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You probably already know this, but SEO is hard. Correction: SEO done right is hard.

It wasn’t always of course. It used to be easy enough that a few tweaks here and there and you’d rank pretty well for certain keywords. So easy that people out to make a quick buck (or thousands as it turned out) started to figure out how to trick the search engines. Search engines got smarter and now SEO is really hard. Not like rocket science hard, just hard as in it takes a lot of time and patience. Lots of patience.

The problem is that there are still of people and full-fledged businesses out there that claim to know SEO when in fact they don’t. They’re still relying on old tricks that will eventually get a site penalized. As a business owner, how are you supposed to know if the SEO agency you’ve hired is good or not? Here are some signs to watch out for.

For some people, SEO agencies still have a reputation of being snake oil salesmen.

They don’t ask you for anything

SEO takes place on your website primarily. Sure, other marketing channels, such as social media, play a role, but the crux of it all is on your website. So if your SEO agency isn’t asking for at least access to managing your website content, they’re likely relying on spammy things like adding backlinks from a shady network.

Speaking of which…

You see an increase in backlinks to your site

The idea with backlinks is that with the right ones, your site will get an increase in its authority which means an increase in search ranking. The problem is, that only works if your backlinks are from fellow authoritative and/or reputable sites. Getting thousands of backlinks from thousands of spammy sites indicates your site might be spammy itself. It’s far better getting a couple of links from a site like the New York Times or whatever hugely popular blog is out there in your industry. Want to learn more about link building? Check out Moz’s beginner guide.

They ask you to switch to WordPress

This one gets me every time. Here’s the deal: WordPress somehow got this reputation of being super good for SEO. The irony is that it isn’t, unless you install one of two or three plugins, not to mention do all the work that is required for SEO. But even that you have to rely on a plugin doesn’t matter.

The fact is, SEO isn’t really dependent on your website’s CMS or technology. They work together sure, but there’s no one better platform for SEO. You can have a flat, static, no-CMS website and still outrank WordPress websites if you know what you’re doing. And true SEO pros will know what needs to happen on your various pages to improve your ranking, but that doesn’t mean you have to use a specific CMS. If, on the other hand, your SEO agency is trying to tell you that you need to switch your entire website to WordPress (or some other platform) purely for SEO, they’re betting on your ignorance hoping to make a buttload of money.

They don’t have anything to show, especially early on

Speaking of making a buttload of money, for a lot of these not-so-honest players, that’s all they’re after. A nice monthly sum to do who-knows-what and showing you little to nothing. As Neil Patel points out, your SEO agency “should be able to show you the actual SEO practices they are doing.” Just showing you the results or the rise in rankings isn’t enough. There needs to be more. If they claim that their methods are proprietary or trade secret, chances are they are lying. All the best practices and techniques can be learned online (though it might take a lot of time to sift through it all and remove all the junk info). Google itself provides myriad resources for not just SEO, but other areas of your site, such as performance, that likely tie into SEO. So yeah, your SEO agency should be able to walk you through what they’re doing to help you with your SEO.

They don’t play nice with your web developer

Websites are complicated these days that require the expertise of many professionals. Any SEO agency that insists on taking over the code and development or refuses to work with the developer you pay lots of money to design, build, and/or maintain your site should be questioned.

While there may be a good reason an SEO agency will ask for taking over the code, it’s largely unnecessary. Most sites these days run on a CMS that has SEO-specific settings, not to mention that the CMS itself should allow you to modify content or create new content to help with SEO.

If a change requires something more technical, it’s in your best interest to have your SEO agency work amicably with your web developer in making those changes. But beware: just because an SEO agency makes a technical suggestion doesn’t mean it’s necessarily correct. I’ve heard enough stories from colleagues where a client’s SEO agency required a technical change that, at the insistence of the client, had to be made and ended up causing other problems.

Too good to be true promises

You know the old adage: if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. It applies here too. If an SEO agency is promising, well, anything you need to be skeptical. Google has big enough updates every now and again that any promises being made can easily be broken.

The main reason no one can truly promise #1 rankings is because search is so volatile. You could be #1 for a keyword one day and be overtaken the next, slipping to say #2 or #3. Is it really that terrible to not be the #1 site listed in a particular search query? I don’t think so. There are so many more factors to consider, starting with conversions which, in my opinion, is far more important.

Oh, and if an SEO firm is claiming to have an inside connection to Google or the inside scoop on their algorithm, you should run away as fast as possible.

Short version: don’t believe the promises.

Poor or no writing

A major part of doing well in search engines is content. Quality content, that is.

The best ranking sites rank well because they provide good content for the particular thing or topic a user is searching for. A good SEO agency knows this and they’ll help you write good content. If, however, your SEO agency is not providing any writing or, worse, writing for search engines rather than people, you need to reconsider.

Seeing your rankings or traffic drop

Websites go up and down in rankings and traffic all the time. It’s just the way it is. So that, in and of itself, is no reason to be alarmed. However, if you notice that your traffic or your rankings are steadily heading south, they your SEO firm might be doing things that are causing the drops. The right SEO firm will help your rankings and traffic stay steady at the very least, but hopefully they’re helping you go in an upward trend.

Final thoughts

SEO is a constantly changing field. It requires a ton of learning, time, and patience to understand and apply the right techniques to a site. (That’s why Block 81 got out of the SEO game several years ago.) Unfortunately there are still SEO agencies and freelancers out there that don’t really care about all that. They make promises they can’t keep or use techniques that no longer work on the modern web. So if you’re in search of a good SEO firm, be aware of these things and do your research. And if you have a web developer you work with regularly, consider enlisting them to help you partner with someone.