Historians can trace the first scam back to 300 B.C. when a Greek merchant named Hegestratos sank his boat for insurance money.
I’m sure if Hegestratos were alive today, he would be sending out mass emails trying to sell “high DA links” to suckers.
If you own a website, you have undoubtedly encountered one or more of the many SEO scams this article will review.
And if you own a digital agency of any sort, you will no doubt remember these greatest hits from when your client forwarded them to you, asking why they were paying you so much.
Without further ado, here are the top SEO scams and how to recognize them a mile away.
1. DA-based Link Building/Guest Posting
The Scam: The seller will provide you a link or a guest post on their “high DA” website, claiming this will help your website rank better.
How It Works: Obtaining a link from another “high DA” website will usually increase your website’s Domain Authority, giving the false appearance of SEO progress.
Why It’s A Scam: According to both John Muller and Gary Illyes of Google, not only does Google not use Moz’s Domain Authority (upper case) in any of its ranking algorithms, it doesn’t use anything like domain authority (lower case) for ranking at all.
While Google has admitted to a few “domain-level” ranking signals, authority isn’t one of them.
Despite this, people still love to point to the Domain Authority metric as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for their overall link building efforts.
Sadly, the actual metric Google uses for page-level authority, PageRank, is no longer available to the outside world. While the page-level authority metrics available through Moz and other providers are based on some highly-educated guesses, they are still — well, guesses.
They can be somewhat helpful in a directional sort of way but don’t bet the farm on their accuracy.
If none of that impresses you, just remember that buying links is a big no-no for Google and the other search engines.
Furthermore, when it comes to blog posts on these so-called “high DA” sites, just remember that including content on a website with a bunch of other pages with authority doesn’t automatically equal authority.
With rare exceptions, Google ranks web pages, not websites, which means that a new blog post on some random .edu website won’t start passing any authority of note until the post itself gains its own authority.
This isn’t high school; you don’t look cool just because you start hanging out with the cool kids.
The Outcome: Sure, buying “high DA” links from these jokers might goose your DA score for a while. But in the end, it will have zero effect in increasing any of the critical metrics from the organic search channel (traffic, sales, leads, etc.).
Google pretty much ignores paid links these days. And if you use this one a lot, Google will just throw your website out of the index entirely. Please don’t risk it.
The Alternative: Look, I get it – link building is hard. If you want my advice, hire a publicist whose efforts will generate links with actual authority in publications people actually read.
Can’t afford a publicist?
There is no end of articles, books, and classes on the fine art of public relations you can read, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Variations: Private blog networks, buying/selling links of any sort.
2. Link Bait and Switch
The Scam: During link building outreach, the link requestor is informed the existing link to a competitor website was purchased and can be switched for a fee.
How It Works: This is a close cousin to common link selling scams designed to lure link builders into purchasing a link by making it appear that a competitor is also buying links.
These links are usually discovered while researching competitor link profiles of targeted keywords.
A link builder will reach out to the page owner to get the existing link to a competitor changed to their content for whatever reason (broken link, out-of-date content, etc.). The content owner will usually reply quickly and happily change the link, for a small fee, of course.
Why It’s A Scam: Buying links is buying links. It doesn’t matter if your competitor is doing it or if you think your competitor is doing it; it’s still a big no-no and should be avoided at all costs.
The Outcome: As stated previously, Google pretty much ignores paid links these days, and if Big G catches you doing it enough, they will just throw your website out of the index entirely.
If your content isn’t worthy of legit links, then maybe it doesn’t belong on your website.
The Alternative: Hire a publicist or do the legwork yourself, but stick to the safe side of town.
Variations: Some of these folks will reach out to you first and offer you the spot for a fee. No shame.
3. Guest Posts for Your Website
The Scam: A writer will provide you a “totally free,” on-topic blog post for your website.
How It Works: The scammer takes the form of a writer “just trying to get their start” in the business who will happily write you some original content for your website that they can “add to their portfolio” while they try and get some paid work.
Why It’s A Scam: I want to be careful here because there are some legit writers out there who really are trying to get some samples of their work out in the world. So, be cautious with this one.
This friendly offering becomes a scam is when the so-called writer embeds a link to another website that has nothing to do with your business in the provided blog post or, later on, asks to make one or more of the words in the post a link.
The Outcome: The scammer has just made your website part of their “private blog network.” Your friendly copywriter sold that link, and you’re now in violation of Google’s terms and conditions.
Google usually ignores these links but might kick you out of their index if you do it enough times.
