How to Spot an SEO Scam

February 24 , 2016 by in Marketing
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how to spot an SEO scam

We’ll get you to the first page of Google in less than a month, because we know someone at Google. Also, my uncle works for Nintendo. I get to play all the games before they come out. But don’t tell anyone.” – Typical SEO Scam

Unless you’re a doctor, you have to trust your doctor at their word. You can get a second opinion, but you won’t understand the minute details of what they do. The same goes for your mechanic, your home services contractor, your attorney, or your SEO company. You might be an expert in one of these fields, but it’s impossible to know the complicated technicalities in a specialized field, unless you’ve studied. That’s why either you, or someone you know, has been taken for a ride by an SEO scam.

SEO scammers have been preying on small business owners, in many different forms, for years. I can’t find exact records, but I imagine SEO scammers have been around since SEO, as a service, has been around.

Just like humans have always been accompanied by worms and lice, SEOs have been accompanied by SEO scammers.

The good thing about SEO, though, is you can learn about it. I could never be a doctor, a lawyer, an electrician, or a mechanic, but I did learn the basics of SEO. I didn’t get the best grades in school and I have a five second attention span, so if I can learn it, anyone who actually owns a business can learn it, too.

SEO scammers are counting on your ignorance. Thankfully, you’re already researching SEO scams, so you’ve got a leg up on most people. You’re pursuing enlightenment, so I respect you like the bear respects the mountain cat.

If you learn the patterns, commonalities, and intentions behind common SEO scams, you won’t have to worry about accidentally buying snake oil.

guy with mustache, probably a huge jerk

Or, you know, having your business’ website tied to the railroad tracks by some guy with a Snidely Whiplash mustache. He needs the extra money for League of Legends in-game transactions.

Even if your heart bleeds for his cause, don’t buy anything from him.

Here’s how to spot him in the wild.

The Worst

SEO scams come in all shapes and sizes.

I witness one of the dumber methods, almost daily, in our comments queue. This is why comment moderation was invented. The scam looks something like this:

seo scam blog comment

At this point, I’m not even going to blur out their IP addresses. They made their own filthy bed, and now they get to wallow in it.

Hopefully you’re not going to buy SEO services from someone who leaves a poorly worded sales pitch in your comments section. Even if they are giving you SEO tips that might be technically true, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. No, I didn’t feel like “properly using bold and italics” or “using all three H tags.” And I had my reasons.

Quit being such a busybody, SEO scammer!

If I click the link in the comment, I see this:

seo scam blog comment

What’s worse than an SEO scam? An SEO scam that doesn’t even direct me to an SEO service. I don’t know who Timothy Marcus and CNBC’s Anthony Grisanti are, but I’m holding them personally responsible.

Stop spamming our blog, Finance Guys. You’re not even going to help me use bold and italics properly, so step the eff off.

You’re the worst.

The Warning Signs

Not every SEO scam comes in blog comment form. In fact, they can be much more insidious. As it turns out, some SEO scammers are actually pretty smart.

They’re sort of like Scooby Doo villains– they do everything they can to hide their tracks and stay one-step ahead of you, but you can always unmask them in the end. If you follow the clues.

scooby doo villain

I’ve had SEO scammers call me, email me, and comment on my blog posts. While working for companies who offer SEO as a service.

I can only imagine what you, the business owner who doesn’t work in SEO, have to go through on a weekly basis.

I haven’t seen all of these in action, and hopefully neither have you, but here are some warning signs– the average, everyday tactics used by your friendly neighborhood SEO scammer.

1. SEO Pitches in Blog Comments

If someone comes into your comments section and leaves you a long-winded SEO pitch, be wary. Especially if “SEO” is their user name. I mean, I just wrote a whole section about that. Did you read it?

If so, thank you. You’re very kind.

Once in awhile, someone legitimate will offer to help you with an SEO problem. That help will usually come in the form of an email, and they generally won’t want anything in return. Even in these situations, remain skeptical.

2. Google Offering SEO Services

google call seo scam

If Google calls you, they’re not offering SEO services. Chances are, unless you’re hearing from an account manager you’ve worked with before, they’re not trying to sell you anything.

If someone claiming to be from Google is trying to sell you SEO, they’re not from Google.

And those robocalls you get “from Google” that try to sell you on better search rankings? Yeah, they’re probably not from Google, either.

