11 Unethical Marketing Scams (And How to Avoid SEO Firms That Practice Them)


You wouldn’t steal a car… you wouldn’t steal a handbag… you wouldn’t even pirate a film. So why would you risk your company’s reputation by relying on SEO firms that steal backlinks or funnel traffic to your website unethically?

(If you’re already familiar with the three types of SEO, feel free to skip straight to the scams and the nine ways to sniff out an SEO con artist).

There are three types of SEO in this world:

“White Hat”

These are ethical tactics that earn you organic backlinks and social shares. You earn these through smart use of social media, a healthy network of respected authorities in your field, and rich, informative content that keeps your customers coming back for more. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but that’s the short and sweet explanation.

“Gray Hat”

As you might imagine, gray hat SEO falls somewhere between black hat and white hat SEO. This includes practices like purchasing old domains, duplicating your content across multiple sites, and using social media automation and/or purchasing followers. It may not be strictly forbidden, but it skirts the boundaries of good ethics.

The biggest problem with gray hat SEO is that it’s often not black hat only because Google hasn’t yet devised a strategy to stop it… which means that you could be penalized for it in the very, very near future. In fact, some SEO authorities hold that there’s no such thing as gray hat SEO.

“Black Hat”

The bogeyman in the industry, SEO firms that engage in black hat tactics try to game the system to guarantee better search engine rankings. Search engines are based on complex algorithms to rank content, and sometimes SEO firms find loopholes to exploit. This is black hat SEO.

Unethical SEO scams include:

1Front loading campaigns
An all too common tactic that’s not discussed nearly enough, many SEO companies will show you HUGE initial results… followed by a whole lot of nothing. It’s normal to see the biggest impact early, because you’ve made the most changes, but that’s where some companies stop. Don’t pay your SEO firm for nothing over time.
How to avoid – Demand a monthly report with specific updates on what’s new/what your SEO company accomplished. Call them mid-month for a checkup. Connect with them personally.
2Target keywords that don’t drive commercial intent
Many companies choose keywords that sound attractive but aren’t competitive and don’t drive traffic or leads. This isn’t black hat, but if they’re reported as big wins and you see no other progress, be suspicious.
How to avoid – Get your SEO firm to explain the rationale behind their keywords. Good keyword selection is an intersection between competition, traffic volume, and buyer’s intent.
3Keyword spamming
This is one of the most widespread black hat tactics. In pursuit of keyword heavy content, spammers plug keywords into paragraphs until they’re a quagmire of dense, but ultimately useless, content—something a machine might love, but humans have trouble reading.
How to avoid – Use Google Analytics to get a sense of what keywords you’re ranking for. If you start ranking for crazy results, you may be a victim of keyword spamming.
4Cookie stuffing
A straight-up illegal tactic that results in huge fines when it’s caught. Cookie stuffing involves embedding fraudulent cookies in your users’ computers, whether they’ve followed the corresponding links or not.
How to avoid – Request constant referral reports and question huge spikes that seems to have a suspicious source.
5Invisible content
Some websites falsely influence their search engine rank by stuffing keywords into comment tags, no-scripts, or by hiding text in plain sight by matching it against the background color. Again, this is black hat SEO and incurs strict penalties.
How to avoid – Broadly speaking, be suspicious of any SEO firm that can’t offer you any suggestions for improvement. This is their niche—they should have concrete, actionable advice to give from the get go.
6Gateway pages
These are keyword rich, but soulless, pages designed to game search engines into ranking you on top. These pages provide no value or information other than ushering a user in the door.How to avoid – Google yourself and click through your website from time to time. If a page ever mysteriously redirects you, your SEO firm might be using doorway pages. Make them stop.