The Alternative: Write your own blog content or hire a real writer to write your content. I know it’s hard – trust me, I write as part of my living, and even I have a hard time creating content for my agency’s website.
But trust me, having no content at all is better than letting this garbage sit on your website.
Variations: Some posts include links that have some relevance to the article and your business. But most of the time, they’re still a paid link – it’s just that the link seller is better at finding relevant hosts than most of these fraudsters.
4. Guaranteed Rankings
The Scam: An SEO “expert” will reach out and offer their services with guaranteed rankings.
How It Works: The SEO company might actually do some work on your website – updating a few tags, building a few links, writing a bit of content.
After a few months, they’ll show you “results” in the form of a report showing a web page from your website in the number one position for one or more keywords.
Why It’s A Scam: The “guaranteed rankings” will be for keywords that appear relevant to your business, but in reality have little or no value.
During the process of landing you as a client, the scammer will do just enough keyword research to find a nice collection of relevant but low-competition and low traffic volume targets that give the false appearance of success.
Meanwhile, your business sees no real improvements in traffic, sales, or leads from the organic search channel.
It should be noted that there are legitimate SEO firms out there who do provide a money-back guarantee for their work. However, if you decide to use them, make sure that the guarantee is based on your goals, not theirs.
The Outcome: Your company ends up ranking for a bunch of useless keywords, and you’re out a bunch of money. As a bonus, you now distrust all SEO firms, and possibly the entire field of SEO.
Additionally, there’s the genuine possibility that the link building or other efforts used by the scammers to rank you quickly for those useless keywords could also get your entire website kicked out of Google’s index.
The Alternative: Do your homework. Don’t hire an SEO firm that obtains new business by way of spam emails. Insist that the guaranteed rankings are for terms that have real value to your company.
5. The Google Partner
The Scam: An SEO firm shows their legitimacy by claiming they are a “Google Partner.”
How It Works: This scam is usually buried in the initial outreach email and can be combined with a few of the other cons on this list, such as Guaranteed Rankings.
The implied endorsement from Google makes them appear legitimate when they are usually far from it.
Why It’s A Scam: Google doesn’t have a partner program for SEO. Google does have a certification program for Google Analytics, Google Ads (and all of its offshoots), and a few other programs; however, no matter what they tell you, there isn’t one for search engine optimization. The firm might have some certifications for the other Google products above, but they are of little value for SEO work.
“But, but… we use Google Analytics for SEO, right?”
Come on now, we all know that’s not what you meant.
The Outcome: Your company hires a somewhat shady company that fools people into giving them money based on a false endorsement.
The company might be capable of doing real SEO work for you, but chances are, if they’re willing to con people with a fake Google badge, they’re capable of just about anything.
The Alternative: Some SEO tool companies have started certifying people and companies for SEO-related topics. You can make your mind up as to whether this holds any value for you and your company.
Variations: Many websites out there will place an SEO firm at the “top” of their list for a fee that also provides some implied legitimacy with little to no certification or proof of efficacy.
6. Search Engine Submittal
The Scam: A company offers to help with your search engine rankings by submitting your website to any number of search engines, including Google.
How It Works: Usually, the company will claim they have proprietary software or some other methodology that allows their firm to bump your website to the front of the line.
Why It’s A Scam: Again, I want to be careful here because there are still some search engines that allow the submittal of pages, including Google by way of the Search Console. However, this isn’t the same thing.
In reality, Google and most other popular search engines index new webpages from websites by crawling links discovered during the indexing of other webpages.
Therefore, you don’t need to submit your webpages to Google. The search engine will find you when they are good and ready, and no service can bump you to the front of the line.
The Outcome: You just wasted a bunch of money.
The Alternative: If you’re impatient, yes, you can submit your new webpage to Google in the Search Console. There are legitimate services that will help you with submittals to local directories and the like, but you can do this yourself (that’s what interns are for!).
Variations: Any company that claims they have a method for getting you to rank “faster.”
7. “We Noticed Your Website Isn’t Ranking for…”
The Scam: A company sends out a friendly email claiming that they “noticed your company isn’t ranking on Google for some of the important keywords for your company.”
How It Works: For some companies, there is nothing scarier than not showing up on Google for keywords they think they should be ranking for, even if they haven’t done any work to earn that ranking in the first place. This scam goes right to the heart of that fear.
Why It’s A Scam: For starters, it’s a mass spam email sent to a giant list of companies most likely obtained through shady methods.
