businesses network with each other. It’s completely aboveboard, ethical, and a smart B2B affiliate arrangement.
- However, some marketing providers take the “Google Partner” arrangement a bit farther than it is intended. In the sales pitch of a questionable Internet marketing provider, a much deeper relationship may be insinuated or inferred by the marketer, indicating that in some way the provider is “in bed” with Google and can provide you with some sort of “insider” advantage to get your site ranked better in Google’s organic listings.
- Many times this misleading notion comes in a statement that combines two unrelated thoughts such as, “We’re partnered with Google, so we’ll be able to get your site on page one for a variety of keywords.” The first part of that claim may be completely true, assuming that the provider has met Google’s requirements and has attained the right to claim “partner” status in accordance with Google’s programs. The second part, however, seems to convey that there’s some kind of cause-and-effect relationship between being a “Google Partner” (which is focused around paid advertising) and having an edge over other marketing providers in getting your site found organically in the natural rankings. The second part may be true inasmuch as it relates to the explanations of Question #1 above, but the two parts of the sentence are often co-mingled in a way that is confusing to the non-tech business owner who isn’t familiar with how things really work in the search engine market.
- If you are being solicited by a marketing provider who tries to make you think that they have an inside scoop on Google’s algorithms, or that somehow they can “call in a favor” with any of the search engines based on some “secret handshake” relationship, that’s simply not realistic. And it’s not ethical. Here’s why. Google (and all of the other search engines, for that matter) protect their algorithms for organic search. They have to.
- There’s a fundamental rift, a natural “conflict of interests”, between search engine companies and Internet marketers. Search engines want to provide unbiased, untainted, best-quality results for organic searches. Marketing companies want to get their own clients to the top of the organic searches because that’s what their clients pay them to do. If search engines played favorites towards certain marketing companies by “smiling upon” their promoted websites in organic rankings, the search engines, themselves, would lose all credibility with regards to fair impartiality in delivering relevant results for organic searches. It would be a scandalous event that would discredit the offending search engine.
- Instead, search engines constantly police the Internet to detect and prevent their algorithms from being exploited. When a hole is found in the bottom of the boat, they plug the hole and impose penalties on websites that exploited it. That’s how it works. The take away, here, is that Google (or any other search engine) is not going to compromise their ethics and integrity by revealing the specifics of their algorithm or by giving a “wink and nod” unfair advantage to any Internet marketer.
- When you ask the question, listen to the answer you’re given. If the answer seems to indicate “special treatment” by search engines if you go with that provider, you’re getting scammed. You might want to ask a few more questions to clarify, but don’t let anyone take your money under false pretenses.
QUESTION #3: How long will it take for my website to get found on the search engines?
- The flaw in this question bears a lot of similarity to that in our first question, above. It conveys an ignorance to a prospective marketing provider, and it gives them an opportunity to exploit you by winning you over on assumptions and false premises with plausible deniability (if they fail to deliver on their promises).
- Your job is to identify whether they are being honest with you or not. If you are not specific in your question to mention “organic rankings”, then an unethical marketer can look you in the eye and tell you something like, “You’ll start to get found on page one within 24 to 48 hours for some of your keywords.” (Not you “may“…. You “will“.)
- You see, if the services that they offer are not specifically defined as organic, then it’s quite possible that part of your marketing budget will be applied to pay-per-click ads that will appear almost instantly once your ad campaign is set up. Then all the provider has to do is take a screen capture of your business showing up on page one of the listings, and they have delivered on their promise. You hit “page one”… once… perhaps never to be seen there again by any future search for your keywords. Whether your listing shows up organically or not doesn’t matter in such a case, and neither does it matter whether or not your ad appears more than once. They delivered.
- Of course, that’s not what you had in mind. So if you ask the general question and you are given such an answer, it’s time to pin down the sales person and ask what their methods are. At that point, you should already have an idea that they may not be the right person for the job, but it would be interesting to see how they explain their answer.
- In response to a question like this, a good, professional, and honest search engine marketer will take the time and opportunity to educate you, not exploit you. Be sure to digest their explanation and understand that their motivation is to help you make more informed choices, not to be deceptively vague or come up with excuses. Just as there is no way to guarantee the placement of your website for any particular keywords, there’s also no way to know how long it will take to get found organically.
- For some keywords it may only take a few days. For some it may take months. And for others, your site may not appear prominently at all. There are too many variables to consider: market saturation, keyword popularity, competition, local or national searches, etc. The quality of content is a subjective factor that also impacts results with regard to specific keywords. The list goes on. So the question can’t be answered with any certainty in consideration of your intent for organic placement. Any definitive answer is a ruse to get your business.
For these and other questions, you can see how “what you don’t know CAN hurt you.” I’ve called these “ignorant questions”, not to offend you, but to identify the question as incomplete or assumptive to a point of exposing your vulnerabilities. If you do not know how to protect yourself, you’re easy prey.
For example, if you don’t know what it should cost to effectively optimize and market your website, you would never ask a marketing company, “I have $3000 per month in my marketing budget for my website but I have no idea what’s involved. How much will it cost me to promote my site?” (Well, gee, I’d bet it could be pretty close to $3000 per month if you ask the wrong company.) Another insightful truth about advertising: There’s always more money you could spend on it.
The key is to establish your marketing company’s legitimacy, skill set and experience first. Then develop a trusting rapport with them. And then discuss your budget, once you know you’re in good hands. A reputable marketer will help you prioritize your goals and define your options… as well as corral you back into the realm of reality if your budget is too low to be effective or too “spendy“, past a point of diminishing returns.
You’d be giving away too much information by introducing yourself to an “unknown”, revealing your budget before discerning their integrity (by basically “telling them what it’s going to cost you”). It would be an ignorant blunder to volunteer so much information too early in the relationship without seeing portfolios, verifying referrals, etc. Likewise, by asking unwittingly incomplete questions to experts who know the ins and outs of how things work with search engines, you’re tipping your hand in a way that can sting you.
Fortunately there are a lot of great marketing professionals, both freelancers and companies, who can earn your confidence by offering thorough, transparent answers to your questions and sharing solid portfolios of their successful marketing work to back up their claims. But the old idiom, “It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch” comes to mind. If you have one bad experience with an unethical, predatory, or inexperienced website marketer, it can cost you a lot of time and money to recover while, in the meantime, giving you a dim opinion of marketing providers in general. It’s much more productive and less painful to properly pre-screen your marketer in the first place.