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“The SEO business is 80% scam,” I told a new client the other day…”damn right”, he said, “I’ve been scammed already!”

I’ve been telling people my “80% scam” estimate for several years now, and what amazes me is that never has anyone disagreed. Nobody’s ever said “that’s a little harsh, don’t you think?” Never has anyone, in the SEO business or buying SEO services, said to me “how can that be possible?!”

No, my “scam” comment invariably elicits shrugs or outright agreement. I hear things like…

  • “Absolutely…there’s so much snake oil in this business I didn’t know where to look.”
  • “I’ve already been ripped off…I’m just trying to find someone legit”
  • “I’m sure you’re right…I’ve worked with a couple of SEO firms, and never really got much for my money.”

Furthermore, during discussions with people in the business, I’ve even heard admissions!:

  • “We sell SEO services, but to be honest we don’t really understand it.” [from a mid-size Web development firm doing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of work a year]
  • “Sure, we do SEO for our clients. But we don’t do it well.” [from another mid-size Web firm]
  • “Yes, we have to offer search-engine services, but we’re still learning.” [from a small Web design firm]

Within the last comment you’ll find part of the problem. Most Web-development and Web-design firms these days offer SEO services, though they really don’t understand it. Why? Because everyone else does. When clients want the full package — “I need you to develop and promote my site” — you can’t compete if you don’t offer SEO services but the guy down the street does. So you both offer SEO, though neither of you know how to do it correctly.

Obviously I’m not saying everyone in this business is playing a scam. Just that the business is predominantly a scam. You can find really good people in this business, but it’s hard.

So What is an SEO Scam?

But what, exactly, do I mean by scam?

First, of course, there are the outright scams, the companies that claim to be performing services that they simply are not. One common area of “scammery” is the site-registration business, companies that promise to register your site with hundreds of search engines. A while back a client gave me a list of search engines her site was being submitted to, and a bunch of the search engines didn’t even exist anymore. (How long’s it been since you could submit a site to Northern Light? A decade or so?)

There are also plenty of companies claiming to do “SEO work” on client sites every month, as part of a monthly package. What work? Well, it’s hard to say, as so many SEO companies blind their clients with science leaving them with no real idea of the work that’s being done…and all too often, not much work is being done.

But there’s another aspect to the scam. Sometimes companies are actually doing the work they promise, but the work is, well, kinda pointless. Submitting your site over and over to Google, Yahoo, and MSN is totally pointless, for instance.

The Secondary Scam

I must admit that I use the term scam loosely. I also use it to mean the provision of services that are quite simply bad…the people providing the services are not intentionally misleading their clients, they are not criminals intentionally conning their clients…but they simply don’t know what they are doing, and probably have no business being in the business.

Every industry has incompetent participants, but I feel it’s valid to group these people into the “scammery” category–as a form of shorthand, you understand–simply because such a huge portion of the SEO business is made up of these people.

Why is this? Because while SEO at some levels is very simple — put keywords into the Title and Description, add links, and so on — at just a slightly more advanced level it’s actually quite difficult. It’s a very difficult business to learn in fact:

  1. It’s a confusing business. The rules are hidden. It’s like being an engineer when the laws of physics are unknown…and they change every few weeks.
  2. Thanks to #1, above, the business is full of misinformation, information that is ambiguous or no longer correct, conjecture, and outright nonsense. It’s very hard to learn a trade when a significant portion of the background information is wrong.

Thus it’s also actually quite hard to teach SEO. Yes, there are certain things that are easy, that can be cookie-cuttered. But it’s not easy to teach the full scope of everything that someone needs to know to be good at SEO. Thus the market has a very large proportion of people that understand a little about the subject, but not enough.

I get to see a lot of sites that have been “optimized,” in my line of work. Clients come to me, show me their site, and say things like “well, we had it optimized, but I’m not sure if they knew what they were doing.” All too often I discover that “they” didn’t!


Perhaps I’m being uncharitable. Perhaps it would be nicer if I simply said that SEO is a business with very low standards. Either way, scam or low standards, for the average client, the result is the same. It’s very easy to pay a lot of money for search-engine optimization services and get very little in return.

Contact Peter Kent