Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Fraudsters… Look for a Free Lunch, and You Are on the Menu!

There is a lot of reading material on the market about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM). Sometimes the detailed information seems to be contradictory from one source to another. Often times this is due to the fact that search engine rules and criteria change rapidly from one month to the next, making the task of keeping up with it all the more challenging.

In general, however, proven strategies combined with judgment and experience from a seasoned SEO expert can be relied upon to achieve favorable placement. Therein lies the challenge to the average business owner: How do you FIND a reputable, experienced SEO expert?

If you have been burned once by inadequate search engine marketing, you have probably been burned again. That’s because there’s a learning curve in discerning what kinds of activities and companies you can trust, and what kinds will take your money & run. It can be a very discouraging process to find the “right” company, and many business owners simply give up.

It would be nice if there were a sign above every shady operators door that expressed the sentiment from Dantes “Divine Comedy”, reading:

“Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.”

But that’s not likely to happen.

So the burden of proof (and the risk associated with it) in sorting the good guys from the bad guys rests squarely with YOU.

In most of my articles on the topic, I cite a list of many “Dos” and “Don’ts” that you should adhere to in the decision making process. That gets a bit dry, and it certainly doesn’t put the material in a directly relevant context.

Obviously, I also can’t make specific recommendations to you that state, “Do business with Company A, but avoid Company B at all costs.” Doing so would involve somewhat subjective opinions, and of course, I’m not eager to be sued by Company B anytime soon.

What follows, therefore, is more of a story that you may relate to if you own a website. It is written as a (rather long) parable, so it can be applied to any business in any industry. As with any allegorical tale, you will derive your own meaning from it based on your situation and your experiences. I explain the symbolism after the story. What’s important, here, is that you understand the concept of the tale, and can apply the lessons learned to your business.

The Parable of the “Magic Spring Water” Salesman:

There once a business owner who owned a pasta restaurant. It was in a seemingly perfect location with a picturesque view next to a babbling brook, and was the only such business of its kind. In the early years, the business was doing great with loyal patrons filling the tables and ordering pasta by the heap, and they raved about the flavor of his pasta dishes. Over time, though, other restaurants began appearing around town, and the pasta restaurant business owner noticed that his customers were gradually disappearing, week after week. Whereas all of the new restaurants in town appeared to be getting busier, he became alarmed at how vacant his tables had become.

Finally, the pasta restaurant owner decided to address the problem so he hired a consultant who specialized in helping restaurants succeed. He checked out the consultant’s credentials carefully and was impressed with all of the references, but the price for consulting services was $500. Business wasn’t what it used to be, so the pasta shop owner was unhappy to have to pay a consultant to study his business, analyze the local market, and make recommendations. But after several weeks of losing more customers to the competition, he eventually decided that it was necessary to do so, and he begrudgingly paid the consultant $500.

The consultant was thorough in explaining all of the factors and considerations that went into the final report. The report identified a few minor areas of improvement, but there was one major factor that appeared to be the reason for the pasta shop’s decline: Service was too slow, and as times changed and his customers’ schedules became busier, they sought other venues where their meals would be prepared faster.

As a result of the findings, the consultant made two recommendations:

1) Invest in newer cooking equipment that had more burners and heated the water faster to boil the pasta, and

2) Hire additional part-time staff who could serve more tables during the busy hours, taking orders and delivering meals more efficiently.

The costs associated with these changes were identified as $1500 for the new cook top, and $800 per month for the extra part-time help. Although the consultant could not promise the pasta shop owner that his old client base would return, he showed well-planned projections on paper that indicated how the pasta shop should break even and then become profitable after two to three month period.

The business owner was furious. Such costs would have been no problem when business was booming, but how dare the consultant propose a solution that would cost even more money when times were so financially tight! The pasta shop owner angrily protested that he did not have two to three months to waste on something without a guarantee, and he accused the consultant of being a “gold digger” looking to make buck from the poor business owner’s desperate situation. The consultant was shown the door and told to leave.

Witness to all of this, an opportunistic spring water salesman sat at a nearby table. As the business owner held his head in his hands with stress and grief, the spring water salesman decided to “strike while the iron was hot.” With his own agenda in mind, he approached the business owner and offered his own services.

“Pardon me,” said the water salesman, “but I couldn’t help overhearing your distressing story and financial woes. I have a better solution that will cost you much less, and you will have instant results.”

