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Paying for Penalties: Lies That Shady SEO Companies Tell

July 11, 2012

Image Credit: nrkbetaEver since Panda and Penguin (Google's major changes to how they rank websites in order to fight web spam) have hit, a lot of companies have lost a large percentage of their website visitors. Bewildered by their sudden misfortune, many of these business owners have turned to me to review their websites and their SEO practices to determine where they went wrong and what they need to do to get back into Google's good graces.

While many of them had been doing their own SEO based on what they've picked up through the years, a few have had SEO companies (and I use this term loosely) "helping" them. Sadly, what some of these companies do worked okay in a pre–Panda-Penguin world, even though it was garbage that doesn't come close to following SEO best practices. The fact that it worked is what has kept SEO web spammers in business for so long. And it's possible that to a certain extent what they're doing may still work for a short time -- at least until Google reprocesses their ranking formula. That's when the panda poop hits the fan!

If it were just a matter of the links no longer counting, it wouldn't be so bad. But these days not only does the site lose any additional Google traffic they may have gained from the bad SEO, they start receiving even less traffic than they were getting before the bad links.

Here's an example of this:

Lost Traffic

And here's another example:

Google Organic Traffic Tanked

You'll notice in both of these examples that the start of the major loss of Google traffic started toward the end of April, right around when the Penguin came first came to town. In the first instance, the client was (and is) very web UNsavvy. She knows very little about her own website and online marketing in general, let alone much about SEO. I'm not sure if she contacted the SEO company directly to "help" her, or if it was unsolicited. Either way, the web spammers quickly found they were dealing with their favorite type of customer -- trusting and naïve. Not to mention desperate. The website had been losing traffic and sales since the early Panda days in 2010. (Due to not much content and simply not keeping up with what other companies in the space were doing.)

Signs That Your SEO Sucks

When I reviewed the site and looked at the links pointing to it, I saw a lot of terribly written spammy blog (splog) posts having been submitted to irrelevant, crappy splog networks, article submission sites, and fake directories. They all had a few different keyword phrases that pointed back to the home page of the client's site. The dates of the posts were all from around the time that the site had its initial boost in Google traffic.

These links were obviously fake, purchased and extremely low in quality. For instance, one was in a directory on a domain that had a section pertaining to link building services as well as a splog full of wonderful articles which nobody in their right mind would be interested in reading -- ever. In fact, the client's site was linked from a number of directories that all looked the same, but were on different domain names and using a different name and background color. High class and high quality they were not! My favorites were the links right next to ones for "buying text links"! (They're a nice change from the ones next to credit card and payday loan links!)

Shoddy SEO That You Pay For

In addition to creating barely readable content and submitting it to their icky splog networks, this SEO company also wrote useless, grammatically incorrect articles and put them into a blog on the client's own site. Of course these all had anchor text pointing back to the home page. I was surprised that they didn't even go to the trouble of pointing the anchor text to the most appropriate pages within the site instead of the home page, but that may have taken some actual work to figure out where they should go! (Web spammers don't believe in actually working.)

To top it off, they even stuck a link to their own SEO site with the anchor text of "SEO" on every page of the client's site! (It wasn't clear to me whether she gave them permission to do this or not.)

When I pointed out all of the above in my SEO site audit report to the client, I told her to have the company remove all of the links and explained why they were bad. And here's where it got weird. The company emailed her back trying to convince her that they were not a spammy SEO company at all and that everything they were doing for her was on the up-and-up. When she asked them for a list of the links they had built for her, they had the gall to say that only black hat link building companies would be able to provide a list of their links. (Huh?)

Whom Do You Trust?

But the really scary part is that their answers sounded credible and believable to one who wouldn't know better. This poor client was stuck between a rock and a hard place. She had me on the one hand telling her that what this company did was likely a big reason why she was no longer making any sales, and them telling her, "But you're ranking for the keywords we chose together." (This was true to some extent because the site was still ranking for some of the non-competitive phrases that nobody searches for.) And then they tried to scare the client by telling her that if they removed the links, her rankings would plummet and she'd lose even more traffic. They also tried to weasel out by saying that perhaps her shopping cart was not working properly (which, even if true, wouldn't account for the nearly complete loss of Google traffic).

Finally, in answer to their half-truths, I told her that any reputable SEO company knows that the types of things this company does are considered to be web spam -- certainly after Google Penguin, if not before. And the very fact that they were continuing to claim that what they were doing was all well and good showed just how horrible and unethical they were. In fact, I was so enraged by this that I told her to tell them that if they didn't want to remove the spammy junk and wouldn't give her money back, I'd be happy to write about them to my 25K newsletter subscribers.

