March 2011

Charlatan’s Web – Identify Local SEO Scammers Before They Bite You


Let’s muck out the barnyard together. Want to get my goat? Then find yourself a trusting small business owner, misguide him, take his money and proceed to trash his Local web presence, and yes, I’ll get madder than a wet hen. As the importance of Local Search grows by leaps and bounds, what a tangled web is being woven by charlatans who are making a living off of local business owners who lack education about the rules of the game and are, thus, very vulnerable sitting ducks!

E.B. White aside, not long ago, I was approached by an extremely nice fellow who had invested years in his business which offers an important local service to his neighbors. Some weeks before, he had hired a ‘Local SEO’ to help him increase his visibility on the web. He assumed that things were going well until an in-house employee began to express some doubts as to the wisdom of what the SEO firm was doing on the company’s behalf. This is when they got in touch with me.

I’m not going to name names or point fingers, but I will state unequivocally that I was totally shocked by what I found as I reviewed what had been done to the client’s site and Google Places profile. When I saw the damage that had been done, I realized that if I was even going to attempt to clean up the situation, it would have to be under a major proviso stating that I had no idea if anything I did would have a positive or lasting effect on the client’s overall web presence. I’m not going to go into excessive detail here, but the 3 main offenses were these:

- More than 10 completely phony Place Pages had been created for the company in cities in which there was no physical office.

- Every Place Page was absolutely stuffed with spam

- The website was publicizing an offer to monetarily incent reviews that would then be republished on 3rd party review sites.

All of the above are glaring violations of guidelines of the majority of local business indexes and review sites, and it was truly amazing to me to realize that, basically, the deplorable ‘SEO firm’ had advised this business owner to take almost every possible wrong step he could in promoting his business. Just outrageous.

I predicted as soon as I looked at the account that penalties were about to befall it, and unfortunately, while awaiting the signed marketing agreement from this client, these penalties blossomed out all over the Places Profile (specifically – ‘pending’ messages’). Well, we did what we could and urged the client to clean up the review offer situation plus a number of very poor SEO choices on their website, but this is not what anyone would think of as an ideal situation. Who can say what will happen when the profile goes through a full refresh? That remains to be seen.

What I can do, right now is to publish this warning that I hope will be widely circulated in the local business community. If you fail to recognize the warning signs of a scamming Local SEO service provider, not only will you totally waste your:

…but if Google et al. catch onto what the bad guys have done in your name, your name may well end up being:

Yes, mud. The good reputation you may have spent years and years developing in your town could literally be ruined if you hire a charlatan, and getting back into Google’s good graces once they frown on your account can be next to impossible.

Much wreckage and weeping could be spared by one simple step. All you’ve got to do is read:

Different, very legitimate Local SEOs may have differing opinions about matters like whether to use the Place Page service area feature, whether to list towns served, etc., but here are the deal breakers you should be listening for if you are interviewing a Local SEO into whose hands you are about to trust your business’ reputation:

Rule Benders
Did you read the guidelines? Okay, so you know your business does NOT qualify for a Google Place Page or similar profiles unless you have a physical street address and unique local area code phone number. If Local SEOs are trying to sell you on workarounds like P.O. Boxes, virtual offices, etc., then walk away.

It can be hard to resist temptations like these, because it may seem like if you could just squeak by without being noticed, you could significantly increase your web visibility. But, you’d have to be willing to lie in order to do so. In my experience, most small business owners have honesty in spades over many in the upper echelons of big business and they would never consider running a newspaper ad falsely listing their shop as being located someplace when they actually aren’t. It wouldn’t serve their customers, obviously, and it would make their whole business seem unreliable if they published inaccurate data. Use this mindset when it comes to Places and you will find yourself much less tempted to bend rules, I believe, especially with the threat of penalties hanging over your head a la Damocles’ sword.

And remember, an SEO who wants you to believe you can get away with bending or breaking rules is an SEO who wants your money very badly. They are putting their own reputation on the line by engaging in shady practices. No one is going to come out a long term winner.

Again, please do read Google’s Places Quality Guidelines to get a handle on all of the ins and outs of what is and is not allowed in their index. Many of the rules are not intuitive. Don’t try to fly by the seat of your pants on this. Reviewing the guidelines is the very best way for you to know if a Local SEO you are interviewing knows how to properly optimize a Place Page without making any violations.

Reviewmongers
I think I may have just coined that term. A ‘monger’ is a person who deals in a specific commodity, such as a cheesemonger or a fishmonger. Well, mongering and user reviews don’t mix. Money, gifts or other incentives are not supposed to change hands in any way in exchange for positive reviews. Speaking of fishy, turn up your nose at anyone who offer you the service of creating phony reviewer profiles in order to publish make-believe reviews or to re-publish the reviews of legitimate customers on third party review sites. No one but your customer should ever be leaving his or her review anywhere. No stand-ins, no go-betweens, nada. If you want to publish testimonials you have received from happy customers, the place to do so is on your own website. And that’s it.

Old School Spammers
Just when I thought those old colorful sombrero terms were fading out of the lexicon of SEO vocabulary, I have found myself yet again confronting grey/black hat tactics being employed anew on local business model websites. Hidden text, tiny text, stuffed meta data, link farms, weird redirects – you name it and it’s very much going on in Local. Seems to me I haven’t been reading as many articles about this in the world of traditional SEO of late, but this kind of noisome stuff is everywhere apparent on many local business websites which I am asked to review.