The pasta shop owner had his doubts, but the prospect of cheaper, instant results lured him to ask more questions. “How much will it cost, and how can I trust you?” he asked. “You haven’t even read the report that the consultant prepared.”

“Come with me,” said the spring water salesman. “You don’t need a report. I’ll give you a demo of my product and you’ll be dazzled by what you see. I have special water that will boil your pasta faster so you can serve more, faster.”

The pasta shop owner was puzzled, but because he wasn’t a water expert the idea sounded good. So he followed the water salesman up a very high mountain where there was a small spring of streaming water. “This is my special water,” the water salesman said. “If you want to be able to serve more pasta faster, boil your pasta with MY water. As I will demonstrate, my water boils in half the time that it takes regular time to boil.” And with that, he held a pot of his spring water over a fire, and sure enough the water came to a boil much faster than the pasta shop owner expected.

Excited at what he had heard and seen, the pasta shop owner quickly agreed to buy the magic water from the spring water salesman. “You’ve convinced me,” he said, “Just as you promised, your water boils faster and I can save time and money by not following the recommendations of the restaurant expert. How can I ever thank you!”

“Well,” said the spring water salesman, “To make it worth my while to deliver my special water all the way down the mountain, I will require you to buy a supply of it from me for one year. It will cost you less than hiring new part-time employees but as you have seen, this magic water really works.”

“Agreed.” The pasta shop owner signed a contract for magic water delivery for $600 per month for the next year, pleased that he did not have to spend the $1500 for a new cook top and $800 per month for part-time help. In fact, he resented the consultant who provided the recommendations, now firmly believing that he had been suckered out of the $500 consulting fee.

When the first delivery of magic water arrived at the pasta shop, the restaurant owner was elated. “Now my business will pick up,” he thought. But something strange happened when he heated the water to cook his pasta. It took just as long to reach a boil as the water he had previously used. He tried and tried, but no matter how much water he used or how many attempts he made, the water still took the same amount of time to come to a boil.

“It must be something I am doing wrong,” he thought. “I watched the water boil in half the time up on the mountain. I must call the spring water salesman and get instructions to learn his secret.”

Unfortunately the spring water salesman was unavailable, either because he was too busy selling magic water to other restaurant owners or because he was out enjoying the new-found $600. The spring water salesman thought to himself, “This is great! I made an easy sale and I really didn’t have to do anything to earn the money.” He boasted to some of his friends who also sold spring water, impressed with himself that he was so successful in making an easy sale.

Meanwhile, the pasta shop owner became suspicious and thought, “I bet that I am paying for magic water, but he is shipping me regular water. What a thief!” But alas, the unhappy pasta shop owner did not know enough about water to be able to recognize the difference between magic and regular water, so he continued to lose business as he spent $600 per month, bound by a contract.

Soon thereafter, another spring water salesman visited the pasta shop saying, “I heard about your problem. How happy are you with your magic spring water?” This new spring water salesman was a friend of the first one and was new to selling water, but he recognized an opportunity to make a quick sale himself.

“Why, not happy at all!” the restaurant owner exclaimed. “I can’t prove it, but I believe that I am a victim of fraud!” he explained. “I’m paying for magic spring water, but the water that is delivered doesn’t boil any faster than my regular water. As soon as I am finished with my contract for $600 per month, I will not renew it!” He still had six months to go.

“Hmmm,” said the new spring water salesman. “MY spring water will surely work for you. We label it with a guarantee to be pure, magic spring water. Come see for yourself.”

And so they trekked back up the mountain, this time to a neighboring spring that was a bit of a distance further up the mountain from the spring that the pasta shop owner had originally visited. “THIS is the spring you should be using. It is certified.”

Sure enough, the water boiled quickly. In fact, it took even less time to boil than the water demonstrated by the first spring water salesman. “Wow! I was so duped by the first salesman,” the restaurant owner said. “He caught me at a weak moment and took advantage of me, and he sold me an inferior product.” Then, a bit guarded from his bad experience, he asked the new spring water salesman, “How can I be sure you won’t do the same thing?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the new spring water salesman began. “To earn your confidence, I will let you haul it back to your business yourself so you can be certain that I am not shipping you a substitute.”

The pasta shop owner thought about it, pulling out a notepad and tallying up the amount of time it would take to go up and down the mountain once a month. He was unsure if the result would be worth it.

