When SEO Is Not Really SEO

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Okay so this article isn’t an SEO tutorial.  It’s not a rant against the fine people at Google Labs.  It’s not even a rant so much as a question I pose to you, Search Engine Journal’s readers.

Okay – maybe I’ll rant just a little.  because that’s part of my voice.  Oh fine.  Enough of you know me by now that this is really going to be a full blown rant.  And a question.  What can I say?  The topic for this article didn’t just pop into my head one day.  It’s been boiling and roiling and fuming and fermenting for a long time.

So what topic could possibly get me so completely ripped apart that I’d want to scream at the top of my lungs?

How about….

Wait for it….



Pretend SEO

If you think you know what I’m talking about, read on.  You may be surprised.

Pretend SEO, to me, can mean many things.  But in this instance, what I’m talking about is situations where you’re called upon to perform your magic on a site.  And that site happens to clearly need hours upon hours of optimization work.  Because it’s in a highly competitive field.  Where the top players have been entrenched since forever.  Or they have hundreds or thousands of pages.

And the site you’re charged with has maybe 30 words of real content total.  Spread across five pages.  And two back-links.  From the site owner’s sister’s quilting site, and her cousin’s eBay page – you know the one – where there hasn’t been any products available since he sold that old moldy couch for $8.

So you take one look at the site and you know it’s going to take a lot of work.

Except you’re told “You’ve got three hours.  Do what you can.”

Or you’re dealing with a complex site – that’s got thirty seven categories of  services the company offers.  Saturating 65,000 pages.  And 987,355 inbound links.  Yet, for some reason, with all that depth, the site’s no higher than the 10th page of the SERPs.

And you know in THIS case, it’s going to take a full blown audit to figure out this mess.

Except you’re told “Just come up with a quick one-page plan that outlines what you’ll do to optimize the site over the next six months.  And oh – you’ve got ten hours a month allotted.”


No More Hair Left To Rip Out

Some of you may not have ever been in this situation.  That’s okay.  I’m happy for you.  Really.  But not really.  Because I’m jealous.  That you don’t know the heartache.  Yet.

But you just wait.  If you stick around this industry long enough, and diversify your income stream throughout your illustrious SEO career, you WILL Know this evil of which I speak.  Trust me.  You will.

For those of you who know what I’m talking about, because you too, have been in either of these painful situations, I ask you – at what point do you say “This is not SEO.  I can’t consciously expend the time you’ve allotted and claim that it’s significant enough to truly be called optimization.”


The “It’s Better Than No SEO” Argument.

Countless times I’ve heard that same account manager / employer / client spit out those immortal words.  The concept being that surely, with all my years of experience, and all the miracles of SEO I’ve pulled off in the past, that even with a few minutes being all that’s allocated, I can get some stupid small number of phrases into the site in a way that those phrases will show up on the first page of Google, or Yahoo or Bing.  And thus, “It’s better than no SEO at all”.

But is it?

How much optimization needs to be performed to truly qualify as genuine optimization?  And at what point, if you fall short of that threshold, do you call it a sham? An illusion?  A scam?  A delusion?

I’ve had to ask myself these questions countless times, since I provide consulting services to agencies.  And they’re forever compromising.  Sometimes it’s because the clients they take on have very serious budgetary constraints. And I can understand that.  I don’t LIKE it.  Yet I understand it.  Because it’s the nature of business.

Yet there’s just some situations where I say it’s too much insanity.  And I even occasionally refuse to work on a site because of that.  Like just this past week.  I refused to work on a site, let alone have my name be associated with it.  That’s how delusional I felt the scenario was.

What About You?

When do you draw the line?  Do you even have the LUXURY of drawing that line?  When do you cave in and go along for the pretend optimization pony ride?

Alan Bleiweiss
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors... Read Full Bio
Alan Bleiweiss
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  • Good stuff, Alan! I've been there many many times (especially as it pertains to your second example) and I'm sure I will continue to do so. It's one of the hazards of agency SEO.

    That said, over the years my team and I have gotten better at setting expectations and pre-qualifying prospects that are going to be a bad fit for us due to their poor yet unwavering expectations. I think that's one of the keys to success when working in the SEO services industry. You have to weed out the junk clients and seek out the quality clients.

    I've actually had the distinct pleasure of firing Fortune 500 clients just a few months into an engagement once it became clear that they were hopelessly unrealistic and impossible to work with in terms of approvals and implementation. It's a pretty sweet feeling!

  • Firing a Fortune 500 client? I don't know that I'd have had the courage 🙂 but yes – setting expectations is really important. And when this kind of scenario comes along, I do my best to be as real as possible in what I think the outcome will be.