Local U posted a quote from Elizabeth Powers, Google’s My Business Community forum manager. She said:

Please remember, Google will never make phone calls offering to improve your ranking or manage your business information. There are many companies out there which would love to manage your local presence, but do know that Google will not be making this type of call to you. Should Google call you, it will typically come from our local area code–a US number beginning in a 650 area code. Additionally, Google would never call asking you for private information like your password. Please find more information on avoiding phone scams here.”

Additionally, Google says it will never:

  • charge for inclusion in Google My Business or in Google Search.
  • offer to improve your search ranking or manage your business’s online profile.
  • ask you for your password or verification code. You should never provide sensitive information
  • about your account (like your password and verification code) to a caller.

You can read more about Google and phone scams here. It’s the best help you’re going to get until all the robocallers are stopped. But they’ll be here at the end of the world, just like Twinkies and cockroaches.

3. Offering Guaranteed Search Engine Rankings

Ranking for competitive keywords in Google doesn’t happen overnight. It sometimes doesn’t happen at all, no matter how hard you try.

SEO experts know their stuff, but they usually don’t guarantee top search engine rankings, because they don’t know everything about Google’s search algorithm. No one knows exactly how Google’s search engine rankings work except Google.

A good SEO can follow best practices and help you gain search engine visibility, but not even the best of the best can guarantee top rankings. It’s not something they can control.

There’s more to it than that, though.

I like what Mike Tekula at Unstuck Digital had to say about it:

I had the unfortunate experience of working for a company that offered “50 page one Google rankings guaranteed” as an incentive for uncertain prospects. Not to say hard work wasn’t being done – it was. But guaranteed rankings are meaningless…

… First off, nobody can guarantee a ranking. Secondly, your website already has hundreds of page one rankings. Here’s an example: search for “mike tekula unstuck.” I guarantee you (my website) is the first result. Shouldn’t it be?

Go through your own website and put together a list of similar obscure, specific keywords that probably only show up in that order and proximity on your page. Search for them. You’re going to find lots of page one rankings.

Rankings have never been the goal. They’re merely a means to an end. The end is leads/sales/whatever your goal is. Qualified traffic that converts. A ranking by itself means nothing if it refers no qualified traffic.”

4. Offering Fast Search Engine Rankings

Search engine marketing results, just like most marketing results, don’t happen overnight.

Unfortunately, many SEO scammers (who seem otherwise legitimate), work their black magic on business owners who are in a huge hurry for their website to rank in competitive Google searches.

We all want fast results, but legitimate SEO results never happen within 48 hours. It’s a long game. Anyone who promises lightning-fast results, is a scammer; unless they’re trying to sell you on a pay-per-click ad service.

PPC ads definitely help drive traffic in the short-term, but they won’t offer long-term results like solid on-page SEO and relevant backlinks will. They can still be effective, but they’re not the same thing as organic search rankings.

Even if the phone isn’t ringing as much as you’d like, don’t believe anyone who promises overnight rankings for real keywords. It can’t be done.

Not even Criss Angel, Mindfreak, could do it. Not even Gandalf. If you find a genie from a magic lamp, though, I’d trust it. Just make sure you word your SEO wish very carefully.

5. Insanely Cheap Pricing

cheap car with seo license plate

pictured: expert Photoshop skills

Quality SEO work, that won’t damage your site and damage your reputation, isn’t quick or cheap. When it’s quick and cheap, you get links coming in from spammy sites, and your business becomes associated with shady websites.

SEO requires some amount of expertise, which costs some amount of money. If it looks too cheap to be good, it is too cheap to be good.

Some SEO firms are very reasonably priced and affordable, but you can’t pay shortcut prices if you want lasting results.

6. Random Emails

If you’ve never heard of or from an SEO company before and they try to sell you on something in their first email? It could very well be a red flag.

It probably is, in fact. If you’ve signed up for an SEO firm’s newsletter, downloaded a guide, or watched one of their webinars, they will contact you at some point. We all understand how that works.

Some cold calls are even legitimate, if emotionally exhausting.

Random, cold emails, though? Not a good sign.

From search engine expert Marie Haynes:

… any GOOD SEO company who can legitimately do Google-friendly SEO is not going to need to randomly email people in order to get business.”

Marie’s built up quite an archive of SEO scam emails, and I encourage you to check it out. She explains why each one is a scam, and she’s basically the best person in the world when it comes to putting things into perspective.

If you take nothing else away from this article, read Marie’s SEO scam email post.

Additionally, if you get a cold email pitch, check the email address. It should, at the very least, come from the company’s own domain and not a random Gmail account.

7. Google Insiders

Have you received an offer from someone who claims to be an insider at Google? From someone whose father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate works at Google?

