Do you ever get that feeling in the pit of your stomach that something just isn’t right?

For most of us, it happens when we’re watching a movie and we know something bad is about to happen. Or maybe you’re on a first date and the girl decides to break out her best Eric Cartman impression from “South Park” and you think to yourself “no no no please get me out of here.”

Every once in a while I get this feeling when I see something that a client is doing that just screams out “DEAR GOD NO,” but it’s most infuriating when it comes from the empty promises and faulty strategy recommendations from the dreaded (wait for it)…SEO AGENCY!

Here are some examples of typical empty promises you may have seen or heard before from an SEO vendor:

  1. We will get you on page one, guaranteed!
  2. Sure, it’s easy to get high quality backlinks!
  3. We’ll do everything you need for $99 a month!
  4. You’ll outrank your competitors in 30 days!

If you hear any of this before from an SEO agency you were considering partnering with, you should put on your Nikes and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

Some SEO agencies prey off of vulnerability, and because the whole practice of SEO can be quite nebulous, they use big words and a lot of empty promises to entice (and scare) people into signing on the dotted line.

However, you should rest assured – I’m here to help you navigate the muddy waters and draw attention to the red flags that should automatically make you feel queasy.

1. They guarantee first-page rankings

  1. The bottom line here is this: Any agency that guarantees you first-page rankings is disingenuous and borderline irresponsible. Now obviously there are caveats here – some keywords might be easier to rank for than others. For example: Let’s say a goal for “Company XYZ Inc” is to rank in the first position for the query “Company XYZ Inc”.

It’s most likely going to be easier for them to rank for their own branded keyword then let’s say a hypercompetitive non-branded query like “wordpress hosting.” The idea here is that ranking high for a keyword depends on a variety of factors – it isn’t a binary concept – and because of that fact it’s impossible for anyone (or any agency) to make a promise of first-page positioning.

The key is: can they get you to rank for a high value keyword?

2. They don’t take ownership when things go wrong

Sometimes you just have to admit when you’re wrong, or when the strategy you recommended isn’t working. We are all human, and we all make mistakes – especially when it comes to optimizing for search. However, the dishonest SEO agency will more often than not try to blame a variety of complicated factors:

It’s Google’s fault, not ours, that Panda 2.0 caused all of your visibility to disappear!

Or

Why are you blaming us for your webspam penalty – we have nothing to do with your backlinks!

A good SEO agency should be proactive, stay up to date on industry trends, and take ownership when a strategy they recommended isn’t working.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my six-year-old niece about how she got a new toy, and then it broke a few days later because she threw it against the wall. When I told her that it broke because she threw it against the wall, she told me “No it didn’t. It broke because the wall was too hard”. I laughed, and then told her how she probably shouldn’t throw her toys, and she should take ownership when she does something wrong. She probably won’t listen, but your SEO partner should.

Don’t be a six year old.

3. Clandestine Methodology

SEO isn’t the easiest subject matter to master, but it’s not rocket science either. If you have the time and energy and can make the investment, anyone can teach themselves to be a good SEO. With that being said, if any SEO agency discusses their approach and methodology in a surreptitious manner, it should be a warning sign that something isn’t right.

Google algorithms are so sophisticated and advanced these days that it’s basically impossible to dupe the system. However, some SEOs still feel like utilizing black-hat tactics like keyword stuffing, link farming, or content cloaking and do it by hiding behind conversations that are overly secretive. Ask about methodology early on, and if you’re met with these types of conversations, get your Nikes ready.

4. They always use big, fancy buzzwords

SEO is filled with jargon – any of these words sound familiar?

  • Canonical Tag.
  • Keyword Density.
  • Robots.txt.
  • Alt Text.
  • Latent Semantic Indexing.
  • Disproportional Top Level Domain Offsetting.

Ok, I made that last one up.

The point is this: Do these buzzwords represent ACTUAL things? Yes. Is some of it overly complicated only for the sake of sounding arduous? Sure. Is any of this so fundamentally difficult to explain that any reasonably intelligent person wouldn’t understand what you’re trying to say? Absolutely not.

Any good SEO or SEO agency shouldn’t hide behind obscurity – they should be forthcoming about strategy and help their clients understand the complexity of the practice.

For example, here is the actual definition of Latent Semantic Indexing:

“a technique in natural language processing, in particular distributional semantics, of analyzing relationships between a set of documents and the terms they contain by producing a set of concepts related to the documents and terms.”

Yeah, it’s a bit of an arcane definition. However, it’s not that difficult to explain it in a way that is clear to a person that doesn’t live and breathe SEO:

“Hi Mrs. Client, Latent Semantic Indexing is how Google identifies content and specific keywords on your website in order to serve the best possible result to a potential customer.”

See, it wasn’t that hard, so don’t let SEO agencies try to scare you with industry nomenclature.

5. They don’t practice what they preach

The other day, I had a client reach out to me because they were working with an SEO vendor that was telling them the importance of their desktop site speed to their overall ranking positions in Google.

When I went to do some research on the agency making the recommendation, here is what I stumbled upon:

Wow, a D! That’s only one grade away from an F! How on earth can this agency begin telling its client how important page speed is when they are a grade away from complete and utter failure?

Practice what you preach, guys.

The proof is in the pudding. If ANY agency is giving you recommendations, they better put into practice the strategic recommendations they are offering up. If they don’t, they lose all credibility.

So, what have we learned today about hiring a company to handle your SEO?

  1. Don’t choose someone who makes promises that cannot be kept.
  2. Make sure they are responsible for their recommendations and actions.
  3. Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes on tactics and strategy.
  4. Don’t let them scare you with big, fancy words.
  5. Make sure they practice what they preach.

Also, don’t throw things against the wall – they will break.

Sonny Sharp is a Director of Content Marketing at Brafton. When he's not driving revenue and lead gen results for his teams' client-base in the midwest and west coast, he's likely hanging out at home with his 14-month-old daughter, sleeping, or watching Netflix.