At this point I haven't heard back from her. I decided to write this article anyway (without naming names) so that others can learn from it. I hope that the more this kind of SEO gets talked about and pointed out as the web spam that it is, the more others will stop spending money to get themselves penalized by Google.


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings Jill Whalenand an SEO Consultant in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Marcus said:
My problem with all of this is that "SEO" is not really even what we should be doing. IMO we should be focused on traffic generation and optimization, which means finding ways to build relevant traffic to client sites with or without search engines. I have stopped talking about ranking in Google simply because anything done to manipulate rankings is a non-no in Google's book. So how can we optimize for search engines? My practice is to work on traffic strategies that bring buyers, whether through paid traffic, or by getting a link from a site with the buyers I need. If I get free traffic from Google, that's great, but I no longer count on it. I'd rather get the client traffic from day one and keep them long-term rather than beg for links and wait on organic rankings that may never come because I don't work with the latest spam technique or because webmasters are afraid to give out links anymore, lest Google nuke them.
 Karen DeCrane said:
I am so sick of running into these charlatans and hearing the same thing over and over and over again from prospective clients. I think I spend more time trying to educate clients on WHY these sleezeballs will and have hurt the website traffic as I do actually doing my job of building them back up.

In fact some of them have been slammed so badly with garbage links and lack of quality content that I've turned down the job. I know that there is no way the will receive the results they want in the 30 days or less they want to see it happen.

The cycle is depressing. A bunch of IM "gurus" hook the unwary sheeple into believing they can make money online with the guru's "automated system". The fact that the guru knows next to nothing about SEO, video marketing or anything else they are selling is irrelevant. They still get enough people to buy into their "system" so they can continue to enjoy a high rolling lifestyle.

Then these "students" are unleashed on the unwary business owner. Following the script they have been given, these system graduates sound plausible to the unknowing site owner who pays for those things that not only won't help, but will usually hurt his site and his traffic.

And so the cycle goes. As long as the owners fall for the sales pitch and the "students" fall for the scams, things will continue the same way. There are just too many unwary people getting fleeced by the untrustworthy.
 Karen DeCrane said:
To add to what Marcus said - we should never forget why the site exists - we need to focus on conversion. The site is there to make money for the owner or to collect prospects. SEO IMO should be renamed Search Engine MArketing and it is just the beginning of the process, not the whole enchilada.
 Catherine Rees said:
As a writer, I'm outraged when I see those horrible, spammy posts that were obviously written using Google Translator. Way to junk up the Internet! Isn't your client embarrassed to be connected to such shoddy work?

Poor grammar and bad writing just serve to make a company look inept and foolish. Hire a real writer and use legit SEO tactics.

I hope your client sees the light, dumps the SEO company and gets some real help from you, Jill.
 Alex Miranda said:
Great article Jill,

I have also had clients not call me back because they insisted that the SEO company had previously done a great job. I had one potential client tell me that the reason their traffic went way down was because the SEO company told them that in the spring time, traffic slows down on the internet. We as true SEO professionals would all love to create a website that list all the spammy SEO companies out there.

Just today as I replied to this post on Google+ I was messaging with an overseas SEO company asking me for work. I was so blown away that I had to paste the conversation on your Google+ comments.

How do we get potential SEO clients who have been duped, to believe us when we say their site needs to be properly optimized?
 Mohnesh said:
Jill it is a nice explanation of what the bad SEO companies has done.Now what is the solution for the customers. Link removal is not an easy task even the competitors are sending false link removal email to remove good links. Will creating good links will help in removing penlites of low quality links
 Moises said:
Jill, I have been receiving your newsletters for a while. Always learn something. This time I am compelled to write perhaps because I am at boiling point today with spammers. I am the Online Marketing Manager for a a company in one of the spammiest industries ever, the Locksmith Industry. We are super reputable though. We are brick and mortar with 2 locations. 10 service vehicles. Service all major retail chain stores, etc. It is on the residential side of things where we are fighting it with the spammers. I have made a lot of progress with SEO. Internal site optimization, and true content development, along with several key online partnerships. Our website actually saw an improvement in rankings after Panda. I am ranking for many important keywords but not yet for the higher volume ones. What has me over the top is that all my SEO signals are better than theirs, I might not have as many backlinks as them but my links are higher quality by far. Their links all come from a network of dozens of duplicates websites that they create for each individual city with terrible copy. Mine come from true online partners on the security field, both one-way and reciprocal. I am wondering if its a matter of time. Or if I am in some sort of Google Sandbox? I guess I just need to keep on pounding it. Thanks. Moises.
 Jill Whalen said:
Thanks all for your comments so far. I'm glad the article struck a chord with so many.

