Times have changed and cheap SEO services often do more harm than good. Be careful what you are getting yourself into.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google in 1998. It wasn’t the only search engine in existence (remember AltaVista and Infoseek?), but it soon became the world’s most popular one. Everyday people loved how quickly and easily Google’s search engine helped them find things online. On the flip side, businesses and professionals realized how helpful it was to be found on Google, and the search engine optimization (SEO) industry was born.
The earliest SEO pioneers set out on a quest: to figure out what made Google’s search results prefer one website over another. In the industry’s earliest days, because search was new, everyone was an amateur. Amateur SEOs loved the challenge of trying to decipher Google’s algorithm, and they sold the solutions they found for little money. Business owners loved the benefits of getting discovered through Google, and for a while, everyone was happy. Cheap, low-quality techniques got results, so businesses didn’t have to pay for true expertise.
Today, the SEO industry has matured, and some of yesterday’s scrappy amateurs have become today’s SEO experts. They’ve realized SEO is a never-ending adventure because, as Google’s business priorities and technological capabilities evolve, so does its search algorithm. An SEO company must both understand Google’s current guidelines and anticipate its future course changes. This kind of expertise doesn’t come cheap. Besides, Google has no patience for cheap SEO.
The Rise and Fall of Cheap SEO Services
In the early days of the SEO industry, there was no clear career path to becoming an SEO consultant. Thanks to the Web, anyone could set up a website, claim to be an SEO expert, and promise higher search rankings to clients.
Many of these would-be entrepreneurs failed, but some stayed in business. They figured out that certain tactics, like inserting popular search query phrases into on-page copy, would boost a site’s rankings. They also saw that building backlinks to their clients’ websites pushed search rankings higher, so they sought out backlinks with abandon, using tactics like article spinning, backlink purchases, and auto submissions to directories.
Because these tactics required minimal expertise, improved search results sometimes came cheap and easy. There was just one problem: Keyword-stuffed pages and purchased backlinks lowered the quality of Google’s search results. Sites stuffed with keywords by a cheap SEO agency topped the results, but searchers didn’t find the sites useful. To avoid losing customers to other search engines, Google made some big changes to its search algorithm.
Moments of Truth
Starting in February 2011, Google rolled out a series of major algorithm updates, the most significant of which were dubbed “Panda” and “Penguin.” Panda penalizes sites that have thin, useless content, while Penguin penalizes sites with unnatural backlink patterns.
Panda Algorithm Update
In 2011, websites featuring content that lacked substance, plagiarized other websites, or made no sense relative to the website’s purpose took a dive in Google’s search rankings algorithm. Panda didn’t just penalize individual pages. It gave entire sites a “thumbs down” if they had low-quality pages on their domain.
Three factors figured significantly into the Panda penalties, most of which can be traced back to cheap SEO services:
- Thin content. Not every Web page needs to have a lot of content. For example, a “Contact Us” page only requires contact information. However, sites with many pages of sparse content — imagine pages containing a few paragraphs each trying to rank for 20 or more different keyword phrases — offer little value to visitors.
- Duplicate content. Cheap SEOs often scrape and plagiarize content from other sites, but duplicate content isn’t always about plagiarism. For instance, if an e-commerce site sells products from a certain manufacturer, the business owner might copy and paste the manufacturer’s product descriptions instead of writing original descriptions. It’s not a malicious act; the business owner probably thinks the manufacturer’s descriptions offer great value to customers. Unfortunately, duplicate content, despite good intentions, can result in a big Panda penalty.
- Low-quality content. Google considers content low quality if it offers no unique perspective or benefit, or if it’s too general to help readers complete their search tasks. Historically, cheap SEO agencies would choose keywords and write filler content without worrying about quality. For example, they’d choose “seafood restaurants in Nantucket” as a keyword phrase and fill the page with variations of that phrase‑Nantucket seafood restaurants, restaurants seafood Nantucket — instead of writing in-depth reviews of Nantucket seafood restaurants that readers would see as valuable.
Penguin Algorithm Update
Most cheap SEO service providers lack the expertise, media connections, or talent to earn and build quality links for their clients. Instead, they find ways to create tons of backlinks without having to meet quality standards. Before Penguin, they bought links from dealers who created websites containing virtually no content except purchased backlinks, or they paid websites to sneak hidden links into non-text widgets. They also used software to create 10,000 versions of a single article, published the article on different websites, and inserted a link from those websites back to their clients.
For a while, Google didn’t penalize sites with backlinks from low-quality publications like these. But in 2012, the Penguin update slammed sites that were storehouses for these engineered articles. It also penalized businesses that were linked to by these kinds of sites. As you can guess, these were mostly businesses that’d hired cheap SEO agencies.
