Scammers, Spammers and Dumb Bunnies

Written: 24-Mar-2009 | | Filed under: Search Optimization

On one of the forums I frequent, a new member was concerned. He wanted to hire an SEO to help optimize his site, but he was afraid he’d “accidentally” hire a “black hat” SEO who would violate the search engine guidelines and get his site banned.

Now, my first reaction was to think, “How paranoid! It’s not as though there are ‘black hat’ SEOs lurking on every street corner, just waiting for unsuspecting webmasters to come along so they can lure them over to the Dark Side.”

But then it occurred to me that for many people outside the SEO industry, that’s might be pretty much how it seems.

Don’t Panic

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is said to have the slogan “Don’t Panic” inscribed in friendly-looking letters on its cover. (Or at least it will, thousands of years from now when it actually gets published.)

But webmasters and site owners don’t have to wait thousands of years. They can start not panicking today. Yay!

Black hat does not equal scammer

First off, don’t confuse black hat SEOs with scammers. Whether someone abides by the search engine guidelines has nothing to do with whether or not their work will be effective. There are scammers and incompetents who claim to be totally white hat (and who operate scrupulously within the guidelines of the major search engines).

The problem is, while those guidelines are helpful for keeping you out of trouble by addressing the things you shouldn’t do, they don’t necessarily cover all the things you need to do to get results.

It’s not that these folks will get your site penalized or banned… it’s just that you’ll pay them a whole bunch of money and get absolutely nothing in return, which is just about as bad.

Your biggest risk is not in “accidentally” signing up with a black hat SEO; there are actually relatively few of them out there who take on clients. Frankly, most of the real black hats with any reasonable level of skill have found they can make a lot more money (with a lot less hassle) optimizing sites for themselves.

Surprisingly (to some at least) there are “ethical” black hat SEOs. Black hats who do provide client services generally don’t want to sucker you in to signing up for their services under false pretenses. Rather, they’ll be up-front about the fact they play to win. They’ll also be up-front about the risks inherent in their approach, and they’ll make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into, and what the consequences could be.

You’re not going to “accidentally” sign up with one of these folks. Nope, anyone who hires one of these black hats knows exactly what they’re doing — and has no room to complain if (when) the black hat tactics are discovered and search engine retribution ensues.

No, as a prospective client your biggest risk is in getting taken in by a smooth-talking con artists more interested in separating you from your cash than in getting results for your site, or an incompetent who simply doesn’t have the skills or experience to back up the prices they’re charging.

Unfortunately, both of these groups have learned they can get many more clients by declaring their undying love and respect for the SE guidelines and showing off the brilliant whiter-than-whiteness of their headgear. Personally, the more adamantly and repeatedly somebody declares himself or herself to be “totally white hat” the more suspicious I am that they’re using that as a smokescreen to hide the fact they really don’t / won’t / can’t do much of anything at all to make my site more successful or profitable.

One of the ways you can tell whether you’re dealing with a reputable company that actually has a chance of getting you results — no matter what color hat they wear — is their willingness to explain what it is they’re going to do. They should be very transparent about what they plan to do both with your site and in off-site strategies such as link acquisition.

The con artists won’t want to tell you because they don’t want you to find out they don’t plan to do much of anything at all. The incompetents can’t tell you, because they don’t know what needs to be done.

In both cases, they tend to hide behind bogus technical-sounding jargon and “secret sauce.” Look, in my opinion, if they can’t explain in plain English in two short sentences or less what it is they’re talking about and exactly how it’s going to help you make more money from your site, show them the door.

OK, maybe the “two sentences” thing was a little strict. But here’s the truth: there are no “secret sauces” in SEO. The actual tasks that need to be accomplished are relatively straightforward. The value of a professional SEO lies in the skill, experience and resources they bring to the job. It isn’t that they’re doing anything you couldn’t do on your own — it’s just that they can get the job done much better and faster and with greater chances of success out of the starting gate than you could do on your own.

The best SEOs know this, so they aren’t afraid of telling you what they’re going to do.

Another tip is to give any of their promises the “reasonableness test.” If they’re promising you’ll absolutely get #1 rankings in Google, ask yourself how they can guarantee that — given they don’t control Google.

If they say they have some sort of “special arrangement” with Google that enables them to make that promise, check the Google guidelines (where you’ll see Google state they don’t have any such “special arrangements”).

If they promise a dinner of lobster and Chateau Rothschild champagne for the price of a hot dog and a Budweiser, consider the likelihood of their being able to deliver what they promised (and still turn a profit).

It’s an oldie but a goodie (and still as true as ever): Promises that sound too good to be true usually are (too good to actually be true, that is).

Unfortunately, too many clients apparently check their brain and their common sense at the door when they meet with a prospective SEO. Don’t allow yourself to be bamboozled with impressive-sounding jargon or dazzled with impossible promises and you’re already ahead of the game.

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