5 Signs of an Unethical SEO Agency

How to spot a bad SEO agency or freelancer early so you don't get burned

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Unethical SEO practices like shady backlinking or thin, automated, post content can result in ranking penalties or your website being de-indexed from Google. That means that if someone searches for your business website, e-commerce site, or blog site, it won't show up on Google – at all.

With an influx of self-proclaimed 'SEO gurus', I wanted to provide 5 ways you can spot a bad SEO agency or freelancer so you don't get burned. Whether you are vetting an agency or a professional consultant, if you see these red flags, find yourself a new SEO partner.

1. Guaranteed Rankings, Backlinks, or Placements

Some years ago, if you wanted a page to rank high on Google for a particular term, you could write the keyword on the page a bunch of times or build a ton of shitty backlinks to the page and it would rank. It didn't matter where the links came from, so you could just make your own network of spammy blogs or fill forum comments with links to your webpage – and it would rank! Though agencies and freelancers alike are still using these tactics, they aren't useful and in some cases, do more harm.

If you're considering signing a contract with an SEO agency that boasts about the thousands of backlinks they've built for their client, ask them where they got those links. 🤔 What is the quality of those links? Are they from directories that never get any web traffic? Are they paying black hat SEO companies for links? Are the links from a private blog network (PBN) of low-quality websites?

Google's algorithms have changed a lot in the past years with a focus on quality, valuable content. If an SEO agency or freelancer is guaranteeing you a #1 ranking position or offering X amount of backlinks per month, run the other way!

The energy spent building thousands of low-quality backlinks could have been put towards building high-quality content web visitors would actually value. Quality content begets quality rankings, backlinks, and content placement opportunities.

2. Only Focuses on Page Titles and Meta Descriptions

Yes. It's true that on-page factors are important for website SEO performance. Every SEO agency and consultant should know this, but that should not be their only focus. There are so many different moving parts to an SEO strategy.

SEO is not a siloed marketing function. In fact, modern SEO should inform the entire digital marketing strategy. SEO provides guidance and direction towards achieving your business goals by focusing on what your web visitors want when they visit your site.

If your potential SEO partner can't provide any strategy beyond changing page titles and meta descriptions, they probably aren't the right SEO partner. They should be able to provide quick wins, technical considerations, and a long-term SEO content strategy.

3. Non-transparent or "Secret" SEO Methods

SEO is an important specialization that most people, even other general marketers, don't understand. But SEO is not something so technical or so complex that a prospective SEO agency wouldn't be able to tell you their methods. Most freelancers and agencies use the same tools; it's our skillsets and our experience that sets us apart.

Don't let a consultant or agency convince you that because they are SEO experts, you wouldn't understand their methods. When SEOs can't explain their strategy in a way that makes sense to you for your business, it typically indicates some shady SEO tactics are coming in the future.

4. Doesn't Ask Anything of You

There are many tools an SEO will want access to in order to do their job properly. Some of the accounts or tools an agency or freelancer might as you for access to include:

  • Analytics Platforms (Google Ads, Adobe Analytics, Matomo, etc.)
  • Webmaster Tools (Google Search Console)
  • Social Media Accounts (Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc)
  • CRM Platforms (Salesforce, Zoho, Hubspot, etc)

Any SEO agency you're vetting should want as much data as possible from you. Do you have sales data? They want it. Do you have ad data? They want it. Do you have conversion or goal completion data? They want it. Do you have a special in-house way you track leads? You get where this is going: they want it. 😏

If an SEO consultant or agency is not asking for access to your accounts or for any of your data, that may be a sign that they practice unethical SEO.

5. Doesn't Consider UX in the SEO Process

Modern SEOs understand that positive user experience on a website plays a factor in search ranking. Recently, there has been a focus from Google on improving site speed and performance, especially for mobile users. Earlier this year, Google introduced Web Vitals. Web Vitals are unified essential metrics to indicate the health of a website.

Non-responsive or slow loading web pages are less likely to rank on Google. Page speed is just one example of how UX can affect SEO, but there are many other considerations. Does your potential SEO agency know that? Do they mention anything about your end-users?