Like everything these days, if there’s quick money to be made it can, and most often is, faked: think luxury handbags, watches, clothing. Ever been to Thailand or China? Then you’ll know what I’m talking about. A sea of knockoff goods (even full cars in China now) offering the prestige of a luxury brand at rock bottom prices. From a distance some of these fakes are so good you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference, but up close you start to see the sub-standard work: poor stitching, low quality fabrics or materials, a digital rather than automatic movement powering your shiny, ahem, “Folex”.
Ridiculously low prices can be tempting and hey, it does the same job of telling the time and looks the part, right? How about when it stops working and falls apart in 3 months due to poor workmanship and cheap practices? You’ve just wasted your money. Unlike a real Rolex it wasn’t a good long term, sustainable investment.
Short Term Black-Hat SEO Tactics Are Not Sustainable
I’m now seeing exactly the same scenario with SEO. Companies who rank their own website using short term and black-hat tactics that are not sustainable. Sure it works for a few months, and its a quick hit of the SEO pipe, but that high won’t last for long.
Currently Google is going through updated algorithm tests and we’re seeing some of these tactics that have been specifically highlighted by Google (and can lead to you ultimately being banned from the search index) as unacceptable slipping through the net. I’m talking about link farms, buying unnatural backlinks and buying fake reviews.
If They Are Using Fake SEO on Themselves, They’ll Use It on You
The problem is, if the SEO company is doing this for their own site, they’re going to be using the same fake SEO techniques for your site.
Here’s why thats a major problem for your business:
- This is not a sustainable SEO strategy long term (think more than 6 months) and is damaging your business and brand along the way.
- You will spend even more money and time fixing these issues when you switch to a reputable SEO company before you can get back on track . All the time your rankings have dropped and you are losing business leads and sales every day.
So what should you do?
If you’re looking for a new SEO agency:
- Avoid the enticing shiny, cheap SEO that promises quick results. After running my own SEO company for a decade in both London and Los Angeles I’ve seen it all. And we’ve fixed it all.
- Look at their client experiences/case studies/testimonials – are they comparable to you? If you have a premium brand, have they worked with premium brands before or just local flower shops and hair salons? And vice versa.
- Avoid pre-packaged SEO options – this generally means it’s automated or outsourced to another country. Think realistically how much time will actually go into your SEO campaign for a few hundred dollars a month? Especially in major cities like Los Angeles with high office rents, and higher salaries because of the high cost of living.
If you already have an SEO company ask yourself a few questions:
- Do they genuinely care about your long term business growth and goals or are you just another paycheck? Do they focus on just rankings or actual leads and sales as part of your strategy?
- Do they nickel and dime you for every meeting and report?
- Do they want to produce lots of local or bespoke keyword-rich pages that they host instead of working on your own site? When you leave them so do your rankings because these pages are not yours. This is how they lock you in.
- Do they keep up on Google updates and continuously test and refine your SEO strategy based on these changes?
- Do they make SEO seem confusing or do they actually take the time to explain how it all works together and have solid reasons to help your business?
- Do you offer good client service? A single point of contact that you trust, and actually works on your SEO strategy, based in your area (not as in many cases, India or Eastern Europe) so you can call or meet them anytime?
- Do they have relevant experience with similar clients in your market? What are their results?
- Are all their projects short term? (This is a glaring indicator of fake SEO!).
As you can see there’s lots to think about and it can be a minefield. So to help you out, here’s how to check for FREE if your SEO company is faking it and what you can do about it.
Our Complete Guide to Checking if Your SEO Company is Using Black-Hat SEO
1. Subscribe to Ahrefs.com
If you don’t have it already, sign up for the free two-week trial on Ahrefs.com.
Ahrefs is a powerful site audit tool which will help you review a site’s current domain authority, keyword ranking pool, back links, content, social shares and other areas. This will help you determine if the site’s SEO marketing tactics are proper or possibly black hat.
2. Action – Run ‘Site Explorer’ with the primary URL.
In Ahrefs, go to Site Explorer. This will give you a quick snapshot of all the current metrics and analytics affecting rankings with the site you choose to explore.
Copy and paste their website URL into the search field under Site Explorer as it is seen / defaulted on the live site. Make sure http & https is selected as well as *.domain/.
From here, you can now begin to drill deeper into what is actually causing this site to rank well or not.
3. Results – Check their Domain Rating.
Domain Rating or DR is a number between 1 – 100 that is an authority score given to a site based on quality of content backlinks, social signals and other metrics and trust factors.
Understanding the Rating:
- 25 or below: pretty poor and indicates either a brand new or spammy site.
- 26 – 39: still not great, but not horrible. Indicates a site that needs to improve content and backlink profile.
- 40 – 60: good and how most average sites with a marketing strategy in place score.
- 61 – 75: great and indicates a high authority domain.
- Scores of 76 and above indicate extremely high authority sites whose backlinks would also bring the most value or ‘link juice’ to improve rankings.
This scoring will give you an idea of how your SEO company’s authority ranks and will also come in handy later when you review backlinks pointing to their site.
4. Results – Check Organic Keyword Ranking Pool.
Having an understanding of their keyword ranking pool successes or failures can give you a better idea on if their current tactics are working – whether white or black hat.