Here's my comments regarding the comments...

@Marcus, you're exactly right. And really, that's all good SEO is...traffic generation. If people would remember that, they would stop trying to use tricks that don't bring traffic in their own right.

@Karen it is kinda crazy how gullible some people are when they are not knowledgeable about a subject. But people shouldn't buy a service without at least educating themselves a bit on best practices. There's plenty of good information out there, a lot of it from Google themselves.

@Catherine, funny you should say that about the client being embarrassed to be associated with the horrid content...I said the EXACT same thing to her when she was wondering whether she should have it removed or not!

@Alex...well that's a new traffic is slow in the spring! Sigh...what will the scammers think of next?!

@Mohnesh the solution is to get rid of the bad stuff and start doing things the right way. There are no quick and easy ways to get links. The only way to get good ones is to have something worth linking to and then getting the word out about it. That takes time and money.

@ Moises you're in a tough situation when working in an industry riddled by spammers. I'm not sure what the answer is, but most likely you're company will have to really spend a lot of time and money to brand themselves and make a name for themselves. Anything that can get people to start talking about them online and what a great job they do, can be beneficial.

Keep 'em coming!
 Derek Edmond said:
Hopefully that person will do some investigation on their own, conversing with colleagues or other trusted resources, to find the truth. What is even worse is that they may end up distrusting all SEO moving forward (ethical or not); and then we all lose.
 Charity Kountz said:
The amount of misinformation and misunderstanding of SEO boggles my mind. And the people who don't get it make it tougher for the professionals. But at least it's very easy to prove out against the hacks. Love the article - great explanations and examples!

The thing that makes me laugh is that prior to Panda/penguin updates, my sites did "ok" but now my organic is about 75% of my site traffic. So overall I feel like Google finally has the algorithm matched up with its recommendations and are now practicing what they preach! As things move forward and get more refined hopefully this trend will continue to improve.
 Jasjot Singh Bains said:
Many SEO companies fool people like this, by claiming that Google "values their links" (really?why dont you go rank yourself then?) I personally came in touch with an SEO company here, and what they told me led to my site being hit by Penguin for anchor text over-optimization.
"Web spammers don't believe in actually working"- if they did, they wouldn't be called spammers, and the internet would be a better place without Panda and penguin
 Craig Chant said:
I lost 3/4 of my traffic due to Penguin and I've never employed an SEO company, I dont deliberately engange in black hat SEO nor do I spam be it illegal emails, keywords (including stuffing) nor link building.

Jill looked at my site and said it's because I have a particular phrase on my site too many times, yet it's what my site does (and ALL it does), it's my company strap line , in my domain-name which I've had 13 years so no I didn't buy a keyword rich domain! and it's gramatically correct.

The problem is Google and in particular Penguin no longer speaks English!

It's all very well blaming dodgy SEO companies for everyones SEO woes, but I have found without partaking in dodgy SEO or black hat anything, I have still been hit big time.

I no longer use Google for my searching and have turned to Bing, which incidently I am still no.1 for my main keyphrase!

I get more traffic from other SE's than G! now and will be concentrating on them from now on, I've never been a Google fanboy, I have always had distain for them as a corporation and now I like them even less!

You used to get penalised for doing something wrong, but when I don't partake in dodgy SEO, I refuse to be dictated to by Google as to how or what I should have on my website and how I should word it, it's their search engine but it's MY website!
 Jill Whalen said:
Craig, for the record, I only looked at your site for about 1 minute because you asked about it in the forum. There could be a million other reasons for the problem then the one I saw that *might* have been one.
 Craig Chant said:
I appreciate that Jill, but as I don't stealth, spam, stuff, link build, or anything else, I just write valid markup as semantic as I can, what else could it be?

To be fair, I reworded the page you pointed out to me the best I could without removing the essence of what it is about, and I've gone from the @ 30 visits a week to this weeks count @ 60 (taken about three weeks to see the increase), so the traffic has doubled since the change I made, but as it used to be @ 200 a week, it's nothing to get excited about.

