Look on any marketing or web design company’s website and the chances are they’ll claim they do SEO. While some may do great work, some are just chancers.

Even amongst the specialist agencies, some businesses are much more effective at what they do than others. But how can you tell the difference between the well-qualified and snake oil merchants?

A few well placed questions should do the trick:

Can you guarantee rankings?

No one can guarantee rankings, unless Matt Cutts has started taking back-handers. Someone who says they can is trying either to deceive you or doesn't know what they are talking about. 

That’s not to say a search marketing firm won’t be prepared to enter into some kind of performance-based deal where you both share the risk, but anyone who promises to obtain a certain keyword ranking is barking up the wrong tree.

Will you provide me with ranking reports?

Let’s be honest, with personalised search, real time and all the other shenanigans the engines have been up to recently, the long term prospects of ranking reports has a lot in common with the history of the dodo.

Again many agencies will still include a ranking report as part of a more involved analytics based search report, but they’ll let you know that you need to take any ranking report with a shovel of salt.

Do you have a link building system?

Any link building you do should be holistic and based on building relationships or making content. Anyone who claims to have a link building ‘system’ I would steer well clear of.

The best case scenario is they have a "process" they call a "system".

More likely they have a cookie cutter link network they drop your site into.

Even if it does work in the short term as soon as you stop paying your retainer all your link equity will disappear.

Do you want a link from our footer?

Maybe it’s because I see link building as an art form rather than a chore, but I tend to look down on SEO firms that ask for links from their clients on their home page footer.

My logic goes a bit like this: If they have to rely on links from people they have commercial relationships with, perhaps they don’t have the skills required to carry out a decent link building campaign.

Do you recommend buying links?

Google have explicitly stated they object to paid links. Google never explicitly state anything so I would guess they're pretty certain on the party line here. Having said that I don’t see paid links as an ethical issue I see them as a risk issue.

If you’re in business for as short a time as possible with no plan for the future, maybe it makes sense to burn the boats and see if a paid link campaign will work. But I’ve never dealt with a client who was prepared to risk all their current Google traffic on a small chance of getting some more.

Will we see results after month one?

If they say yes, they probably don’t know what they're talking about. There are some circumstances where a site’s been so poorly optimised that a few small tweaks will rocket you up the rankings. But as web developers get more SEO-savvy we’re seeing fewer and fewer of these kinds of project.

Far more common is a site that’s doing reasonably well that needs that extra effort to really do well. For these kinds of projects you’re going to require long term tactics which are less likely to see immediate improvements and more likely cause smaller but more consistent on-going increases rather than hockey stick growth.

Fortunately it’s now fairly easy to create a short list of reputable agencies that offer SEO services but a few clever questions can quickly help you identify those who really know what they’re doing and those who have seen the success of their rivals and jumped on the bandwagon.

Kelvin Newman

Published 6 April, 2010 by Kelvin Newman

Kelvin Newman is SiteVisibility's Creative Director and is the editor of the UK's most listened to Marketing Podcast. He also spends his time at conferences, tweeting too much and working on top secret research and development projects. He's also on Google+

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Comments (22)

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Vincent Roman

So many ways to flog a dead horse.  I suppose these oft fly-by-night replies are the kinds of responses developed in response to demands from clients.  That being said I whole-heartedly agree with your vision and no doubt there are countless other questions that can be asked.

If anything a true SEO agency will tell you that SEO is just about building proper pages and developing proper relationships.  There's no magic formula.  Just plan ol' hard work.

As the saying goes, you make your own luck!

about 8 years ago


Andy Graham

Many agencies are chancers, just look at the ones who think Google maps are any good ! Clearly out for a quick buck and think SEO help for the most part is adding a few links and words per page.

Web agencies are taking risks and the bad ones do not last !

about 8 years ago


Michael Hubbard

I'm frequently commenting on the Voodoo magic SEO firms out there, and these 5 are a lot of what I'm telling clients... Unfortunately, I think most people want to believe the hype rather than realize the facts. One thing that has changed over the years though is relative to your 5th point on the time it takes. Many moons ago, it used to take you 8-12 months to get indexed by the engines, now with real time indexing and search, if you build your site with the proper structure, you can reap the benefits almost immediately. I think the trick is being able to stay near the top with relevant content once you've structurally built your site correctly...

about 8 years ago

Kelvin Newman

Kelvin Newman, Creative Director at SiteVisibility

I think you're right Michael, real time search does speed things up a little but it's hard to be an overnight success for top for commercial intent keywords.

about 8 years ago


Stephen Pratley

I'm not sure I agree with the number 3, a link building 'system' of some sort is a necessity for an agency of any scale to manage their campaigns.

