Is SEO a Scam? Tales from the Black-Hat Trenches

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Regardless of what industry you are in you’ve probably received a phone call from a marketing company guaranteeing to get you to the top of Google for just $99/ a month. Perhaps you’ve worked with an SEO company in the past and didn’t see the results that you were hoping for after paying a hefty monthly fee.

So is SEO a scam? Yes and no.

The definition of search engine optimization has changed drastically over the years as Google and other search engines (Bing, Yahoo, Dogpile) change their algorithms to better suit their customers. Five years ago SEO was determined primarily on the three separate aspects of your website.

1. On-Site SEO: This entails optimizing the content on your site to match keywords including titles, meta-descriptions, header tags, alt-tags on images, etc.

2.  Backlinks: A backlink is a link from another site that points to your domain. For example, Business Week  is backlink to business week. The more backlinks that you have pointing to your site the higher you will rank in search engine results.

3. Traffic: The number of people who are visiting your site on a daily basis. The more traffic you have the more Google will deem your site relevant to search engine queries.

Now following these rules; a lot of companies found ways to game the system through something we call black-hat SEO. Some common black-hat tactics are to build a superfluous websites that serve as “link-farms”. Meaning these sites provide little or no value to Google’s consumers but are filled with links to both client websites as well as other link farms in their network.

Google eventually caught on to these practices and slowly but surely started focusing on content over backlinks with updates like Panda, and Hummingbird.

The New Standard

So what does this mean for the average consumer who wants to invest in SEO? Content is king, this is a phrase you have probably heard thrown around in the discussion about SEO. Today, high quality content that demonstrates your expertise as well as provides value to the both your consumer and Google’s consumer are what will boost your search results; in tandem with a quality linking strategy.

This content can come in many forms but at it’s basic level we are talking about blog posts. The more blog posts that you have featuring relevant keywords based on your industry the wider your reach is when people are searching for business in your industry. Google also gives great merit to websites that are constantly being updated with content.

Sounds easy enough right? The frustration that most commonly arises with an SEO campaign is that the results are not immediate and that you don’t know if your efforts are effective for months.  My advice for companies engaged in an SEO campaign are to ask for reports on the actual work product that is being produced by their SEO firm and constantly ask “why”. Your SEO firm should be transparent in their efforts and be able to provide an explanation for their results and how they were produced through their efforts.

So Is SEO a Scam

Search Engine Optimization is effective and works when it is done correctly. That being said there is no “one size fits all” SEO strategy. If you are only one of two Chinese food restaurants in a metropolitan area it will be relatively easy to move to the top of search results however, if you are a real estate agent in a city of 1 million the same techniques used for the Chinese food restaurant will be virtually useless because the market is saturated.

So what you really have to weigh is how important being at the top of search engines is to your business. Every company should have a marketing budget but if the same dollar amount you would spend on SEO is better spent on a more traditional marketing campaign than that’s where your budget should be spent. So many businesses believe that they NEED to be at the top of Google search results because they have been told by marketers and “industry professionals” that it is absolutely imperative to be at the top of results.

My biggest advice to companies interested in search engine optimization is to examine their business goals. Who are the clients you wish to obtain through all of your marketing efforts? What are you selling? By this I don’t mean “We sell Widgets”. What I mean is what is the problem that your company resolves and who is experiencing this problem? Then examine how SEO can be a part of your marketing efforts. SEO is useless if it doesn’t inform a greater marketing strategy and business strategy.

How to Weed Out the Snake Oil

I will be the first to admit that the SEO industry is a shady, shady industry. Here are a few things to keep in mind when hiring an SEO firm.

1. Guaranteed Results

If an SEO firm guarantees any type of results from your campaign that should be a red flag from the get go. The truth is that SEO firms would be cautious to make any guarantees about their services. The “rules” of search engine optimization change at the speed of light and there are no guarantees that your tactics will work. Competent SEO firms will give projections and expectations for their efforts; better SEO firms will alter their strategy as the campaign grows to better gauge results.

2. “We’ll get you to the top of Google in a Month”

Playing off the guaranteed results; this is the most commonly used pitch by scammy SEO firms. The truth is you are probably already at the top of Google! Don’t believe  me? Google your company name, chances are you are already at the top of search results for your brand, but this is relatively pointless as people who have already heard of your company or brand are already a part of your sphere of influence. It’s the more generic keywords that are tough to rank for which (for the most part) can not be moved in a month’s time.

For example, if your company is named “Perkins Carpet Cleaning” chances are you are already pretty high in search results for the term “Perkins Carpet Cleaning” where your company would gain the most value is through keyword searches like “Stain Removal Scottsdale” and “Pet Odor Mesa” which are much more difficult to rank for due to competition.

3. Social Only Services

This claim causes a bit of contention within the industry. If you are a large company or corporation there could be some value in a company that only offers social media services. However, if you are a part of a small organization, the truth is that social media is not the miracle cure that many social only company claim it to be. Social media works best when it is in conjunction with a more robust SEO and marketing campaign. Without strong original content that lives on your website social media is really “much ado about nothing”.

Additionally, not all businesses will see a massive benefit from social media. If you are selling a product online you can see a massive upswing by offering promotions through your social pages but if you are a plumber/handyman there is not much value your base will perceive through your social outlets.


SEO is expensive. There is no two ways about it, it’s not a service that you want to go “bargain hunting” for because the probability that you are getting less-than-savory results and essentially throwing away your money. My advice is to hire a company who can be a partner for your growing business and understands the goals for company in the future. If you don’t have the budget to bring on an SEO firm then my advice is to DIY.

SEO is not rocket science, it just takes a level of determination and diligence. I for one know of an acupuncture practice that has done all of their SEO in-house and saved thousands of dollars. Over the course of the year, this clinic has been diligent about it’s content creation and moved to the top of local search results, beating out the competition in virtually all metrics.

If you ever have any questions about search engine optimization, give us a call at  480-397-7353

Externalities: Cost of Development

Outside of the cost of design and development, the literal coding/creation of a website there are many secondary cost associated with your online presence. Most