The good news about SEO is that anyone with basic intelligence and the motivation to learn can eventually, over time, become an SEO expert. SEO is a potentially lucrative and rewarding profession that does not require a particular college degree. It can be learned on-the-job and from available resources.
The bad news about SEO is that anyone with an internet connection can say they are an SEO expert, whether they are or they aren’t.
So how can you tell legitimate SEO experts from the fakes and wannabes?
Here are 12 signs that a self-proclaimed SEO expert may not be all that.
Sign #1: The SEO Expert Hides What They Are Doing
Sure, there may be legitimate proprietary information an SEO cannot reveal, but here is a bare-minimum list of things you should always have access to:
- List of sites where the SEO expert will be link building. Make sure all of these sites are ones with which you’d want your brand associated!
- List of outreach contacts they will be talking to on your behalf.
- Their overall methodology for doing SEO and link building.
Sign #2: Inability to Explain Clearly
Your SEO expert consultant is not just a technician; they must also be an educator. It should be part of their job to clearly articulate what they are doing and why. This is one of the most important business partnerships you have as an online business. It is critical that you be able to understand what your SEO is doing.
If you ever hear something like, “Just trust us; you wouldn’t understand what we’re doing. It’s too technical,” you should start looking for another SEO expert immediately.
Also beware of explanations that sound oversimplified. For example: “Google ranks pages highest that have 200-300 words.” Ask yourself if such a simple explanation really makes sense. Since Google is striving to find the highest quality content for any query, why would they limit themselves in such a simplistic way? Depending on the query and need, some things can be covered with quality in just 50 words; others require thousands of words.
Your SEO should be able to back up any claims or assertions about how SEO works with solid data and/or references.
Sign #3: Guarantees That Sound Too Good to Be True
Really, you should beware of any guarantees offered by an SEO, except those that have to do with deliverables, reporting, and fulfilling contract obligations. Truth: there is no way to guarantee specific results from SEO.
That doesn’t mean that an SEO shouldn’t be expected to produce results. SEO can and should be expected to provide positive results from a site. But the truth is that those results will take time, and they will be seen in a general increase in traffic, conversions, etc. It is impossible for an SEO to promise something like, “I will raise ranking for this particular keyword by three SERP positions in one month.”
Instead, a reputable SEO expert should be doing things like the following:
- Seeking to understand your marketplace and business economics, and what it will take for you to begin to profit from your investment in SEO.
- Seeking to understand your business goals, and to align their plan with those goals.
- Providing examples of past work and the results obtained.
Sign #4: Acts Like SEO Works in a Vacuum
Reputable SEO experts these days know that SEO is inseparable from almost every other aspect of marketing. It must interact with things like your PR, site design and usability, content and social media teams, etc. Effective SEO must be integrated with a site’s marketing plan and goals.
Also ask your SEO what they think helps build rankings and traffic. If they only respond with things like links, it’s a good indication that they are not up-to-date on SEO. While inbound links to your pages are still important, these days many other factors play an important role, including (but not limited to):
- Content quality
- User experience
- Brand awareness and identity
- Social media (including paid social promotion)
Making any of those effective for SEO purposes will mean your SEO should be seeking interaction and positive relationships with your marketing, PR, social media, content, and web development teams.
Sign #5: Too Many Clients
One of your first questions when interviewing a potential SEO expert to hire or consult with should be the person’s client load. If you’re looking at an agency, this question should be addressed to the person assigned to manage your account.
In order to get the best quality work from your SEO, they probably shouldn’t be working with more than five to six clients at one time. Of course, that will vary somewhat with the amount of involvement they have with each client, and how much work your site needs.
It is important to work out in advance how much time your SEO should be expected to be giving to you each week, as well as how available they will be for calls, questions, and reporting.
Sign #6: They Want to Automate Content Page Creation
More and more we see Google actively devaluing low quality pages, and it’s hard to get anything but that from automation when it comes to content. Your SEO should be seeking to help you handcraft every piece of content on your site for maximum effectiveness.
There are some SEO tasks that can be automated, but content should not be one of them. The content and user experience of your pages are your most important SEO asset. Your SEO should treat them with the respect and attention they deserve.
Sign #7: They Want to Create Tons of Inbound Links
It is true that inbound links to your site are still very important to ranking well on search engines. But now more than ever the quality of those links is far more important than the quantity. If an SEO tells you that they are going to improve your site’s rankings by getting “as many links as possible,” you’re dealing with someone who’s SEO knowledge is years behind, and potentially very dangerous.
