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Working in web development and digital marketing, you deal with a lot of acronyms; SEM, SMM, CTR, CRO, SERP. Not to mention all the jargon words that get tossed in the mix like crawling, indexing, user experience, rank, retargeting. Trying to follow a conversation made up of jargon terms is confusing. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of digital marketing companies banking on your confusion, especially when it comes to SEO, search engine optimization, one of the most confusing and elusive acronyms of all.
Companies that perform SEO for other businesses fall into one of two camps. Some of these organizations follow best practices and bring tangible results, while others make empty promises and can actually make a website’s ranking on search engines even worse.  Don’t worry, we’re here to help you tell the difference.
In order to avoid what author Colleen Jones calls “SEO snake-oil,” and be able to identify scams, you first need to know what SEO is and how it works.

What is SEO?

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is the practice of improving a website’s rankings on popular search engine sites like Google and Bing. Unlike Search Engine Marketing (SEM), where you pay for an ad to be displayed at the top of search results, SEO causes your website to appear organically when someone searches for a keyword related to your business.

SEM (Google Ads) vs SEO (organic search results)

How Does SEO Work?

Search engine optimization is the practice of optimizing your website to send the right signals to search engines. When you want to learn about a product, idea, or service, you hop online to Google, type in your question or word into the search bar and hit enter.
Once you hit enter, the search engine gets to work. In less than a second, it combs through every single website in its database looking for signals that indicate which websites will best answer your question. After it has compiled a list of websites, it will rank them in order of most to least relevant, with one being most relevant. Results are displayed 10 per page on Google and it is those top ten spots that every business wants to occupy.
Search engines like Google are programmed to look for specific signals, often called ranking factors. These ranking factors make up a very complex algorithm that changes about 500-600 times a year and are comprised of around 200 factors that work in two ways.
There are two main categories of signals that search engines look for: on-page and off-page factors.

1. On-Page SEO is everything done in your website.

  • Adjusting headlines and body text to better answer a searcher’s question
  • Creating  more compelling information and resources for your potential customers
  • Running technical audits and identifying anything search engines will consider a red flag, and fixing them, like not having headings identified properly, not having alternative text written for each picture, or having broken links on your site.

2. Off-Page SEO is everything that happens off your site but around your brand.

  • The conversation surrounding your company on social media
  • The reviews people leave about your business on different places throughout the internet (Google My Business, Facebook, Angie’s List, Better Business Bureau).
  • Backlinks to your website or your blog posts from their blog posts. 

Snake-Oil Scams

Understanding on a basic level how SEO works and the complexities that go into it will be helpful in recognizing scams and companies that are just out to make a buck. There are four main scam tactics we see:

  • Unsolicited emails
  • Insider information
  • Guaranteed rankings
  • Secret SEO techniques

The Unsolicited Email

We were actually inspired to write this blog post because of this tactic. Everyone hates spam email, especially when it manages to masquerade as legitimate offers and services. You may have already received emails from SEO consultants noting how poorly you rank on search engines and how they can solve all your problems with their great and unknowable power.
We receive these emails, and we provide SEO services for clients! Sending these emails blindly, without any sort of preliminary research into the company, is not a good first impression. Treat such correspondence as you would any other spam—no Nigerian prince is going to give you his riches, no diet pill is going to miraculously cause weight loss, and no legitimate web agency is going to bombard you with emails you didn’t ask for.

The Inside Man

Google needs to be wary, they have a mole in their organization. They must, considering how many SEO organizations claim to have a man on the inside. Whoever this mole is, he must be brilliant. He would need to understand the 200+ variables that control the Google algorithm and constantly review them since the algorithm is changed several times a week.
How does he manage to maintain his day job without being caught by Google in the process?
The answer is that there is no inside man and that there is no way to “crack” the Google algorithm. Shocking, I know. Sure, an SEO expert should understand certain aspects of the algorithm. But no one should claim to have a special relationship with Google or have some sort of understanding of the algorithm that is unavailable to everyone else.

Guaranteed Rankings

No one can guarantee a specific ranking on search engines. If a company says “we will get you to the #1 spot on Google” or “we will get you on the first page of results”, stay away. Far, far away. It is impossible to deliver on such a promise. Google even says so.
Some companies will take this a step further and guarantee a top rank within 48 hours. This is ludicrous for two reasons.

  • First is the one we explained above, that no ranking can be guaranteed.
  • The second is that it takes time to get results from search engine optimization. Normally months need to pass before you see any sort of change or trend in your rankings.


SEO can improve search rankings, but nothing is guaranteed

Secret SEO Techniques

Remember those SEO wizards I mentioned earlier? The ones that use their great and mysterious power to get you to the top of search results. Well, they’re the same ones claiming to have secret techniques that they cannot and will not disclose. It’s reasonable if a business doesn’t want to share all of the tools they use or exactly how they practice SEO, but they should outline their strategy and give you clear deliverables. Otherwise, how do you know that they’re doing what you paid them for?

Know where your money is going

Finding the Right SEO Partner

These are just a few of the techniques used by untrustworthy SEO companies and consultants. Stay vigilant, for they may accost you at every turn. Hopefully, with this knowledge at your disposal, you’ll be able to tell the good from the bad.
SEO is a legitimate practice that can help drive traffic to your website, ultimately increasing leads and conversions. When done right, it can be an incredible boon for your business. If you not only want more leads, but more qualified leads that actually have an interest in what your business does, SEO could be just what you’re looking for. There are no shortcuts, no cheap tricks, and no easy answers. SEO takes hard work and time to be implemented properly.
[Originally published in May 2016. Updated in May 2018]

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