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How to Spot Shady SEO Providers

picture of Gavin Duff

Gavin Duff

Head of Digital Performance, Friday.ie

This week I’m talking to Gavin Duff, Head of Digital Performance for the Irish-based digital agency, Friday. The world of search engine optimization (SEO) is full of shady people and practices and it’s much more difficult than you might think to actually rank well on Google. Today Gavin will teach us three main things: how to uncover shady SEO practices; how to spot shady SEO practitioners and avoid them; and what to do if you’ve been burned by one. With nearly 15 years of digital experience working for companies such as Dannon, Heineken, Mazda, Dominos Pizza, AXA Insurance, Amazon, and many more, he is a great person to learn from.

listen to this episode

We covered:

  • Defining SEO and how it’s done
  • The damage bad SEO can have on a business
  • What good SEO looks like versus red flags
  • How to spot bad SEO practitioners and avoid them
  • How to evaluate SEO hires and what it should cost
  • What to do if you’ve been burned
  • Gavin’s advice and recommended resources

Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour! Bonjour! Welcome to another episode of everyonehatesmarketers.com, the digital marketing podcast for marketers and founders who are sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier. I receive around maybe five emails a day promising me that I’ll be on the first page of Google in the next two weeks if I spend $20 with people.

It’s true that finding SEO services or search engine optimization services is quite easy. You just have to Google it and you’ll have plenty of agencies consultant financiers who could proposed they are inexpensive SEO services for you to start and be on the first page of Google. But this isn’t the truth of the landscape. It’s actually much more difficult than you think to actually rank well on Google and the field is full of shady practices.

In this episode today, we’re going to talk about three main things; how to uncover shady SEO practices, how to spot shady SEO practitioners and avoid them, and then what to do if you’ve been burned by one. My guest today is Gavin Duff. He’s the head of Digital Performance for the Irish-based Digital Agency, Friday.

He worked in digital for the last 14 years. He has plenty of experience in SEO and other digital marketing stuff. He worked with big names likes Dannon, Heineken, Mazda, Dominos Pizza, AXA Insurance, Amazon, and many, many, many more. The list truly never ends. Gavin, thank you so much for your time. Thanks for being on the show.

Gavin: Thank you.

Louis: Let’s gets started straight away into the subject matter. I think if there is a discipline in digital marketing, and in marketing general that has the shadiest reputation, it’s safe to say that it’s SEO or search engine optimization. Why do think this is the case?

Gavin: I think first and foremost it’s because a discipline that has a lot of technical requirements, requires a lot of technical knowledge, and so it’s very easy to hide behind that. It’s very easy to, I suppose, onboard a client and convince them that you can do the right things and that you know the right things. To get them to, as they claim, number one on Google.

But an actual fact, a lot of agencies or a lot of SEO individuals or practitioners can talk the talk. They can read from a script, and they can win business, and they can win your business. But the result in work is not going to help you. The reason it’s sort of become, I suppose, that easy for practitioners to do and to play upon those with little or middle in knowledge of SEO is because it all happens relatively quickly.

This Google thing exploded quite some time ago and people knew they have to be there. Search, let’s face it, it’s bigger than email, it’s bigger that social. It’s the biggest thing on the internet. You’ve got to be there. With that in mind, there were people willing to capitalize on that fact and sell what they, I suppose, pretend as their knowledge of how to get you there, and not actually have the knowledge or the skills to actually implement that and do that for you.

It is very easy to read an SEO website or blog. You can sound like you know what you’re talking about. It’s very easy to accept people’s cheques and their cash for your services. But it’s more difficult to achieve anything for them. It’s similar to what you mentioned a moment ago, about getting emails every day about “I’ll get you number one on Google, etcetera, etcetera.”

If you go to Google right now and you search for cheap link building packages for example, you’ve got a dearth of websites, a ton of websites who are promising you number one if you put your credit cards details in and pay $200 a month which is not just possible to do. If it’s that easy then everybody would be doing it and what’s the point of that anyway.

Louis: Let me stop you right there. Sorry. I know you have maybe other points so, try to remember it because I tend to do that quite a lot to interrupt my guest. Let’s define a few terms because I know that a lot of listeners are not necessarily digital marketing experts. The first term I want to define is search engine optimization. Briefly, just a quick definition, how do you define it? SEO, what does it stand for?

Gavin: It stands for Search Engine Optimization, obviously, but as far as what’s it defined as, what I define it as is a set of methods aimed at increasing your brand or your website’s visibility of search engines. In other words to get you to rank higher but for the right reasons. That’s from [Namenji Brothers 00:05:17].

