It’s no surprise that lots of time-strapped Tucson business marketers look to outsource their SEO to trained professionals. A simple Google search for SEO firms will turn up thousands of vendors, offering incredible results for attractively low monthly fees or even a simple one-time purchase.

Search Engine Optimization is routinely cited by marketers as one of the most effective tactics for generating leads or sales from your site. Most marketers understand the importance of SEO, but may perceive the concept as a highly technical, very mysterious discipline, best left to experts. Be cautious, though: Lots of these “experts” are counting on ignorance to make quick cash without delivering long-term, sustainable SEO improvements. Even worse, a number of the practices used by SEO firms can actually hurt your business in the long run.

How can you tell if you are being sold SEO snake oil? Here are 5 signs your SEO firm might not be worth the funds you’re paying them. Take a glance at these shady practices and evaluate your current approach. Or, keep this list on-hand as you search for a new vendor to take on your SEO project.

Sign #1. “We guarantee a #1 Ranking” – Does it sound too good to be true?

Outsourcing your SEO is a leap of faith – you need to show the return on that investment. Many marketers are tempted by firms that guarantee top rankings or specific traffic increases, or claim they’ll improve your position in as little as 30 days.

Beware of Tucson companies that make these promises. Reputable SEO firms don’t offer guaranteed #1 rankings, fast results, or any other promises that sound too good to be true.

Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOMoz, cites several reasons why guarantees are typically used by shady SEO firms, including: Google warns against making such promises in its search marketing guidelines, saying, “No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.”

  • Search rankings are notoriously unstable, and subject to a variety of factors such as the location of the person searching and whether they’ve logged in to Google and are using personalized results.
  • Rankings alone are a bad metric for performance. It’s more important that the search results drive relevant visitors that take a desired action – such as signing up for an email newsletter or making a purchase once they land on your page.
  • SEO is not a quick-fix marketing tactic to deliver results in a matter of hours or days. Instead, it typically takes a diligent, ongoing process that gradually improves your ranking. An SEO project can take two to three months to begin showing a real impact, depending on a number of factors such as the age of your site, the number of quality inbound links you already have, and the competitiveness of keywords.

Anyone promising you big-time results overnight is at minimum overpromising – or worse: They could be using shady SEO tactics that might deliver a quick bump at the expense of long-term search engine visibility.

Sign #2. Using “Black Hat” SEO techniques

SEO practitioners have a myriad of ways to achieve higher rankings for a site, but not all techniques are considered above board. Bending the generally accepted rules established by search engines is called “black hat” SEO. And while black hat SEO is not technically illegal, it is discouraged by search engines and can hurt your business in the long run.

Some of the most common black hat SEO techniques include: Keyword Stuffing — Cramming as many keywords as possible into the text of a webpage, with no attempt to create useful information for a human reader. Long lists of keywords or randomly repeated keywords on a page are SEO faux pas.

  • Doorway Pages – Creating standalone, keyword-heavy pages specifically to rank in search engine results, but redirect visitors to another destination.
  • Invisible Text – Using white text on a white background to fool a search engine spider into ranking your page for terms that might not be relevant to the information on the rest of the page.
  • Linking Schemes – Offering payment for inbound links, creating new sites solely to link back to a main site (known as link pyramids), or placing hundreds of inbound links on unrelated pages just to boost a specific page’s rank.

Search engines can penalize websites that are found to be using black hat techniques, often dinging those pages way down in the search results or delisting the pages altogether.

Even the biggest brands can get burned by Black Hat SEO. In 2010 J.C. Penney got caught in an SEO nightmare after the holiday shopping season, when Google found that the company’s SEO firm had used a link-buying scheme (paying to place links on hundreds of spammy websites unrelated to the targeted J.C Penney page) to help the retailer achieve top rankings for dozens of broad product terms such as “area rugs,” “furniture,” “home d├ęcor” and “skinny jeans.” Once Google discovered the scam, they began crushing J.C. Penney’s rankings. In just over one week, the average position for a J.C. Penney webpage for 59 search terms dropped from 1.3 to 52.

The best way to avoid falling victim to black hat SEO is to ask your current or potential SEO vendors if they use any of these common black hat tactics. If they try to talk you into doorway pages, link-buying schemes, or other black-hat practices, take your business elsewhere!

