It’s unfortunate, but it seems like every other business I talk to these days has been burned by an SEO agency or a website company at some point.
I don’t see this trend slowing down anytime soon either as the barriers for entry are still far too low, allowing unskilled digital agencies and freelancers to pass themselves off as professionals.
Since there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight I thought it was time to give businesses the tools, answers and insights needed to avoid these situations. These tips are all compiled below in my guide on 7 red flags to avoid with an Internet marketing company or website developer. Read it, learn it and use it and you will never be taken advantage of by another “expert” or “guru” in this industry again.
How Prevalent is This Problem?
I had a difficult time finding hard data on how many businesses that have worked with an SEO “expert” or inferior web design company that got left out in the cold at least once.
At some point I will conduct my own study, even though I’m a bit worried that the numbers will be more disheartening than I want to believe.
Until then, I’m left to reference only my own personal, unofficial statistics, which I suppose carry some weight as I’ve been in this business for over 16 years now.
[Unofficial] Statistics on Experiences with Internet Marketing Companies / Web Developers
At least 2 out of every 3 businesses I have ever spoken with have had some type of terrible experience with an SEO or web design company.
Of these businesses that have been burned the following stats have held true…
~ 50% have lost or wasted at least $10,000
~ 25% have lost or wasted at least $50,000 or more
~ 25% had to take legal action
~ 75% got burned on more than one occasion by different vendors
~ 15% decided to go the DIY route as a result of their experience
The problem, as you can see, is real. I probably don’t even need to tell you that as I’m sure you have your own horror story to tell.
This has almost become the norm in our industry and it needs to stop.
What’s the Solution?
Internet marketing and web design and development are still unregulated industries. Outside of the best practices published by search engines like Google, there are no standards or laws that truly hold agencies or freelancers accountable for the way they do business.
I don’t see those regulations coming soon either so the only viable solution I believe in is self-education. Whether you like it or not, it is your responsibility to educate yourself with the proper information to prevent your business from being taken for a ride.
That’s the purpose of this post…
To distill all of the available information to only the most pertinent and important pieces that will keep your wallet and peace of mind in tact.
In return for my time in putting this together for you, I want to ask for just two things:
1. Actually read, save, reference and use the tips below.
2. Pass this on to someone else who you think can benefit from it.
We have a deal? Good.
Let’s dig in…
Steer Clear of These Red Flags
Before I jump into the steps below I want to first state the following…
Companies do make mistakes; many of these mistakes are not purposely malicious or deceitful. I’ve made plenty myself with my own companies and will continue to make mistakes – just not the same ones.
How a company handles those situations and their customers says more about them than most other things.
Give a company the benefit of the doubt before you resort to exposing their mistakes online with crippling reviews that can often times demolish their livelihood.
If they don’t use that one chance for redemption and right the ship at their own expense, then go ahead and use any means necessary to get what is rightfully yours and to rectify the situation.
Ok, no more preaching. Promise.
Here are the steps to follow to make sure that you never find yourself on the short end of the stick with another agency, guru, expert or freelancer again.
Spotting the Most Obvious Signs
They Don’t Practice What They Preach
This is the easiest, but most commonly overlooked, way to tell whether or not you’re talking with a reputable, effective Internet marketing company or web developer.
If it’s an SEO agency and they don’t have the most basic on-page SEO completed on their own website or if they don’t even rank for their own primary phrases, then run. How can they possibly help to market your business effectively if they’ve failed to do so for themselves?
And if it’s a web development company and their own site is riddled with issues or oversights, then run. Some easy things to check for are (1) mobile-friendliness, (2) site load time, (3) using a pre-bought theme when they market themselves as custom WordPress developers and (4) if their core, theme or plugins are grossly out of date. All of these should be immediate deterrents.
A simple Google search for common phrases like “Internet marketing agency” can go a long way. If you don’t see your prospective agency listed anywhere, then that should tell you quite a bit. And if the website of said company is not optimized, not mobile-friendly or just doesn’t look professional, then you’re probably better off moving on to another provider.
They Don’t Give You 100% Ownership
At this point you want and need to own everything you put time and effort into online. If you continue to settle for licensing or borrowing someone else’s property, then you’re not building an investment into your business.
In the case of SEO, if any content that’s created for you is not completely yours to own, then move on. The content you build is one of the only valuable assets that you’re building online. Don’t rent it from someone else.
In the case of web development, opt to work with companies that help you build something that’s yours. Any website that you pay to have created should be yours to do whatever you want with – especially if it’s a WordPress website. Avoid website companies that hold your site hostage, lock you into long contracts and keep the keys to your site away from you.
Ask very specific questions about ownership, of marketing deliverables and of your website, early on in the conversation. More importantly, get those policies in writing and hold on to them. There’s nothing worse than trying to change companies down the road only to find out that you can’t take anything you paid for with you.
They Make Ridiculous Guarantees
I’d think by now that most people would identify this red flag immediately and go the other direction. This doesn’t seem to be the case though as many businesses still seem to fall for this marketing ploy.
Unfortunately there are still SEO companies out there that are able to sell customers on a guarantee of rankings. All that needs to be said here is that no one can guarantee this. Ever. If you fall for this ploy, then there’s no one to blame but yourself.