Louis: Great. The second thing you started to mention is link building. How do you define this? What is this practice?

Gavin: I think in order to define link building I’ll explain it’s position within SEO. There are many aspects to SEO. There’s your website itself and its user journey; how easy it is for Google to crawl it, to index it, to library it, if you will. That all comes down to your technical optimization and your own page content and what you’re talking about on there.

But almost half the battle for the past few years has been link building. Essentially getting good, authoritative, trusted websites to link to you in a relevant way. Google essentially sees that as a vote in your direction. It’s not about the more of them you get the better, it’s about getting a good, steady number of trusted links on the market.

Louis: Great. I think we have defined two key terms pretty well. Now I can try to point you back to the question I was asking originally which is why SEO gets such a shady name and you are starting to say something else and I caught you.

Gavin: It’s okay. What it comes down to is if you want links to your website and like I said, it is a known ranking factory. You will rank well if you get good, strong, trusted links. But it’s very easy to get links to your website. You can go to a website and you can post a comment on a blog and it will link back to you but it’s worthless.

You can ask your friend to link to you and you will link back to them thinking, “Hey, we’re doing each other a favor here. We’re both going to rank pretty well.” But again that cancels out. When it comes to link building, if anything is that easy to do, then Google are smarter than that. Real link building means building relationships. It means identifying opportunities where people will link to you, perhaps even reference your content, reference your product or service as the best or one of the best.

That’s a natural link and they come about through, like I said, building relationships. It’s both getting into the mindset as well of Google’s algorithm and what would they can consider to be irrelevant and natural link. Like we said, there are people out there who will offer you link packages. They’ll get you 1000 links a month, no problem. I could do that right now for everyonehatesmarketers.com.

I just need to put in my credit card details, and send you an invite, you’ve got a thousand links, but it’s unethical. It’s not going to benefit you in anyway. An actual fact, when Google sees those links, they’re deemed unnatural and it can damage your business by way of having you removed from Google searches also all together. That’s why it’s so dangerous.

Louis: Let’s talk about this because exactly as you said, we talked before, we exchanged a few emails and one point that you made which was really interesting is there are other disciplines inside digital marketing where you can hire people to do the job. If they are very bad at their job maybe let’s say it’s Facebook, they publish a few bad post but you can delete them unless it goes viral in a sense, the shitty post that they posted on your behalf. There isn’t a lot of consequence to it.

However, for SEO particularly not only can it be in effective, as you pointed out but it can be extremely damaging, it could even destroy your brand. Before we get into step by step of how to uncover all those shady SEO practice and how to spot shady practitioners, can you tell me more about the damage that bad SEO can actually have on the business?

Gavin: I’ve seen it first hand. Google now issued manual penalties and two websites, that have, for the lack of a better phrase, shitty links. Because they look like they’ve been deliberately built just for the purposes of ranking high on Google, they don’t like when you’re trying to cheat them. I’ve seen it first hand. The damage that can happen is that they will remove your website from their search results altogether.

That doesn’t just mean that, say for example, if that happened to our agency our website friday.ie. I build a ton of links I think are fantastic, we’ve got a lot of links now, but then we get this penalty. Not only will we not show on Google for someone searching for digital agency but we won’t even show for someone searching for our name Friday Agency, and that’s where it becomes alarming.

Someone may hear your radio ad, they may hear of you by word-of-mouth but they cannot find you on Google. That is extremely damaging because organic traffic, your SEO traffic essentially, your traffic from Google is probably your highest channel. It needs to be protected because if you’re an online only business and you don’t have actual on-ground stores, if you are relying on online traffic and suddenly Google is out of the mix, it’s extremely damaging.

You’re talking about you’re letting employees go, and you can’t fulfill orders, and then suddenly you’ve got no orders. It can be very very damaging. I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve taken on clients who have recently had a website build, for example, one case and they were promised SEO, they were promised higher positions. As soon as we took them on as a client, first thing I did naturally was search on Google for them, couldn’t find them.

They had a penalty sitting there for I think a month and nobody knew. It was because their previous agency had built tons and tons of spammy things for them. Malaysia, US, South Africa all over the world, anywhere but Ireland which was relevant to them and they received that penalty. The light at the end of tunnel there it was that I did have that penalty removed so it can be done. But you’re still facing at least a few weeks of a lot less traffic and of a lot less revenue.

