What Your Search Agency Isn't Telling You

Posted 8 months ago by @jessethanley

If only every conversation with SEO firms went this way. 

With the honesty and bluntness that every business owner deserves but doesn’t receive. 

You see, the agency world at large enjoys praying on small to medium businesses. 

The sales processes have been automated, the pitches fine-tuned and with thousands of new businesses being started every month there is too much opportunity to grab. 

Afterall, what small business would decline “unlimited traffic” and “phone lines that won’t stop ringing”. 

It’s an offer too good to refuse. 

But does anyone actually stop to ask what these firms are actually selling their customers for thousands per month? 

If you peek under the hood and see how the sausage is made you realize not everything is as it seems.

From everything I've seen over the last 18 months, I believe we've entered a fraudulent market fueled by greed and short-term gains. Business owners need to protect themselves. 

It's a bubble that just keeps getting bigger, and the question I keep asking myself is: when will it pop?

"Hold up, what exactly are you talking about Jesse?"

Well, let’s break down what a lot of these agencies are pitching. 

Our team works as an advisor to a large group of businesses where our sole purpose is to audit the agencies pitching our clients.

We’re tasked to work out exactly where our dollars are going and if they are being spent effectively. 

Almost 90% of the time they aren’t. 

You’d be shocked at what someone will openly admit when their guard drops the minute they are “speaking to another SEO”. 

From the second I start referring to terms they way they are referring to them, they become real with you and openly admit to the margins they are making. 

It’s gloating at it’s finest.
A prime example of this was when I was last year I found myself in a boardroom of 5 executives and had one salesman for a top Australian SEO firm pitch us. 

In the pitch meeting, he referred to his link building strategy as their “patented signal strategy”. 

As he said those words I struggled to keep my composure but took notes and later reached out to him on a call. After building some rapport he ended up admitting that that package was simply a private blog network with the occasional links bought off a provider. 

That lead me down the trail of looking up their clients (it was easy; all had footer links to the agency) to see what quality these were.

I was shocked at what I found.

The lowest quality sites you’ve ever seen in your life. 

All packaged up into a bundle that they wanted to charge us $5,000 USD per month for. This didn't even include content or any technical SEO updates/changes.

And this is the big problem with this industry. Salesman enjoy using made-up terms to confuse outsiders. 

It’s the only way to justify absolute garbage to buyers and obfuscate the reality.  

No matter how far back you go in history fraud and short-sighted thinking never wins the long bet.

Eventually, people get caught. Things go south. Sites will fall. 

And this does occasionally happen. 

Every couple of months sites and networks get penalized (remove from Google) but rarely does this get talked about. 

And as fun, as it is to watch these firms that have scammed people get burned to the ground as their clients are penalized, you realize that it’s average people who were brought into the scam that is collateral.

So what are the things most agencies are selling you when it comes to SEO?

There are two profiles of agencies you need to watch out for. 

"That Big Firm You Never Heard Of"
Risk: Medium.

You’ll be able to spot this from a mile away. When you engage you’ll be met with a sales guy wearing a suit who will refer to his “team” whenever you ask the difficult questions. These agencies tend to be the ones promoting their awards and badges (i.e “AdWords” badges that anyone can get). 

The work they will do is have some junior associate follow a checklist for your site and then they will commission a third party agency, in some foreign land, to build you links @ an hourly rate of $80 - $100 per hour. The links will come from a known network, on a spreadsheet, of businesses that accept links.

Other times, if they are greedy for margin, they will just "rent" links from a well-known network. 

"The One Man Team"
Risk: High (inc. legal risk). 

One day you’ll receive an email, most likely with a video teardown of your site. This individual read about it in a blog post and believes this is a great way to get clients.

When you do talk to them you’ll notice they’re a bit nervous, perhaps shy, and when you ask for them to get someone else from their team to join the call they will stumble and avoid the opportunity. They don't have a team.

When they begin work, if they actually do, they’ll flail trying to do it the right way and then go to finding people in Facebook groups to help them build links. These links will often come from suspicious providers who have shady backgrounds. 

Having audited these links the main sources are link networks (private blog networks or PBNs for short), black hat networks (SAPE), automated link networks (GSA/SER - and yes, people still use this) or hacked links (illegal). 

Both are punch drunk on either their revenues or imagined revenues to the point where one of them is even willing to engage in illegal activities to get results. 

There are two layers of risk that get introduced when you work with these guys: site risk and legal risk.

Site risk is introduced when an SEO builds network links or any type of link that has a footprint. A footprint is anything that can tie one site to another. With each link built into a private network, you are tying your future risk to a bundle of sites in that network. 

Why does that matter?

Say one of this SEOs clients is queued for manual review, a process where a Google employee digs into a site to see if it goes against their webmaster guidelines.

During this review, they will dig through all the links and if they detect that a network was used. When they do find the network they will look at every site being linked from it and queue for the next ban wave. 

You don’t need to take my word for it.

This horror story exists everywhere on the web.

You can Google “link network deindexed” to see stories of outlines of instances where a website was selling links that agencies were buying from and when that network got hit all the agencies clients were dinged along with it. 

The other risk that no one talks about is legal risk. 

I’m not a lawyer but I’ve seen some of the shady efforts done by SEOs in this industry, especially now. Often an agency or two will find someone with a large network of sites, that they have access to (hosting companies are a large source of this) and will log in to them to place a link without explicit permission. 

This is obviously illegal and if your site is caught doing it you could face cybersecurity crimes. Beware phrases like "link injection" or "niche edits", generally a sign of people using this strategy.

And the worst part is many of these providers don't actually know what they are buying.

So how do you protect yourself? 

It’s not easy, but the first step is to push yourself to have hard conversations. 

Tell the firm you are speaking to, to walk you through their process of SEO from start to finish, and demand that you have full transparency along the way. 

Be smart and do your research. You’ll be able to tell straight away if you’ve read up that someone is trying to pull one over you. Resist, demand transparency and be comfortable to walk away. If you need a third party to intermediate chat to me. 

Remember you don’t need an SEO agency and you certainly don’t need to give anyone your money.

If you’re already working with an agency then you either have a great partner or a ticking time bomb. It’s important to know which one. 

If you don’t get a “sure, let me show you” on any of the following questions then I’m sorry but you’re firmly in the latter bucket: 
  • “Can I please get a list of changes you’ve made to my website over X period?”
  • ”Can I get a spreadsheet of links you’ve built and a summary of the approach over X period?”
  • ”What have you been doing in the last month?” 

If you’ve just worked out that your current firm is screwing you in then you need to stop what you’re doing and find another partner. Unless you’ve factored in the above into your risk model (whether you want to be ethical or not is up to you, I’m not the moral police).


This ends my first revision of this post, I’m going to expand it in the future but just wanted to test this idea out in the public and draft it for a couple of friends and the team.