Don’t Like Snake Oil? Stop Buying It!

Posted by Dr. Pete

Every few months, some mainstream news outlet runs a piece on how SEOs are just a bunch of “snake oil” salesmen. The implication is clear – we’re the carnival barkers of marketing, promising you #1 on Google and bottling moonshine as magic potions. Cue outraged SEO industry posts until we’re out of breath, wait 6 months, then repeat.

Here’s the simple truth the angry back-and-forth arguments ignore – there would be no snake-oil salesmen if people weren’t lining up to buy it. I’m not here to excuse thieves and liars – they exist, and they should be called out. I’m here to tell you why you need to open your eyes and stop gleefully walking into the same trap over and over.

Why We’re All to Blame

This topic can get emotional fast, so let’s step back for a minute and consider another example in the technology industry. Lately, there’s been a lot of outrage about poor human rights conditions in consumer products’ factories, most notably Apple’s problems with workers at the Foxconn factory in China. One side is quick to defend Capitalism, while the other side rushes to blame corporate greed.

Both sides may be right, to some degree, and I’m not here to argue the veracity of the claims. The deeper, more interesting question is: what drives it all? Are corporations and shareholders looking to squeeze out profits? Sure, to some extent. What about us, though? We want a 0 computer that fits in the palm of our hand, plays movies in HD, takes video of our cats, and connects instantly to all of human knowledge. One month after we have it, we want it to be 10% lighter, 10% faster, make our cat look 10% fluffier, and cost 9. So, where did the greed really start?

Yes, “All” Includes You

Sorry, but you need to hear this. When you interview an SEO company, have wild expectations, only hear what you want to, demand results “by any means necessary,” and want it all for just .95, then what do you expect is going to happen? You’re going to attract thieves and liars, and you’re going to deserve it.

Ok, rant over. This isn’t about being holier-than-thou and I’m not just here to scold you. I sincerely want people to stop selling and buying snake oil. So, here are six tips to keep you from wasting your money on magic beans…

(1) Educate Yourself

I know what you’ll say – “I don’t have time, and SEO is complicated.” Guess what – that’s exactly what the snake-oil salesmen want you to believe. They may even say it out loud during your first meeting. Modern online marketing is complicated and covers a lot of ground, but you don’t have to know everything. Invest a couple of weeks in learning just enough of the basics so that you can ask the right questions. While I was writing this post, we re-launched The Beginner’s Guide to SEO – that’s a great place to start.

It’s not just about SEO, though – educate yourself about the company you’ll be working with. Is their reputation good? Do they even have a reputation? Do they have a website (I hope so, but you’d be surprised)? How long have they been around? It’s amazing how people will spend hours deciding whether or not to see a movie or research where to get a donut but then will walk into a meeting and spend ,000 with no information at all.

(2) Trust Your Instincts

We all feel pressure – time pressure, budget pressure, angry boss pressure, and just the pressure of fatigue and wanting to move things forward. When that pressure kicks in, we ignore our gut. We walk into a room and instantly have a bad feeling or just plain dislike the people we’re talking to after 5 minutes, but we shake it off because we want the ball to keep rolling. Don’t ignore your instincts – almost every time I’ve had a bad feeling about a prospective vendor or client and brushed it off, I’ve regretted it. There’s always another vendor, and the sunk cost of a couple of hours of meetings is nothing compared to what you’ll lose if you pay for 6 months of bad SEO.

(3) Roll to Disbelieve

Sorry, nerd joke.  If it looks too good to be true and it sounds too good to be true, then it’s probably a duck. Look at all of the recent Ponzi schemes where people were getting a 178% return rate against a market that was at -3%, the creator of the scheme got busted, and then EVERY SINGLE INVESTOR acted completely shocked. Really?

We don’t believe most lies because of the skill of the liar. We believe most lies because the liar tells us what we want to hear. Ask the tough questions, even (or especially) if you like what you hear. Bare minimum, make sure you ask about the next two items…

(4) Ask About Tactics

We’re a very results-oriented business culture, and that’s great. You should ask about metrics and ROI and know what you’ll get for your money. Just don’t let empty promises of results gloss over the details of what specific tactics the vendor plans to use. It’s not just about whether they use “white-hat” or “black-hat” tactics – it’s about whether they have a plan at all. A qualified vendor should be able to map out what they’ll do, and they should be able to explain why they choose to do it that way. It’s also about accountability – if someone tells you what they’re going to do, you can check later to see if they did it.

(5) Find Out the Risks

All SEO carries risks, no matter how “white-hat” it is – most notably, the risk that you’ll spend your money on something that provides no benefit. Every vendor should be able to ballpark the risks in their approach – if they start saying things like “We only use Google-approved methods,” keep pushing. Rules change, and the best SEOs know how to adapt. The ones who think their methods will always work (just because they’ve worked so far) are the ones whose clients get slammed by algorithm updates.

(6) Plan Status Updates

The worst thing you can do is to set a vendor loose, check back in six months, and realize they’ve done something completely different than you expected. Actually, there’s something even worse – when you check back after six months and they can’t even tell you (or won’t tell you) what they’ve done. We see this all the time in link-building – someone hires an SEO firm, rankings drop months later, they suspect the vendor was to blame, but they have no record of what that vendor actually did. I’ve been involved in the kind of detective work that happens at this point, and it isn’t pretty.

Treat your vendor like they’re part of your in-house team – you don’t have to micro-manage, but you should demand accountability. It’s good for both of you – as a conscientious vendor, nothing’s worse than going in the wrong direction for months because of bad communication. I think an Agile approach (borrowed from the software development world) works well – do short, frequent check-ins, agree on some kind of documentation (like a shared document with link sources or tasks), and adjust as needed.

What About Black-hats?

Before I hear about it in the comments, let me be perfectly clear – when I say “thieves and liars”, I am not talking about “black-hat” SEOs. I’m talking about companies that literally steal their clients’ money and lie to them about risks and results. If you want to pursue black-hat tactics, in the sense of knowingly violating Google’s policies, that’s your business. Whether or not I agree with you, all of my advice in this post still applies. Skilled black-hats may not advertise their tactics openly, but once you’re face-to-face with them as a prospective client, they should still be honest about their methods and the risks.

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June 9, 2012  Tags: , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

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