Louis: Tell me more about this manual penalty thing. It sounds like the Google algorithm would flag this website as a potential website with an issue like something, shitty website that tries to run Google for the sake of it. That literally employees of Google actually review it and flag it as, “This is a shitty site.” Is that what happens?

Gavin: That is exactly what happens. I wouldn’t go so far as to say a shitty site. It can happen to very good sites but like I said, they’ve got shitty links. That’s why we call it actually a manual penalty because it is an actual manual person reviewing that and it’s been flagged by their algorithm as looking unnatural.

There are some websites who don’t rank very well, and they do have a shitty link profile, shitty links pointing to them. They just don’t rank very well. But if you’ve had a really, really bad job done on your links then you get a manual penalty. It’s Google sort of saying, “Woah, hang on a minute here. We can see you’re really trying to cheat the system.” They don’t like that.

Louis: Do you think this is the biggest shady practice in the world of SEO? If you have to really choose of all of the tactics that can be used to try to gain the system, do you think the bad link building is by far the biggest?

Gavin: It is. It absolutely is but I think there’s a bigger picture as well. This already comes back full circle to what I was saying earlier about anyone can read a script and sell SEO. They can talk all about link building and the benefits of links but they don’t know how to get them. Ultimately, they’ll go and pay for them which is very, very dangerous. But also, they’ll promise the world in terms of data driven reports you’re going to receive and great content. All that sort of good stuff.

I’ve encountered, I suppose, other agencies and SEO professionals as well, individuals offering these services and have taken on clients who have used them in the past and I’ve seen the past work that has been done. In some cases, it equates to either one of two things. They’ve done nothing but just send a monthly report and say, “Here are your rankings this month,” which is very very lazy and you’re paying for that. Something you can just do yourself or they have done shady link building as well on top of that.

Ultimately they’re sending you a report and they are damaging your business and they’re taking your money for that. It’s been a point of anger for me for quite some time because I see it a lot and it gives the rest of us a bit of a bad name as well.

Louis: Let’s unleash the anger together. Let’s just let it out for a while. First of all, let’s just start with the first step. We mentioned a few things here but I think it’s important to go through kind of a step-by-step to understand things a bit better. How to uncover shady SEO practices. How do you recognize where those practices are the wrong ones?

Gavin: I think what I should start with really is what does good SEO look like because only then when you know that can you go and go look for all the general activities to understand if that’s what you’re getting. Good SEO should look like it’s not just changing page titles, it’s not just writing a few articles and building a few links here or there. Okay, that’s ticking a few boxes but is your SEO agency or is your SEO professional you’ve hired, are they looking on a regular basis at, say for example, brand mentions.

If you’re being mentioned in a positive light somewhere, is there a link opportunity there? One that looks natural and that you should have. Are they testing different page titles? Are they testing variants in page content and article content as well to see which will work best. Very fundamentally as well, if you’re going to work with an SEO agency, and this is something that we would do ourselves, you should expect that they’ll want to know almost everything about your business.

For example, if I’m to do work with an insurance company, I will want to meet with potentially their head of customer service which may sound peculiar but that’s what SEO is. You need to understand customers pain points because your content will reference those pain points and answer that for them. Little things like that which SEO agencies can be quite lazy about. Some are very good and don’t get me wrong, but they really need to know everything about you. That includes even everything down to customer care and customer pain points, everything.

Even before I start working with a client, I will if I can read their last couple of annual reports. I would want to know what’s working well for them, what’s not. I want to know who the key business people are. I want to know who I’m speaking to, their background. Because in that lies link opportunities as well and all that stuff. In order to recognize a bad SEO, and you can ask questions like for example, “How much have you learned about our business before we met?” It’s almost like an interview scenario in a sense. But if the answer to that is quite high level and they probably only read your about page on your website, then that’s not enough. They’re not showing a true interest in your business.

Your SEO effort should reflect your business efforts and your goals like any marketing channel. I would ask them as well for some examples of links that they’ve built for clients in the past and just look with those links and wonder to yourself, “Are they relevant?” They may send you examples of directories that they’ve put their clients in. A directory that nobody probably visits. They’ll probably show you comments on blog posts that they’ve made on behalf of a client which have absolutely no positive impact to you either.

Do absolutely ask you about link building and their approach there. As well as that I would ask if they have done perhaps a test purchase on your website. Have they been to your website as a user and fully understood that journey. Because only through that can you understand where somebody is in the funnel, and what content for example may speak to them, and help them through their journey, or that you may even rank for while they’re within that journey. I hope that makes sense.

