How to Tell Great SEO Companies From Terrible Ones?

Recently, this question popped up on one of my LinkedIn Groups from a local business who had been obviously scammed by an SEO company. It’s a great question, and one that’s well worth exploring.

How to Sniff Out SEO Scams

As SEO experts ourselves, it pains us to hear clients tell us horror stories about SEO scams and disreputable companies they have fallen victim to in the past. Don’t become a victim! Here are some red flags when corresponding with a potential SEO partner:

1. Unsolicited email pitches or calls

Beware of companies that cold-call or email you their SEO pitch. Typically these pitches start with “I was just looking over your website…”  Most reputable digital marketing agencies are growing so fast they don’t have time to cold call nationally. The ones who do are usually scammers. If the email/call you receive meets the criteria below, warning bells should be going off:

  • You never heard of the company
  • Your network and partners have never heard of the company
  • They email or call you constantly without your permission or any previous contact with their company
  • Your business is not located within 50 miles of that company’s headquarters

We have seen so many people get scammed from these unsolicited emails or calls, 75% of them never knew it.

2. They use a generic business name

Beware of the generic sounding names like or Now a generic-sounding business name is not a guaranteed sign of a scammer. I’m sure there are some businesses with generic names in it that are great, but in general, it’s a tipoff. It’s easier to disappear into the woodwork and avoid getting sued when you have a generic non-name.

3. Unrealistic prices

If a deal sounds too good to be true, it is. Prices for SEO will vary based on how comprehensive the program is and how competitive your industry is. However, if your solicitor is promising you the world for a $200 per month price tag remember, you get what you pay for. Often times these low cost monthly programs count on you not caring too much to check in on results or question what actual work is being done.

4. Their reviews stink or they have a lot of 5 star and 1 star reviews

Google their business name + “reviews.”  Do they have less than a 4 star reputation? Or even worse, are you seeing fraud complaints coming up in the search results?   What do the employees say about the organization? Google Glassdoor + their business name, again a rating of less than 4 stars should be concerning to you.  If they have a mix of 5 star and 1 star reviews that’s also a sign.

5. Guaranteed top keyword placements

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But anyone who says something like “we guarantee a #1 ranking in one month” is scamming you.  Search algorithms change all the time and search results have become personalized. Therefore placements will vary from person to person, location, etc.

Instead, look for a company that will give you a straightforward answer about your keyword ranking potential. You may not like the answer (we all want better, sooner), but at least you will know you can trust them to be honest with you.

6. Search results are lackluster

I’ll say it again: no one can promise search engine placements like #1, 2 or 3. However, a good SEO agency can show you clients who have achieved great results in the search engines. Those placements should be for competitive keywords with at least 20,000 search results. You should not be impressed by page 1 rankings for keywords no one is searching for.  If the agency cannot produce strong case studies and testimonials, save yourself an expensive lesson and keep looking.

7. References “don’t understand SEO”

Asking for 3 references is not enough. There are many people who are easily duped or paid for. Have the reference go over what the SEO company does for them each month and what kind of reporting they receive. If the references claim to be happy, but are vague in their response or claim to know little about SEO, you should be worried. Many of these companies only target “easy picking” clients and dupe them.

8. They don’t ask for login information

If you’ve already paid for SEO work, how do you know if the person is actually doing it? You could wait to see if you get any results, but that could be a long and expensive wait! The quickest way to pick out scammers, is that they typically don’t even ask for FTP access or login information for your website.  This happened to a bunch of hotels in Lake George who were promised SEO for a $500 flat fee by a cold calling company. When I showed the hotel owners that it was impossible for the company to do onsite SEO without any login information, they were astonished and unsuccessfully tried to get their money back.

9. Buyer personas and business goals are not discussed

The goal of SEO is not increased traffic. Wait what?!  Yes, you read that right. The goal of SEO should be increasing leads or sales by increasing relevant organic traffic.

