small business seo scams

Small Business SEO Scams: How to Detect and Avoid Them 

Would you like to know how to detect and avoid SEO scams? As a small business owner, you’ve probably already received unsolicited email pitching SEO services.

And you may be wondering whether some of these offers are worth pursuing.

In this article, we’ll describe common SEO scams making the rounds and we’ll provide ways to detect and avoid them.

What is SEO?

SEO, or search engine optimization, is the art and science of creating quality online content and experiences that rank well, satisfy searchers, and meet website goals.

Improving SEO may include

  • Boosting site loading speed
  • Producing high-quality content
  • Soliciting positive reviews.

SEO, done well, is the foundation for acquiring readers, leads, conversions, and sales.

Counterfeit SEO

SEO scammers, like money counterfeiters, can destabilize and undermine their targets.

Historically, currency counterfeiters were saboteurs, parlaying the fake for the real and leaving a trail of damage in their wake.

Similarly, SEO scammers can destroy your rankings, causing you to lose leads and sales.

The good news is, with some training, you can detect SEO scams. One of the best ways to do this is to understand how “real” SEO works.

But first, let’s dive in and look at common features of SEO scams.

Common Features of SEO Scams

Of all digital marketing scams, it seems SEO scams are the most prevalent.

Many SEO scams bear these hallmarks.

They Arrive via Cold Emails

SEO scams typically arrive as cold (i.e., unsolicited) emails offering SEO services.

These emails often come from @gmail addresses, making it hard to link the email to an actual business.

If a business is listed, the website is generic and lists no owners, no staff, and often, no address.

Detail Masquerading as Thoroughness

Often filled with technical details, these emails give the impression that the scammer has spent time carefully analyzing your site.

Excerpt of an SEO scam email sent to a small business owner.

It’s certainly possible that a marketer may take time to analyze a site and send a cold email pitching their services.

But more commonly, a copy/paste email is sent to everyone on a list and the sender has never looked at your website.

Scary Reports

The cold email pitches often list numerous problems with your website.

Or they may use images of legitimate reporting tools, taken out of context. Typically these will show:

  • A scary-looking “score.”
  • Lots of red X’s or similar negative marks.

Recurring Monthly Fees, Unnecessary Work

Most cold emailers want to charge recurring fees for their services. While that’s a completely legitimate practice for professional SEO specialists, scammers want to do work for you that’s unnecessary.

For example, Francisco Villalobos, owner of Inner Strength Fitness in Manhattan, was pitched on specific SEO work that had recently been completed by a legitimate vendor.

francisco villalobos inner strength fitness
Francisco Villalobos (at left), owner of Inner Strength Fitness, with a client.

Within days, Villalobos received a similar pitch, from another emailer. This pitch made the same false claim about unnecessary work that urgently needed to be done.

Big Brands Do it Too

Unfortunately, big brands are not beneath sending out scammy emails too.

As we’ll see below, a famous web hosting brand sent a ridiculous SEO email to their customers.

So, are you ready for a quick tour of the most common SEO scams?

Types of SEO Scams

SEO Scam #1: Guaranteed Rankings

The pitch: Get your site ranking on the first page of Google search results.

Often this pitch also provides a time frame. Here’s an actual example from an email.

seo scams example

What’s wrong with it?

  • No one can guarantee Page 1 results.
  • Even Google can’t predict what will wind up on page 1 or when.
  • Web pages rank in relation to a keyword (search query). Not all search queries are worth ranking for. For example, we found a local electrician’s site ranked high for “halloween pumpkin LED lights.” We’re pretty sure that people searching for that keyword have no intent to hire an electrician.

SEO Scam #2: Fake Google Lighthouse Report

Background: Google Lighthouse is a web performance measurement tool, used by professionals, to gauge site loading speed, along with other metrics.

Site loading speed is an SEO ranking factor.

The pitch: We ran a Google Lighthouse report for you and your site loading speed is poor. That’s bad for rankings. Call us for help!

Special feature: The email includes an image of your very low speed score. The style of the image looks like it’s from the Google report, but it’s not.

What’s wrong with it: They never ran a report on your website. The speed score is made up.

Example: Our first encounter with this scam was an email from one of the world’s most famous web hosting companies. The email, (excerpted below), was sent to one of our colleagues. It states that the hosting company tested a website belonging to our colleague, and it scored a 7.

(Since Google Lighthouse scores are out of 100, this means our site allegedly scored 7/100.)

seo scam google lighthouse report

In reality, the website has always scored a 100/100. Here’s the true website score, from Google Lighthouse.

google lighthouse report

You can use the Google Lighthouse Chrome extension to see your score. But the speed (performance) score is the same as the one you can get from Google PageSpeed Insights.