Louis: It does. Let’s take a step back because you mentioned a lot of interesting things. The first thing you mentioned is the brand mentions. There are a lot of tools out there. There’s one that I have in mind that works quite well is Buzzsumo where you can actually track mentions of your brands where people haven’t linked back to you. They’re mentioning your brand but it’s not linked. This is a very easy opportunity to reach out to say, “Hey, I’ve seen that you’re talking about us. This is great but it could be good if you could link back to us.” That’s what you’re mentioning, right?

Gavin: Yes, it is. There’s a lot more to it than that. Tools are great but there is no substitute for I think manual process and human input. For example, our agency’s name is Friday, try doing a brand mention report on Friday. You’re going to get a lot and a lot that don’t link to our website as well. Every new story once a week probably contains that word. That’s where difficulties are thrown up. You do need to manually check every mention. Search for mentions with variations, like for example, Friday agency or other variants. But it is a very manual process.

Tools can do a certain amount but as one tip to anyone listening, Google advanced search is actually as good as probably any of them. You can filter by country, by date, search for exactly your brand name, and you can also put in a negative mention as well. I’ll put in minus friday.ie or whatever your domain is, it will show mentions but without links to your website. Google advanced search itself can do that. You’re finding as well as that, the added bonuses, you’re finding brand mentions that Google has indexed. You know you’re getting a link from an indexed potentially trusted website.

Louis: Let’s go back to the questions because I think I’m picturing this person interested in SEO services and want to reach out to potential SEO agencies or SEO consultants and want to know whether they are getting into shady practitioner or whether it’s a good SEO. Before contacting them, and meeting them, and spending your time asking them questions about, “Have you heard of my business. Have you researched my business?” I’m curious if there is any way to know just by looking at the website or the way certain things are being said or not said.

Gavin: There is the obvious one which is, “We’ll get you number one on Google.” I think most of us know it’s not possible to promise. It’s possible to do but not possible to promise.

Louis: I’m going to cut you right there, and just say, for us both of us, it’s probably obvious. However, let’s repeat it again. If people promise you that they will get you on the first page of Google, this is bullshit. You cannot promise that right? Let’s make a strong point on this.

Gavin: Absolutely. The reason you can’t promise that is because Google’s algorithm now changes in real time. Its search results change in real time based on machine learning. You can be number one for an hour and then you’re not. You’ve got to take that into consideration as well. Another flag as well, I think sort of falls under the same umbrella is when an SEO agency or professional says that they have a direct line to Google about this. We can talk to them about this.

If you hear that then hang up the phone or shut the door or just walk away because they don’t. Google have documentation online about SEO but they will not pick up the phone about it. They do have occasional webinars. There are Twitter handles you can occasionally get information from but if you’re lucky. If they promise that again, I’d be slightly concerned.

Louis: There’s another thing that I’m just picking up from what you just said. You cannot pay Google in order to be ranked better. Right? Just to make that clear as well. We’re not talking the pay-per-click model here. We’re not talking about paying in order to have your ads on Google. We’re talking about paying a professional in order for this person or this agency to help you to rank better organically without paying directly for the result because you cannot do that. Sorry to cut you but this is another red flag.

Gavin: It is, absolutely. I go so far as to say that I’ve even heard all of an SEO agency in the past saying that if you install Google analytics on your site you will rank better. Something like that is just insane for multiple reasons but mainly because Google analytics is simply a free tool that you install a tag on your site and tells you how many people are visiting. It doesn’t tell you how you’re ranking. It’s nothing to do with SEO, it’s just information. I’ve also heard that lie about Google AdWords. If you spend more you’re going to rank better in Google search results. It’s absolutely not true. Again, if you hear that, I would hang up the phone.

Louis: Right. A few red flags already. Once again, before contacting them, what else do you think that we should look out for on the website on the way that describe themselves?

Gavin: If they describe themselves as number one SEO agency and there’s no true governing authority here that says, “You are the number one.” Perhaps when it comes to paying to be on Google, you can perhaps be number one based on your level of spend with Google, you could be the biggest in that way. But when it comes to SEO you can’t claim to be number one as an agency but some are claiming to do so and I’m still entirely unsure as to how they back that up.

Really how you judge them is based on past experience. That’s past person experience of who will be your actual day-to-day contact. But also ask for past case studies, and for link building case studies, for ranking results, for traffic increase that they’ve actually seen. If you see that and it seems achievable to you or seems, I suppose, trustworthy to you then absolutely try them. But unfortunately, the reason a lot of people get burned by SEO agencies is because there is no governing body as such. Anyone can claim to be an expert. There is no degree in SEO. There is no real qualification. Anyone who’s good at it is based on a lot of experience.

