Let's talk about the SEO industry from the perspective of a past owner of an SEO agency.
Long story short - I owned a major SEO agency with 85 people working for it at its peak and serving a few hundred customers.
I've also owned a bunch of niche SEO services.
I've started my journey with SEO around 2006, so I have quite a background.
I think this gives me right to talk about the topic.
SEO is dead (and always was).
And I don't talk about SEO as a technique, but SEO as a business/industry.
The whole industry is like a zombie-infested swamp full of toxic waste.
You can't distinguish a bloodthirsty being, from a real human, until you turn around and trust them not to bite you when you are not looking.
Sorry to break this to you, but if you are not experienced, chances are you will get bitten.
So, why the SEO industry is in such a sorry state?
Here are a few reasons:
-perceived low entry-level (read a few articles, and you can act like a professional)
-absurd margin rates (resell a product and make 50% on every sale)
-no quality control on deliverables (why bother?!)
-ease of bending the truth (at worst we will blame the previous SEO guy, or say there are unexpected issues)
-overpromising is universally accepted (we will make you a million dollars within 10 days... or maybe 10,000 days, who cares, keep paying).
To make it clear, I am talking here about a large part of the industry, not the whole industry.
There are many good companies out there (I won't mention them to stay neutral).
But from my experience, I wouldn't count that they are even 1/5th of all agencies in this market.
So, what's the reason for the current state of this industry?
Let's go back to the beginning of the last decade.
Many people (including me, admittedly) figured out that SEO is a dream come true for Internet wantrepreneurs.
A week or two of reading (there were very few articles about it back then), gave you enough to be an entry-level provider.
And since everyone wanted SEO for their site (there was a massive hype for it), there was a market vacuum.
Existing agencies blew up and increased their prices to at least four digits.
There was a massive demand for small companies actively looking for SEO services that would be good for their budget, and few companies offering it.
You need to understand that this was pre-social networking, so companies had either SEO (with golden mountains promised) or Ads for traffic generation (this is a massive simplification though).
Back then selling SEO was as easy as this:
-set small-business-friendly price
-give it a cool name
-launch to a community full of small businesses
So you had a situation where:
-existing companies that were sales-optimized were growing double digits each month moving exclusively to large and medium companies
-new agencies with virtually no experience or portfolio tapping into highly lucrative and SEO-uneducated small business market
You don't need to be an SEO expert to see that this could lead to many issues and scams to be born.
With a service, where you need to wait even six months to see the results, it created a field for snake oil sellers to thrive.
I knew companies that were forcing contracts with no guarantees on to customers for a period of 18 months!
Often, those agencies would not even touch the customer website for the first six months.
Also, their refund policy covered only last month...
There were also companies misspelling customer keywords, using the wrong domain, and sending fake reports (with bogus data in it).
A lot of these agencies were and are notable players now, so it was not a problem with newcomers only.
So let me give you insider info on what large part of the SEO industry is:
-80% of the agencies/people offering SEO services do not have a basic technical understanding of the processes behind website ranking. They will not only be unable to deliver the results but also harm your website rankings in the long term. There is a vast difference between "common" SEO and technical SEO. The first is used to sell and understand, and the second is to actually do it.
-price is not going in pairs with quality. I have seen premium agencies using Fiverr $5 services to deliver to their customers. They were providing automated spam disguised as manual work. I also knew providers that were ridiculously cheap ($30-50/pm) and delivering exceptional service that was working fast. The issue with the cheap ones is that chances are sooner or later you will get burned...
-...and if you got burned (either way), the next expert working on your site might either miss it or ignore it. If the expert tells you - "Hey, We need to fix what other guy did, so for the next three months, I will work on it, and you will see no results" - you might be unhappy about working with him. So many experts that spot the significant issues will ignore it, and focus elsewhere. This is common, and both SEO experts and customers are to blame (experts putting sales over the quality, and customers wanting fast results).
-If you buy SEO services from an agency, it's quite possible that they are just resellers. Almost everyone is doing it, even if they say everything is done in-house. And the worst part - a lot of budget and premium SEO companies will be buying from the same resellers. Precisely the same products. Usually, the difference is that the premium guys are doing better quality control, which sometimes means that once they spot an issue, they will remove it from the report without trying to fix it. So good quality control on their side does not guarantee excellent work delivered.