Once the Site Explorer stats have appeared on the main dashboard, click ‘Organic Keywords’ to review what keywords they are currently ranking for. Try filtering by position 1 – 10 to get a clear idea of what keywords they are ranking for on Google’s 1st page – which is the most important.
Ask yourself a few questions once you review the results:
- Are they ranking for keywords beyond just branded keywords? (Their company name.)
- Do they rank for high to medium volume keywords directly related to the services they offer?
- Are they ranking for localized search terms like ‘Los Angeles SEO’, for example, if they are an agency located in Los Angeles?
- Do they rank for any valuable industry related long-tail pain point or question keyword queries?
Missing the mark in any of these areas is an indicator that their current marketing efforts might be lacking.
5. Results – Check Backlinks.
Having spammy and unnatural backlinks is the quickest way to a Google Penguin penalty that can damage your rankings for the long term and be very hard to recover from. While as of late, Google hasn’t been seemingly policing this as well due to different rollbacks and continuous algorithm updates, it still is very much against Google’s guidelines to purposely obtain spammy, overly optimized, irrelevant, or ‘pay for play’ type backlinks.
From the site overview dashboard, and in the left-hand menu, click on ‘backlinks’. From here, you can sort and filter by DR to see which sites are pointing backlinks with the highest authority.
You can also click on ‘New’ under Backlinks in the left hand menu to get an idea of the newest links they’ve gained each day over the last 60 days.
Ask yourself these questions while you review the results:
1. Do they have a lot of spammy or irrelevant links pointing to the site?
Check for backlinks from spam sites which usually have domain names like ‘TopSeos.com’, ‘bestmarketingagencies.com’, or ‘bestSEOlosangeles.com’. These are almost always link farms with over optimized keywords and very little value as a whole. This is easily checked by viewing the site’s domain authority and simply visiting the site itself to see what it is.
Other popular tactics include posting to lesser known and free job board sites, fake review sites, and more.
2. Do they have unnatural link gain?
Are they gaining an unusually high amount of new links a day from spammy or irrelevant sites over the last 60 days? Lower DR sites are unlikely to gain more than a few links, at most. Did they get 24 links in a day from a single spam site? Or maybe 100’s of links over a few week’s mostly from spam or irrelevant sites? They are likely link farming and this is a black hat tactic.
3. Do they have a lot of backlinks from pay for play type sites?
While sites like topseos.com and clutch.co are somehow currently passable pay for link sites, they are still straddling Google’s grey line on guidelines at best. Eventually, sites using this method are likely to receive a Penguin penalty.
6. Action – Check Social Signals.
While Ahrefs has a rudimentary method of checking a websites social signals through the domain comparison tool under the ‘More’ option – a simple review of their social profiles will also suffice
So check out their Twitter, facebook, Instagram, YouTube profiles and any more they have. You will usually find links to all of them in the footer of their website.
While reviewing, ask yourself these questions:
- Are they posting relevant content regularly?
- Does the content they post receive consistent engagement like likes, but more importantly: comments and shares?
High engagement indicates a proper social media strategy that’s targeting the right audiences correctly.
7. Action – Check Reviews (Good and Bad) Very Carefully.
Yelp, Google Local, and Facebook all have review sections that can help a company improve rankings, while also building trust and authority with potential new clients. Unfortunately, the system can still be easily gamed.
Thin or fluff reviews, ones from anonymous sources, or review sources that never mention their company by name are all red flags and may potentially be paid for reviews. It’s important to keep in mind that paying for reviews on all of these platforms is still a common tactic many companies use – and a blackhat one at that.
Look at some of the bad reviews and see if they hold more merit than most of the good ones.
- Are they more detailed?
- Less anonymous?
- Are they from established profiles that have more reviews for other businesses in the area?
- How does the company respond (if at all) to the bad reviews?
It’s also a good idea to look up the company on BBB and Glassdoor as well. These sites can give you an even better idea of what kind of company you’re really dealing with.
Tip: Paid reviews are the biggest current issue with fake SEO as google cannot tell whether a review on any of these sites was paid for or not.
8. Check the Site’s Content.
It’s important to keep in mind that Google’s RankBrain (non-human machine algorithm) still operates at the level of about a 6-year-old. While that’s an amazing feat for technology, it still means the algorithm isn’t perfect. There are still many spammy keyword and content tactics that, while may work for now in gaining ranking, will likely hurt site’s more in the long run.
Review the service, blog, case studies and other pages and ask yourself these questions:
- Are they over-optimized or keyword-stuffed for services and / or local targeting?
- Do they properly answer questions and solve pain points from the target audience?
- Is the text and design professional, user friendly, and easy to read and consume?
- Are the pages over-written with long scrolling information that is fluff, repetitive, long-winded, and serves very little purpose to the actual end user?
- Do they post topic-relevant articles consistently on their blog?
Failing to meet any of these standards is a red flag. Quality content is absolutely key to gaining and keeping rankings for the long term without worry of possible Panda or HummingBird penalties in the future.
How long will this process take?
This whole process should take less than 1 hour even if you’ve never done anything like this before.
If this still seems like a lot of work I would be happy to personally do the Fake SEO audit for you along with comparing it to our own results for full transparency.
I wrote this post as bad practices not only ruining businesses, but the integrity, reputation and hard work of great SEO people and companies that are doing it right. It’s time to clean up the fakers!