Do you ever receive emails that say this kind of stuff? We do, on average, several times a day. Though they aren’t as high profile as those deposed Nigerian prince scams, SEO spam is just as pervasive — and every bit as illegitimate. Yes, real SEO firms do reach out to potential clients (that may be how you found us); so, how can you tell if that offer in your inbox is legit? Here’s a list of red flags you should look out for — when you see one, hit delete.
It’s Not Personalized
Your business’s contact info is, of course, on the web — that’s how legitimate customers and potential clients can easily get in touch with you. That also means that the bots and “spiders” that spammers use can find your info, too. They aggregate lists of emails and their associated URLs, and then use these to fill in the blanks. They email literally everybody, too; even developers at Google get emails from companies claiming they can get google.com better search rankings on (you guessed it!) google.com. Someone who hasn’t taken the two seconds it should take to find out the actual name of the appropriate contact at your business probably isn’t an actual “someone” — it’s just an automated spider crawling the web. A real SEO pitch will demonstrate actual knowledge of your company, and that includes pitching the services to the proper person.
It’s Not a Company Email Account
Free email accounts from Gmail, Yahoo, or other services are the burner cell phones of the web — spammers can easily discard accounts that have been flagged and just get new ones. A real SEO company will have their own domain, and email you from an address that includes their domain. If they want your business, they should want you to visit their website. For any kind of online marketing or web development company, their own website should be their calling card.
The Company Doesn’t Even Have a Name
If it were really a top SEO company, wouldn’t they want to get their brand out there? Yes, they would; and again, they’d want you to visit their website. If there’s no company name, that’s a good sign that it’s a spammer—they don’t want you to be able to look them up and see their long list of complaints, multiple aliases, falsified or barely existent WHOIS info, where they’re actually based, or that they’ve been called out on one of the many SEO forums dedicated to outing spammers.
But Oddly, the Company Does Have a Physical Address
One way that spammers try to con you into feeling that they are legitimate (despite their lack of a company name and/or website) is by including a physical address in the email. It’s also a way for them to claim to be US-based, even though most SEO spammers are overseas. Don’t fall for it. One, why would anyone need to know their business’s physical location but not any other specific info? And two, even if the address looks more realistic than something like 12345 Main Street, it’s made up. Try searching for it. Chances are good that this location does not actually exist.
Vague Positive Claims
When an email says something like, “I’ve reviewed your website and discovered what your business would look like if you ranked No. 1 on Google organic search for your best keywords — the results are amazing,” sure, it sounds good. But what keywords are those? If nothing is specified, that means the same generic email has probably been sent to every website the spammer can find. What does “amazing” mean? Well, who knows — no SEO expert has a crystal ball. They can’t tell you that it would mean a specific amount of traffic, or a particular dollar amount of sales, because that is literally impossible to tell you. Yes, it probably would be amazing — but they’re just counting on you to fill in the blank with whatever you’d like to have happen.
Vague Negative Claims
This goes the other way, too. Sometimes spammers will warn you by saying that they’ve reviewed your website and found dire problems — maybe they say you have “low backlinks” or “code errors.” It sounds scary, but it doesn’t actually tell you anything. How many backlinks? What part of the code? They don’t know, because they haven’t actually looked at your site. What the spammer is counting on is that you don’t know, either, but that you think it sounds bad and will panic and ask them to help you with it. You do want your site to have robust links and to run properly, but for that to happen, you need a firm with real technical know-how — not a random scam artist. Loaded (but totally not technical) terms like “poison” or “toxic” are just there to scare you, too.
Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Grammar
Now we aren’t all wordsmiths, and that’s fine. But there’s a limit to how many typos, bizarre usages, sentence fragments, and downright confusing phrases a company can write in an email and still expect to seem legitimate in any way. When spammers are talking about their attention to detail, or how comprehensive their services are, nothing says comprehensive and detail-oriented like an email that’s full of mangled verbiage. Nonstandard English is also a tip-off that the company is located overseas, regardless of where that fake physical address says they really are.
One of the most common scare tactics spammers use is to say that your site is not ranking well on Google for important keywords (again, without actually naming any keywords, because then they’d have to know something about your site). To gain your trust though, they’ll often say how they found your site — that way it sounds like a friendly, helpful person, not a bot. How do they say this? “I found your site using Google search.” But wait, your site didn’t rank on Google? And yet they found it. You could give them the benefit of the doubt that they were searching past page one of the search engine results, but don’t.
Free Website Audit… If You Contact Them
Lots of SEO companies offer free website audits to people who visit their websites (we certainly do). On the other hand, if a real SEO company is approaching you, they’ll take the initiative and send you a website audit so you can see specific stats and know that they really understand your website. If you need to reply to an unsolicited offer in order to get an audit or report, they’re just trying to get you on the hook. Giving them your contact information probably does guarantee you’ll get one thing for free — a lifetime supply of SEO spam.