Identifying potential sites that might want to talk about our clients, weeding out the few that are worth engaging with, finding contact details, managing communications, and ensuring links stay in place is a long term and complex job.

A system might be just a contact book and a spreadsheet for a DIY project, but managing multiple clients needs some sort of 'system' to make this cost effective and efficient.

Content and structure aren't enough on their own for any keyword worth having, and link building has a lot of laborious elements to it, some sort of "system" is a necessity.

about 8 years ago


Alec Butler

As a small web design and marketing agency we had to start somewhere, and promoting our optimisation services through our web site was essential. We had to cut our teeth during design and build processes offering link building for free before moving towards offering a paid link building service and as yet we haven’t directly advertised the service on our web site. Although there are countless companies that promote based on bad practice services and ineffective services I would have thought there are a similar number of companies that are working towards offering effective services and ‘learning on the job’ that need to advertise to get the work that will help them hone their skills.

I agree with a previous comment that advertising a system isn’t bad practice as it could simple describe a combination of processes to achieve results. 

I wonder how many UK companies advertise their link building services and wholly outsource to less then scrupulous foreign workers / companies using anything but best practice methods.

about 8 years ago


Dan Frydman, Managing Director at Inigo Media Ltd

As Michael says there are a lot of companies that want to believe the hype.  They are easily lured in to thinking that they can get high placements quickly just as people are tricked into thinking they can get rich quick, lose weight while eating junk food, etc. 

It's the no pain and much gain scenario that bad advertisers love to use.  It draws them (clients) in like flies and it doesn't have to be sold at a high price to make lots of money.

We all know it doesn't work like that - so educating the client is so important.  Unfortunately the client will often meet with the baddies first and get burnt.

about 8 years ago


Philippa Gamse

I've seen so many small businesses who've been burned by companies selling them high-priced (for the little guys) SEO services as if they're panaceas for their entire online business.  

Yes, maybe they'll get more traffic, but if their site doesn't cut it and visitors leave immediately - or they're attracting unqualified visitors because of insufficient strategic thinking and execution, their money goes straight down the drain.

And meanwhile the SEO company is sending them glowing rankings reports . . .

about 8 years ago


discount headphone

The question in assessing the 40WE5’s pictures has to be whether they’ve been damaged by the TV’s eco focus. And the answer is that they haven’t.

about 8 years ago



You hitted the point. Even though I'd define companies promising SEO results or advertising tricky "link building systems" with their real name: Scammers.

about 8 years ago



The real snake oil sales people are Google, who have managed to convince the world that people shop by googling what they wish to buy and then buying from the first search page results. More and more people are beginning to realise that Google has as much to so with search as sheep finding grass on a hillside. Google is about advertising sales, period.

about 8 years ago


Bryan Coles

The entire SEO industry is built around someone elses business model (Google mainly). If they change, we change. If they say to get better results in our search engine put your keywords in italics then we would all do that.

If you think about it once Google became a public entity with shareholders, a true Search ENgine was lost. I can go top of any term in the world, I just need to pay Google some money (ppc).That leaves the rest of us to fight over the natural positions. How they must laugh internally how they built our industry and can change the rules at any given time.

As far as your six questions; I gues there really is only one.

Show me your best SERPS.

Were are you right now for some big terms. And Im not talking "stannah" for the term "stair lifts"! I am taling money making keywords that work. If i was a client who was seriou s about doing well online I would ditch all the noise about reports and link buying and link bait and just say show me your results.

Positions are the reality, you cant bullshit a SERP. You are either there or your talking it about it.

Obviously there are larger companies that want to hear the whole "we are ethical", "we do clever PR to get links", "we have a special sauce" chat up lines.

Most SEO firms already champion their positions to clients as the main way of getting new ones. I wont even get into the paid links debate as that is just a can of worms. it happnes, we know it, lots of do it for clients. I do agree with you Kelvin that it is about risk and not ethics thats for sure. I cant stand the fiorms and individuals who out each other. Thats more unethical than actually paying for links IMO.

almost 8 years ago

Geoff Andrews

Geoff Andrews, Lead Generation Manager at Kumon Educational UK

This is a really tough topic. Most companies needing this advice have no clue about the differences between no-follow / do-follow links, the dangers of reciprocal links, Domain Authority / Page Authority, etc.

This is the risk of a little knowledge and it is when they walk into a poor agency arrangement. They think, "Oh, so I need links. How much for 5,000 links?"

If we take a step back, I'd suggest including the following:

  • Will I have to make changes to my website?
  • How can you work to find the best keywords for me?

