I teach internet marketing workshops several times a year for SCORE, which is a terrific nation-wide free business counseling service. I volunteer as an instructor, and my classes are in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the three-hour workshop, I try to give current and future business owners a sense of several things they can do to market online: SEO, social media, paid placement, and so on. Participants always have lots of questions, because there’s so much mystery around how to “do” SEO.

One of my recent students sent me an e-mail after the workshop with the following:

“I received a call from the folks at Google and I immediately thought about your awesome and informative class. They are offering me SEO and I’ll be on Bing, Google, Angie’s List and others for $99 per month. I am not much of a computer guy and am looking to grow my business NOW. Should I take them up on their offer?”

For a small business owner who desperately wants more business, this sounds like a pretty good deal! Only a hundred bucks a month, and you get on all the top places.

SEO Red Flags

Unfortunately, his e-mail raised several red flags for me, and these kinds of marketing practices really piss me off. They take advantage of unknowing, and hungry business owners with their scams. It’s like a mechanic telling you that you need to replace your muffler bearings before they wear out and strand your car. Yikes! (Hint, your muffler doesn’t have any bearings.)

So what are some of the red flags for me in those couple sentences that he sent me?

1. Google will NOT call you to optimize your website to get you on Bing (their competitor!) or any other site, or even Google. Period. Google gets no revenue from your site being optimized because those are free clicks. They MAY call you if you need help setting up a PPC account with them, because that DOES make them money. But generally speaking, Google will not reach out to you at all.

2. Systems like Angie’s List and others have nothing to do with search engine optimization. They are business listing services that typically charge a fee. The links coming back from Angie’s List may help in a small way with the SEO, but you need to manage these systems yourself.

I explained to him in the class, and again in my e-mail that he can very easily create many business listings all by himself for no money at all. Get free accounts with Yelp, Google+, Merchant Circle, City Search, and many many more, for not a penny. He needs to OWN these listings and control them too, which I’ve explained in previous articles.

3. He later told me that the company that called him was not Google, but another name – we’ll just call them “Fishy-Smelling Company”. I did a search for “Fishy-Smelling Company reviews” on Google, and very quickly found their Yelp page. Guess what? LOTS of 1 star reviews telling everyone to STAY AWAY.

The bottom line? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If you’re going to hire a company to help you market online, ALWAYS ask for exactly what they’re going to deliver. If they promise things like, “We guarantee that we’ll get you to the top of Google!”, run away. No one can guarantee position on Google or any other search engine. We don’t have control over it, and as we all know, Google changes the rules all the time. Ask for references from other companies that have used their services and ask the hard questions.

It’s your money, and having a company that does it wrong can actually hurt you much more than they can help you. So buyer beware.

What kind of fishy-smelling offers have you seen or received? Tell me in the comments below!