Sensing that he might lose a sale, the new spring water salesman volunteered, “I’ll even do it for half the cost of what you currently pay. $300 per month. That way it will be worth your efforts. But for that special pricing, I need to be sure you will remain loyal because I could easily sell my water for twice the price to someone else. So I will require you to do business with me for one year.”

“Agreed,” the pasta shop owner said, finally. “Desperate times call for desperate measures and I must build my business back to what it was before.”

This time, after much labor the restaurant owner managed to get his first load of water back to the pasta shop. “Finally,” he thought, “I know I have real magic water. I fetched it from the magic spring myself.” But to his dismay and discouragement, the water took just as long to boil as the other spring water, and for that matter, his regular water.

Livid at this point, he stormed up the mountain to confront the second spring water salesman. After he told the spring water salesman what had happened, he demanded a refund. “Tear up my contract! I’m tired of being lied to and stolen from.”

“I’m sorry,” said the spring water salesman, defiantly. “We have a deal. I can’t seem to duplicate your problem. My water works as advertised. How dare you accuse me of any wrongdoing! If you don’t pay, I’ll sue you for breach of contract. There is absolutely nothing wrong with my water. Boil some yourself and see.”

The pasta shop owner became intimidated with all of the threats, and feeling trapped in the situation, heated up some water to earnestly show the water salesman that there was really a problem. He was confused and surprised when the water boiled in one third of the time that it took regular water to boil.

“See?” said the spring water salesman, smugly. “It must be something YOU are doing wrong. You still owe me for eleven more months. Have a nice day.” And with that, the spring water salesman sent the pasta shop owner back down the mountain.

Now, the pasta shop owner was confused, angry, dejected, and feeling like the burden of the world was upon him. To clear his mind, he decided to follow a nature trail down the mountain, rather than the main road. As he walked, he noticed that the individual streams from the two spring water salesmen joined along the way and that other streams merged together to form the babbling brook that passed by his own establishment.

“How can that be?” he asked himself. My regular water comes from the same source as the magic water does, but no matter what I do, I can’t make the water boil faster. I’m sure that the salesmen have taken advantage of me. Now I’m burdened by these two contracts and have no money to expand my business.”

In despair and resignation, he called a dear friend who was a restaurant owner who specialized in gourmet mashed potato recipes. They had started in their respective businesses at about the same time, and the pasta shop owner (needing someone to commiserate with) anticipated that the potato shop owner may be suffering from the same issues. “What do I do? How has this happened? Why isn’t the magic water working?” asked the pasta shop owner. “We began our businesses at the same time, so certainly you must be experiencing the challenges that I am.”

“Actually, no, not at all,” the potato shop owner voiced sympathetically. “Many months ago, about the same time as you were having problems, I had the same issues.” He further explained, “But I listened to the restaurant consultant and followed his instructions, and now my business is really booming.”

“In fact,” continued the potato shop owner, “The magic spring water people approached me, too. When I asked my restaurant consultant about why he had not recommended the cheaper, magic spring water to boil my potatoes instead of spending more on a new cook top and part-time help, he explained all about the scam with magic spring water.”

“So it IS a scam! I knew it!” yelled the pasta shop owner. “And the salesman tried to intimidate me that he would sue if I didn’t pay. Now I’m going to sue HIM!”

“Well, yes, but you probably won’t get anywhere by suing,” said the potato shop owner.

The pasta shop owner paused. “Why not?”

“Because it’s not exactly illegal,” his friend explained. “Look, you and I don’t know much about magic water… or even regular water for that matter. We know we need it to cook with, but there are a lot of properties of water that I was unaware of. For example, I didn’t know that water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes. The spring water sales people demonstrated their product in their own controlled environment. Although they staged the results, they only promised that it would work as they demonstrated it. But they left out the rest of the story, that water doesn’t boil the same way in all circumstances. Plus, even if we moved our business up the mountain to where the springs are, the temperature of the water is not high enough when it boils to soften pasta or potatoes, so it wouldn’t work anyway. The answer isn’t to boil the water at a lower temperature. It’s to use the right equipment to heat the water to the right temperature faster. Those spring water salesman fooled you by making you believe that’s what they were doing, but they confused with the wrong information.”

“Did you learn all of that yourself by reading up on it?” asked the pasta shop owner.

“No,” his friend replied. “My expert restaurant consultant knew all of that stuff and explained it to me in easy-to-understand terms that related to my business.” Then he added, “I’m sure glad you mentioned him to me. I was nervous about spending the money at first, but his references checked out and he came with glowing recommendations! That is probably the best $500 I’ve ever spent, and now business is so good that we’ve more than paid for the cost of the changes and now we’re expanding!”

