Where Does SEO’s Bad Reputation Come From?

The above screenshot is famous in the SEO community. It’s like a bad review on your Yelp page that you just have to learn to live with. The saddest part about it: it’s justified.

How can I say such a thing, especially considering that I am involved in SEO? I’ll tell you. There’s a lot of BS in the SEO industry, and it’s not all coming from the black hat guys. There are two problems here: a lack of ethical business practices within the SEO community and a lack of comprehension from some of the businesses we work with.

The SEO Community

Anyone in search engine optimization (SEO) will tell you SEO is absolutely necessary for your website. They are not wrong. There are things that you must do to set up a website for success whether you’re a multi-national corporation or a single Main Street storefront. The problem is that once those initial things are completed, SEO companies will begin to tell you, “Okay now we need to do this and that and you should also start thinking about having us work on this as well.” SEO companies stand to make a decent sum because of these random activities, especially if you have an hourly arrangement with them. But how are these activities helping your website?

This is not to say that other SEO activities besides the initial onsite setup are not helpful. But if they are not part of a larger plan, then how do you know if they are accomplishing anything? Some SEO agencies are perfectly content to perform activities that, while “good for SEO,” are neither hugely impactful nor part of a larger plan. A perfect example is Schema markup. If you’re not familiar with Schema, I wrote a blog explaining how Schema works last week, but at a very basic level, it is code that you can add to tell search engines what type of information is on a page. Schema has a tiny effect on your search engine rankings, but it is still worth adding this code to things like your address or reviews when they appear on your website. However, you could spend a virtually infinite number of hours adding Schema markup to things on your site and it would have little or no SEO value.

Then, there are the black hat SEO agencies. Black hat SEO refers to SEO practices seeking to manipulate search algorithms in order to gain rankings. Some common examples include comment spamming (having a bot post comments on tens of thousands of blogs with links back to the website that you are trying to rank), purchasing links, and keyword stuffing (adding unusual amounts of keywords to a page to show extra relevance for that keyword). Black hatters will tell you that their methods will give you quick, exponential results. And they very well might, but while black hat SEO can be amazingly effective in the short term, once Google catches on to what you are doing though, your site will be slapped with a Google manual penalty. Many SEO clients have been burned by black hat methods, even those who hadn’t seen results, adding to the negative reputation of SEO.

The Businesses

Part of the blame for the negative perception of SEO has to be laid at the feet of the businesses that we work with. Some (not all) businesses are willing to pay for a service that they don’t fully understand and that they have a very difficult time measuring. Months later when they’ve realized that there bottom line hasn’t gone up the way that their SEO company had promised, they begin to curse SEO as BS and warn everyone on their contact list about it. Spending money on a marketing service, or any service, without oversight is usually going to end up this way. People who are willing to take your money in exchange for pie-in-the-sky promises existed long before SEO and will continue to exist after SEO is dead.

The Solution

Set goals.

You are wasting your time with SEO if you aren’t setting goals. That applies to both SEO agencies and to the businesses interested in SEO. There’s a nice acronym used in the business world that really applies here: set SMART goals, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-dependent.

  • Specific – Rather than getting distracted by the latest trends or whims of your SEO team, set specific goals right from the start to stay focused and to help you tell whether or not your goals are being met.
  • Measurable – If you can’t see a report that demonstrates the efficacy of your SEO efforts, you should find a different goal.
  • Achievable – Keeping your goals within the realm of possibility will filter out the SEO agencies can’t live up to their promises as well as the black hat SEO agencies that will give you a short term boost, but land you a Google penalty in the long run.
  • Relevant – How does your SEO plan fit within your overall marketing strategy?
  • Time-dependent – You put a timeline on everything else that you do. Why would an SEO campaign be any different?

A Marketing Agency Versus an SEO Agency

My colleague, Adam Wormann, wrote a blog not all that long ago about the benefits of choosing a marketing company over an SEO-focused agency. This concept is hugely relevant to this conversation.

Marketing is something that companies need to continuously pursue, and that’s generally accepted. Budgets will fluctuate over time, but there is almost always a budget. SEO is a subset of marketing. In your plan, a portion of your marketing budget is allotted to SEO. For a full marketing company like Points Group, we are incentivized to advise that you place your marketing budget into the areas that we think will give you the best possible outcome, be that SEO or something else entirely. An SEO agency, on the other hand, is always going to recommend SEO. This could be an unethical way of padding their wallets. It could also be that they may have a good plan, and you might even see a nice return from their efforts. But how do you know that you wouldn’t have seen a better one had you pursued a different marketing avenue?

Recently, a client came to us looking to improve their SEO; they were pretty much starting from scratch. We began by analyzing their site and seeing what improvements could immediately be made right away. Then we turned our attention to keyword research and competitive analysis. That’s where we stopped. We reported back to our client that, even in local search, SEO would be a bad investment for them. There were a number of government agency sites, both state and federal, that dominated the first several pages of results with massive domain authorities. Ranking amidst these behemoths would have been an immense time and monetary investment, and chances are that the return, after finally clawing our way to the first page, would not have been worthwhile. As a full-fledged marketing agency, we were not only able to advise them that SEO would not be a worthwhile endeavor for them, but we could also point them in the direction of avenues that would be more effective.

TL;DR Version

  • SEO’s negative reputation comes from:
    • White hat agencies who don’t have a coherent plan, but are happy to continue charging you by the hour
    • Black hat agencies who demonstrate quick results, get paid, and leave as soon as Google slaps you with a penalty
    • Clients who didn’t do their homework, bought the pie-in-the-sky promises, and got burnt
  • You can avoid all of these outcomes by setting SMART goals.
  • Choosing a marketing agency over an SEO agency will help ensure that you are spending your marketing budget in the most effective way.


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