In order to achieve that goal, your SEO professional should be asking you about your business before offering any strategy or results. If you don’t have at least a one-hour conversation about your business, your competitors, your unique selling points, target market, buyer personas, short and long-term goes, etc… then they really don’t get their role.

10. They don’t know what schema is

local business schema screenshot

Schema is definitely an industry buzzword, but does your solicitor actually know what it means? Do they know why it is important for your website?

Ask your SEO contact to show you how they set up the location schema and categorization for your website. If they can’t answer this on the fly and have to get back to you… they haven’t been keeping up.

11. Reputation and reviews are not discussed

If you are a local company, they should be talking to you about your online reputation and how to monitor it.  Positive reviews and review schema makes a big difference when it comes to placing well in local searches.

12. You drive the keyword conversation

While it is important for you to have input on your keyword list, you should not be driving the discussion. Remember, YOU hired THEM to be the expert. Any SEO professional worth their salt will be able to conduct their own keyword research and help you understand how they selected the keyword phrases.

attorney vs. lawyer search trenda

For instance, if you are a law firm in NY, it might be useful to know which term is more popular ‘attorney’ or ‘lawyer.’ (hint it is attorney).

If an SEO professional is not talking to you about keyword volume, synonyms, and competitiveness they are not as good as they claim to be. Also, if you are a local business your keywords need to be geographically relevant.

13. No ongoing communication

If your strategist goes dark after you sign the contract, you have most likely been duped. At the very least your strategist should be sharing monthly reports which details what work has been done, and the results of those efforts. Ideally, your strategist should be reaching out on a regular basis to ask questions, get your approval on new content, and keep up to date with business changes that could impact the overall strategy.

14. Page Speed is Ignored

screenshot of page speed score

Page speed may not be a direct ranking factor, but to think it doesn’t impact your rankings is outdated thinking. Search engines are all about a good user experience, and page speed plays a huge role in this. A site that takes over 3 seconds to load is hurting your business. If your strategist isn’t optimizing your page speed you are missing out.

15. Conversion tracking isn’t implemented

I meant it when I said increased traffic isn’t enough to call an SEO program successful. Google Analytics and conversion tracking should be one of the first things your strategist sets up. If you log into your Google Analytics and see this

Google Analytics account without goals set up

you are not dealing with a professional.  And I am not talking about measuring things like visits to a page or time on site. While those are good basic metrics, if your agency is not actively measuring changes in sales, phone calls, contact form fills, or other important conversions they are not doing you justice.

How do you find a GREAT SEO Company?

There are a handful of things to look for in a reputable digital marketing agency that you can rely on and trust. We’ve got an entire post about that here – be sure to check it out.

Here’s the quick version:

  1. Their clients have real results.
  2. Their references are actively involved in the SEO process – true partners.
  3. They have a great reputation locally or in your niche market.

Looking for a local SEO company you can trust your business with?

Guess what, you just found one. We’ve been a local digital marketing agency in Upstate NY with over 20 years of success! We’d be happy to show you results, case studies, testimonials, video testimonials, and have you talk to our clients. Connect with us today!

Want us to analyze your site? Let’s talk! It only takes 15 minutes to learn more about what will work best for your business! Give us a call at 518-743-9424 to get the conversation started.

*Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in 2017, but has been updated as of April 2020.

About Sara Mannix

Sara Mannix founded Mannix in 1996 with a goal to get clients found on the web through organic search engine optimization (SEO). The company now serves over 1500 clients worldwide and employs a team of 30 specialists, operating under the tagline "Success Measured." The tagline reflects the company's focus on measurable results for every client. This multifaceted company is an industry leader, specializing in organic SEO, conversion rate optimization, SEO-friendly website design, paid advertising (PPC). Mannix Marketing has two divisions, one side is focused on lead generation for nationally competitive businesses. The other side is focused on local businesses. Mannix has one of the largest portfolios of tourism and city guides in Upstate New York. These guides, (,,, and etc), reach over 10 million visitors a year. Corresponding social media profiles for the region extend this reach to millions every month.

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