-if you buy content - ALWAYS check if it's unique. Use Google, Copyscape, or any other tool. Never fully trust your provider. Even if he is reliable, he might be checking only random pieces of content for uniqueness when he buys in bulk from his provider (that's normal). You don't want to pay the premium for something you could just download from Google! And also double check if keywords are correct if links they built are working properly. If they know that you are manually checking the reports, they will do a much better quality control job.
-A lot of SEO guys will not do any custom work even if you pay for it. They will try to send you some poorly customized template claiming its gold. Customers that might/will write a review about the service and are pushing for good quality will be served much better than others. If you are silent/non-demanding, you might get burned. Just don't be passive-aggressive. A lot of people are confused about the difference between demanding, and being aggressive (the first will get you a premium service, while the second can get you a lot of issues).
-keep it real. The results won't come overnight. My past customers were often ready to throw money at me, buy courses from me, treat me like a VIP. And for what? Just for being honest and trying to deliver on promises. That should be expected from me, not treated as something unique. Don't treat your SEO guy as a celebrity; treat him like a regular expert. Otherwise, he might start acting like a celebrity.
-possibly, you are paying enormous premiums. SEO has ridiculous margins. 80-85% margin was achievable (I achieved that numerous times). The usual margin rate is around 50%. You have a lot of space to try to negotiate the price, or better yet, to get some meaningful freebies (it's smarter to ask for freebies than lower the price - otherwise, the provider might decide to decrease the quality control).
-I would say AT LEAST 95% of SEO agencies do not do any proper Research & Development and depends on widely available data. Experimenting on customer sites should be not called testing. R&D for SEO takes a significant amount of money and time. But the majority of agency owners will not worry about it. And yet most of them will claim that they do heavy testing.
-THERE ARE secret links, where few of them can rank your site for crazy keywords. Everyone claims to have them; almost no one has them. There are three reasons for this. First - check the point above - not enough testing. Second - people that know how to find them usually work for high paying industries, like Gambling, Adult, Finances, Energy. And they make ridiculous money there. Third - they won't share them so that they won't get spammed. But it does not matter to you - if you are not a seasoned SEO expert, you won't be able to recognize them anyways. So if someone is offering them to you, a heavy dose of skepticism is advised.
-THERE ARE secret groups that shape the market. I know, because I am a member of a few of them. No, there is virtually no chance to get invited unless you make a significant contribution to the SEO world. It's a scam if someone is offering you to pay for a membership in such a group. It's a scam that anyone gives you a spot for a favor or promises to "get you there." Impossible. A guy tried to bribe his way to the group with $50K; he failed miserably.
-THERE ARE wizards in SEO world, but you won't hear about most of them. They let their results speak for themselves. They usually work for wealthy companies.
-A lot of SEO guys are assholes with overblown egos. That's because they work in the self-patting industry, where everyone needs to think that they are better than others. This is required to survive and stay sane. The amount of scam in the industry is ridiculous. If you are a good guy, not only you need to clean after others, you need to fight the claims that you are scammer yourself. It happens constantly. To remain healthy, your ego needs to keep growing, so you can shield yourself from the bad. For some people, this means that they start to act like celebrity assholes. And you don't want to work with a guy who thinks he deserves your money without any work to be done. If SEO guy is acting like a celebrity, there are good chances that he will have issues with delivering on promises.
-The SEO gurus are usually fake. But even they have a place in this world. Don't buy from them (ever), but don't be afraid to digest their content. It's typically easy to understand. It will give you good basics on what's what. I won't list any names or blogs, so just Google for them!
The SEO industry is a bit like a gambling industry.
Vicious, cloudy, and unhealthy over time.
Occasional winners shape our perception of it.
In SEO, the same as in Forex, if you win, someone else lost.
It's an eye for an eye race - the only way to the top is to outrun others.
I am working on the second part of this article, where I will try to explain the best way to figuring out which SEO provider is safe to use.