Link-building is a legitimate marketing tactic, but when “black hat” SEO techniques are used, it can destroy your rankings.

Background: Backlinks (links from other sites to yours) are a SEO ranking factor. Links from reputable websites can have a positive impact on your SEO. But backlinks from low-quality sites (such as financial scam sites) can ruin your SEO.

DA stands for “Domain Authority.” While Google’s algorithms do not use domain authority scores, some professional marketing tools, like Moz, Semrush, and ahrefs do. These scores, measured out of 100, on a logarithmic scale, are a proxy for measuring the quality of a website.

ahrefs domain rating example
Ahrefs.com displays a Domain Rating (DR) of 91 for the University of Cambridge website. (“Domain Rating” is ahrefs’ version of a domain authority score.)

The pitch: See my price list of high-DA sites I can get you backlinks from. You can pay for a link to be placed on existing content or create a guest post to be published on one of these sites, and include a backlink to your own site.

The problems:

  • Paying for links, in order to boost rankings, is against Google’s guidelines. Google has gotten very good at detecting unnatural link patterns. Participating in these link schemes can ruin your SEO.
  • High-DA doesn’t always mean high-quality links. Some of these ‘marketers’ buy domains that have expired, and already have a high DA score. Then, they turn it into a spam blog (also called a “splog”).
  • A spam blog is a site that only exists to sell links. The quality of the content is usually terrible, and covers a weird mix of topics.
  • Often these “splogs” are part of PBNs – private blog networks. These are multiple spam blogs operated by the same people engaged in link schemes.
  • Money anchors: The choice of anchor text can also damage your SEO. Scammers and inexperienced marketers will often use transactional keywords (like “buy discounted wedding ring” ) when getting backlinks for you on other sites. When they do this repeatedly, it doesn’t help your SEO, it sends Google a red flag.

SEO Scam #4: Get Free Content

This scam is related to link-building. But in this case, the party contacting you is building links for someone else’s site.

Exception: Guest posting to build links is a legitimate marketing technique. Let’s see how the scammy version of this differs from the beneficial version.

The pitch: I’d like to provide a guest post for your website on topic X. Would you be interested?

The problem: No one is giving you free content without wanting something in return. The guest poster wants to include a link in the article to benefit their (or someone else’s) SEO.

If that link goes to a PBN then your site may be seen as related to link schemes and be penalized by Google.

Avoid any offers that request links to questionable websites including online casinos or drug sites.

When it’s legitimate: You may receive legitimate offers from individuals or companies for guest posts. Individuals may be wanting to establish their expertise by writing for other sites in their niche. They will likely want to include a link back to their website. Companies, particularly software companies, often budget for guest posts to be created for other sites in return for a link back to their site.

legitimate guest post email
This is an example of a legitimate guest blogging pitch. This one was from a software company. The email was signed with the full name of the marketer and the URL of the company.

Things to keep in mind with legitimate guest posts: Allow 1 link, and no links to spurious websites. Only consider offers that may be of genuine use for your readers.

SEO Scam #5: Fake Traffic

Some marketers will try to sell you on boosting traffic. While some of these efforts may be legitimate, unscrupulous individuals may use bots to create an illusion of increased traffic.

Background: Not all bots are bad. For example, search engines and marketing tools rely on bots for data and analysis.

The problem: Bots don’t sign up for newsletters, read articles, or buy things. So there’s no benefit to acquiring fake traffic.

Things to keep in mind: Traffic is not a key performance indicator (KPI), it’s a means to an end. While businesses may measure web traffic, it’s meaningful only when traffic increases are linked to increased sales. So while freelance or in-house marketers may measure traffic, businesses see revenue and sales as KPIs.

SEO Scam #6: Calls from Fake Google Employees

The pitch: I work for Google and noticed that you have some problems with your business listings. Your NAP is not consistent. I can fix that for you for X dollars.

The problem: No one from Google is going to call you about your NAP or “business listings.” As the call progresses, the person also mentions they work for a business. (One can’t be an employee of Google and an employee of a marketing business.)

Keep in mind: Many top marketing agencies are “Google Partners.” This is different from being a Google employee. Google Partners are certified Google Ads specialists who’ve been vetted by Google and meet their requirements. To find out of a business really is a Google Partner search for the name in this directory.

Now that you’ve learned the most common types of scams, let’s look at a simple way you can become immune to SEO nonsense.