I'm just frustrated along with countless others for being hammered by Penguin for no apparent reason. I accept your case study was based on a company who had used a dodgy SEO company and I'm sure you were talking about a whole heap more visitors than I get.

But I'm sure you agree the Penguin is evil and indiscriminate, hitting sites undeservedly while still the SERPs is filled with junk it just seems to have peed off honest, decent, hard working folk who haven't done anything wrong!

Hey ho, keeps you busy no doubt, so I guess it's all good from your perspective ;-)
 Jill Whalen said:
@Craig, while I'm sure you're frustrated, I've personally not seen any sites that have lost Google traffic without reason yet. (It's not necessarily a penalty even though it feels like it to you.)

Because I haven't truly reviewed yours, it's very possible that there is a reason. Often times it's a technical reason. Other times it's just because the site owner hasn't kept up with their site and competitors have made their sites much better.

And no, I don't agree that Penguin is evil or indiscriminate. In fact, I love it! It's finally Google putting it's money where it's mouth is and trying to show the best sites rather than perhaps the oldest site.
 Susanna Kuenzl said:
Sometimes it's incredible: Websites with noindex nofollow for the robots. They were left behind by a SEO. And the client asks why her website is not even found by the companies name.
 Chande said:
Great article Jill, thanks for sharing the pictures of "getting caught". With Panda&Penguin, I hope to see too many bad SEO companies go out of business - simply if people get educated they will stop buying these kind of services (only my hopes). But what I fear (and see from requests) is the amount of "penguin cleanup" and "negative seo" requests I get. I think it will take some time for the market to clean itself.

Recently I got a guy who's link profile is so spammy I couldn't believe. He was ranking for "atlantic city hotels". He wanted to get to the page one again. I asked: do you have a budget? He didn't want to invest into white hat - so, I guess he will get ripped off by a spammy company. Some people never learn, but I am happy as it will leave better results in the marketplace / serps.
 Indies said:
For me Best way to know about the SEO service provider is to check the company's website. If they are not good at optimizing their website then how can they assure you for yours!!!
 Ari Strauch said:
All very common unfortunately. There are millions of these shady seo companies out there and it is just shocking the gall they have when they out and out lie to your face. I've actually also had the "only black hat link building companies would be able to provide a list of their links" answer given to me. These companies have no shame.
 Allan Gardyne said:
Hi Jill, What surprises me, is that after Penguin, and the subsequent traffic falls you outline, millions of auto-generated, spammy blog comments are STILL being made.

The blog commenters have become tricky, using tactics such as flattery, describing a "problem" with your blog, or asking an innocent looking question, as ways to get their comments approved. Judging by the feedback I've received, lots of bloggers are publishing spam comments without realizing it.

I been doing research into this, and found the same bit of blog comment spam was on 4 MILLION web pages, according to Google.

Here's a long list of comment spam examples, including tricky techniques the comment spammers use:
 grant said:
this is a excellent article, however i too have been in this market since 1998 and in the last three to four years i have seen a emergence of these cheap evangelistic search engine companies. Mostly out of India or Pakistan

looking at this from a different angle it’s been very hard to get clients when they see a normal price with a spammers price at a fraction, also i have seen short term these spammers achieving ok results for non competitive industries. Due to this one thing I’ve noticed is a few very good companies disappearing from the market. As Jill noted most clients are naive so look at price, one mistake also is for reputable companies to drop their standard so as to compete

I for one think it’s time for another association to be started up like search guild tried to do a few years ago

If you are looking for a reputable search engine company one trick is to not go for the ones that promise top ten rankings, how can anyone except Google promise that? But i see that all the time
 JD said:
Ya, pretty annoying that perfectly good white hat websites are getting penalized for being over optimized. Sometimes on-page seo just happens to look over optimized even if it's written naturally. So sometimes it has nothing to do with a low quality SEO company and more with crazy G. But yes there is also the other side of too much spam and shady SEO companies that hurt the industry and trust of companies.
 Steve OBrien said:
Hi Jill,

Personal i was happy to see the Panda & Peguin updates. The legal industry is loaded with worthless spam blogs doing nothing but trying to use anchor text links to spammy poorly written sites. What these people will never learn is a lousy site doesn't deliver clients anyway. I've found when a sites content is informative, written to help and educate the target audience it rises in the rankings like cream to the top. It also helps when you're not linking from porno and diet sites. The companies that got burned probably hired the lowest bidder or used the owner's college nephew who is an "SEO Guru" .