I’m finding that can be difficult. It can be difficult to filter out those that don’t have that experience. It goes so far as to say that you should look for probably at least three to four years experience if your want it to be done very, very well. Book that set. You may get someone who’s quite new to it and it’s just very very good and that can happen too. But do look at experience absolutely and case studies.

Louis: We said a quite a few things. Before we talked about looking in the website and the red flags, before that, you talked about asking a few key questions. Perhaps you can get a list of questions down that really will help people to filter out the people that they should select in order to move to the next phase which would be maybe a test project of some sort. Maybe we can talk about that then. But the first question you mentioned before was, “What have you learned from us? What have you learned from my business?” The second one is maybe talking about their approach to link building.

Gavin: Yeah, absolutely.

Louis: Red flags include directories or lies like this that we talked about in the last few minutes. The third one would be about their experience and all relevant experience with companies that are in the same industry than yours right?

Gavin: Yep.

Louis: Have you worked with clients like this before? And then you mentioned case studies, so perhaps something that you really must seek is the example that you said before of links and of overall campaigns that they’ve done with the client and the results to back it up, right?

Gavin: Yeah, absolutely. I think as well as there’s two other core things. One of them has leads back to link building. It’s almost like a trick question. If you ask an SEO agency how many links can you get us over the course of the next let’s say six months. If they give an actual number or approximate number, then that’s a red flag as well because the number of links that you get will depend on their research, your sector, what kind of relationships you have, what sort of, say for example, charity work your company is involved in, [inaudible 00:27:08] type work.

It’ll depend on so many things that they won’t really know until they’re really knee-deep in knowing your business and the relationships you can leverage there. As well as that they don’t really fully at know the contents that they can leverage to get links either. If they do answer that, say, “Tell you what, we’ll get you 20 links a month.” Then I’ll be a little bit skeptical. Well, more than a little bit.

To solidify it all, I think it’s reasonable to ask for actual references as well. I have clients currently I’ve asked clients who would have no problem answering a phone call, and giving me a reference, and saying, “Yes, you did great work for us.” I’m proud of that. If someone is unwilling to do that then I will, again, would be a little bit concerned.

Louis: Right. Those questions are actually very important. I believe that it sounds like, if they answer a question successfully, and don’t fall into the trap that we can upset them, they should be a good candidate to potentially work with you in the future right?

Gavin: Yeah.

Louis: Is there anything else before we move on to perhaps a test project of some sort that you think people should ask them or not?

Gavin: I think the final one really is probably around content. Content marketing is a big buzzword now and to the point whereby there are agencies who, as part of their SEO offering, will say to you, “We’ll create 10 articles a month for you. Google loves when you create article and content,” which again is not true. Google likes when you create content that users love and their algorithm can detect that to a certain degree.

But they can also detect it by the number of people who share it and very importantly link to it as well. I suppose you have a last point on that. In terms of that checklist, yeah, ask, “How often should I be producing content? How will we go about that? How would our content plan look for the next 12 months or so?” If they promise a certain number of articles every month etcetera, that’s a red flag.

Louis: Absolutely. I agree with you. This is a great checklist. I think we’ve covered 99% of potential bad SEOs from there, but then I really believe, as you said, that not only do we need to ask from past experience but do we also need to have a proof of what they are able to do for us. How would you approach this, let’s say I have two SEO agencies or two SEO freelancers or consultants in front of me, they both seem equally experienced and qualified, but I must pick one. How do you go about it? Do you do a test project with them and if so, how does it look like?

Gavin: I wouldn’t do a test project. I think it’s kind of unethical to ask an SEO agency to carry out work in order to prove themselves. I think this winning process should come before that. Now it is first and foremost, you gotta ask those kinds of questions but I would avoid the test project type scenario, but I would ask for a certain level of thinking.

I suppose it comes back again to being able to read from a script. SEO agents can very well command and they can give you every bullet point, they were gonna do all this great stuff. They’d all say the same thing. But ask for examples of how they would do it for your brand specifically and what kind of questions they would ask in order to achieve those goals. For example, a lot of businesses small to medium especially are members of the Chamber of Commerce. You probably got a member profile on the Chamber of Commerce’s website. Why is that little profile page not linking to you? If they don’t uncover things like that quite quickly then I’d be concerned.

