Avoiding Search Engine Fraud… The Burden is on You to Protect Your Business

Three things are for sure in the world of Websites and Search Engines:

  • If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • If you ask around long enough, sooner or later you will find someone who will tell you what you want to hear so they can get your money.
  • Regardless of how many warnings and cautions are made about #1 and #2 above, there will always be some business owner who naively thinks they’re exempt from the odds and will disregard good advice, “wishfully thinking” that they won’t be the next victim… and they’ll be wrong.

Don’t let the “next victim” be YOU!

There are plenty of “soothsayers” in the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) arena. Anytime where “no guarantee” on specific results is the only ethical answer (as is the case with SEO and SEM), the opportunity exists for fraud. What better industry for a con artist to get involved in than one that they can bind you into a one-year service contract, take your hard-earned money, and legally deliver poor results since there are “no guarantees”! When your money is at stake (and lots of it), don’t you owe it to yourself to get “smart” on the basics so you know when someone is trying to take advantage of you?

I’m a firm believer in “old expressions”. There is a reason for them. It seems that when history repeats itself enough, eventually someone encapsulates all of the “hard lessons learned” into one clever, memorable, one-liner “universal truth” that scorches itself in our memory forever after. For example:

  • “There’s no such thing as something for nothing.”
  • “To make money, you have to spend money.”
  • “A fool and his money are soon parted.”
  • “Don’t throw good money after bad.”
  • “…Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

These are just a few that come to mind that apply to business owners who get sold a bill of goods by SEO/SEM soothsayers. Like the proverbial old charlatan selling snake oil to cure whatever ails you, telemarketers will hound you to buy their package deal that will purportedly deliver your website to the “promised land” of traffic, leads, clients, and profits. Full of loopholes, fine print, exceptions, and excuses, the glowing prospective results very rarely pan out in reality. Don’t make matters worse by making the same mistake over again, jumping between different companies or packages. “The grass is NOT always greener…”

“But,” you say, “I’m signing up with one of those big, ‘reputable’ online phone book companies, and they say they’ll make sure I’m at the top of the listings.”

(Pop!) Sorry to burst your bubble. The telemarketers for those companies are usually paid commission to sell a package, not to give you “good advice”. The reality is that they will not optimize your website at all, which involves changing some of the content and characteristics of your site to make it search engine friendly. Instead, your site may in fact be on the top of the listings-on THEIR directory service, but not on the major search engines. In other words, someone needs to find THEM first, and within their service, among your competition, they need to find your business. Some of these “reputable” companies double dip by charging a listing fee, then charging an additional cost per click for traffic that comes to your site through your listing on their site. In the worst scenarios, they may even intentionally and artificially “click” on your site’s advertisement to document traffic and to use up your money on account so they can replenish it for the next month’s billing cycle. Can you say, “Rip Off”?

Remember, traffic doesn’t necessarily mean “sales”. It just means that someone clicked on your link. Sales come from qualified traffic, not just traffic-at-large. Qualified traffic means visitors who are actually searching for the products and services you offer, versus unqualified traffic which means people who stumble across your site out of curiosity or clicking on a general keyword. In short, qualified traffic means browsers who will convert to buyers, and unqualified traffic is just visitors who are window shoppers who are “kicking the tires.”

A lot of companies will hide behind the “no guarantee” disclaimer, because they can send you traffic but not make visitors pull out their wallets. Even if the traffic they send is not quality, qualified traffic, they can document that they did something to collect your money. With a year-long contract, your business (and your checkbook) are held hostage for twelve months.

I’ve worked with dozens upon dozens of frustrated business victims who wasted their time and money bouncing between similar service providers, desperately hoping to find a marketing company who will yield a return on investment. Over time they lose faith in the system (no surprise) and most become subdued, guarded, or even hostile at the idea of search engine marketing. After getting burned a few times, they become “damaged goods” with baggage. For those that never knew any better, I empathize with their feelings and willingly offer the best advice I can give. For those who were informed and forewarned but disregard all the warnings, my only question is, “Why are you so surprised that it happened to you?”