Search engines like Google now look very carefully not just at the number of links to your pages, but where those links come from. If you have too many links coming from low quality and/or irrelevant sites, that looks suspicious. You could even end up with a Penguin or manual penalty against your site.
The best way to get quality, relevant links to your site is to earn them. You do that by producing high quality, very useful content, that becomes a valuable resource to which credible sites will want to link. Of course, you need to work hard to make that content highly visible to those sources through your social media and other content promotion efforts.
Sign #8: They Talk About “Submissions” and “Site Listings”
If the proposal from an SEO expert mentions article submissions or site listings as a key component of their strategy, immediately remove them from consideration. As with massive link building, this is old school SEO that hasn’t worked for years.
The truth is that the vast majority of such services are extremely spammy, and so Google pays no attention to them. Google is getting better all the time at sniffing out and devaluing any such schemes.
This does not mean there are no legitimate and respected directories. There certainly are, especially for local and B2B businesses. Make sure, though, that your SEO can provide justification for the directories on which they want to list your site, and beware if it seems like a shotgun approach.
Think about it from a search engine’s perspective. Would it make sense to value links from a service that any site can get into just by submitting their site (or in some cases, paying to be there)? Of course not.
Actually, that’s a good method for evaluating anything an SEO tells you that sounds too easy to be effective. Ask yourself, if you were a search engine, wanting to give quality results to your users, would that be something you would value?
Sign #9: They Think Metadata Is All You Need
Metadata is information a site can place in the header of each page that provides information about the page, such as the title, description, and relevant keywords. Some of that information is still relevant to search engines (see last paragraph of this section), but if an SEO’s pitch puts this front and center, or seems to say this is a huge factor for ranking, then you should be suspicious.
In particular, beware of any SEO who says that they are going to spend a lot of time fiddling with keywords in meta keywords. The major search engines have been clear for a long time that that is not at all a ranking factor.
This doesn’t mean that metadata is useless however. For example, search engines often use what is in the meta description field as the description text they display under the link to the page in search results. Crafting that description to make the value of the page clear to a searcher can help increase click throughs to that page. Also, keywords in title tags can be one factor among many in ranking for a keyword. But representing these as the key (or only) part of an SEO strategy is just plain wrong!
Sign #10: The Prices are Insane!
When I was a kid there was a consumer electronics chain in the New York metropolitan area called Crazy Eddies. Their TV ads featured an actor portraying a frenetic, manic Crazy Eddie, whose tagline was “Our prices are INSANE!”
If an SEO expert’s quoted prices for their service seem too low to be believed, the quality of their service probably is too.
Of course, higher prices doesn’t guarantee quality work, but at the same time, quality SEO is not cheap. You have to ask yourself: if you’re paying a super low amount for your SEO, how much attention and care do you really think you’re getting from that SEO? They have to be pushing through a ton of clients to make ends meet.
Sign #11: They Price By the Link
If you pay by the link, you’re incentivizing the SEO to build as many links as they can, and that means they will have little care for the quality of those links.
As noted above, quality links have to be earned. They are not easy to come by, but have far more SEO value. A valuable SEO expert will talk to you about strategies to earn such links, not brag about the quantity he will get.
Sign #12: They Claim Inside Info on Search Algorithms
The fact is that very few Google staff themselves know very much about the search ranking algorithms. Google guards this information very carefully, and doles it out amongst its staff on a “need to know” basis.
It is possible to gain valuable insights into the most likely ways the search algos behave, from both experience over a long career and intensive research and testing. That’s what you pay an experienced SEO for.
Have nothing to do with any self-proclaimed SEO expert who claims to have either inside knowledge of “how Google works” or to have special influence with Googlers.
BONUS! Have your prospective SEO take this SEO knowledge test designed by our CEO Eric Enge, lead co-author of The Art of SEO. Don’t expect that they will get 100%, even if they are a legitimate expert. Even one of Google’s top search experts got only 15 of the 20 questions right! Eric intentionally designed this quiz with many questions that have more than one “right” answer, but only one best answer. If you give this quiz to a prospective SEO, they should be able to explain in detail why they chose any of their wrong answers.
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There you have it! Have you run across any other SEO practices or claims that were “tells” for you of a fake SEO expert? Let us know in the comments.
At Stone Temple Consulting, we pride ourselves on our hard-earned SEO expertise. Our consultants represent many hundreds of years of combined SEO experience. In addition, we are constantly doing high level, big data studies and tests that keep us ahead of the wave in SEO. That’s why we’re trusted by many of the biggest brands in the world.
Adapted from an article by Eric Enge originally published on Forbes.