By Paul North, Head of Client Services at Mediarun

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is no longer a marketing niche, indulged in by only the most web-savvy organisations.

Most businesses now see the benefits in attracting searchers to their site via high ranking keywords. Like many industries however, the SEO sector has its cowboys and snake oil salesmen. Most businesses are now called nearly every day with someone offering them huge returns from their SEO services. The problem for many businesses is that because SEO can be so technical, confusing and swamped in its own jargon, it can be hard to know what you’re being told. As such there are plenty of stories around from businesses who feel they’ve been burned and seen no returns from their investment with a SEO company.

Here I offer advice for anyone (re)considering SEO for their business. Firstly, I should add that these bad SEO people, are not necessarily all conmen. It is quite possible that they’ve got some great results somewhere along the line and have become confident that they can do the same for anyone. The problems occur in not knowing precisely how they achieved those results and therefore what it’s going to take to do it again for a new client with a whole different set of criteria. Either way, you want to avoid people displaying the following traits:

They begin by dismissing the existing SEO work

This is common in many trades. A good SEO consultant will instead point out opportunities for improvements and gains and set a client’s expectations to realistic levels. Professionals won’t wade into other people’s work because they know that there are always compromises to be made with web designers, copywriters, developers and all the other people involved in building a great site. SEO is an on-going process and getting it perfect first time just isn’t possible.

They will dodge questions or not provide full answers

The SEO process is totally transparent. It uses publicly available data and the evidence of a SEO consultant’s work is there online for everyone to see. Everything a SEO professional does can be shown to a client. There shouldn’t be anything a SEO consultant wants to hide unless they are using unethical techniques that will get them in trouble.

They guarantee you rankings

There is simply no ethical way to guarantee a ranking in Google. SEO consultants cannot control what the search engine does. They can only influence it. This is also symptomatic of a wider issue: they should not be so concerned with the rankings of individual keywords. It’s rarely an effective use of their time. It’s likely your site will receive traffic from thousands of keywords. A good SEO service will be focussed on return on investment first, then traffic, then rankings.

They sell their services in terms of volume

SEO is more about quality than quantity. One good link can be more valuable than hundreds of poor ones. It is meaningless to describe SEO processes by numbers alone.

They point to sponsored results as evidence of their expertise

This is getting rare now but it’s still seen from time to time. Nowadays most people know that sponsored results are paid for. Just attempting a trick like this demonstrates a total lack of respect for the customer.

They are really cheap

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone but since the internet has provided the opportunity for so many traditional business models to be undercut, there’s a certain assumed credibility to low pricing. SEO is a mixture of technical knowledge, hard work and creativity. Costs can be reduced by using cheap labour on the process-driven elements but the most knowledgeable and creative teams aren’t cheap.

Thankfully, the bad guys in SEO are much like the bad guys in any industry and use many of the same tactics. Also, they are a minority. Compare a handful of SEO agencies and the good ones will speak for themselves and stand out during the pitching process.