The SEO business is no stranger to the phrase 'snake oil'. Plenty of it has been sold over the years.

This, of course, doesn't mean that SEO efforts aren't legitimate and that there aren't reputable SEOs; SEO is extremely important for most online businesses and there are plenty of competent practitioners who can provide real value to their clients.

But an interesting blog post last week by Jill Whalen of SEO firm High Rankings brings up an interesting subject: "new SEO companies keep popping up like dandelions in Spring".

While there have always been plenty of inexperienced and incompetent practitioners passing themselves off as experts, I too have noticed that there seems to be more snake oil than ever. As the CEO of an SEO firm, it's easy to understand why Whalen expresses such emotion in her post on the subject. The prevalence of snake oil SEOs often makes it harder for reputable providers to convince potential clients of their worth and the disinformation snake oil SEOs spread can mislead and confuse prospective clients who need to be re-educated as part of the selling process.

So what to do? Here are some tips if you're an SEO and find yourself trying to win a client who has been exposed to snake oil:

  • Pull out the track record. Nothing sells like results. If you've got a track record, you can have a powerful pitch. By showing prospective clients who you've worked for and what you've done, you can differentiate yourself from hit-and-run practitioners who have nothing of substance.
  • Educate. Since there are so many SEO myths circulating and most snake oil SEOs promote at least a few of them, education is a great tool for showing a prospective client that you know what you're doing. Give your client a few examples of SEO myths and what the reality is. Chances are they'll have probably been sold one of those myths by the snake oil SEO you're competing against.
  • Challenge. I've won quite a few big development projects over the years with a simple tactic: I tell the prospective client that I'd be happy to review the other proposals he receives and give my honest feedback free of charge (obviously you should only do this on projects where it makes economic sense to do this). If the prospective client shows me a proposal that's good, I tell him that he's got a viable option. If I think the proposal is lacking and that mine is more compelling, I explain why in some detail. I've always found this produces win-win results. If I tell the client that my competitor has given him a reasonable proposal, I may lose the business but the client never forgets that I was honest and gave him some of my time which can lead to future business; if I tell the client why I think I've made a better proposal, I get to demonstrate my technical competence in the process.
  • Pick your clients. If someone is set on hiring a fly-by-night SEO, let them. Taking on the right clients is crucial to running a successful service business and ironically, sometimes explaining to a prospective client why you can't take them on will actually get them to reconsider whether they're making the right decision. After all, if somebody turns down your money and tells you "I don't think I'll be able to help you because..." you're probably going to wonder why and come to the obvious conclusion: the person is actually interested in doing things right and helping you, not just parting you and your money.

Photo credit: JOE M500 via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 20 May, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (6)

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I couldn't agree more. This has always been my approach, and frankly speaking, as a service provider, if it isn't your goal to actually help your client, then what is?  It ain't always about making money that's for sure, and being able to help them acheive the right results in the right way is definitely key to success all round.

about 9 years ago



Some very valid points, i think in general the SEO market is still dominated by outlaws like the wildest. the time will come where the line between the pros and dupes will be more defined. my approach is to stay away and let the pros deal with it.

about 9 years ago



Very good post.  I think the last point has the most value and is overlooked the most as well.  

about 9 years ago

David Iwanow

David Iwanow, SEO Product Manager at

ah its so right it hurts deep, i think the pick your clients is an important point, often when speaking with clients who my agency turns down they get angry and demand that you should be helping them....

if they only want to spend $50/week or want a budget basement offering use on of the automated solutions or do it yourself.

about 9 years ago



interesting... one snake-oil salesman calling other snake-oil salesmen .. "snake-oil salesmen!!

tch tch

:P am yet to meet one hardworking web developer who hasnt eventually got tired of this seo bullshiite


like the oracle said- "everything that has a beginning, has an end"

SEO will meet its end too one day.... when people grow some common sense...or when pigs fly

about 9 years ago

Chris Turberville-Tully

Chris Turberville-Tully, Managing Director at Inspiration Inc

I have to agree with results or "Pull out the track record" as you say, to be honest all most clients want, to quote the phrase is "Show me the money!"

Which leads to a more important point than being top, which is ROI and satisfied clients. We offer up clients who are happy to be contacted and asked if we are value for money and deliver what we say we will.

This tends to give people the real proof they need.

But it won't stop the fun and games, we've had 5 calls already this week from companies that have been burnt. Ethical and honest will win but it can sometimes feel like a long game.

about 9 years ago

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