It is okay, I think, to begin with to ask for some level of thinking. Just say, “Give us two examples of how you would approach getting a link first.” They don’t need to give their whole strategy or game away, but it will show that they’re thinking and that it sounds right. They can maybe pick a couple of core product pages on your website and they can say, “This is how we go by optimizing them.” If it seems you like their way of thinking and it’s in line with your goals then absolutely go with them. That couple with I suppose, asking those preliminary questions we discussed, I think you should get a fairly good idea.

Louis: There is the million dollar question or million euros question, should I say, that I need to ask is the pricing. How long is a piece of string in top of question and I understand that you can’t say good SEOs will charge between x and that. However, I think that there is a threshold, a minimum threshold that you should ask for. I would be very worried if an SEO consultant can do a good job for  €100 a month, or $50 a month, or these kind of small sums right?

Gavin: Yeah, absolutely. I think if you’re going to do it right, and like I said, there are those who will offer to do it for $200 a month for example, and that’s all inclusive. That said, some of them will offer to track five keywords for you and show you how you’re doing. Five keywords is not reflective of any business for a start.

But going back to your question, your monthly reporting alone, that should take half a day. You’re not going to get that done for $200, not if it’s good reporting with proper insights, proper recommendations, looking at what went wrong, what didn’t work, what we should do now. All that sort of reporting and insight is probably a few hundred dollars anyway in itself. If it’s valuable, it’s worth it. But then on top of that, there is, I suppose, weekly rankings, check-ins to make sure things are still healthy. There is testing different variants of page content, and page titles, stuff like that.

Realistically, to do SEO very well for a website for a medium sized business, I’d be very worried if someone said they could do with it and for less than maybe $1200. Again, it is a piece of string, so that’s just an example. That’s just a random medium-sized business. But to buy a package for a few hundred dollars and expect amazing results, it’s not possible, because you’re not getting the attention that you deserve.

Louis: Another question that is difficult to answer, but I need to ask and I think it’s also back to the red flags is once you’ve hired an SEO practitioner, how long should you expect results to start coming in?

Gavin: I thought you might ask that. Again, it will depend on sector. It will depend, I’m not dodging your question here politician style, and I will give some good advice though. It will depend on your sector, on the level of competition on that sector and again, what you’re willing to spend.

When I say competition, I mean for example if you are a small to medium size insurance company, from the get-go you’re competing with probably four to five top players in that market who have been around a long time. They’ve built up links over the course of a long time.

To take insurance as one example, and to get to page one of Google, and to rank on page one of Google for core, as well as money keywords as we call them, those are my drive revenue. You could be talking a year or more realistically,  if you’re new to the market, and a new to that sector. If your level of competition is let’s say middling and you’ve got budget to spend, and there are quick wins, within three months you could be seeing some good success but it’s certainly not overnight. It will very much depend on the case-by-case basis.

But it’s a question I’m asked all the time. Because when someone parts with their money, they don’t want to hear an agency dodging that question by saying, “We don’t know. It’s up to Google.” They’re hiring you for a reason so you do need to use your knowledge and your experience to at least have a guess which a lot of people are afraid to do. But I’m not so much because I worked on SEO across probably all sectors so I can have an educated guess at that.

When it comes to SEO, it’s so difficult to set KPIs. My advice is I suppose when you’re engaging with an SEO agency, don’t expect results overnight, and don’t expect that you’ll wake up in six months when they promised success and it’s suddenly there, but do expect that from three months on you should start to see consistent increase over time. If you’re not getting that then after perhaps a year you should consider yourself a little unhappy with it.

Louis: That’s a great answer. I don’t think I was expecting that level of details but this is I think, another way to select the right SEO practitioner. Because if this person tells you within two weeks you’re gonna go on the first page, you know that this is a scam. If they tell you an answer that you just heard or something similar, whether they give you ball park figures, if it’s very, very competitive keyword, it’s probably gonna take more than a year. If it’s not competitive at all, or that there are a few niche keywords and could take three months, six months. Realist don’t expect result overnight. It’s not going to happen. Be patient about it. If you’ve hired the right person and asked the right questions, results should start kicking in as you mentioned.

Gavin: Definitely. I think on that same point, if you do hire an agency for SEO and they say, “You’re now painless. We’re doing your SEO. You go away. You relax. We’re going to take care of this.” That’s another red flag because it’s very much a collaborative process. No matter how much you do learn about the client’s business before you start to work with them or even while you do, they will still always know more than you about their business. If they launch a new product for example, they will know a lot more about their target audience so you need to get to bottom of that with them in a collaborative way.