What Makes Google So Important?
Yahoo still commands a fair amount of search traffic, and Microsoft’s Bing engine now executes about 1 in 5 searches. Yet according to the most recent data from comScore, 63.8 percent of the world’s desktop searches happen on Google sites. Getting the most benefits from boosted search rankings means you have to win on Google.
SEO experts, by analyzing search traffic and interpreting information revealed by Google, do as much as possible to decode Google’s algorithm. For example, in recent months, they’ve observed how newer factors like user behavior and mobile readiness have a bigger influence over rankings. Today’s SEO expert, unlike cheap SEO dealers of the past, must possess a valuable set of qualities:
- Deep industry knowledge. SEO experts don’t rely on yesterday’s ideas about organic search. They stay up-to-date on every possible Google algorithm change. They talk to members of the SEO community, devour every bit of communication from Google, and learn by observing activity on client websites.
- Analytical skills. An SEO expert can monitor and test a website’s search performance using the latest analytics tools. It’s their job to dig into the data to identify trends, diagnose problems, and implement solutions to improve search traffic.
- Reputation for results. Real SEO experts get results on an ongoing basis. A cheap SEO agency without industry expertise rarely maintains consistent, long-term results.
Most business owners would feel suspicious of an accountant that prepared taxes for $9.95. They wouldn’t choose an attorney who offered to file LLC papers for $19.99. Business owners should have the same suspicions about hiring cheap SEO agencies. It costs money to access true SEO expertise, but the results are worth it.
What Is SEO Worth to You?
What could higher search rankings for the home page of your website do for your business? According to data from Chitika, the answer is, “quite a bit”:
- The first website listed on Page One of Google’s search results gets 33 percent of the traffic for a particular search query.
- The second site listed gets 18 percent of traffic.
- All sites on Page One combine to average 91.5 percent of traffic for a query.
- Traffic drops 140 percent between Page One and Page Two.
If you’re not getting much search traffic right now for a small business, you’re not alone. The majority of small businesses — 55 percent, according to a survey by Google and Ipsos — don’t even have a website yet. Let’s face it: When you own a smaller business that hasn’t experienced the power of organic search, hiring an SEO agency can seem overpriced.
However, even if you haven’t needed search traffic yet, you will in the future. Having no digital presence, even if it doesn’t impact you today, will eventually hit your bottom line where it hurts. Dave Chaffey, CEO of U.K. marketing firm Smart Insights, has outlined two unstoppable consumer trends that make organic search strategy a need — not a want.
A Changing Buyer’s Journey
In today’s world, customers don’t talk to a business owner in person. They also rarely call to discuss a potential purchase. Instead, according to Forrester’s Lori Wizdo, 74 percent of customers, particularly B2B customers, do at least half of their research online before buying anything. If your business isn’t online, and customers can’t find it on Google, you’ll lose an increasing share of your customers in the next few years.
This year, Google reported that mobile surpassed desktop for the first time, as users’ preferred platform for making searches. A business that’s easy to find by using Google on a smartphone, from which a customer can tap to call or tap to get directions, has a distinct competitive advantage.
Being an SEO tightwad does more than rob you of new revenue streams; it’s robbing your business of its place in the digital future. SEO isn’t just a proactive measure for making more money. It’s an insurance policy to keep your business from becoming obsolete.
‘It’s Still Too Expensive’
Don’t give into the urge to hire a cheap SEO agency just because you’re on a limited budget. Think about it: Even if you’re throwing away only a little money, you’re still throwing away money.
Instead, access expert SEO services while keeping costs down by taking a modular approach to SEO. As long as you’re not facing a Google 9-1-1 situation, like a sudden penalty, improve your search results in five modular steps.
Module 1: Learn Something About SEO
Your first goal is to understand SEO — not necessarily at a master level, but enough to know whether a self-identified SEO expert is truly an expert. Before you do anything else, set aside some time to master the basic concepts of SEO. These tools can help:
- How Much Does Good SEO Cost? Digital Current columnist Brian Honigman explains different pricing models for SEO services and what you’ll get at different price points.
- Moz Beginner’s Guide to SEO. This free guide from Moz provides a good overview of how SEO works and what to expect.
- Understanding & Explaining a Realistic SEO Timeline. Stephan Spencer, author of “The Art of SEO” and host of “The Optimized Geek” podcast, explains factors that influence how long it takes to optimize sites for search.
A quick note: Pay special attention to the last few sections of Brian’s post, where he discusses red flags that should make you hesitate before hiring certain SEO agencies.
