Being an artist or small business owner (or both!) is hard. In order to be successful you’ve got to become an expert in almost everything from administration to website management to marketing – and you’ve got to do it all while still trying to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. It’s a big job. So when you get a call or email from out of the blue that says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if your website marketed for you?” you’re probably going to jump at it.

Now this email is quite likely from an SEO company and they are quite likely claiming that they can get you on the front page of Google.

Of course your response to this solicitation is, “Good God yes. I want that. I want to sit back and see my customers and fans flood to my website on their own, just because they are looking for me.”

Unfortunately, that’s what they want you to think.

SEO is one of the most competitive spaces in the business world, but it’s not competitive because there are an overwhelming number of highly qualified agencies who are all trying to get your business. No, it is competitive because of all the internet-related business-to-business companies. SEO companies are the ones who get away with the most crap – and take your money with very little return.

Why?

Because SEO is complex and doing it well is difficult. The way SEO works and how a search engine ranks your website frequently changes as the web evolves (which happens at a fairly alarming rate these days).

Sadly, so many small business owners get caught up in the promises made by shady marketers and end up throwing their money away. I see this a lot, and it is mostly due to a lack of understanding of what SEO is and what a company can actually do for you. So here are a few tips to help you not get taken in by a company who can’t deliver, but is certainly happy to take your money.

 

1. Never respond to an unsolicited email or call.

The thing about SEO marketers is that they are… marketers. If they are good at marketing they don’t need to cold call you, you will already know who they are. The problem with SEO, however, is that many artists and small business owners know very little about SEO (and are, frankly, kind of freaked out by it) so they don’t know what to ask. These unsolicited emails are frequently sent out in mass batches and won’t be personalized in any way. (The name in the email will often not match the addressee line as well, so watch for that.)

In the event that a genuine SEO marketer is, say, just starting out and looking for qualified clients, they would send you a cold email that includes actual details about your business. Instead of something generic like, “I’ve looked at your website and believe we can help you get to the first page of Google this month,” it would say, “I looked at your website and I really like the way you have laid out your products. I also believe firmly in natural skin care, so your handmade soaps are something I would be proud to help bring more eyes to. I would love to speak to you about what the opportunities might be for SEO marketing.”

While it still isn’t the best idea to respond to a cold email, one that is genuinely personalized would be much safer. In all my time working online I have never seen a genuine SEO cold email.

 

2. Beware of incredible promises.

Keeping with our example above, let’s say you make handmade soaps with organic materials. Your products could very well be the very best ever produced, but you operate in a very crowded marketplace. If an SEO company calls or emails and says that they can get you to the front page of Google (and worse, if they give you a tiny timeframe like a month), they are a lying liarpants.

A good SEO company will never promise a specific ranking, because, well, they can’t. The only one who can decide what will be on the front page of Google is Google. And Google doesn’t offer SEO services.

 

3. They reference “secret techniques” from their “mentors”.

A good SEO consultant surely had a mentor, or a series of mentors who helped them learn the ropes. Those mentors might be actual (meaning a real human they worked directly with) or they may be virtual (meaning they have read everything by renowned experts such as Aaron Wall from SEObook.com and Rand Fishkin from SEOMoz).

Worse, there is no such thing as a “secret” SEO technique. There are techniques that are standard practice, which have become standard practice because they are directly related to the way search engines operate, and there are unique methods of using those standard techniques. Inventive, yes. Secret, no.

 

4. They cannot answer the question “how are you going to get me to page one of Google”?

This is a good rule of thumb for buying anything. If the guy at the computer store cannot tell you how it works in a way you can understand, walk away. If the SEO consultant who cold emailed you and then shoved you into their high pressure sales funnel when you responded cannot specifically say “we are going to do x, y and z to get you to the highest achievable rank in Google” you should also walk away.

 

5. Beware of “Black Hat” SEO companies.

“Black Hat” is the term used to describe a company who employs shady SEO tactics like massive link buying, hidden text on pages, redirecting users to a completely different website, or creating bulk dummy content artificially, over a human user creating it, then run don’t walk away from them. Not only can this get you blacklisted by Google, it can also cost you thousands to fix these issues and get you back to where you were before they started working for you.

 

6. Check their own website rank.

If you Google them and they are not on the front page, or even page two, in an area of business that has literally thousands of companies, then how can you expect them to do it for you?

 

7. Educate yourself.

You would never buy a car without doing some research. You would want to know how good the gas mileage is, what the warranty is like, and you would check around to see if that car has any known problems. Cars are a long-term investment, and they’re damn expensive. You wouldn’t dream of walking into one single showroom, speaking to the first guy and taking the first deal he offers because “it sounded alright”. The same is true of SEO. (And almost everything else in your business, by the way.)

It’s exhausting trying to be an expert in everything, and I am in no way suggesting that you should do that. What I am suggesting, however, is that you be able to at least carry on a conversation with someone who is trying to sell you something.

I strongly recommend reading over the SEOMoz website. Their beginner guides are free, excellent and when you’re done you will be able to have a serious conversation about how to purchase services from an SEO company.