8 red flags to watch out for


SEO has been around for decades, yet experiences with it vary widely. The fact that so many agencies offer SEO services today can give the impression that SEO is a commodity and that one provider’s offering is much like another’s. 

However, not all SEO is created equal.

Choosing an SEO resource or partner based on price or generalized factors alone is risky. It often leads to cookie-cutter approaches that fail to meet a business’s specific goals and needs.

When evaluating SEO providers, below are several red flags to watch out for.

1. Rush to get started

My career background is heavily in SEO and – full disclosure – I own a digital agency focusing on search. I’ll admit that I’m quick to geek out with anyone who brings up SEO and wants to discuss it. I’m also quick to want to start getting my hands dirty and start auditing, workshopping, and strategizing about how to reach a client’s goals.

Please note that as you consider resources for your own SEO efforts, you want an employee or vendor who doesn’t see you as a quick opportunity to make money or bag a new client but is careful to assess fit overall and make sure that both sides of the relationship will be positive. 

A rush to jump in and get started is great if it is with helpful intent and a bit of nerdery. It is a red flag, though, if you start getting sales-speak, taken through someone’s clearly defined sales funnel, and sold something without many questions asked. You’ll likely get a cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all approach that isn’t unique to your specific goals and needs.

2. Claims it is easy

I know some great people in the SEO industry who focus on very granular aspects of SEO. They are the best at their focus on local search, content, link building, keyword research, and more. I also know them well enough that they will be the first to say that what they do within SEO isn’t all you should do within your strategy.

If someone claims SEO is easy, get clarification on what that means. They might be a genius and have it all figured out. If so, I love that. If they imply it is easy because they only do one or two things and call it SEO, dig deeper.

Again, I’m not here calling anyone out for their techniques or what they have mastered. I’m just saying that if you’re considering hiring someone who says that SEO is easy or they have a simple way of reaching your goals, you’re going to want to learn more to make sure it isn’t taking a shortcut or being short-sighted in a way that you’re not comfortable with.

Dig deeper: 9 tips for selecting an SEO agency

3. Low price leader

Pricing can be a touchy subject. There are a lot of games and psychological tricks that SEO tools, consultants, and providers have. Whether it is published package pricing or a fully custom bid approach, I don’t have a “right” answer or strong opinion of what is best.

I don’t think that the cheapest option is the worst. However, I do know that in most cases, you get what you pay for. 

Does a small business doing SEO for the first time need an enterprise solution? Can a single person or small agency serve a Fortune 500 corporation? Do you need to spend more to get more?

There are so many valid questions to ask. At the heart of the matter, though, is to ensure you know what your ROI equation is and your risk tolerance in your SEO investment

On the extreme end, if you spent the money with no expectation of seeing it again, will it cripple your business? On the other hand, if you have an expectation of a certain level of return on investment, are you willing to spend to get it?

Resources vary greatly, and you want to fully understand what you’re buying.

Dig deeper: 9 big risks of cheap SEO

4. Lack of strategy

Ongoing SEO work is full of tactics. There are so many “best practices” out there that are solid and built on time-tested and proven SEO methods and techniques. 

However, even if you’re doing all the right stuff, you can still spend a lot of time and money not seeing the results you want down the road.

I often refer to “check the box” or “checklist” SEO work as something that can fool companies into feeling like you’re making progress when, ultimately, at some point, it just doesn’t provide the ROI that is expected.

In most cases, there’s a lack of strategy when I look at why someone isn’t getting ROI yet is paying a lot in-house or to an agency for SEO services. 

In some memorable cases, there have been some pretty big inflection points wondering who is really driving the strategy (the client vs. the agency).

A defined strategy leads to established goals, planned tactics, agility in the plan, and building the right expectations and accountability.

Dig deeper: 9 warning signs your SEO consultant is NOT competent


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5. Little transparency

Transparency and understanding what goes into an SEO investment is important. Not that you want to know it all at the level of the person you trust to be the strategist and tactician, but you need to be comfortable with what the plan is and what is being done by your team or vendor.

When you’re faced with a lack of transparency, that’s something I would challenge immediately. To me, that means that either the work is being done in a silo (more on that in a moment), done in a way that you might not expect, that checklist SEO is in play, or maybe not at the speed/aggressiveness level that you expect.

I know on the agency side that clients sometimes assume that little information or communication can be interpreted as little is being worked on or done on their behalf. 

That often isn’t the case, but perception can become a reality, and if you’re not getting information before you hire or engage, you should push for it, as I don’t know that you’ll get it when the work is being paid to be done.

Dig deeper: Why agencies must be transparent with clients

6. Siloed approach

When I started my career nearly 20 years ago, I could do a lot as an SEO. For small businesses or roles that wear a lot of hats, that’s still possible to a degree. 

However, if you have any level of compliance, legal, IT, PR, content, UX, and any number of people who need to approve things to go live on a website, then a siloed approach won’t work.

Don’t hear me wrong on this. I loved being an SEO with a lot of control. I also didn’t like having to wade into the territory of others or step on toes. It was nice when I could report on SEO metrics and issues in those other categories that were someone else’s issues to solve.

The best SEO, though – in my opinion – is done by someone who cares deeply about solving problems and challenges. 

Someone who doesn’t want to just do traditional SEO tasks and report only on SEO metrics. It is done by working with all the stakeholders to see the job through and ensure everything is implemented and optimized fully.

7. Full-service offering or value-add

My agency works with a number of other agencies who bring us in to be their SEO partner. In some cases, they are agencies of record, and SEO is one of the dozens of line items in the scope of an annual plan. This is a pretty common setup for full-service or integrated agencies.

I occasionally talk to companies that have worked with a full-service agency and discovered that while SEO was listed as a service, the agency lacked the expected subject matter expertise.

If SEO is more important than just one of many channels or parts and pieces of your marketing effort, ask questions and determine how deep your partner or resources can go. I can say from experience that it is hard to be the best or good at everything. 

8. Set it and forget it

I noted checkbox SEO earlier. Going a step further, if someone talks about “SEOing” something or doing a round of it, that’s not enough. 

It isn’t something you do once or drop in and do every once in a while if it matters to you and is a focal point in your digital strategy.

SEO requires strategy, tactical implementation, monitoring, and ongoing work to be successful. You’re at risk of getting commoditized or bare-minimum effort and performance if it is done in a set-it-and-forget-it or one-time optimization approach.

Dig deeper: How to build a strategic SEO process

Find an SEO partner, not just a vendor

Over the years, people who do SEO have started to sound the same. It’s challenging to figure out who truly understands the subject and at what level of expertise, as it seems like everyone claims to know or have experience with it on their resumes.

I strongly push back that SEO isn’t a commodity despite the perception that is sometimes out there. Push to understand what you’re buying, and please be aware that not all SEO practitioners are the same, even though they might seem to talk about the same things.

Dig deeper: When your business doesn’t need SEO

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.



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