SEO and Snakeoil Salesmen

Rian Schmidt

January 11, 2022

Why is it that SEO is such a den of vipers? I have never seen so many fly-by-night, incompetent schmucks get so good at collecting fees from people who you'd think would know better. Why is that? Whose fault is it?

I think the answer is 'Google'.

It's not the client's fault.

How does someone who doesn't know enough to do it themselves know what to ask? You're hiring someone to come in and do something that no one can really explain beyond "getting you ranked on Google." No one would be silly enough to guarantee such a thing, or they'd do the old "I'll give you a 10% discount if you don't show up" trick.

What are you going to ask? Their process? Here ya go. Congratulations. You're an SEO expert.

It's not the huckster's fault.

The thing is I don't kick anyone for trying to get into business.

SEO is a good one because the fees are high and the qualifications are ambiguous. Nowadays, one can get a subscription to SEMRush or Moz and generate all kinds of interesting statistics for a potential client. Keyword research, rankings, web vitals, competitive positioning, structural analysis, etc. All for a few bucks a month.

It's very easy to become an "search engine optimization professional" by all appearances, seemingly overnight.

But what about references? You mean, you've never had an employer call a friend of yours to tell them how great you were in that one job, exactly like the one you were applying for? Oh, you gotta. You're missing out.

It's Google's fault.

Google, for obvious reasons, plays a shell game with the ranking system. If you knew what to do to get ranked, so would everyone else, and then everyone would be on the first page, and it'd be 50 feet tall. No, can't have that. Google needs to shake things up, now and then. Make it challenging.

Say, aspiring businessperson, did you know that you can BUY ads? And they'll show up on the TOP? GUARANTEED (if you bid enough, and still not guaranteed.) The very monopoly that serves as the gatekeeper for reaching anything on the Internet also, coincidentally, sells ads that let you to the front of the line. There's very little incentive for them to let anyone understand how that works.

And, in fact, if you look at your average SERP (search engine results page), you'll see that most of it is ads. Then, there's some local stuff (more ads). Then, maybe, if your screen is tall enough, you'll see a few search results.

What can you do?

All is not lost. Find an adviser.

There is still value in getting your site into Google's organic search results-- though less all the time as we Boomers drop off. Still, those ads that I mentioned can be a pretty effective source for conversions, and they're no walk in the park either.

The best thing that I can suggest is to find someone who can advise you-- either to do the work themselves or to help you hire someone to do it. Ideally, find someone by word of mouth from a satisfied customer. But you can also find people by reading blogs, listening to podcasts, and attending (virtual) conferences.

What you're looking for is someone who will talk to you and explain what they'll do in plain language. They'll talk to you about expectations. About what can go wrong.

If you're flush enough, consider an established agency. They're far less likely to be guessing. They'll have real customers that you've heard of. They'll have back-up when your team all gets Covid. But, let's face it, most of them aren't for small or medium businesses.

A advisor should be willing to take the time to talk to you about how your search results relate to your bottom line. Get some history about what you've tried. Talk to you about generating content. Describe the available options are in social media, organic, display, paid search, etc. Sure, you might have to pay for some of that time, but believe me, better to pay a little now than a lot later.

If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.

What you do not want is someone who tries to dazzle you with acronyms and terminology that they know is intimidating and incomprehensible. I see this a lot. "walled garden", "third-party cookies", "programmatic", "MTA"... No explanation. Just a stream of esoteric industry stuff meant to demonstrate knowledge and stifle discussion. No one wants to stop someone every two minutes to say "wait, what's a tag manager?"

Avoid anyone who promises you a tidal wave of cheap traffic. First, they're probably lying. Second, if they're not, they're going to do some sketchy black-hat stuff to make some volume numbers, and then run for it. You're going to be paying for click-farms in China.

SEO takes time. It's a game of inches. Everything from image size to content "schema" to incoming links matters. And, even for the stuff you can control immediately, you're at the mercy of Father Google and its arcane book of spells.

The SEO Rock and Hard Place

Anyone doing business on the Internet needs SEO-- either in the limited sense of "getting ranked in Google" or, more likely, in the larger sense of "digital marketing", though the two are often used interchangeably.

But it's also one of the hardest things to hire for. At least with a plumber, you can see she's got a truck, some tools, and a Better Business Bureau profile. SEO people spend a lot of their time just figuring out how to get in front prospective clients-- which would be great practice if you were an SEO company. Not so much if you sell pants. Or surgery.

The best advice I can give is to find someone with a good reputation. Someone you can talk to and come away from it knowing more than you did. That's mostly what you'll be doing. Debugging, adjusting, and experimenting. SEO is not a commodity that you purchase. It's consultative. It's ongoing. If you can find someone you trust to understand its place in your business, you can always hire someone to manage your AdWords campaigns.

As this is my blog, I'll add that I do, indeed, do such things for people, though my work tends more to the technical side of things. I typically provide SEO services as a part of a larger engagement in building a web site or application or otherwise providing general fractional-CTO services to clients. I'm happy to discuss the subject with you, if only to commiserate.