As for web development companies, we don’t come across too many ridiculous claims like the one above, but they do exist. One of the most common in the web design / development world is the “100% Satisfaction Guarantee”. This is usually just marketing language to get you to sign a contract or pay that initial deposit. Reputable companies let their work, testimonials and results for their clients speak for themselves.
With SEO, this one is easy…if you see any type of guaranteed rankings on their website or in their marketing materials, then don’t waste another minute of your time. With website developers, steer clear of guarantees in regards to website engagement improving. Although it’s possible that a developer has collected data on what works and what doesn’t, it’s still not 100% quantitative when it comes to design updates.
They Aren’t Transparent with Their Services, Processes or Pricing
If you’re paying someone for a service, then you deserve to know exactly what you’re getting. And if you feel inclined to know every detail of those services, then it’s your right as a paying customer to receive that transparency.
It can be very easy to throw money at any agency with a great pitch, especially when you’re desperate to establish your online presence. Don’t rush into these decisions though as it’s becoming more important than ever to understand how your business is marketed online.
And with the creation of a website, specifically development, don’t be afraid to ask how something you’ve requested is, or would be, built. Again, if we’re talking about WordPress development, then there are little to no proprietary secrets due to the open, transparent nature of the code base. Don’t settle for a secretive response to your questions about implementation.
Ask which project management tool will be used to manage your marketing or website project. More importantly, ask if you get access to it and what specifically you get to see within that tool during the process. Having full visibility into what’s going with your project at any point is a surefire way to prevent miscommunication.
They Don’t Eat Their Own Dog Food
This is similar to our first tip about not practicing what they preach; however, this is more about what is actually being sold. If a company is pushing a package, service or product down your throat, but it’s obvious that they don’t even use these things for their own business, then there’s a problem.
In the online marketing space I see this all the time. Someone will aggressively sell content marketing or online reputation management, but it’s obvious that the company is not even using these things themselves…or at least not doing them very well.
The same goes for web development. I frequently come across design companies that sell custom WordPress websites for thousands of dollars. But when you go look at the company’s site they’re either using a purchased template from a marketplace or their site is not even built on WordPress. It’s even worse when a custom WordPress theme is sold, but all the company is doing is using a pre-bought theme from somewhere online.
If you see something odd (e.g. prospective company has a poorly managed online reputation or their company site is using a ThemeForest theme when they market themselves as a custom shop), then call them out on it. Perhaps they have a good explanation, usually they don’t though. Know exactly what you’re being pitched and make sure that it’s something that they’re actually doing well for themselves.
They Don’t Push Back or Ask Questions
Most agencies and freelancers, especially when they’re starting out will take on as many projects as they can get. I completely understand this and think it can be an effective way to start growing a client base. However, what I do not agree with is when there is no push back at all or when even the most vital questions are not asked of each customer.
For any type of online marketing campaign there are at least six strategy questions that your Internet marketing company should be discussing with you. If you purchase services without ever discussing these things, then don’t be surprised if the results you get totally miss the mark.
When it comes to web development projects, if feature requests or specific functionality are not thoroughly discussed then expect to waste time, money and stress on your project. Reputable, experienced web developers will collaborate with you to understand exactly what you’re trying to accomplish and then provide a few solutions so you can make an educated business decision on what makes the most sense for your project.
I’m not a fan of wasting someone else’s time, but this tip can be necessary sometimes. Purposely ask for something ridiculous or abnormal just to see if they push back. More importantly, see if they listen to you and then provide a better solution instead of just saying yes right away. Any respectable professional will know when to say “No” or offer up better alternatives to help you accomplish stated objectives.
Their Past Customers and/or Employees Have Voiced Concerns
Although there’s usually multiple sides to a story, and some review sites can be misleading as they allow business owners to bury or hide negative reviews, you cannot ignore remarks about the company you’re considering. That said, any company with a rating of less than 4 stars on any review site should give you some concern.
For online marketing agencies, you want to review sites like Google, Facebook, Yelp and the BBB to see what type of experience past customers had. More negative reviews than positive reviews should be an immediate red flag. And any mentions of “they guaranteed rankings” or “my results plummeted after they took over” should send you running.
The same goes for web development companies. In addition to checking the traditional sources mentioned above it can often be helpful to see what employees say about working at said company. A great site for these types of reviews is Glassdoor, which allows unsolicited, anonymous reviews from employees on everything from experience to pay to rating their boss.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a past customer and a current customer to speak with. Every professional should have at least one of each. If it’s a newer agency and they don’t, then have a candid conversation with them about what they consider to be their biggest weaknesses. An honest company will be forthcoming with their response, acknowledging where they need to improve, and tell you a lot about what to expect from them.
Be Cautiously Optimistic
I’ll be honest, the point of this post is to scare you a little into doing more research before you go throwing your money around with whomever gives you the best sales pitch.
At the end of the day though, there are agencies in this industry that do great work, are extremely reliable and get results for their clients. I’d like to think that mine is one of those although I know that we will always have room for improvement.
So, even if you’ve been burned a few times don’t give up on the thought of hiring an Internet marketing company or web developer to handle your project(s) for you. Your time is still the most valuable thing you own and unless you’ve become seasoned at implementing effective online marketing campaigns, then your time is better spent elsewhere.
Follow my guide above, ask a lot of questions and be as communicative with whomever you hire as you want them to be with you. Do these things and I’m confident that you’ll find a marketing partner that will help grow your business and not just some agency looking to make a quick buck.