You know you could do more to increase organic traffic, you don’t have time or internal expertise to do it, and you’ve decided to hire an SEO agency. You know what to ask them — if not, check out part 1 of this series: What to ask an Ecommerce SEO Agency — and you’ve set up consultations with a few prospective agencies you found online.

It’s about time you know what to be on the lookout for.

Like every area of digital marketing, SEO has its share of shady practitioners and deceptive sales tactics. Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of reputable marketing agencies who do fantastic work, and I highly suggest you go with a recommended service. Regardless of who the agency is, though, it’s good to be armed with a checklist of factors that, if encountered, warrant a follow-up question or two.

1. The Fly-By-Night SEO

When you’re not intimately familiar with a topic, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking someone else is an expert. By just using SEO lingo and throwing together a respectable website, anyone can claim to be a bonafide SEO expert. