In Digital marketing 101

10 red flags if you’re hiring an SEO

Caveat: I’m not sure how relevant this post is to writers or if writers actually hire SEO help (we all know writers are poor, lololololol #tooclosetohome), but I’m keeping it here anyway.

So let’s dig right in.

There are three ways to do SEO: black hat, grey hat, and white hat. Given the connotations of those colours, it’s probably pretty easy to figure out what each one stands for. Black hat is SEO done using really bad tactics. Grey hat is using dodgy tactics. You may get caught, you may not. White hat is playing by the rule book.

A large percentage of SEO companies on the first four pages of are grey hat, if not straight-up black hat. They break the rules and they break them with glee. See, the thing about Google penalising people is that they have to see them first.

Cos, like, it ain’t illegal till you’re caught. 

So what are the 10 red flags when hiring an SEO company?

1. They promise with absolute certainty that they’ll get you to the top spot of Google page one.

This isn’t a promise any reputable SEO/digital marketer can make. If your’re selling clothes and Debenhams or Marks and Spencers or whoever have nabbed that top spot, you can guarantee it’s pretty much nailed on. Look at your big rivals and they might not have blogged since last October but they’re still ranking numero uno. That’s the system.

It’s the same with books. You’re not gonna outrank Amazon or Goodreads or Eason or whoever. It just ain’t happening.

Google returns the most relevant response. They’re going to consider the big companies more important, nine times out of ten.

So being promised the top couple of spots is a HUGE red flag. Run. Run fast.


Gif’s spectacular, innit?

2. They’ll spit-fire a number of links they’ll absolutely, definitely get you.

Just like that. The entire climate of link-building has changed in the last few years. Before you could get spammy and get away with it. Not any more. If an SEO promises an amount of links, they’re probably dodgy. Link-building is hard for small companies. It’s that simple. It’s also why every single company ever is blogging now, whether anyone wants to read about their industry or not.

3. You ask them their tactics and they’re cagey/vague.

“I uh…will build links and write blog posts.”

“Okay. And how will you build links?”


“…And blog posts?”

“Keywords! Lots of keywords.”

Always ask for tactics. If you don’t understand, take note and Google it. There’s loads of resources explaining the basics of digital marketing. If the SEO is vague, it’s probably because their plans are a bit dodgy.

4. You ask them their tactics and they mention any of the following:

  • Link farming.
  • Buying expired domains. Websites are all given a certain trust value (Page Rank). The older a domain, the higher the Page Rank and the more valuable links from there become. What some SEOs do is they buy expired domains with high Page Ranks and use them as part of link farming. It’s a massive nope.
  • Buying links/likes/traffic, etc.
  • Submitting you to loads of directories. Legit directories are fine but once you start turning up in irrelevant directories, you need to start worrying.
  • Link-building via guest blogging. Guest blogging is not dead, but it is very difficult.
  • Scraping/duplicate content.
  • Link exchanges. You link to me and I’ll link to you etc. etc. Granted, this is only on a large scale. Reciprocating links is beautiful, otherwise.

5. The SEO doesn’t have a client list.

Or they’re vague about contact details for their clients. Why are they hiding their clients?

6. The SEO’s blog content is copied and pasted from elsewhere.

The simplest way to check if content is duplicate or from somewhere else is to copy and paste a chunk of it into Google.

I chose a random Buffer blog and it’s been scraped heaps of times, like so:

Go ahead and read my bookmarks. They're not v. exciting.

Go ahead and read my bookmarks. They’re not v. exciting.


I copied and pasted a paragraph from a popular post from Buffer into Google and got 10,000 results. The majority of those are trying to pass this content off as their own. IF the content comes with “originally by Buffer” with a link to the article, then that’s okay and it becomes syndicated content. This is a legitimate tactic. However, if it’s copied and pasted without any credit given to the original author, then we’re in grey hat territory.

7. They don’t rank.

Seriously. Don’t undervalue this one. If they can’t get themselves to rank, what hope do you have? So close to being legit, but still so far. (If they’re new, you can let them away with this one. Ranking well takes time!)

8. The SEO ranks but their site is spammy and has no original content. (Or they’re cheats.)

Story time: I wrote over a 100 blogs for my old company. It went bust. Domain was bought by someone else who has since revived the domain and stolen all my blogs. I’ve contacted the hosts but have gotten nowhere, which is infuriating as all my content still ranks really, really well.

But alas. Off topic.

So what does spammy content look like?

Poor website design, lots of flashy graphics but little information, and keyword stuffing.

Let’s say I were to keyword stuff my bio. It’d look something like this: Lisa Sills is a content writer. She is a digital marketing content writer and creator. She creates content for clients. Content is awesome. Content is great. Yay digital marketing.

You get the idea. If a piece reads like it’s been written solely to shove as many relevant keywords in there as possible, it’s because it has. What counts as relevant keywords? This joke exemplifies it:

9. The SEO’s clients all link to each other, or their clients’ website/blog links out to random, non-related stuff.

Catching this one is often as simple as navigating through the SEO company’s blog, and their client’s blogs too. Check the links. See where they’re linking to. Is a blog for women’s clothes linking to a pharmacy or something random? Red flag.

Are there multiple links out in every blog post? Are the links leading somewhere that doesn’t make sense or is the content about something that’s not relevant to that industry? If any of those are a ‘yes’ then they’re massive red flags.

10. They’re spouting corporate/digital marketing speak but it isn’t really making any sense.

Sometimes digital marketing can be confusing, but if you find yourself asking for clarification and it’s still not making sense, there’s a chance the SEO/digital marketer is spouting crap. It’s perfectly possible to explain digital marketing and make sense. If it sounds like gobbledygook it’s probably because it is gobbledygook.

WAIT! What do you do if you’ve fallen for a dodgy SEO?

Dump them. Find yourself a reputable digital marketing agency. You may need to do a disavow. You may need to delete the dodgy content. You may even need to start over with your digital marketing strategy.

The best form of defence is to make sure you’re white hat from the off.

Follow me on Twitter for bants. Probably.

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