Hard to feel sorry for those who willing cut corners to get short term results.
 Marcus said:
This is the problem and if your average small business paid for 'SEO' and it worked then they keep on paying and digging a hole for themselves. I am not sure I agree with the way Google has handled this and a lot of one man bands and super small business have paid for the aggression and more calculated manipulation of larger companies and pushy spam selling SEO companies.

I tend to think there should be a one time disavow or get out of jail card for small companies that are caught up in Google's inability to police its own algorithm and whilst they may not rank as well as before they could at least learn and move forward.

Instead, the what we get is an attempt to scare people away from link building as much as an attempt to 'level the playing field'.

Spam sucks, lots of results still suck and manipulation is still rife so we still have some way to go and the little people are still going to be attracted to big promises with small price tags.

Google, you need to do better.
 CandleFOREX said:
Not to go off topic, but this is another good reason for people and companies to actually learn SEO, both on-page and off-page.

Yes, it takes time to learn but it is worth it.

CandleFOREX has never hired or used a SEO company, as we do all SEO in house. We like to think we did it pretty well too.
 Daniel Foley said:
I'm not being funny but the whole point of Google from day 1 has been to provide high quality search results, poor quality search results lead to a decline in market share of searches, just look at Yahoo, a once dominating search engine reduced to a tiny portion of market shares in search because of poor quality results.

All that is happening with Google is evolution, only the fittest survive, and by fittest I mean websites that are and always have focused on their users and not what Google thinks. I am bored of these constant updates, lets face it, Google gets smarter whilst SEO's look for shortcuts to success, why? because clients are turned of by the prospects of a slow moving genuine campaign.

Because many companies and clients want good results quickly, SEO's are backed into a corner, fighting for shortcuts, from paid links to article syndication, but the reality is, these things are no longer working and many companies/clients are now turning to Pay Per Click, which ironically generates Google larger revenue which allows Google to further invest in algorithm technology, see the cycle here?

It's not rocket science, Google still has exploits and faults, but is it really worth the temporary shortcut? I think the days of SEO are numbered, the term itself is almost worthless, I like to think of the shift as web marketing analyst and strategist.

Rather than make your website for Google, why not make it for your end users? stick to your guns and fire slowly into the wind, remember, the turtle won the race, don't fight for an overnight number 1 spot for your keywords, fight to be a recognised brand that Google can trust
 Joydeep said:
Most of the so called "search engine optimizers" do not even know then real meaning of seo. They just learn 2-3 techniques of back link building and start building links to their site. Most of the created links come from spammy sites and do not add any value to the user. Seo rests on two blocks which are relevancy and backlinks. Relevancy can be gained by making changes on the site and is easy for the webmaster but gaining backlinks is difficult and people are willing to link you only after you have passed the test of having quality content, products or services on your site. Hence, seo is an ongoing effort which requires patience. There are whole lot of other things which a seo can do in order to make your site more search engine friendly. The best approach is to follow the users while keeping the Google guidelines in mind.

Seo today has become search experience optimization instead of search engine optimization and we should build our strategies accordingly.
 Mark Shrigley said:
Hi Jill -

I'm one of those "SEO Guys" that is offering services to businesses. However, I'm one of the good guys - and I'm suffering quite a bit for being that way.

Every potential customer that calls me - I tell them that I can NOT guarantee them first page rankings on a competitive KW phrase. It really turns them off. It's funny though, because 90% of the people that call me have just got out of a contract with a SEO firm that screwed them.

I do think that most SEO companies are dirty - and I'm one of the few that practice white hat. Now days, I usually do PPC for my current clients to bring in traffic. I also do article marketing that picks up referral traffic, but I always tell my clients not to expect much from them. I guess I emphasize paid traffic (Adwords, FB and Bings Ads, etc).
 Darby said:
After reading Mark Shrigley's post, I agree, many companies out there promise what they think their customer wants. I agree with you Mark, we are doing our business as honest as we can however some of our possible clients dont' want to talk to us when we say that PR5 or 6 is not doable tomorrow.

I get amazed when I hear that "my to be client" was promised PR8 year and half ago and they are still on PR1, they paid significantly large amount of money for it and they want me to take them to at least PR4 next week> There is something wrong with the expectations from clients. I have no idea what kinda a blogs do they read lol. We, the ones who are in SEO for a long time know that PR8 will never happen to a local company, they are not Google or Mircosoft. :) It's just so bad that someone would even promise them the impossible and cash the cheque every month!

People need to understand that we dont do magic but work hard for the money.