Module 2: Get a One-Time SEO Analysis With a DIY Action Plan
Once you have a basic understanding of SEO, ask an agency for an SEO audit or a strategy consultation. You should leave the audit clearly understanding your site’s ranking factors, both bad and good, and a plan for making improvements.
If you’re not ready to hire an agency for an ongoing relationship yet, you can do some of the work yourself. Start by addressing the on-page ranking factors outlined in your SEO action plan.
Your initial SEO audit should tell you something about the keywords for which your site’s most important pages rank. If you’re already ranking pretty well for certain keywords, improve your page’s copy, but don’t change the keywords.
- Make it scannable. Break your text up into shorter pieces with headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists.
- Make it readable. If you’re not a confident writer, hire an a content creation service to perfect your page’s grammar, punctuation, spelling, and content.
- Make it enjoyable. If your pages are stuffed with awkward keyword phrases, edit them so your copy sounds more fluid. Instead of worrying about a certain keyword density, use keyword phrases where they fit naturally to make your copy enjoyable to read.
- Make it more in-depth. For pages that have thin copy, ask this question: “What should I add to this page so a visitor wouldn’t have to go back to Google to do another search?” More useful text will keep visitors on your site so they can learn about you and your business.
Even if you’re not a Web development expert, making minor coding changes to your website can make a big difference. Adding title tags and meta descriptions to your Web pages, and directing page flow away from low-content pages, can improve your rankings.
- Plug-ins: If you use WordPress, activate a plug-in like Yoast SEO or All in One SEO Pack. Create titles and meta descriptions using the fields beneath your blog post, incorporating the keyword for which your page ranks. The meta description won’t affect your search rankings, but a good description makes people want to click to your site.
- HTML code: If you don’t use WordPress, you can still write easy HTML code for adding title tags and meta descriptions.
- No-follow links: If a lot of your site’s internal links point to a page with thin content, like a contact page, change them to rel=”nofollow” links, and add a noindex tag to your contact page.
Submit a Sitemap to Search Engines
Check the settings of your WordPress SEO plug-in to see if it will generate an XML sitemap for you. If you don’t use WordPress, visit a free XML sitemap generator and follow the instructions. Enter your URL and a couple of parameters, and it will create a sitemap for you. Then, submit your sitemap to Google and Bing by using these directions:
Improve Page Load Speed
Use a WordPress plug-in like W3 Total Cache to improve your site’s page load speed. Another plug-in called WP Smush can optimize your images to make pages load faster. In general, even if you don’t use WordPress, remove excessive images, videos, Flash plug-ins, and ads to make site’s pages load faster. Visitors won’t stay on your site long if pages are slow to load.
Make It Mobile-Friendly
Most WordPress themes are already mobile-friendly, but if yours isn’t, consider switching to a theme with responsive design. Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool to find out whether your site renders well on mobile devices. If the tool discovers any issues, you can try to fix them on your own, or you can contact a developer to fix them for you.
Module 3: Off-Page Factors
Ask your SEO agency about its business listings service, which will unify your business name, address, and phone number (commonly referred to as your NAP) on important sites all over the Web. A business listings service will register you with Google, Bing, and Yahoo, and also with critical review sites relevant to your industry, like Yelp or TripAdvisor. If you’d rather do it on your own to save money, this list of 15 review sites for promoting small businesses will give you a place to start.
Module 4: Adding Content
Start adding new, high-quality pages to your website, perhaps by starting a blog. According to Hubspot, businesses that blog earn almost twice as many backlinks to their sites as businesses without a blog. Also, B2B businesses with blogs generate 67 percent more leads than their non-blogging competitors.
- Find keywords: Use a free keyword tool to find popular search keywords similar to the keywords for which you already rank. Don’t keep using the same phrases over and over. Add some variety.
- Use those keywords: Build blog posts around those keywords. Remember the standards for high-quality on-page standards discussed earlier in this post.
Once you’ve gotten into the habit of blogging and have a collection of good posts, try guest blogging on sites within your industry and linking back to your best posts.
Read our three-part Guest Blogging Guide to get started.
Module 5: Social Signals
Social signals are increasingly important as search ranking factors, and they’re invaluable for networking and building community. If you haven’t signed up for social media accounts for your business, it’s time to get started. This guide from Hootsuite will show you which social networks are best for different industries. Focus your attention on networks your customers frequent the most.
A cheap SEO agency could send your website to Google penalty-land. A good SEO agency, on the other hand, can transform your business. Start unlocking the secrets of SEO to open up new revenue for your company. Get a free SEO audit from Digital Current.