The content they produce needs to be done collaboratively. An SEO agency can’t go away and write content for you, they need your help. SEO is not just an investment in an agency to do it for you. It’s an investment in yourself too and your time and those needs to be collaborative.

Louis: That’s a good point.

Gavin: As well as the main point there is that if someone promises that they’ll go away and do your SEO for you, “You’re fine. Don’t worry about it. We’ll do that.” That’s a red flag. Unfortunately, that does happen a lot. I think a lot of people that work in marketing functions in companies of all sizes on a lot of sectors and come under pressure and unwarranted pressure to just get SEO done because they’ve heard it’s something that we need to be doing. That’s fine, it is something you absolutely have to do but it’s not just a box to be ticked. Don’t just pay an agency and assume that your SEO’s now taken cared of. You’ve got to help them to nurture it. That’s a very important thing to remember.

Louis: That’s a great point. Can I challenge you on something? I’m going to challenge you to remember all the red flags that you mentioned throughout this episodes.

Gavin: I’ll do my best. If someone is promising you a lot of links or a certain number of links, walk away. I would absolutely ask about past experience and even references where possible. I would be hesitant if someone has offered to create your content for you, because you will know your business, and your service, and product better than them so that makes no sense to do. They encompass most of it but first and foremost, if someone promises you amazing success like number one on Google, it’s not possible do, so walk away. They are the core pieces.

Louis: Great. That’s a good summary and a good way to move on to the next quick subject and I’m interested in this. What if you’ve been burned by a shady SEO practitioner in the past. What should you do?

Gavin: It’s difficult because I think we mentioned earlier there is no governing body. There is no one to officially complain to. Google won’t listen. They simply won’t. You can however, if you go on to Google and search for ‘do I need an SEO agency’ the first result I believe you get is actually a page on Google advising you what to do if you need one but also what to do if you feel that you’ve been subject to some malpractice.

What they recommend is going in Europe for example, you go to econsumer.gov which is affiliated with the International Consumer Protection Network and you can submit a complaint there. I’ve done that in the past and on behalf of clients. You do get a response and they do say that your complaint has been duly noticed. Where it goes from there, I do not know yet, but for now all we can do is make that complaint and hope that we get traction. That is realistically is the only way.

On that same page in Google will detail how to do that by market as well, so whether it’s US, Europe or anywhere. There are channels whereby you can complain. Very specifically on that page, they do reference that if you have been sold directory listings, that very explicitly is Google saying that that’s just bad practice then this is who really complain to. I would advise that you check that out.

Failing all of that the only real thing you can do is to – you’re sort of back to square one in a sense, because you can’t complain, and we’re not quite sure if that’s going to gain traction for you. You can do then is engage with another couple of SEO agencies, and go through the process we’re discussing here now, ask the right questions this time. And then disclose your past SEO experience with them and just say, “Do you think that was good or was that bad and be honest with me.” That will, I hope in some way, ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Louis: Great. That’s a great way to end this kind of step-by-step methodology. Can you just remind me of the way to get this article from Google? By the way, a lot of listeners, I know you’re certainly aware but we have a website, everyonehatesmarketers.com, and every single episode gets a full transcript, gets a description, and specifically we also link to every resources that the guest has mentioned, that Gavin today has mention in particular. You can go and check it out. You can go and link back to it. Remind me how to find it on Google again.

Gavin: If you simply search for ‘do I need and SEO agency’.

Louis: It should be the first result coming directly from Google.

Gavin: Yep. Underneath the ads of course.

Louis: Yes. Of course, obviously. That’s a good point. Gavin, you’ve been great at this exercise. What do you think marketers and founders should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, or 50 years?

Gavin: To me really, when I first started in search marketing which was 14 years ago in Yahoo, I was fortunate because I got to know how search engine worked almost from the very beginning. I got to see their evolution over time. A good SEO, I guess, is able to not just get inside the mind of Google and their algorithm, but also its users as well.

For example, when Google first started handing out manual penalties for link building or for shady link building, myself and other SEO professionals, we saw that coming so we weren’t doing that shady stuff. Because we knew it was just not going to work long term. It was too easy. Really what people I think need to learn as Google evolves overtime and Google is very much about visibility. Whether that’s through local listings, rich snippets or just organic search results.

What we need to realize is that it’s not easy to get there. Anyone who says it is, is absolutely lying. It takes bloody hard work and as well as that Google now, like I said, it’s in real time. Their algorithm is in real time. It’s machine learning. It’s called Google RankBrain is the term they’ve given it. That’s going to evolve more and more overtime. There’s gonna be no easy way to go about the SEO except to use someone or upscale yourself in terms of how they work and how they think.