They’re lying. No one has an inside connection. No one trying to sell you SEO services works for Google. The emperor has no clothes. The cake is a lie. Other, more modern and topical cliches apply, but I live in Idaho so I’m not hip enough to know them.

Don’t buy it.

Also, no one’s uncle works for Nintendo. They’re lying to you, too.

8. Free Trials

SEO, by its very nature, requires lots of time. It’s very hard for a reputable firm to put the hard work and time in, produce results, and give you those results for free. Even if they just offer it for a month, it’s really not sustainable on their end if they’re going to deliver any results.

I like the way this Monitor Backlinks post puts it:

Successful SEO is a result of loads and loads of hard work done over a long period of time. How long will a company give you this expensive free service? They will be time bound to show you some sort of results and this is where they turn to black hat or unethical tactics to impress you and get business.”

So, yeah. A free Google penalty comes with your free SEO service. Great deal!

9. Secrecy


SEO can be complicated, but you should never pay for “secret techniques.”

I’ve worked in SEO, link building, and digital marketing for a few years now. On the outskirts, at least. And even I don’t understand some advanced tactics and technical on-site stuff that some SEO experts can deliver.

It’s okay if you don’t understand every single detail of what your SEO agency does in their day-to-day operations, but they should at least try to explain the basic concepts to you.

And they should provide detailed reports. Transparency is important when you’re paying for SEO services.

If anyone claims they have a Secret Method For Search Engine Success, just hang up on them. That usually just means they’re doing shady crap or not doing anything at all.

If you’re paying someone, they can tell you what they’re doing. Don’t settle for secrets.

10. Excessive Reciprocal Linking

If an SEO agency pitches you rankings in the form of a link exchange, or excessive reciprocal linking, it’s not a good deal. It won’t provide search engine visibility and, depending on the extent of their operation, it might result in a Google penalty.

Some amount of reciprocal linking is just fine. People link to each other. It’s natural. But when your small business website turns into a free-for-all directory? You’ll see a bad moon rising.

The same goes for getting involved in link farms and link networks. These usually don’t involve human-curated links, and they won’t be relevant to your site, your location, or what you do.

Once again, I’ll turn to Mike from Unstuck Digital:

Your SEO consultant/company is basically telling you that their link building strategy amounts to nothing more than a thin link exchange program. Run screaming. They might not be knowingly scamming their clients, but they don’t know SEO.

This method was already stale and fruitless when people were still listening to Creed (isn’t it nice to let the past die?).”

Don’t create your own prison.

11. Dozens or Hundreds of Links for Cheap

If an SEO firm promises you hundreds, or even dozens, of links for a low price, it’s time to turn off the lights and pretend you’re not home.

You really do have to worry about low quality, irrelevant links from shady websites.

Why do you think Google provides a tool for disavowing crappy links?

No one can build a hundred quality links for $300. No one.

It might sound appealing, but it’s too good to be true. Real SEO and link building take time and cost money.

Reputation and the SEO Scam

SEO shark

someone actually got paid to make this. by a stock photo site. what a world. 

Since we’re a reputation management software company, I feel like we need to address reputation.

Before you hire an SEO company, even if you’re 100% sure they’re not scamming you, check their online reputation.

You should:

  • Search Google for ‘(company name) reviews’
  • Ask for references, ask to speak to current or former clients
  • Browse their site to judge the quality of their content and see how they present themselves
  • Ask every single question you have, even if you think they’re dumb questions
  • Verify that they have a real ‘contact us’ page with an address and phone number
  • Speak with a real person before you sign up for anything

Remember that no business, either your own or an SEO firm, can please everyone. You might see one or two negative reviews, even for the best SEO agency in the world.

Look for patterns in those negative reviews. If you don’t spot any, chances are they just dealt with some difficult-to-please customers. If you see a pattern, there’s a larger problem. At least address that problem with the agency before you sign up.


Truthfully, most SEO firms and consultants aren’t out to scam you. There are plenty of people, however, out to make a quick buck by offering unsustainable, unrealistic, and outright fraudulent SEO services to unsuspecting business owners.

They’re counting on your ignorance, and they want to prey on your fears. But you’re not stupid, and you’re definitely not a coward. By stepping back and thinking critically, you can stop even a clever SEO scam right in its tracks.


About Dustin Verburg

Dustin Verburg is a writer, journalist, and musician who writes for several web and print publications. During most of his waking hours, he produces content for ReviewJump. Dustin lives with his guitars, comic books, and collectable Star Trek plates in Boise, ID.

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