The Colourful Spectrum of SEO Companies
SEO agencies come in all shapes and sizes. There are SEO specialists, web designers that also offer SEO services, full service digital marketing agencies, consultants, bloggers and so on. SEO companies sometimes also classify themselves as ‘white hat’, ‘black hat’ or almost any other colour in between. Another often used differentiator is the term ethical.
What Are White Hat SEO Companies?
There do not appear to be universally accepted definitions of exactly what constitutes white hat SEO, black hat SEO or the other colours of SEO in the spectrum. When it comes to certain specific practices, for example the deceptive use of doorway pages, there is little disagreement that it’s black hat. When it comes to other practices, particularly in the area of link building, link spam is often considered black hat but it is not easy to define link spam. One example of link spam could be the automated submission of ‘comments’ to large numbers of blogs containing back links (to the SEO company’s client’s website) with no intention of contributing anything meaningful to the discussion and solely for the purpose of attempting to manipulate rankings. Another example might be the arbitrary insertion of a link into the content of a website owned either by the SEO company or by a 3rd party who receives a payment from the SEO company for allowing the link to reside on his web page. These links, as in the example in the screenshot below, often corrupt the original content, reducing it to gibberish and are there solely for the purposes of manipulating rankings. So not only does this kind of link spam breach search engine guidelines but it also contributes to the pollution of the internet.
Click on image for a bigger picture.
The whiter the hat, the more likely it is that links will have been genuinely earned by the creation of useful content which people will naturally link to for reference or citation purposes. Eric Ward is known the world over as a leading link building strategist and provides a lot of useful information on his website about the right way to do link building and you can see an endorsement at the top of his home page from Matt Cutts (Head of Google’s Web Spam Team).
How SEO Agencies May Market Themselves
Irrespective of whether there are clear definitions of the SEO hat colours, there is little to prevent SEO agencies from marketing white hat organic SEO services but adopting black hat techniques or by subcontracting the black hat SEO to third parties to distance themselves from it. So unfortunately, an SEO company that has “white hat” or “ethical” splashed all over its home page may be using it for no more than marketing purposes. Some SEO companies will provide only organic SEO, others will provide PPC services, and others even broader but maybe less specialised services.
The temptation for some SEO agencies to break search engine guidelines for quick wins is big. A temptation that may also sometimes be fuelled by unrealistic expectations of clients who may place their SEO agency under threat of termination of services. Unscrupulous SEO companies may not volunteer their methods to their clients or may even provide misleading answers to questions. Problems can also originate on the client side where marketing directors, who themselves may be under enormous pressure to generate new leads, prefer to turn a blind eye. Reckless risk taking on the part of SEO companies may only cost them one contract. Reckless risk taking on the part of a client side manager may only cost him his job. But the cost to the organisation of being discovered breaching search engine guidelines and suffering a consequent ranking penalty from Google may be far greater than a short term dip in revenue. The adverse publicity of being exposed as cheats may have far reaching and long lasting consequences for their reputation and brand.
There have been a number of high profile cases recently of SEO agencies being penalised by Google for breaching its rules including the two below:
J.C. Penney is penalised – Article in The New York Times
Overstock.com is penalised – Article in Forbes
Reviews of SEO Companies
You might of course search through reviews hoping to identify the best SEO companies and there are a number of SEO industry specific review sites. There is also a growing number of broad topic sites where people can leave their own reviews. The trouble with these is that review sites may also be prone to manipulation. Reviews may be bought, directly or indirectly, or be disingenuous in other ways. And who reviews the review sites? On some review sites, SEO companies are categorised as the “best SEO company” or “top SEO company”. But what may be “best” for one client may not be best for another, even assuming one has been able to establish objective criteria for defining what “best” means. The top link building company to one person may be the company that acquires the largest number of links. To another person it may be the company that acquires the highest quality links. To another it may be the company that earns its clients their links naturally by following an effective content strategy.
Contradictions with SEO companies
However much material you have read on the websites of SEO companies or on the sites that review SEO companies, you may still need to do a little digging yourself. It’s a case of buyer beware and the more informed your decision is, the higher the chance of a successful outcome (whatever success means in your terms).
It is always interesting to see how well a vendor avails themselves of their own expertise. Does the builder have a nice house? Does the hairdresser have a nice haircut? With SEO companies, the test is not so easy but one can often start with the claims they make in their email, proposal, etc. How well do they score at the services they purport to be able to offer you?
SEO companies often submit offers with implicit contradictions and they often centre around:
1. Back links
If the SEO company is offering to provide you with large numbers of back links, then you could check how many they have of their own. If they offer to acquire 10,000 for you but have only 200 of their own, why could that be? It could be that they can’t provide what they offer or it could be that they can but choose not to place their own domain at risk by doing it for themselves. Use a link checking tool to find out about the back links of any website. There are lots out there – some free, some payable. You may also examine some of the back links of their clients which might provide clues about whether search engine guidelines are being broken. But be aware that the number of back links on its own is not a good performance indicator of link building. It is a one dimensional metric whereas multi-dimensional metrics are needed to assess a good back link profile.
SEO companies sometimes point out that your site doesn’t have any Google PageRank and that they can increase your PageRank. Quite apart from the fact that this may not be a particularly useful indicator since there is almost no correlation between Google PageRank and actual rankings, traffic and conversions, it is still worth checking to see if they have made a faux pas. You can check their PageRank by downloading, for free, Google’s toolbar (this link is for UK but you’ll find what you need by searching on “Google toolbar”). Once you have configured the toolbar for your own preferences, you will see the PageRank for any web page you are viewing and this will be a score between 0 and 10 (with 10 being the highest), where there is a score, or a ‘grey bar’ where there is no score. You might just find their score is zero.
If they are going to work wonders with your rankings, where do they rank themselves? This may not be so obvious for a novice to establish but you can always ask them for some examples of their own rankings. They should be able to provide some evidence of competence in this area if this is what they are promising to deliver for you. Also, note that some people are quick to point out that you should not consider SEO companies that appeared in your search results in the sponsored results (for example Google AdWords on the grounds that if they can’t get their own site to appear in the free results then they won’t be able to succeed with yours. This is not actually a good argument. They may have excellent rankings for some of the best keywords in the industry but perhaps just not for the one that you actually entered. No SEO company can hold the top spots for all search terms so there is no contradiction or embarrassment in organic SEO companies using AdWords. The point is that they should be able to demonstrate what they do rank for and where.
A Litmus Test For SEO Companies
We neither condemn nor condone the practices of SEO companies, since that is not the purpose of this page. We try to ensure the colours we pin to our own mast are as white as possible. In the end, the best SEO companies are the ones that are best for your business and these may be white, black or some other colour. The route that is best for you may depend on your appetite for risk. Trading a white hat for a dark hat may be trading long term success built on solid foundations for riskier short term gains. Do you want to build your castle on sand? Or, if you built it on solid foundations long ago, do you want to jeopardise all that now?