In handling the majority of sales and customer service for Hive Digital since 2007, I’ve had the joy of listening to thousands of stories about other SEO agencies, link building services, paid search optimizers, rank-quick-rich schemes… you name it. Almost every one of these stories had the same intention, and that was for the prospective client to explain to me why they were squeemish about hiring another agency, and to justify the not-so-heavily veiled threats that they’ve had enough and just want someone they can trust.

AND I DON’T BLAME THEM!!   After 8 years of hearing these stories, I think I’ve identified quite a few common denominators that will help you avoid SEO scams and these type of experiences.




Common Sense:

Now this one might seem, well… common sense, but this is the most important, as it ties into almost every other red flag. Generally speaking, if it sounds too good to be true, makes you feel uncomfortable, or gives you some other instinctive indicator that it is a bad idea… it probably is.

Do you leave the conversation feeling like you learned something, and they were able to explain things in a way you could understand? Get a good feel for the agency by letting them talk and ask all the questions at first. When you talk, you are giving them information they can use to then just tell you want you want to hear. The best thing to do is withhold some information (like your goals, history, competitors, current traffic and rankings, etc) until they ask for it. Make a list of things to discuss ahead of the call, and check them off as they ask you.

Guarantees that you will rank #1:

We all love the idea of investing in something with absolutely no financial risk if things go wrong. At the end of the day, no agency knows everything, and we can only do our best with your site to adhere to guidelines and strategies that are proven effective. We cannot (or should not) control the SEO efforts of competitors vying for the exact same keywords, nor can we control the easily 100+ updates that Google makes a year that tweaks everything ever so slightly all the time. That is why this one is the worst tactics.

For some reason, this one really captures a lot of people, and ultimately it is because they don’t understand the different ways this guarantee could play out. Let me share a few examples of what could happen:


  1. You Rank #1 for your brand keywords:  Awesome!! Mission accomplished right? NOOoo… That is an easy win for any agency, and isn’t anything to brag about. You should be able to do this without an agency, and most of them write their guarantee to be for specific, and easy, terms.
  2. You Rank #1 for a “long tail” keyword:  Awesome!! Mission accomplished right? NOOoo… While it may seem cool to rank #1 for  “buy yellow finch bird house for porch in north brooklyn” (no offense to, you and the agency selling you the services are probably the only people that ever do that search.
  3. You rank #1 for a “good” keyword:  Awesome!! Mission accomplished right? Maybe… If this does happen, which it rarely does for companies offering guarantees, it is likely through a low-cost spam tactic that will have a very short lifespan, and will likely cost you lots of money down the road to clean-up.
  4. You don’t rank #1 and get your money back:  Sweet!! Only time lost right? NOOoo… They probably didn’t want to give you your money back, and as a last ditch effort blasted your site with spam links to try to get quick rankings. You’ll end up taking that money you got back (if you actually do get it back), and spending it on someone to undo their SEO efforts so you don’t look like you are a spammer.

Has an “in” at Google:

Anybody can tweet or email Matt Cutts. Even you can do it! Now, there are certainly some agency’s that have a better line of communication, but I can assure you that it does absolutely nothing for your rankings.

The only benefit they could possibly have is an affirmative or denial on a specific issue, or the ability to point out something strange that may be happening in your keyword space.

Any agency/person that tells you they can guarantee rankings or similar because they know someone at Google… most likely definitely a liar.

Cheap SEO Services:

Now, this can easily be confused for inexpensive SEO services, as with most things, there is a big difference between cheap and inexpensive. If you are contracting a company to do SEO services for your website, and they provide this service for $200 or $300 a month. How much work do you reasonably expect them to do on your behalf?

Look at it this way… In order to perform even the most basic audit of a website, an expert needs 3-4 hours for the review, and then time to coordinate a strategy for any findings. At such a low price-point, how much can you expect them to review your site, assist with new copy, making ongoing changes, assist with outreach, etc. on an ongoing basis.

You definitely pay for what you get.