Sign #3. Targeting the Wrong Keywords

Any SEO firm can come up with a huge new list of keywords as part of their SEO contract services. But in some cases, you’re paying for a bad list. Not every keyword that’s relevant to your products or services is appropriate for your SEO campaign. For example, if you’re in a crowded space, like furniture or automobiles, you’re going to have a hard time competing for top rankings for broad, one and two word phrases like “office furniture” or “used cars.” Instead, your SEO firm should help you target long-tail phrases – longer strings of keywords that are more specific and descriptive than broad category terms. These phrases have lower search volume than broad terms, but can deliver better-qualified visitors to you site. For example, rather than trying to optimize for “office furniture,” you could target terms representing some of your most popular brands or products, such as “Herman Miller leather office chairs” Likewise, if your business is focused on a particular geographic area, you don’t want to compete against the entire world for search engine rankings. Rather than targeting the term “automobiles,” you might target several variations on autos and your location, such as “used cars Albany” or “auto dealership upstate New York.”

Another warning sign to look out for is when an SEO firm suggests using consumer-oriented phrases for a B2B-focused site, simply because many of the “layman’s terms” are high-traffic keywords. For example, an industrial adhesive distributor wouldn’t necessarily want to target phrases that include the word “glue,” because that’s a term that consumers and hobbyists use. Manufacturing clients would tend to use phrases related to specific types of adhesives, such as epoxy or polyurethane. When it comes to keywords, no one knows your business better than you: You know the language customers use to describe your business or product, the terms they typically employ in their searches, and how much competition there is for those terms within your industry. Don’t let a self- proclaimed SEO guru talk you into keywords you know are inappropriate or irrelevant.

Sign #4. Creating Bad Content

Content is king when it comes to SEO. A good blog post, case study, white paper, or other content-heavy page on your site naturally will contain relevant keywords and is likely to attract inbound links.

The content has to be useful, relevant, and readable by humans. Unscrupulous sites try to cheat the SEO system by creating content that’s heavy on keywords and light value.

Avoid working with any vendor that recommends the following content strategies:

  • Content Scraping – Copying content without permission from high-ranking websites and placing it on your own pages in an attempt to boost your site’s ranking. Content scraping typically is a violation of copyright law, and mostly associated with spam sites.
  • Keyword-stuffed content – Low-quality articles clearly designed to attract search bots by repeating a keyword over and over in the text. Remember, your content is supposed to engage the visitor and get him or her to take the next step. What’s more, Google recently made changes to its search algorithm to downgrade sites that were using “low-quality content” to achieve high search rankings. A study by the SEO software maker Sistrix found that the top-25 sites most associated with low-quality content had lost 70%-90% of their search engine visibility after the change.
  • Posting Fake Reviews – Sites that have been caught posting fake reviews on the Internet have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Even if your firm isn’t using one of these blatantly bad content strategies, make sure that any content they create for your site includes a clear call-to-action or “next step” for the visitor to take. You must have some way for the visitors who land on any page from a search visit to actually buy your product or become a lead. Just creating content that gets a high-ranking, but doesn’t get visitors to actually do something on the page, is a waste of time.

Sign #5. Offering a One-Time Fix with No Ongoing Maintenance

SEO isn’t a one-time project — it is an ongoing process. Your content has to be constantly refreshed, inbound links added regularly, and your keyword strategy tweaked according to market trends and performance metrics. And that doesn’t even take into account ongoing changes to search engine algorithms that make any page’s ranking susceptible to fluctuation over time.

The bottom line is that SEO should be a constant focus for your marketing team – and your agency partner. It’s more than just a few structural fixes, a burst of link building, and a one-time content generation push.

MarketingSherpa’s “2012 Search Marketing Benchmark Report – SEO Edition” found that marketers who have a formal SEO process that they routinely perform tend to convert 150% more leads than marketers who have no formal process or guidelines for performing SEO.

So if you find a firm proposing promising big improvements from a one-time SEO “package,” you’re not going to achieve all the benefits that SEO can bring to your business – and you’re likely to be looking for help again before you know it.

Even when you outsource SEO, someone from your team should be intimately involved with the entire strategy: understanding the tactics they plan to use; contributing to keyword research and content creation; working on link-building; and so on.

You need a long-term relationship with good communication and a commitment to ongoing SEO maintenance. If you don’t have that with your current SEO firm, look elsewhere or consider bringing SEO in-house.