What does this mean for local business owners who need to hire someone to strengthen the local hooks of their website? It means you’ve got to have at least a passing acquaintance with traditional SEO basics. May I recommend that you spend an afternoon reading through something like SEOmoz’s free beginners SEO Guide? It’s a good one, and even a moderate understanding of legitimate SEO tactics should help you to differentiate between above-board practitioners and dubious ones.

Wait, Why Do I Have To Know All This Stuff? I’m Hiring A Pro To Understand All This For Me
You might just be asking that. Chances are, you are hiring a pro because you don’t have the time to invest in learning SEO and Local SEO from the ground up, and I’m not suggesting that you do so unless your goal is to have total first-hand control over all aspects of your marketing. Rather, I am suggesting that if you go into the hiring process without the ability to discern major violations, you are very likely to get scammed by the ever-growing number of low quality firms offering very bad advice and spammy services that have the power to destroy your online reputation as well as your bottom line. Remember the crumpled dollar and the mud-covered man above? I don’t want you to end up like that. I really don’t.

My firm has always served small businesses because we’re dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the little guy over the big. When we go grocery shopping, our first stop is always at the local farm to see what we can buy from our neighbor the farmer before we trek the big, gleaming aisles of Whole Foods. We want small local businesses to succeed, and I am truly unhappy as I look around at the landscape of pitfalls that await the under-educated local business owner in the marketing world.

My very best advice is this: the first step in the hiring process is to educate yourself, and then find a Local SEO with a well-known, reputable, trustworthy reputation.

Discerning Reputation
You can’t really put your trust in rankings when determining reputations. You can search for company names or the names of SEOs to see what types of results come up about them. This can help you track how widely they are known and how the public feels about their work. Bear in mind, though, it’s quite possible for any business owner to get a lot of phony praise published about himself, so don’t let this be your only research method.

I would recommend that you supplement this research by visiting David Mihm’s list of reputable Local SEOs. David is a friend and colleague and few people in the industry have done more to promote a trustworthy network of good Local SEOs. You might also want to check out David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking Factors Report – an annual survey of top Local SEOs organized to determine which factors are most affecting local rankings. Anyone who participates in that survey is likely to be quite skilled and reputable.

Finally, you might like to look around at some of the top SEO and Search Engine News publications on the web to see who writes for them. The men and women who write Local Search-focused articles for these blogs and sites know their stuff and have attained very good industry reputations. I personally recommend the following three large publications, as well as the individual blogs of the authors who write for these powerhouse entities:

Search Engine Land
Search Engine Guide
Search Engine Journal

*Please note, this is just my own personal list of top news publications. I’m not intending to leave anyone out who is not represented via authorship at these sites, but this is where I send folks to read Local SEO articles written by professionals I know and trust.

Seems Like A Lot Of Work!
Yes, indeed, and when you consider just how important the web has become as the vehicle by which a major part of your incoming customers will find you, it is worth every minute and cent you put into it. I’m still steamed about what those rotten scammers did to that nice business owner who called me. How do they sleep at night, I ask you? I’m crossing my fingers that if you’ve read the above, I may have just saved you from a similar loathsome situation. Local is amazing fun, but be careful out there. And do your homework before you hire.

——————-
For the record – I love ‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E.B. White and cry buckets every time I watch the old movie of it. This article is in no way intended to disparage arachnids, whom I find fascinating and NEVER kill (be kind to spiders in your house – take them out in a glass so they can do their job outdoors, or if they are the wispy Daddy Longlegs variety, view them as honored house pets). The title of this article must be credited to my father who, when I described to him some of the spamming that goes on in Local, remarked, “It sounds like a Charlatan’s Web.”. Bottom line: spiders, good; scammers, stomp, stomp, stomp…

—————-

Photo Credits: Wilderdom and e-magic

Mike Blumenthal Pictures Local

Good stuff coming from Mike Blumenthal this week; most specifically his Local Search Web Equity Infographic. Definitely worth taking a gander at in your efforts to understand the key factors that go into owning a strong Local web presence.

Also worth checking out: the user reviews of a Saint Paul, MN business called Wedding Shoppe Inc. My attention to this Place Page is also thanks to Mike Blumenthal. Look at the nicely done owner responses to some of the negative reviews that have come in. For example, one user writes:

Bad costumer service The whole time I was there it felt like i was intruding on the sales people’s time. My friend and I were hurried out the door so I tried to go back another day because I heard they have a good selection. We had the same experience again.

The owner responds:

Wedding dress shopping is emotional and sometimes time consuming experience so it is not our policy to hurry customers through the shopping process. Although we usually hear about good experiences at the Wedding Shoppe, we also take special consideration to evaluate any customer concerns. If you are willing, I would like to hear details about your experience to better improve our shopping experience for future brides. If you are willing to give us another opportunity, I could setup an appointment with a senior consultant or manager. My email is support@weddingshoppeinc.com

The offer to set up a personal consultation with the unhappy customer in order to improve the public’s experience with the shop really rings my bell. Wonderful approach and this business deserves praise for their gracious handling of the often-tricky world of user reviews.

Thanks, again, Mike, for everything you share with everybody in Local. I learn from you every time we chat!