SEO Scams and Semi-Scams

Search Engine Optimization: it’s an essential component of internet marketing strategy, I guess, but one with a bad public image, especially in the wake of years of abuse of optimization techniques by purveyors of malware and other bad actors (Black Hat SEO, or BHSEO).

Personally, I’m more than happy to write how and what I like and feel is appropriate on my own sites: where I’m contributing content to another site (like this one) I’m even happier to leave the marketing people whose expertise is in that area.

What about people who are trying to launch or maintain their own business in the age of the internet and social media, and actually need to improve their own site’s visibility?

A great deal of nonsense is talked about SEO by companies and individuals trying to sell their services, spuriously claiming that they are able to increase the prominence of a web site and the individual pages of which it is comprised. This article looks at two types of scammer: those who try to get payment for work they haven’t done and were never contracted to do, and those who offer and at some point charge for work they may or may not have done, but may be of little use and may even work against the interests of the client.

Inevitably, I suppose, given the number of sites I write for, I get a pretty good cross section of this stuff in my mail. I particularly enjoy the emails from individuals with a Gmail account and no company name who have done their research so well that they’re offering to let me pay for help with sites with which I have no connection except to sometimes contribute articles.) Others claim that they have read my blogs and want linkbacks to unrelated sites, or want to contribute articles, or have spotted hundreds of problems with ‘my’ site, or have spotted that my site isn’t listed by search engines (astonishingly, it seems that Google itself gets spam making similar claims).

Let’s talk about people who have already fallen for the claims of a Search Engine Optimizer demanding payment for promised services that haven’t been delivered – or, worse still, demanding payment out of the blue for services they were never contracted to deliver.

I recently heard of a case where two companies attempted to bully someone launching a new business into paying substantial sums for services unrendered. In one instance, the invoice was substantially reduced because of ‘harassment issues’. Is this an admission of unacceptable sales and payment collection practices?

Possibly not: when I looked up one of those companies on the Better Business Bureau site, I found a number of complaints against it where people and companies complained they were invoiced for services they had not heard of or contracted to receive, and that their requests for signed authorization and other documents did not result in such documentation or copies being received. There were other complaints of false or misleading advertising, which suggests that at some point there may have been an agreement to supply/accept services in these cases. However, the company’s responses to these complaints often suggested that the complaints were false and that it was no longer contacting those companies or individuals because of their unacceptable behaviour.

You may or may not find these assertions convincing, especially from companies that don’t seem to have web sites or connected phones, but as I’m not in a position to investigate their bona fides personally, I’m going to omit the names of the businesses and individuals concerned. However, I can suggest that if you find yourself facing one of these unpleasant situations, Americans have a number of options including the following:

  • Notify your bank.
  • File a report with the police.
  • Notify ic3.gov (the Internet Crime Complaint Centre)
  • Notify the Better Business Bureau
  • File a complaint with the FTC.
  • For complaints about dealings with foreign companies, you could try this site.

Not that it’s exactly one of my areas of expertise, but there are a few things you can watch out for when someone offers you a too-good-to-be-true deal for pushing your site to the top of the tree – or rather, organic search engine results.

  • Guaranteed top ten (or even number 1) rankings in organic results. This article refers to a company that paid significant penalties after failing to honour its promises to get its customers ranked in the top 10-20 results in major search engines.
  • Offering to submit your site to hundreds or even thousands of search engines. Estimates of ‘market share’ between engines vary, but this one (from February 2015) suggests that less than a dozen need your attention, perhaps less than half a dozen , even in a volatile market.
  • Claims to partner with (or have a special relationship with) Google, or to have cracked Google’s algorithm. Certainly an optimizer company should understand what Google et alia regard as acceptable practice, but Google’s algorithms change frequently – in part, specifically so that SEOs can’t game the system unfairly.
  • Claims of proprietary, ‘black box’ methodologies: in fact, Purely Branded suggests that ‘SEO trade secrets’ may turn out to be ‘black hat techniques that will get you banned by all major search engines at some point.’ These might include nasties such as cloaked (hidden) text, keyword stuffing and manipulative linking such as a link exchange programme.

Note, however, that SEO scammers and spammers are increasingly likely to make a point that of disavowing ‘black hat techniques’.

What, you may be wondering, do I mean by ‘organic’ results? That’s an alternative term for so-called ‘natural results’ as opposed to paid-for ad links. The SEO industry is based on the (correct) assumption that sites can attain better visibility through approaches such as careful selection of keywords, high volumes of backlinks, and exchanging of links: legitimate in principle, but not really ‘natural’. Paid-for ad links do have the short-term effect of raising the profile of the advertised service, but most people are able to distinguish between ad links and organic links and give more weight to the latter. There seems to be no evidence that long-term organic results benefit significantly from the use of ad links.

The best protection against SEO scams is a good understanding of how SEO really works, and it’s hard to think of anyone who knows more about that than Google. The short article already cited above – Do you need an SEO? – offers a succinct starting point. However, it’s probably a good idea to read Google’s 32-page Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide (and some of the other resources it links to) before committing to a contract with a company offering optimizer services. For those needing to understand some of the implications of optimizing a web site for SEO, this Forbes article provides a starting point: Your Fundamental Onsite Audit Checklist For SEO.

David “Hey, I’m over here…” Harley
ESET Senior Research Fellow

Author David Harley, ESET

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