A case study in sham SEO
How do you know when you’re not getting your money’s worth?
A couple of months ago, I was speaking with a prospect about his current web marketing, and it became clear that what he was getting from his current agency had little to no value.
“Mike” had been paying his agency for months but had seen zero results. A website he’d made for himself on the side was ranking better than the business website he was paying his SEO agency to promote. Having no knowledge of web marketing or SEO himself, he was paying hundreds of dollars a month to this agency for their expertise – for nothing.
Mike was doubtful of the legitimacy of SEO because of this experience, and I couldn’t blame him. Unfortunately, there are many unethical or incapable SEO companies out there who give the industry a bad name.
I’m always interested in learning how other SEOs run their businesses, so I offered to help Mike get to the bottom of things. At that point we weren’t actively pursuing his business, but what he was telling me about this agency (which shall remain nameless) was compelling enough that I wanted to help him figure out if that business relationship was worth continuing.
When ranking first means nothing
Mike was being told that his site was ranking “number one” for dozens of keywords, but he hadn’t gotten any new business to show for it.
After speaking with Mike numerous times and sitting in on a call between him and the company, the root of the issue became clear: this company was either unwilling or incapable of performing proper keyword research. His site was ranking very highly for some of the keywords they’d reported, but these keywords were all extremely long-tail and had little to no search volume.
What Mike needed was higher visibility to help him get more business, and despite the fact that results can take time to appear with SEO (or “gain traction,” as this company put it), it had been several months and he had only gotten three visitors to his website from the keywords they were targeting. Three. That came out to over a thousand dollars per visitor, and none of them were leads.
This kind of web marketing was obviously not what Mike needed. He’d spoken with a representative about changing up keywords in hopes of improving results, but it had taken them weeks to get around to actually making any changes to his website and campaigns.
Small businesses don’t have this kind of time: when they spend money on marketing, they need to see results. In the end, Mike closed his account with the company and was able to get a partial refund, but the experience left him several thousand dollars poorer, with no new business, and even more wary of SEO.
What went wrong?
In my opinion, there are several factors that doomed this SEO relationship from the beginning:
- Obvious lack of quality keyword research
- A one-size-fits-all approach, rather than a marketing plan that’s tailored specifically to a small business’s needs
- Poor communication
Mike’s SEO agency was reporting false metrics. By telling him he was ranking #1 for all of those keywords, they made it sound like they’d done a lot and obtained great results. But Mike’s business saw no positive effects. If he’d been aware of the nuances of keyword research and valid reporting, he would have been able to tell much earlier on that he was not getting what he was paying for.
Whether or not this agency intentionally misled Mike is not that important, but when you look at his overall experience as a customer, they may as well have.
SEOs often carry the burden (read: responsibility) of teaching clients what SEO is. It’s unethical to take a client’s money without giving them the resources they need to fully understand not only how SEO works, but also what your plan of action is for their business.
In an industry where results may not be instant, communication is key: the client should always know what to expect.
Ask the right questions
Business owners can look out for themselves, too. Here are some important questions to ask any SEO agency you may be thinking of working with:
- Which industries have you worked with before? Have you ever worked with a business similar to mine?
- How will you determine which keywords are best to target for my business?
- How will you report progress to me, and how often?
- How is the ROI for this work measured and reported?
- What kind of timeline can I expect for seeing results?
- What changes will need to be made to my website?
Mike didn’t end up becoming a client of ours, but he is a friend, and our experience with him was enlightening.
Many small business owners – especially if they are used to offline marketing – do not understand SEO and are vulnerable to scammers and unethical SEO companies who would take advantage of their lack of experience.
For those of us who genuinely work hard for our clients’ success, it’s frustrating to see business owners already jaded because of a bad experience like this. The value of SEO must be carefully communicated and demonstrated for each client. It’s up to us to make sure our clients know – and get – what they’re paying for.
Kentaro Roy is the president and founder of Kentaro Web Design + SEO, a web marketing agency in downtown Ann Arbor. He is a business student at Eastern Michigan University and has been named to the 2012 class of Crain’s Detroit Business 20 In Their 20s. He was recently featured on the I Will Teach You To Be Rich blog.