Protect Yourself From SEO Scams

One of the main ways authorities teach others to detect counterfeit currency is to get them to study the real thing.

This makes it much easier to detect counterfeits.

Similarly, teaching yourself SEO basics will help make you scam-proof and prevent you from over-paying for legitimate services.

Here are easy ways you can quickly pick up SEO fundamentals.

Start Using the All in One SEO (AIOSEO) plugin

If you’re a WordPress user, you’re in luck. SEO plugins provide a fast on-ramp to learning the basics, and you’ll learn by doing.

For a beginner-friendly option, it’s hard to beat the All-in-One SEO (AIOSEO) plugin. The plugin is designed to be intuitive to use and requires no prior knowledge of SEO or code.

It includes prompts and instructions so you can follow along right in the WordPress editor.

aioseo homepage

You can download the plugin here.

Check out the installation guide here.

All-in-One SEO (AIOSEO) is currently used on over 3 million sites and it has thousands of 5-star reviews on WordPress.org. Users include bloggers, small businesses, as well as large enterprises.

Quick Start Guide for DIY SEO

Businesses should start with these easy tasks:

  • Learn what Local SEO is and how to set it up in the AIOSEO plugin
  • Learn what local SEO citations are and how to get them.

All users can follow this sequence:

Week 1:Learn what a title tag is and how to optimize it.
Week 2:Learn what a meta description is and how to optimize it.
Week 3:Learn what alt tags are and how to add them to images.
Week 4:Learn what a target keyword (focus keyphrase) is and how to use it.
Week 5: Learn what keyword research is and how it can help your articles rank.
Week 6:Learn what rich snippets are and how to add them to pages.

Follow a Beginner-Friendly SEO Blog or YouTube Channel

Some SEO blogs are written for marketing professionals. Others, like the AIOSEO blog, provide how-tos for beginners as well as content for those at intermediate levels.

The All-in-One SEO YouTube channel is another great source of easy-to-understand SEO content.

What SEO Services are Available?

Common SEO services offered by freelancers, marketing agencies, or SEO companies include:

  • Submitting sitemaps to Google, Bing, Yandex, or Baidu.
  • Site audits: These reports detect what can be improved.
  • Creating a SEO strategy with measurable goals.
  • Keyword research and content creation.
  • Digital PR, which includes social media marketing, creation of high-quality content, and brand mentions in news media or industry association sites. (This is part of what’s called “off-page SEO.”)
  • Conversion optimization which includes SEO elements.
  • Local SEO: this is SEO for local businesses with a single location or multiple locations.
    • It includes setting up a free Google Business Profile for you, getting local SEO citations and brand mentions, and encouraging customers to leave reviews.
  • Measuring your progress using tools like Semrush, ahrefs, Google Analytics, or Google Search Console.

What’s an SEO campaign?

An SEO campaign is simply a name for a planned set of SEO actions designed to accomplish specific goals.

Bonus Tips

  • SEO Industry: While a good SEO professional is worth every penny, there are novices with no experience passing themselves off as SEO experts. We consider pitches from incompetent individuals to be SEO scams too.
  • SEO Agencies: Wondering what these are? They’re marketing agencies that specialize in SEO.
  • Conversions: Conversions (people who sign up for events, services, or products) go hand-in-hand with SEO. A good way to learn how to boost conversions on a WordPress site is to use the OptinMonster plugin and grab some lead magnet ideas.

Conclusion

We hope this article gave you an easy-to-understand survey of the most common SEO scams.

You may also want to check out our guidelines on hiring a marketing agency. And explore how to use WordPress FAQ blocks to snatch market share from your competitors.

If you found this article helpful, then please subscribe to our YouTube Channel. You’ll find lots of helpful tutorials there. You can also follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook to stay in the loop.

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author avatar
Sherrie Gossett Content Writer
Sherrie is an SEO nerd based in New Hampshire in the United States. When she’s not busy researching, implementing, and writing about new SEO developments, she can be found hiking and playing guitar.

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4 comments on “Small Business SEO Scams: How to Detect and Avoid Them 

  1. I get these emails all the time. And they are a waste of time. Its easy to spot a scam, because no legitimate business for SEO would send from gmail or hotmail address. If they’re that good at the job, they shouldn’t need to randomly email another company.

    I often find that they also include claims which demonstrate they don’t understand the business, which they would do if they had spent just five minutes on the website.

  2. Thank you very much! Your posts just saved me in time. Please continue to provide me with any information on how to spot the “fakers”
    Again, Thank you very much.