When business owners are on the hunt for a Search Engine Optimization (or SEO for short) vendor, a lot of them will start with a search on Google for “Atlanta SEO” or “Boston SEO” or “Wherevertheylive SEO.” The assumption that business owner makes is that the first three to five firms that come up must REALLY know what they’re doing.
Just as an example, a search that I did just a few seconds ago for “Atlanta GA SEO” returned more than 3 MILLION results. Imagine how good you need to be at your job in order to get into the top 10 out of 3 million possible choices. Or at least that’s what some firms would like you to think.
But some of these firms are getting to the top of their game the same way Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds broke home run records in baseball: they’re cheating.
And not only are there SEO firms out there using performance-enhancing drugs to get their good rankings, but some of those firms may be hiding their steroids — wait for it — inside YOUR website.
Let me explain.
A big part of the Google search algorithm has to do with (for lack of a better word) popularity. In most circles, the more people talk about you, the more important you must be. Translate that to the Internet and you get “the more people link to you, the more important you must be.” Known as “backlinking” by SEO practitioners, accumulating backlinks from a lot of different websites is generally regarded as a surefire way to improve a website’s ranking. And a little research will demonstrate that the top SEO firms in the business usually have thousands of backlinks for their sites.
Some of these firms come by their backlinks honestly. But other vendors are so desperate to be on top that they’ll do anything they can to accumulate more links.
Some will even resort to hiding links within their clients’ websites.
This practice is considered unethical at best and, at worst, one of the most severe breaches of trust any web professional can engage in. Having an SEO vendor secretly use access to your website to engage in a black hat (or, in Google terms, illegal) linking strategy is sort of like hiring a housekeeper, giving her a key to your house, and then discovering that she’s been selling stolen goods out of the garage while you’re at work.
Unethical SEO firms will hide links on deep, rarely visited pages in your site, on thank you pages, inside the scripts for forms and slideshows, inside documents planted on your server and basically, anywhere they can think of.
This violation of trust is not only a means of exploiting unwitting clients for personal gain but also creates a veneer of success that helps these unethical firms attract new clients.
I know it sounds far fetched, but this has happened to our clients and while the practice is well-known within the web marketing industry, few clients are aware of this technique — which has the potential for boosting their vendor’s SEO while harming their own.
I’m not suggesting that you can’t trust firms that appear on the first page of search results for SEO. But I am suggesting that it takes more than prime real estate on Google to separate the great firms from the pretenders. Make sure you:
- Interview SEO people extensively before you hire them.
- Get references and actually call on them.
- Look for reports of misconduct online.
- Ask them if they use EXCLUSIVELY white hat techniques.
- Make them outline EXACTLY what they will do on your behalf.
And, at the first sign of sketchiness… Run.