First, just to be clear, PracticeWeb offers SEO for accountancy firms and of course we’d love you to sign up for our service. But the point of this post isn’t a hard sell – it’s to help you ensure that whoever you choose to buy search engine consultancy from, it’s not an amateur or, worse, a shark.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell: there are two types of SEO, ethical and otherwise.

The former, sometimes called ‘white-hat SEO’, works on the basis of trying to understand and follow the somewhat mysterious rules under which search engines rank websites. It’s about giving Google, primarily, all the information it needs to connect those searching with the content that will genuinely be most useful to them.

The latter – known, you guessed it, as ‘black hat’ – focuses on finding hacks, shortcuts, and tricks to make websites rank, even if it means frustrating end users or misleading Google.

Some 15 or 20 years ago, that kind of thing worked quite well, but these days it’s much less effective and may actually do harm to your website’s ranking in the long run.

In the worst-case scenario, even if there’s an initial bump to your ranking, you might find yourself under a manual penalty from Google – a disastrous situation which can take months or even years to come back from.

Being charitable, some people selling black-hat SEO are just naive – they haven’t kept their knowledge up to date and don’t understand the damage they’re doing.

In reality, though, many are well aware of the downsides of their approach, but offer temptingly cheap quick fixes as an effective way of luring in customers who don’t know better. By the time those clients do realise they’ve been had, the cheques have been cashed. They’re the online equivalent of cowboy builders.

Some SEO danger signs

If someone has contacted you offering SEO services, or you’re shopping around looking to buy them, there are a few obvious warning signals to look out for.

First, don’t trust anyone who says they can guarantee you the top spot on page one of Google search results. It can be done, of course, but it certainly cannot be guaranteed.

Secondly, ask your prospective SEO consultant to talk through their methods and run a mile if they mention:

  • buying or swapping links
  • seeding links in comments on blogs
  • hiding keywords in invisible text
  • keyword stuffing
  • article spinning
  • buying Twitter or Facebook shares

The problem is, most black-hat SEO types these days won’t be open and honest about their methods. They’ll talk slyly about “getting lots of citations from other websites” or “getting social media shares”. So this is more about weeding out the inept than the dishonest.

One strong tell can be found in the detail of the deal they’ll want you to sign up to: which specific terms are they promising to get your ranking for? The chances are it will be something long and a bit odd – something hardly anyone is actually searching for.

For example, something like ‘research and development accountants for vets Casterbridge’.

Dirty tricks

One particularly cunning sales practice we’ve encountered lately, after we were contacted by a worried client, plays on a lack of understanding around Google AdWords.

First, the dodgy SEO consultant picks a target accountancy firm and decides on a keyphrase that firm might expect to rank for in Google searches – say, ‘Phelps Accounting Ltd Casterbridge’.

The SEO then spends a few pounds buying Google Ads for that specific term so that when somebody Googles it, it will be guaranteed to come up at the top of the page marked, discreetly, as an ‘Ad’.

Those adverts, of course, direct anyone who clicks on them to a rival firm’s website, or somewhere completely irrelevant.

At this point, the SEO gets on the phone to someone at the target firm and encourages them to search the exact phrase they’ve set up on Google Ads. “Now, look at that,” they say. “You’re not even ranking for your own name!”

In most cases, the client is probably savvy enough to spot the trick and hang up the phone, but if one in ten prospects agrees to pay for SEO services to solve this problem, there’s good money to be made.

And, of course, the ‘problem’ solves itself once the Google Ad spend runs out.

More dirty tricks

Another client contacted us recently because an SEO consultant had been in touch promising to deliver amazing results, quickly and easily.

There plan was to purchase web domains along the lines of ‘financialadvisorcasterbridge.com’ or ‘casterbridgefinancialadvisor.co.uk’ and set them to redirect to the client’s website.

Needless to say, though it looks superficially impressive, it doesn’t really work, because it confuses what people type into search engines with web addresses – totally different things.

In addition, Google calls these ‘shadow domains’ and advises strongly against using them:

These shadow domains often will be owned by the SEO who claims to be working on a client’s behalf. However, if the relationship sours, the SEO may point the domain to a different site, or even to a competitor’s domain. If that happens, the client has paid to develop a competing site owned entirely by the SEO.

On the positive side

It’s harder to set out what you should be looking for than it is to tell horror stories but let’s try.

For one thing, a good, ethical SEO consultant may strike you as cautious. They’ll use words like ‘possibly’, ‘might’ and ‘potential’ rather than making bold guarantees. They’re more like surgeons than salesmen.

They’re also likely to be as much interested in back-end fixes (on-site SEO) as they are in backlinks and social media.

Are pages within your site linked in natural, organic ways that will help users find the information they need? Are redirects set up properly? Does your website have a user-friendly and logical page structure? Have you made sure that white-label or duplicated content isn’t being indexed by Google?

That sort of thing.

In fact, you probably won’t like hearing some of what a professional, ethical SEO consultant will have to say. The improvements they recommend might be fiddly and technical, or involve substantial amounts of work producing and maintaining unique, genuinely useful content.

To quote that very helpful article from Google once again:

Making the changes recommended by an SEO takes time and effort; if you aren’t going to take the time to make these changes, it’s not worthwhile hiring a professional.

More advice on SEO for accountants

If you think you might have been stung by an unscrupulous SEO consultant, or want to talk through the options for building an SEO strategy, get in touch.