Reluctantly, the pasta shop owner of 30 years thereafter posted an “Out of Business” sign in his window and called back his friend. “Are you hiring?”

Explaining the Parable:

This kind of scenario plays itself out every day in our business world. The typical business owner begins his or her search for success on the Internet before their business is actually in a financial downward spiral. Seeking out competent help, they may find it a wasted expense to pay for a consultant, but spending a little for the right answers is better than losing a lot in the end.

As a business owner, if you pay for an expert to help you, it’s to your advantage to follow their guidance. If you don’t like what you hear and opt to cut corners instead, your results probably won’t live up to your expectations.

In the world of Search Engine Optimization (a one-time expense represented by the new cook top) and Search Engine Marketing (an ongoing cost represented by part-time help), the old expression, “To make money, you have to spend money” applies.

There are plenty of unqualified freelancers and SEO imposters in the market place, represented by the first spring water salesman. And as there becomes more demand for search engine promotion by concerned business owners in today’s economy, fraudsters with their own hidden agendas (represented by the second spring water salesman) are coming out of the woodwork, looking for “low hanging fruit” victims.

There is currently no such precedence set to expose and prosecute search engine malpractice, mainly because the topics of SEO and SEM are can be complicated, confusing, and ever-changing. Consequently, search engine scams (represented by the ‘magic’ spring water) on a continuing basis. Many of them are deceptive, though not necessarily illegal.

The significance of the various streams flowing into the same brook from which the restaurant owner drew his own water is that you would receive the same poor results by doing the work yourself instead of buying into one of the many scams in the market place. Search Engine Optimization is not a random process. It is based on data collection, market analysis, and strategic planning. Many business owners mistakenly figure that they can pick their keywords intuitively, and by luck of the draw they expect to attain satisfactory results. It simply does not work that way. Along the same lines, many of the illegitimate scams (or inexperienced freelancers) rely on the client to provide the keywords for their own marketing efforts. How ridiculous! Yes, there may be some relevance to evaluate in the client’s choice of their own keywords, but letting an inexperience person attempt their own optimization with an SEO firm is like a patient diagnosing himself to a doctor.

To know what’s real and what’s illegitimate, you should rely on the qualified opinion of an experienced search engine expert (represented by the restaurant consultant).

If you don’t have a substantial understanding about SEO and SEM (the water), you risk falling prey to a scam (‘magic water’) from fraudsters (the spring water salesmen) if you do not utilize the services of an SEO/SEM consultant (restaurant consultant) with proven credentials and references. If that happens, you may find yourself out a whole lot of money (the contracts) and end up experiencing even more desperate times after getting burned and defrauded (the pasta shop owner).

However, if you do your homework and work with a reputable SEO/SEM provider (again, the restaurant consultant), you will likely experience a worthwhile return on investment (the potato shop owner).

Sometimes, the SEO/SEM sales pitch you receive from folks like the spring water salesmen will omit important details (like the fact that water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes, and regardless of boiling faster at higher elevations, the temperature would be insufficient to meet the customer’s needs.) Without all of the relevant SEO/SEM information being explained to you, the business owner, in meaningful detail rather than technical jargon, you can’t make a sound business decision.

Quick Lessons Learned From The Story

Don’t try to cut corners and take shortcuts working with unverified, unqualified service providers when it comes to your business. By the time you are done taking more shortcuts after the first ones didn’t work, you will have paid more money and spent more time than if you had hired someone who has a proven track record. Do it right the first time.
The old expression, “You get what you pay for” doesn’t apply to SEO and SEM. When it comes to search engine optimization and search engine marketing services, there is enough fraud and deception in the industry that price shopping is NOT the way to make decisions. You must consider price along with qualifications, track record, and references. If you make your decision based solely on the lowest bidder, you may not even get what you paid for… and the service provider is protected by their “No Guarantee” disclaimer.
Don’t shoot the messenger. If you don’t like what you hear from a competent, qualified service provider, sooner or later someone will come around who will tell you what you want to hear in order to get your money. When a qualified person tells you what you need to do and you don’t like what you hear, although it can be unpleasant, it may be the right answer.

Of course, budget is always an issue. But doesn’t it make sense to pay once and do it right the first time, instead of learning your lesson as your bank account bleeds dry?