Because only through doing that can you stay ahead of it. Because they don’t giveaway too much information, they will only tell you when they’ve made a major change, after they’ve changed it. But if you’ve got the right SEO agency or you’ve hired the right SEO then potentially they could see it coming and you’d stay ahead of the curve. That would be the same for the next 20 to 30 years. Google’s going nowhere. In terms of your brands’ visibility, you’ve absolutely got to be there.

I’ve heard people say many years ago Facebook is not taking over from Google. Well I can search on Facebook now. Again, that’s not forward thinking. Google are all about search and user experience, and staying completely ahead of anyone else who’s trying to suppose get a bit of market share there. It’s really a very much about staying ahead of what they are intending to do or change.

Louis: Great. That’s probably one of the first time I’m hearing this kind of answer out to this question which is great. Try to get to know Google better and the way it thinks, and the way it works, because bear in mind, Google has if I’m not mistaken, tens of thousand of employees. Obviously in different services but a lot of them working for the main business, the RankBrain, and the algorithm, and the social experience. Do not believe that you can trick them in anyway. There are many, many much more resources than you have. They are thinking about the people.

Even though their cash machine advertising revenue is probably 95% of the revenue or something around those lines anyway, they do think about the people behind it. They do think of, as you mention during this episode, they do think about when somebody click on this page is this person happy to about it or is this person going back to Google and search again. They are picking up signals that basically says, “Are people happy? Are they finding the information they are looking for?” The more we’re going to go on the deeper, the smarter they’re going to get. You’re not going to be able to gain the system at all anymore. That’s a great answer to this question.

Gavin: For every one thing that an agency promises you SEO-wise, they’ll say, “Here is a quick fix. Here is a quick win.” If it seems too easy then there’s probably a team of 10 guys in Google who were employed just to stop you doing that. I would just stop and think about that for a moment before you invest too heavily in it. But yeah, you’re absolutely right.

Google are very much, in fact they’re 100% about the user. That’s what they built their whole thing on. They’ve built the whole search engine on that they want to serve the right result. People think they’re being followed around by Google, being listened to by Google, that’s creepy etcetera, etcetera. Again, that’s to show you the right advertising. It is very much about the user. That thinking and that methodology is going nowhere. That’s what their business is built on. If something seems too easy then it’s not true.

Louis: What other top three resources you’d recommend listeners today?

Gavin: Aside from your website, of course, I think on a daily basis I would read SearchCap. It’s a daily newsletter from searchengineland.com. If SEO is your thing then absolutely you should read that everyday, and not every article it digest for you, but at least those you find interesting. It’s a nice way to stay ahead of the curve.

I think tools-wise, there are a few things. A lot of people use Moz, moz.com. To me it’s great for, I suppose, backtracking your rankings. But there are better tools out there in terms of some of the other stuff it does. I think an underused resource is Google’s own webmaster forums and where I suppose people like you and I go in and discuss these various issues that they’re having. There are Google employees who will actually answer your queries too or will endeavour to find the answers for you if they don’t have them. It is one way to at least discuss the technical side of SEO with them. I would engage with that community where possible.

I think reading daily will keep you ahead of the curve but as well as that engagement with the actual community, the actual Google webmaster community because you’ll find some surprising information in there that you won’t think Google will typically discuss but within there they might. I definitely recommend that.

Louis: What’s the address? How to find this?

Gavin: It is webmasters.google.com, I believe.

Louis: Okay. If you have to pick one resources for beginners, people who have never heard of SEO, or just starting out and want to get informed, what will it be? One resource.

Gavin: I think while it’s a little bit outdated and the beginner’s guide to SEO which is on moz.com. I think it’s even coded on their homepage there. It’s a PDF. It’s huge. It’s probably like 200 pages. Like I said, it’s a little outdated. If you have an interest in SEO I would recommend just reading that front to back. You would at least come away with 20% of the knowledge that you should have. Even if you don’t take it all in there but it is very, very good. I believe they’re going to update that at some point soon. I’m not sure when but it’s still excellent and it’s free.

Louis: Great. Gavin, once again thank you so much for your time. Where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?

Gavin: I suppose you can visit friday.ie, that’s our agency. We have a blog on there which we intend to be quite active on so you can hear more from us there.

Louis: Great. Thank you once again.

Gavin: Thank you.

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