Second, you’ll notice that the opening email doesn’t specify the so-called keywords your website isn’t ranking for on Google.
That’s because they don’t know, and they don’t care. They won’t until you reply in a panic.
Legitimate SEO firms hate this scam the most because their clients love to forward it over to them with a panicked, “What the heck are we paying you for if we’re not ranking for important keywords?”
The Outcome: You end up hiring an SEO firm that uses scare tactics to obtain new customers. Again, they could be a shop that provides honest SEO services, but if they have to use methods like this to acquire new clients, do you really want to give them your money?
The Alternative: Once again, do your homework. Don’t hire an SEO firm that obtains new business by way of spam emails.
Variations: On rare occasions, I’ve seen companies do the absolute minimum of research and list keywords that might be of interest to a company. But in the end, it’s still a bit slimy.
I have also seen variations that skip the keyword part and highlight technical SEO issues but intentionally keep it vague.
“Hey, as you have heard, Google is using Core Web Vitals as a ranking signal now and we noticed your scores are very low!”
When you reply, they’ll actually run your scores and if they’re lucky, the scores really will be low, and BOOM! New client (or at the very least, a panicky email to their current SEO firm asking what they are paying them for).
8. “This is Google. Your Listing is About to Expire…”
The Scam: Usually in the form of an automated phone call (AKA, a robocall), a voice, sometimes claiming to be from Google, will tell you that your “listings” on Google are about to expire.
How It Works: If you’re reading anything here on Search Engine Journal, sometimes it is easy to forget that most people, including business owners, have no idea how Google works.
To them, it’s just a magical website that tells them sports scores or where to buy pie. And if they’re a business, they can see their name in the local results.
This scam takes full advantage of this lack of knowledge and for that, it’s extra skeezy in my book.
Why It’s A Scam: Google doesn’t have “listings.” Not really.
Look, let’s not get into semantics here. Your Google My Business (GMB) account isn’t what they are talking about when they call.
However, your company’s GMB account is precisely what these folks will either establish or update in some minuscule way.
The Outcome: You end up paying somebody for something you just didn’t need because there is no threat of your website or business “expiring” on Google.
The Alternative: Register for a Google My Business account yourself and keep it updated.
Variations: The method of contact may change, but it’s always the same scam.
9. “Want Proof? I Rank Number One for X”
The Scam: An SEO or SEO firm shows its SEO prowess via the rank of its website.
How It Works: During the initial outreach or sales process, an SEO professional or firm will happily point out that they rank number one for a particular keyword as proof that they know what they’re doing.
Why It’s A Scam: The keyword in question is usually so hyper-specific that putting in the very minimum of work would cause anyone to rank at the top spot for that term.
Many times, it’s for a “local” keyword that doesn’t automatically trigger a set of local results, but I’ve seen this trick used for just about anything.
The Outcome: You end up hiring a scam artist for SEO services. Again, they might end up doing some excellent work for you but frankly, if they need to resort to this sort of thing to get clients, can they really be trusted?
The Alternative: Once more, for the cheap seats, do your homework. Don’t hire an SEO firm that obtains new business by way of spam emails.
Variations: I’ve seen some of these jokers use screenshots of them ranking for a given keyword. Amazing.
10. Prices Too Good to Be True
The Scam: You’re promised expert SEO work for extraordinarily low prices.
How It Works: Usually, in a poorly worded email outreach, an SEO firm offers a wide variety of SEO services – everything from content creation to technical updates to link building – for prices that are just impossible.
Why It’s A Scam: It’s a bit cliché, but you get what you pay for — especially in SEO.
The Outcome: The firm performs downright shoddy work, if any at all. More often than not, the company starts strong but then disappears after a while.
The Alternative: If you’ve ever read any of my other work, you know I’m a big fan of treating SEO like the collection of tactics from various disciplines that it is.
If you need quality content for your website, hire a copywriter, not some hack that leads with their SEO experience.
If you need technical updates, many website development companies will solve the technical website issue that is also causing the SEO issues for your website.
If you want quality link building, hire a publicist.
Variations: The source of the shoddy work might vary. But in the end, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
In my over 25 years in digital marketing, I’ve seen my share of scams when it comes to SEO work (primarily, thanks to clients forwarding them to me asking if it was legit).
You can avoid most scams by simply not hiring anyone who sells their services via mass email lists.
However, if you’re still concerned that something might not be on the up and up, there are tons of SEO forums on all the social media platforms.
Even a big cry for help on Twitter will usually get you a quick answer.