Cloaking shows a search engine and a user two different results for the same page. A user clicks on a link, but gets taken somewhere else entirely. This is black hat SEO that might result in your website getting banned entirely.
How to avoid – More broad advice: be suspicious if your SEO firm never asks you for anything, even if it’s as simple as a list of target keywords or access to your social accounts. An SEO firm that needs nothing from you might be utilizing black hat tactics.
8Link Farming/Buying
Link farming increases inbound links by using pages that exist solely to list links. Purchasing links, exchanging links, and link farming all fall under the same umbrella, and getting caught results in heavy penalties and degraded rankings.
How to avoid – Watch for a drastic increase in backlinks, and ask your SEO firm for a detailed report of built links. Look for reputable websites that you recognize, such as Moz, and build organic relationships with other authorities in your field.
9Blog scraping
Let’s call a spade a spade—this is theft. Blog scraping involves copying content and plagiarizing articles from other publishers to bring in traffic.
How to avoid – Discuss your SEO firm’s process for creating content. You can also check up on the posts your SEO firm is publishing by plugging the URL of their content into a search engine like Copyscape, which will comb the web for any duplicates.
10Manipulating social media
Some unscrupulous SEO firms use widgets that force visitors to like or share websites involuntarily across their social media accounts.
How to avoid – Monitor your social media mentions. Use a tool such as Mention.net to track who drops your brand name. If you’re being spammed or sabotaged, report malicious profiles to get them removed.
Underhanded SEO firms now push their clients into the limelight by having your hard earned links ousted under false pretenses. Webmasters, already scared of incurring Google penalties, might not look too closely at a request to remove links, link to different domains, or switch links to no-follow status. Some might even receive real link-removal emails, never realizing that the names have been deceptively swapped out.
How to avoid – This one’s difficult to avoid, because it’s more of an anti-SEO tactic than it is black hat SEO. Your best bet is vigilance. Keep regular tabs on the links you’ve earned, using tools such as Majestic SEO’s historic link index and follow-up with a tool such as Niel’s SEO Tools to check their status.

White hat SEO boasts an over 300% increase to organic traffic, so you’d be right to wonder why anyone bothers with black hat SEO. The truth is: black hat is faster, it’s easier, and it does get results… right up until it doesn’t. Google catches on fast, and when it finds you, the consequences can be dire:

Giants like WordPress, JCPenny, and BMW have fallen afoul of sketchy SEO tactics. Penalties range from a single page being degraded in rankings to wholesale website removal.

So how do you avoid this hot mess and make sure that your SEO stays on the straight and narrow? Well, we’ve compiled a list of 9 red flags for you to watch out for. Run screaming for the hills if your SEO firm…

Guarantees you a top ranking

Ah, the dream—a first page ranking on Google. Not only that, but it’s guaranteed. Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is.

A good SEO firm will yield results, but nobody can guarantee you a #1 ranking on Google. If they guarantee you a spot at the head of the pack, they’re either liars or responsible for some seriously shady SEO… the kind that’s probably going to be on Google’s ban list in the near future. Only search engines get to choose their top rankings.

Guarantees “X” daily visitors

Everybody wants more traffic, but if someone says that they can guarantee you higher numbers, alarm bells should be ringing. After all, the end goal of more click-throughs isn’t numbers alone—it’s the eventual sales and the positive word-of-mouth that hopefully follows those visits.

SEO firms that guarantee daily traffic often artificially generate this traffic for you through computer programs. Ten thousand hits per day won’t benefit your business if there’s no real people behind those clicks.

Offers “free” SEO trial services/the lowest priced SEO

SEO is hard work. It takes time and a whole lot of fine tuning to generate quality results. If you can’t afford to pay an expert to manage your SEO correctly, you’re better off taking the reins yourself than trusting your company’s reputation with some “competitively priced” SEO firm.

And, if any company ever requests access to your hosting account and/or your FTP username/password in exchange for their “free” service—turn around and run!

Has an undisclosed SEO secret formula

There is no reason for an SEO company to withhold their strategies from you. There’s no secret strategy to success, no be-all-end-all miracle cure. There’s simply those SEO firms who are willing to put in the work, and those who take shortcuts. Your SEO expert should be willing to sit down and discuss their strategy with you, and they should always come to the table with recommendations on improvements.

The bottom line: Good SEO practices = Good SEO

Claims to have cracked Google’s algorithm

Let’s be frank—there are loopholes to be found and SEO tactics that still slip under Google’s radar. This doesn’t magically make them ethical, nor does it mean that those tactics will work in a month’s time. Google’s algorithm is constantly evolving, and the only tactic that will consistently yield results as time marches on is good, old white hat SEO.

Knows an “Insider” at Google

No, your SEO company doesn’t have a “special connection” with anyone at Google, and they certainly don’t work there themselves. If anyone claims this, they’re lying. Turn around and walk away. Google’s stance is quite clear: “Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a ‘special relationship’ with Google, or advertise a ‘priority submit’ to Google. There is no priority submit for Google.”

Caters to every search engine on the market

Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask, and AOL account for over 95% of the search market. So, if an SEO firm claims that they’ll rank you on hundreds of search engines, the appropriate response is, “so what?” SEO firms that boast this are either engaged in busywork that doesn’t really yield traffic or leads, or they’re lying about how much they’re doing to help you.