  • Thank You! I feel so better now that I know that i am not alone. I have been in this situation many times… countless times and every time this is frustrating to hear – “We'll just review the title and description, that'll do the trick” when it clearly won't work. Alan, you asked us where we draw the line well ..in my case (I am an Search Marketer for 8 years, always an employee and always agency side) I usually draw the line with my bosses when they asked me why I over worked on this type of project. And when it is a client issue… well I am a consultant… I can show you the door, I may open it for you but you'll have to go through it…

    • sometimes I want to kick some people through that door. because it's for their own good. really. 🙂 And now I sound like my parents when they would tell me the punishment was for my own good!

    • lorenbaker

      Please use your real name, or a handle, and not “mobile ready websites” as your name on SEJ or your comments will no longer be posted. thanks 🙂

  • bonnieburns

    Ok…pretend SEO burns my butt. And as an SEO consultant for 12 yrs or more, who sits on their butt all day long doing 'real seo work' it sure is painful. Like you and others, I have seen the SEO scams and those who profess to be seo professionals come across cyberspace daily. Heck…I once got a tweet from a guy saying he was a professional seo in his bio etc and he wanted me to send him a list of search engines. I mean..come on already!!! How about LinkedIn: got an email from a dude who says they are seo/sem and check out their web design services on their site. The site is poorly done and not even that…there is no content. just some template with boxes of pictures that say web design, seo, web marketing, web design. And this he is using for business? Or…how about those that say 'our sites are seo ready or have an seo 'app' for the template made site they just bought. The seo app?…they mean you can add a title tag, a description tag and a keyword tag….what? that is seo ready…sheesh. Ok, I can go on and on, but my butt is burning from just thinking about this and I need to stand up 🙂

    • Of course Bonnie! How could I have forgotten to mention all the sites that come “SEO ready”? The ones I end up wanting to shoot myself over?

    • Good that you mentioned about all the I-am-an-SEO-Expert kind of experiences. SEO like any other market currently on the Internet is saturated. It's like the other side of the jungle. Why even get bothered by it?

  • AlekJones

    What a post! I've been having this problem at my agency. It is a rarity that you as mere employee has a say and is actually able to refuse working on the SEO for clients such as these. There have been oodles of clients that I would have loved to give a call and tell them that their expectations are absolutely ridiculous and i refuse to work on their sites!!!!

    I agree with the previous replies to your post – that you should put each potential client through a screening process and when you do decide to take them on, online marketing as a process MUST be explained to them in full detail. What it is that you do, how long it will take to see results, how much work is involved in getting them to the top.

    But alas, even the head of SEO may not have a say in the clients that are signed…..and that breaks my heart and my back.

    • Alek, the situation where you're at the mercy of your employer is most painful, indeed. It's sad, actually.

  • chrystie69

    Been there done that over the past 10 years in SEO I've seen a lot of agencies do just that, pretend SEO knowing it wouldn't help but needing the business. As a consultant I have made it a policy NOT to do this. I have dropped clients that I knew I couldn't help. I'm not going to waste what little funds they have on a project I know isn't going to yield results.

    Sometimes I'll re-direct them to look at putting some of their meager SEO funds into a small PPC campaign because it will give them a better return on their investment in the short term and revisit SEO for their site later when they have the ability to put in the time, effort and money.

    • Chrystie that's a good point – offering suggestions for alternative marketing. Once I even suggested the site owner would be better off buying a Guerrilla marketing book 🙂

  • I wholeheartedly agree. After years of performing SEO in-house, freelance and at the agency level, I still see the same issues. I believe that a lot of the confusion surrounds the SEO hacks who provide misinformation that leads people to believe it is a quick, one-time job. Unfortunately for these businesses, they usually learn the hard way.

  • It is not always easy to suggest alternative marketing. In the long run, SEO is one of the cheapest way of driving business to the website

  • I think the agency or company where you work as an SEO (even if it's your own!) makes a lot of difference in these scenarios. I worked for a while for a company where all the clients were in competitive niches, were paying a lot of money, but really only got attention when they screamed for it. I switched to a company where we can propose custom solutions and time budgets for work, and directly address what impact it will have. When a client is budget-constrained, we can discuss what can be done that will have impact and can be built upon in stages.

    It's really far more satisfying to be in the latter situation.

    • Julie,

      When a client is budget constrained, I think it really comes down to “how” constrained they are. If they've got $2,000 and that's their total budget but they're in even a semi-competitive market, there's not much I can do for them.

  • I have turned down a lot of work this year for several reasons. The biggest reason is they want cheap services but they have no goal – such as conversion. They just think they can pay for “SEO” and suddenly all will be right with the world.

