5 huge warning signs of a bad SEO or digital marketing agency

Six of my seventeen years in digital marketing were spent in an agency.

It was there that I learned the strategies that shaped who I am as an SEO today.

Most importantly, this is where I learned the techniques and practices that make my clients successful.

The most vital thing I learned? Your customer always comes first – and this can only happen transparently.

Of course, we all make mistakes. But I also make a point of not participating in black hat SEO practices and only using legitimate SEO techniques.

With so many agencies, it’s easy to get fooled by false promises and bad SEO techniques wrapped in a pretty knot of dishonesty.

There are also some dishonest people looking to take your money by tampering with their SEO and marketing skills.

Here are some tips to help you identify and avoid them while making sure you are working with SEO professionals who practice solid techniques and truly believe in honest practices.


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1. They ask to own your data / connections

One of the hallmarks of an agency / consultant trying to trick you is to start the engagement by asking you to have full control over your connections, data and reports.

Many companies fall into the trap under the guise of “I just want them to take care of it, that’s what I pay for, to take care of everything”, but don’t realize how bad it is. can be really dangerous if things don’t. work between the two companies.

Let’s say you get to the point where you no longer want to work with your agency / consultant. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.

What many shady agencies / consultants will do in this situation is keep your data and credentials hostage to keep the contract going.

This can escalate into legal disputes that span months or years, and in the worst case, may require you to make new connections and add new tracking code to your sites.


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I have seen this happen time and time again, especially with small businesses.

The lesson here is this: The start of any professional relationship should be based on trust, but it is a two-way street.

While you hire these people to ‘run it all’ from an SEO standpoint, check their backgrounds and get referrals. If they can’t provide a reference, look elsewhere.

And make sure you understand whether you are giving access or ownership.

2. They guarantee the ranking n ° 1 / the best results

It still puzzles me that there are SEO professionals who win business with the pitch, “We guarantee # 1 rank.”

Not only are they there, but people are hiring them.

Look at this ad that popped up when I searched [SEO companies] on Google:

Google search for SEO companies

Truly? First page rank guaranteed? Tell me your secrets, O magical research wizards.

What they’re not going to tell you is what they’re going to rank for on page 1.

Any SEO worth its salt can get something to rank on Page 1, whether it drives quality traffic, income, or leads to your site.

This is a common ruse used by unscrupulous agencies and consultants to get you in. Here is how it works:

They call you to discuss your site.

This will be done by luring you in with deceptive ads like the ones above, a free audit they send you, or a long email about something that just happened with Google that they always position as something that you should be concerned because we have seen your site drop using their yadda-yadda-yadda property.

You panic and you give them a shot.

You need to fix all the issues they’ve explained to you because you probably don’t fully understand all the ins and outs of organic search and just want someone to take care of it.


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The work begins.

Within weeks, you see a few keywords hit page 1, which fulfills their claim to guarantee page 1 results. You’re thrilled. You can’t believe you’ve never worked with these guys before, and you can’t wait for the business to start growing.

Fast forward a few months.

Page 1 rankings keep coming, but no new business is making it. No new leads. Just rankings.

They explain that SEO is a slow burn.

You see new results every week and they ask you to be patient. However, they never really go into the weeds with you to explain everything that is going on. This is all good news from them, everything is going well, but you don’t see any feedback.

You get it.

Ultimately, and usually after six months or more of paying for this “service”, you start researching the keywords that you “earn” on and realize that they have virtually no monthly search volume and no more. are not that relevant to your business. You realize you’ve more than likely been duped, reach out and get canned non-responses, and begin the process of canceling your engagement.


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And you are wary of SEO.

Listen, Google’s algorithm is a giant floating mathematical equation in space that is controlled by a machine learning AI that learns our search habits and changes its results based on those learnings.

The lesson here is that no one can guarantee anything about Google’s algorithm, not even the algorithm itself.

If any of us could, we’d be dirty, dirty rich.

3. They tell their story, not yours

Speaking of metrics reporting, another telltale sign of a less than stellar agency / consultant is that their reports always tell their story and not yours.

What I mean by that is they always highlight what went well, what they did in a great way, and why you should pay them more on the next renewal.

They never talk about what went wrong, what went wrong or lessons learned to make the current campaign so successful, which sometimes is more important than the victories themselves.


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Knowing only half the story is detrimental to your business and your own education.

By not being transparent, your agency or consultant has done you a terrible disservice by not allowing you to learn from their mistakes.

Agencies / Consultants in this mindset are always afraid to tell you exactly what they are doing because they don’t want to reveal their “secret formula” that makes it all work.

The truth is, most of the time, this formula involves a lot of testing and missteps that have brought the campaign to its current state. It’s super valuable for everyone involved to know this – not just for them.

The lesson here is to make sure you hear about what went wrong, as well as what worked. No matter how happy you are with it, you should see the whole picture.

4. The partnership is positioned as transactional

Always pay attention to how an agency / consultant presents you, as this indicates how the relationship will work.


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People who want to help you will tell you how they will help you.

People who don’t will tell you how much their service costs and how the monthly meetings will be structured.

It’s the difference between hiring a partner and a supplier. A partner will dig with you, weather the storm with you when things aren’t going well, and celebrate wins with you as a team.

A supplier will send you reports and an invoice.

If an agency / consultant comes in and spends the hour or two you gave them of your time and only talks about how good they are and doesn’t give any insight into what they can do for you, the relationship probably won’t be that fruitful.

While there’s nothing wrong with a bragging slide or two, you should always look for people who have researched your brand and provided actionable things that they think you can accomplish together by. based on data.


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These are the ones who care about your business and while they will still send you an invoice every month, you won’t mind paying it so much.

The lesson here is to always look for a partner, not just another supplier.

5. Their case studies are out of date

Speaking of bragging slides, you should always ask what year are the projects / results from. One of the biggest injustices in organic research is the length of time people use case studies.

SEO changes every day and while it’s great you really took it out of the park for Pets.com in 2000, this story doesn’t really help me assess your talent today.

The lesson here is to always dig a little deeper into those wins and when they happened. With SEO changing as much as it does, even a project from a few years ago might be irrelevant today.

Good luck there!

More resources:


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Featured Image: Shutterstock / Sergey Nivens

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