Contrary to what one might expect from a professional search engine optimizer, my website home page does not feature SEO services. This is intentional, primarily because I do not want to be associated with self-proclaimed SEOs who tout their services in spam messages promising unrealistic results. Many people already regard SEO as a scummy profession, largely because we as an industry have failed to create and uphold professional standards. Search agencies and consultants need to come together and write the missing guidelines if we are to change that perception.
Several times per month one or more of my clients forward me email that arrived out of the blue, offering SEO services. These emails may include a diagnostic report based on vague or confusing criteria. I am always happy to speak with clients, but I would prefer to talk about ways to improve their websites, rather than combating disinformation in the marketplace. Sometimes clients even ask if I can help them send mass emails too, since everybody seems to be doing it.
Sending unsolicited commercial email is potentially illegal and definitely unethical when the sender and recipients have no prior connection. In many cases, addresses have been harvested from the web, either by robots or staff who scan Google sponsored listings looking for advertiser email addresses. If an address email addresses aren’t found, spammers may target standard addresses such as email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The spam flow often begins when we start advertising a client’s site. SEO spammers seem to recognize that search advertisers are more valuable prospects, because advertisers are willing to pay for traffic, and hence, may be willing to pay for SEO services.
Here are portions of a sample message a client received:
“I was recently doing some prospecting research and came across your website. I’m reaching out to see if you are currently testing the effectiveness of SEO. I work for (blank)… we’re a Performance-based SEO Services company. We do not require any set-up fees, and all pricing is upfront. As an example, our current pricing is $211 per month, if indeed we can help you achieve one of the Top 3 rankings in Google for the keyword “website security”.
I don’t know for sure if this same message was sent to a bunch of people, or if the sales representative is sending them one at a time. Whether or not this message is illegal doesn’t really matter. It’s bad for business. The company has promised top three rankings for the term “website security,” which seems like an unrealistic promise, or at least a confusing offer. Maybe the SEO will buy the listings (the only way I know to guarantee ranking). Many consumers of SEO services don’t even understand the difference between paid listings and sponsored listings. Taking advantage of their confusion isn’t right.
Here are excerpts from another specimen:
“I thought you might like to know some of the reasons why you are not getting enough Social Media and Organic search engine traffic for xxxxxxxxxx.com.
1. Social profile is not available in top Social Media websites.
2. Your SEO score is 71%. We can bring it to 100% by implementing on and off-page factors which will fetch better results in major search engines.
3. Your site has 20 Google backlinks, this can be improved further.”
This email also included an offer for a free “website audit report” and a postscript informing the recipient that “I found your site from online advertising but did not click.”
The email states that the site has an SEO score of 71%. My physics teacher always told me that every number needs a unit of measure before it means anything. What exactly are these folks measuring 73% of? How did they come up with 20 backlinks and how are they going to provide a free audit report? Will it be something thoughtful, written by a knowledgeable expert, or is it some machine-generated garbage used to confuse and dazzle the unsophisticated customer?
Notice how the sender admits using “online advertising” to find the site and reassures us that he didn’t click the recipient’s ad. How polite!
We can’t know without further investigation whether this message violates CAN-SPAM, but it is untargeted, unsolicited, sent without permission, without any prior relationship, and therefore, by any common-sense definition, it’s spam.
If an SEO contractor is willing to spam (possibly breaking the law) or look the other way while their affiliates do so, I don’t think that contractor should be trusted. If willing to spam, they are probably also willing to take shortcuts like misrepresenting their services or providing risky SEO tactics that could hurt client reputations. Those skilled at SEO should have no need to email strangers asking for work. Why spam when SEO, social networks, and legitimate email marketing can generate demand?
To combat marketplace disinformation, legitimate SEO firms need to support and uphold standards for marketing SEO services. SEO spam gives all of us a bad reputation and reduces our opportunities. I am disappointed that our national and international search engine marketing professional organizations have failed, for nearly 10 years, to publish ethical standards. If we had standards, clients would use them to distinguish between legitimate search agencies and scammers. I could point to the standards whenever a client forwarded me one of these dubious SEO emails, and say, “This sort of communication is not allowed by our industry’s ethical and professionals standards.”
At SEMNE, a regional organization in New England, we wrote a Code of Ethics after discussions with our membership. Everybody agreed on what was right and wrong. Our rules permit any legal SEO practices, so long as risks are accurately disclosed to clients. By “legal” we mean legal per the law, not legal per Google. An example of a risk disclosure would be, “This tactic may violate Google’s guidelines. If you do this, it may work because Google isn’t as good at detecting violations as we wish they were, but eventually your site may be caught and penalized. Do you want to run that risk?”
Over the years, I have asked people why our professional associations have failed to set ethical standards. The usual response is that people do not agree on what is black, gray, and white-hat SEO. The hat color debate is a cop-out. Ethics are not about protecting the search engines from violations of their webmaster guidelines. Ethical standards would help clients identify legitimate vendors, and defend the reputation of our industry. It is not necessary to define or ban black-hat SEO. Instead we need to focus the discussion on standards of fair competition and fair dealing with clients.