Picture yourself in this situation: You hire an SEO agency and suddenly your website appears for every conceivable keyword. Traffic skyrockets. You hire a new receptionist just to handle the call volume. You clink champagne glasses with your team to celebrate your great success. Life is good.
Then, all of a sudden, traffic plummets. Your website drops from the top of page one in the search engines to the bottom of page ten. The phones fall silent. You switch from champagne to stale coffee. You begin to panic.
When asked about the change, the SEO agency gives you some excuse about Google algorithm changes, or rattles off some obtuse technobabble and assures you that everything is ok. You give it a few more months, and still no change. When you review the numbers with your accountant it turns out that your loss in business over the last few months far outweighs any benefit you may have gained from that initial ranking. At about this time, that same SEO agency stops responding to your phone calls.
The above scenario is a common one for anyone who has unknowingly engaged with a black hat agency. These agencies use manipulative and easily detectable tactics to get a website to rank temporarily, and then when Google catches wind of these tactics, the site gets penalized–a penalty that often takes months to recover from, even in the hands of the most experienced penalty recovery specialists.
While we haven’t found a black hat SEO firm that actually markets itself as “Black Hat” we do have clients whose sites have received heavy penalties due to a previous agency’s tactics. I took a look at some of these black hat firms’ websites to find some possible warning signs that you might be dealing with black hats. Here are some things I noticed:
1. There isn’t any mention of “white hat” on their website
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed from reading black hat forum posts, it’s that they typically disdain white hat tactics as being “unnecessary hard work”. This is why they tend not to falsely brand themselves as a white hat agency. Also, if you market yourself as a white hat agency and actually don’t do white hat work, chances are you will ruin your reputation and perhaps even open yourself up to a lawsuit.
2.”Confidential” or “Proprietary” SEO Trade Secrets
The only “confidential” SEO tactics that I know of are black hat methods. Essentially, if they’re not willing to tell you how they work, they have something to hide.
3. SEO and Account Management are separate departments
If the representative of the agency you’re working with can’t answer your SEO questions and refers you to a “technical department” whenever you have a technical question, this could be a warning sign. After all, it’s easier for account managers and sales managers to sell you on a bad product if they themselves don’t know the product is bad.
4. “Guaranteed Rankings”
While a pay-for-performance system based on keyword rankings seems promising, they are often misleading. How are they misleading? First of all, it can often be very easy to rank high for keywords that have low competition or low volume in terms of people who are actually using that search term. Second, it can be very easy to temporarily gain a foothold for certain keyword rankings using spammy black hat tactics. These are tactics that will ultimately hurt your business in the long term.
5. Where are the Names?
If you go to a firm’s website and notice that not a single person’s name is mentioned, be wary. The last thing a black hat SEO or spammer wants to do is associate their name with black hat practices (should they get caught or get bad reviews). In these cases. it may be best to steer clear.
6.They Actually Mention Black Hat Tactics
Just because an SEO is black hat doesn’t mean that they won’t be forthright about what they do. One black hat SEO I know of actually mentioned to his client the black hat tactics he would use to get them to rank. Of course, the client didn’t know they were black hat tactics at the time. If your SEO agency mentions that they do any of the following, run:
- Article Directory Submissions
- Blog Networks
- Doorway or Gateway Pages
- Mirror Sites
- Comment and Trackback Link Building
- Link Farms
7. What would Google Do (WWGD)?
Google’s goal is to serve to users the highest quality and most relevant content to its searchers. When interviewing an SEO Agency it’s important to keep that in mind. If your agency doesn’t actually help make your site more relevant to your target market, and instead uses an arsenal of “SEO Tricks” to get your website to rank, then chances are you’re being taken for a ride. If someone at an agency mentions questionable tactic to you, a simple question to ask would be: “Wouldn’t that incur a Google Penalty?” If their answer to that is less than convincing, you may want to start looking for another agency.
Have you had an experience with a less than legit agency? Please feel free to share some other signs of blackhattery in the comments!