Of course, there are many legitimate companies that offer reasonable prices, ethical service, and deliver great results. Not everyone is out to “get” you. As a business decision-maker, however, you must be aware of the possibilities and the common problems with fraud and deception in the SEO/SEM marketplace. “Knowledge is power”, and “forewarned is forearmed”, two more old expressions that apply.

How can you protect yourself and your business? How can you have some kind of assurance that the company you are dealing with is truly reputable? There are a few, solid guidelines that you should adhere to before moving forward with a service provider. Despite any sales pitches that try to persuade you otherwise, stick to what makes sense. If you decide to disregard good advice and work without a safety net, swim at your own risk because there is no life guard on duty. “Buyer Beware” applies.

Rules of Thumb:

  • Get references and examples of demonstrated results, ALWAYS. If a Search Engine Marketing company is successful at promoting businesses on the Web, they should have some happy customers to show for it. There should be several websites that can predictably be found with keyword searches other than company names. Don’t fall for the smoke and mirrors excuse that a company can’t share that information due to privacy protection of their customers. If their customers wanted to remain concealed, they wouldn’t be marketing themselves on the World Wide Web for millions of people to find.
  • Don’t bind your business into a year long contract, EVER. If an SEO/SEM firm needs to hold you hostage to get your money, that should be fair warning that they don’t have your best interests in mind. If they do such a great job, you should be a loyal customer based on the results they produce for you. Don’t fall for the weak excuse that “it’s the industry standard to sign up for a year.” You may have to shop around, but there are plenty of reputable companies that work month-to-month with clients and can demonstrate results.
  • If anyone guarantees you top placement results, WALK AWAY. Typically it’s either “top results” in their own proprietary service which is not going to get you found on the major search engines, or it’s blatantly false advertisement. Once you sign the papers and reveal your payment information, your business is at risk. If the costs seem incredibly low and worth the risk, you need to go to the top of this article and start reading again.
  • SEO and SEM deals that are sold as package deals are “One Size Fits None”, PERIOD. Package deals are a short cut for the service provider. They make assumptions about your business and are a cheap way to sell SEO/SEM to the masses. If you could obtain top results with a cookie cutter program, then everyone would be number one, and we know that’s not possible. In order to be effective, your business needs a marketing program tailored for its needs. Never buy into a program without a detailed consultation where everything is explained to you in terms you understand.
  • Beware of predatory companies that “specialize” in your industry-AVOID THEM. Their claim to fame is that they work substantially or exclusively with companies in your market, and therefore are “experts” at delivering results. In reality, it may be true that they sell to companies related directly to yours, which means that you are just another face in the crowd-just another number-to them. For every additional client they sign up, they are adding competition to your listing. Almost every established industry has a company that caters to search engine promotion within the field. To be “head and shoulders” above the rest (in other words, to get found), your site needs to be found independently, not as a sub-listing within a proprietary service which in turn must be found amongst other listings on the search engines for a particular keyword phrase.

One of the most common “bad” scenarios occurs when a business owner gets promised guaranteed traffic, signs up for a package deal, commits for a year, pays excessive fees for unqualified traffic without seeing an increase in sales, and then can’t find themselves independently on any major search engine. Sometimes the commitment to such deals means $1500 to $2500 (or more) of your money flowing freely out the door (monthly) as residual income into a service provider’s pocket, for which the service provider has little to no incentive to produce results because they “own” you for a year. Many times, the only reason that the costs to optimize and market a website is so outrageously expensive is that the average, non-technical business owner assumes that it should be… so they are billed and pay accordingly.

In comparison a customized, quality search engine optimization and marketing program that is tailored to your small- to medium-size business in a local market may have a one time cost of less than $1000 to implement and only cost a few hundred dollars per month to maintain.

Which sounds better to you?