Social Media without Specifics
Businesses’ social media accounts are generally public and easy to find — after all, unlike the cringeworthy Throwback Thursday photos on your personal Facebook feed, business profiles contain lots of content you want other people to see. To tell if your business is doing well on social media, an SEO firm will compare you to your competitors, and use specific metrics (Likes, retweets, etc.) to assess your performance. If an email is just throwing out claims about your business’s social media presence but isn’t giving any specifics, it’s because the SEO spammer didn’t bother to get any.
Guaranteeing Specific Rankings
It’s one thing for an SEO firm to say they can improve your rankings. It’s well another for them to claim they can get you to the #1 spot on Google. If they say they’ve got a special relationship with Google, they can do a “priority submit,” or that they can “buy” you a better ranking, that’s a major red flag.
“This Isn’t Spam, We Promise!”
If they have to tell you that the message isn’t spam, it is undoubtedly spam. The greater lengths that they go to explaining to you how and why their message isn’t spam, the spammier it undoubtedly is.
Good SEO takes money — for the best level of service, businesses should expect to pay a contract or monthly retainer, as well as fees for specific additional projects. But everyone loves a deal, and spammers know it. Cheap links are a common deal they’ll offer, and it’s one you should definitely avoid. Google updates its algorithm constantly, and one of the reasons is to penalize what you could think of as SEO worst practices. Yes, a company may be offering you thousands of links for an unbelievably low price — but if you’ve got thousands of low-quality links, your rankings will get dinged. Fixing the mess (getting sites to remove them and/or disavowing them) will wind up adding a zero or two to the price tag of those cheap links. In other words, what you spent $100 to get could cost you $1,000 to remove.
Good SEO also takes time. You shouldn’t expect to see major changes in the first months of your SEO efforts — that’s simply not how it works. Developing solid content, building robust backlinks, and optimizing your site all takes time, but more important here is the time it takes to build trust with the search engines. You can think of your website’s relationship with search engines as being like a romantic comedy: The search engines don’t trust your site. Your site has to prove it’s sincere. Can the search engines learn to love again? They can, so long as you build — and maintain — their trust. If a company is offering you instant results, they may well be able to get them. But if they do, you’re in trouble. Getting major movement quickly (whether it’s boosting rankings or blowing up backlinks) usually means shady tactics have been used. It might work at first, but the search engines will call your bluff. When they do, to go back to the rom-com metaphor, they are going to dump your site and hold out for someone they can trust.
Hundreds of Search Engine Submissions
Can you name hundreds of search engines? Are potential customers using hundreds of search engines to look for you? Didn’t think so. Most people only use one (or maybe two), and can name something like four. The big search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo) can find your site just fine, thank you very much. This kind of claim is one spammers can make that sounds impressive, but is actually meaningless. Keep in mind too that search engine submissions are not the same as directory submissions (e.g., for sites like Yelp! or Angie’s List) — and as we talked about with NAP consistency, directory submissions are not something you want done poorly!
There’s One Low, Low Price
The reason spammers offer SEO so cheaply is because for them (as for pretty much every other spam scam going), this is basically a volume business. They aren’t expecting to keep you as a client. They just want to get their $200, or $150. The spammers know that when you realize their services are garbage, you’ll just move on. All they need is for enough people to take the bait so that they get a constant stream of payments. They say there’s a sucker born every minute, and if you send out thousands of emails daily, sooner or later you’re going to find some of those poor suckers.
It’s All Free!
Don’t walk, run. A real SEO firm may offer discounts from time to time, or give you a freebie every now and then, but if the email is claiming that all of the SEO services will be free? That’s just someone trying to get access to your site’s information. Whatever you do, do not give it to them.
There are spammers everywhere trying to make a quick buck by offering terrible SEO. Unlike with those Nigerian prince schemes, you usually actually will get something for your money, but it’s not going to be anything you’d actually want. If a company creates deceptive or misleading content on your behalf, builds low-quality incoming links, or otherwise compromises your site’s integrity (from a search engine’s perspective), your site will likely be much worse off SEO-wise than it was before you agreed to the spammers’ deal. You will wind up spending much more money to get your site back to where it was than you would have had you just gone with a real SEO firm in the first place.
Bottom line: If it seems to be good to be true, it probably is. Now that we’ve seen what’s completely unrealistic, in our next post, we’ll look at what you can really expect from a legitimate SEO firm.
P.S. Want to see the “Hall of Shame” the examples in this article came from? Check out The Worst of SEO Spam!