Shows you a list of their clients:

This one is not necessarily a sign of a scam agency, but generally is a solid warning. Your first concern should be about whether this company has obligations for confidentiality, etc.

If they give you example clients, you should ask them for their contact at the company so you can contact them as a reference.

This will help you verify they are not lying about who their clients are, and give you a chance to hear about other company’s experience with them.

Also, be wary of companies that brag about having other clients in your industry. This could easily be a conflict of interest.


I’m not sure why this doesn’t happen more often, but any Agency should be able to provide you with at least 1-2 references that do not include their Mom and close relatives. When they give you the references, make sure you find out how long they’ve been working together. There are some companies, such as Clutch, that collect reviews when building out profiles of agencies.

You are going to want to talk to at least one reference that has been working with the company for longer than a year. This is generally the amount of time it takes for true colors to shine, so any reference that is 1-2 months old is probably worthless.


Strategy Development:

As part of the sales process, they should be presenting you with some recommendations for services. Most companies have an intro engagement for strategy development, and some may provide this for free, but you should expect to receive a recommendation that is custom to your website, goals, competition, assets (people and money), planned and past marketing initiatives.

Somewhere in the conversation, they should ask you questions that make you think about PR and real-world offline marketing campaigns and how it plays into an SEO strategy.

If you are debating between a Gold, Silver, and Bronze SEO Package, you are most likely in the wrong place. SEO is not a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy, and any indication that you are being “plugged” into some turnkey system should scare you.

Linking Strategies:

Link development is one of the best litmus tests for a potential SEO partner, as it can quickly determine whether or not this agency could be a good fit.

I won’t go so far to say that companies doing comment linking (spam), article syndication (spam), press releases for SEO (spam), forum postings (spam), etc. are scam companies, but I will say the strategies they are using are extremely risky. If they try to tell you otherwise, then I would question their integrity. The reason I won’t say they are scam companies, is because these strategies can be effective for certain purposes, for certain companies, at certain times, and if they give you full disclosure of the tactics and the risks, then they are not scamming you.

Bait the vendor in a conversation by asking them about the fastest way to build links and pretend to just care about getting a big number of links (say 1,000 a month) and see what they say. A good company will tell you that you would be an idiot to try and accomplish that.

We have an entire business (Remove’em) dedicated to undoing links from bad SEO. Now, I would most definitely recommend against hiring a company that does any of the tactics mentioned above, as there are significant risks involved. The agency you choose should have complete disclosure on their link development techniques, be able to explain the risk/reward (there is risk in ALL link development for SEO, I don’t care how it is done), and be able to craft/align strategies with the risk tolerance of your company. Very Important:  Will they provide you with reporting of all links they build on your behalf? This should always be a resounding “Absolutely”!


 How did you find them?

Did you peruse the list of Moz Recommended Companies, and find them among the best? If not, you should probably do that and make sure the company you are looking to hire is on the list.

Be VERY wary of all the “top seo company”, “best seo company”, etc. websites, as many of them are run by SEOs. Moz is known for providing a list of reputable companies and you cannot bribe your way into the list as is the case with some of the other sites. If you found this company because they spammed your inbox with unsolicited email… chances are, they are going to be spamming sites with backlinks for your SEO.

Due Diligence:

Aside from checking references, the interview process, etc..

Do they have professional liability insurance? Many large companies/clients often require proof of insurance.

What other accolades do they have to justify they are are legit company? Have they won any awards? Have they been recognized in the news? Are they a member of the BBB… what is their rating? What type of things do you find when doing a search for “XYZ Company scam” or “XYZ Company ripoff”? How long have they been in business?

Do their peers consider them experts? Do the speak at major industry conferences? You can verify the speaking by looking at the conference website and finding them listed as a speaker.



The #1 tip is common sense for a reason. Following the suggestions here will not insulate you 100% from hiring a scam or bad SEO company, but taking these simple steps will certainly put you on the right track for hiring a legit SEO company.

Did I leave out any other telltale signs of selecting a bad SEO vendor?   Do you think one of these doesn’t belong?   Reach out in the comments or via @jakebohall on twitter!