    Other people need a complete new site and they don't want to spend the money. I understand the budget issues, but sometimes there is nothing we can do unless it is all redone. Many businesses could redirect their advertising budget and afford a new, well-coded, optimized site with a plan for conversion. If they don't understand the importance of it we can't have an effective business relationship, so we walk.

    When we discuss conversion or an effective website and a client doesn't care or get it, we have to walk because one day they will understand and they will look at us and feel like we basically stole their money.

    I could be making so much money doing nothing, but I have this whole morals and ethics thing. 🙂

    • Ah yes that – morals and ethics thing. Whenever I wonder why I'm not sitting on a beach in Hawaii instead of working for clients these days, I remember that the choices I make in not taking on clients just for the sake of the money is because I have at least some semblance of a conscience. 🙂

  • It really depends on the market and situation. If it takes 500 hours of SEO, and I charge $150 an hour, there may well be several other marketing methods that are a lot less expensive for a small business owner who can't afford that $75000 price tag

    • Well, if the SEO price tag is $75000, for a small business I usually advise to completely redesign the website…

  • peterzhangla

    Nice work! I think that's the problem with all the ones who are doing SEO for clients. At my former job, whenever a leads come for a quotation, no matter how poor their sites are(even one page), our boss will insist, you need to take it over so that company can make money from that. But I realize their industry and business even we have great work with them but still can't get back the money they invest and the relationship will be very bad at the end. After times and times again, finally I quit my job. Now I am much happier only take the ones I think will be worth to work for and only charge the money we are really working on that. The business is doing just fine not make too much money but really helping people. And if one client tells me, they are limit with funds, that' OK, if your business has a good future we will help you although that might be risky. Looking forward to your future postings, like the ones who are commenting here:)

    • Thanks Peter – “helping people” is a very challenging concept when one needs to run a business and pay the bills. So I can't give away my services. Yet at the same time I can't consciously do 5% of the work I think a site needs then call it SEO

  • peterzhangla

    Yes, I agree, normal people like us, living is important.

  • I am under a situation to optimize the site. Its just the scratch from where I have to start. I know its just the arrangement of words here and there. But is not giving me a push to go on. I have been under so much stress to reach the targets. Anyway to come to the point your article is nice.

  • Thank you Alan for such a nice article.
    As I feel one of the major problems with SEO is that for each infected website.
    It is a highly effective way of disseminating malicious code and many other forms of cyber crime.

  • Great article – this happens in a lot of fields, not just SEO. “Just look it over and tweak it.” Clients sometimes fail to realize the amount of time and expertise that needs to go into many projects.

    • Valid point Cassie – what we experience in the SEO arena is common to many business markets, because we offer professional services – which are quite often seen as important, yet many business owners assume the work is easy or can be done on the fast and cheap.

  • andyblackburn

    It's times like those, when presented with a ridiculous task, or an unsurmountable amount of research/digging around before work can even begin, that you need to get your sales hat on in my book.

    I have only recently started a new contract, which was sold as a “we want you for 10 hrs a week to fix it” job, but one I had to upsell to a “you need me for longer than that, and if you actually have the budget, I'll come in house for a while to at least get the main issues sorted before we even begin to look at your content and links” consultancy.

    But yes, those of you who are yet to experience “it's better than no SEO though, right?” are the blessed few!

    • Having to wear that sales hat is one of my biggest challenges Andy. It's why I prefer to work with agencies, but even then, it takes years to get some agencies to fully grasp the problems and manage client expectations. < sigh >

      • andyblackburn

        Having worked in house, consultant and agency side, I know the pros and cons of both. My last big agency role was with the Ogilvy Group in London, and an experience that was indeed. They had very well established paid marketing and display marketing teams, and knew the value of SEO so were beginning to focus more heavily on that. I was there from having one small SEO client, through sales pitches and out the other side. As I left they were recruiting 3 more members to the SEO team to manage the workload. I loved working in an agency, but find the thrill of doing everything from sales to completion too much to miss!

  • Oh yes I ve been to a similar situation. But the best one for me is when they are telling me to put them on first page and they are going away so they will not hear if there is a fee.lol

    • Chris, this is true – clients do tend to only hear what they want to hear, and gloss over or disregard anything to do with “complex” or “costly”.

  • adamheaton

    Sometimes it makes me glad that I don't have to do any SEO for any website but my own, then the only client who isn't happy is yours truely.

    • Adam,

      There are times when I am quite jealous of anyone who only has their own site to work on. Then I remember how much I enjoy the diversity of doing this for upwards of 60 different sites. 🙂

  • Good that you mentioned about all the I-am-an-SEO-Expert kind of experiences. SEO like any other market currently on the Internet is saturated. It's like the other side of the jungle. Why even get bothered by it?