The first helps set the expectation and the second draws a response that should align to testing in PPC before implementation of organic.

almost 8 years ago


Laura Jennings

I have been learning about SEO over the last six months, reading books, blogs and speaking to more experienced "seo experts". What have I learned? - that SEO is not a dark art as everyone thinks it is and that relevance will always prevail.We can try to "trick" Google as much as we want into thinking that a website is about a certain subject/keyword but at the end of the day, a relevant, well put together website will always rank higher both for Google and for the user. Many SEO companies I feel play off the fact that small businesses may not have the time for SEO and are scared by it.

almost 8 years ago

Richard Jones

Richard Jones, Business Development Manager at Metalfrog Studios Ltd

I agree with this. Having been in the Search Engine Optimisation business for nearly nine years, it still never ceases to amaze how many people get taken in by false hopes, false promises and often little or no chance of return on investment. Also, how many website owners who believe that by being on Google, for example, on page 1 , number 1 for your company name, this means their seo partner has done a good job?!!!

Our business actuall has client's whose websites are on page one for multiple terms and phrases which are researched as valuabel and so our client's take 2 or 3 positions in the top ten. Moreover, the search request brings up the right result on the term search and the page shown in the listing is actually the page where the subject matter sits. I don't think you can say fairer than that?

almost 8 years ago


Jake SEO

If paid llinks could get you banned from Google or hurt your rankings then couldn't you just buy links for your competition to reduce their rankings or get them banned? Google at it's worst just wont give you any credit for a paid link.

almost 8 years ago



The first problem most people have is they LISTEN to what they choose to hear based on some belief that comes from something they vaguely remember hearing or reading about but can't remember where. 

People do what they believe and that will never change. Where does what you believe come from?  It comes from what you THINK and that's the other problem.  People do not THINK.  They are not paid to think, they are paid to LISTEN.  

Btw - I'm only writing this because it seems like there is more thinking going on here than usual so maybe the information will keep that trend going. Most other places get irritated, even angry - it's funny but also a waste of time so I usually don't bother (except for seobullshit dot something)

Think about what's going on with the data across the web now.  Relational databases, RDF Triples  (Resource Description Framework) Where is all this personalized search data coming from all of a sudden?  

RDF uses metadata so why does everyone believe metatags are unnecessary?  Who said that and Why?  People want to believe that because it's one less thing to do.  Nobody argues with less work and the plot thickens.

SEO Experts, all but 2 or 3, have users believing Search Engines give their blogs better results if they use a custom URL structure which ultimately causes pages to slow down. So much for that theory but nobody wants to hear that.  

Depending on page growth,  some blogs may be okay but other large ones are doomed to fail, they are failing every day and nobody knows why because they keep listening instead of THINKING..

Slow loading pages result from using a text field directly before the post slug or before the category. That causes the .htaccess file to re-write too many lines of code over time until 20,000 or more lines anyway.... 

Go to Matt Cutts blog and see how his structure is set up.  Wordpress.org is the authority aren't they?  Copy them.  Use the 3rd option under the Permalink settings instead of the custom option 

, SEO experts are calendaring work for the future and when they come checking up on their customers, they will appear psychic and earn extra fees for "knowing" when, what and how to fix this unfortunate problem that now requires a whole new blog. 

Wordpress knows and has been attempting to fix this problem since version 2.6 and here it is 3.1 and now isn't even on the list anymore. There isn't enough people being affected, YET...but there will be.  Or, maybe something will materialize soon, who knows?  

I almost forgot - if you really want to know how to dominate niches naturally with some automation check out Chris Rempel's new MAKO Dominator.  It's not for sale except by application but you can join MAKO Tribes free - that's still under construction.  http://wealthlpp.com/mako   

over 7 years ago


taylor made golf

Go to Matt Cutts blog and see how his structure is set up.  Wordpress.org is the authority aren't they?  Copy them.  Use the 3rd option under the Permalink settings instead of the custom option

over 7 years ago


seo firm

These are excellent questions to ask. It is always better when the client is informed of what we do so there are no false expectations. Especially with your first point. I can't tell you how many people have come to me saying "well so & so said they can guarantee first page". Often times clients have signed a contract with so & so, didn't get the results, and then come to me. It's a shame that 90% of the companies out there are not legitimate.

over 7 years ago


Brett Widmann

This is a helpful article. It has a lot of important information. Thanks for sharing. 

over 7 years ago


Lee Greenhill

Excellent article. The problem is that companies want results in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money. Unfortunately there are too many companies willing to 'burn the boats' to get immediate results - without taking the longer term considerations into account.

about 7 years ago


Matthew Steffen, SEO Executive at Imprinsic Marketing Group

Kelvin, Your article will definitely helpful for who want to build a seo agency . Thanks for your important post.

almost 5 years ago

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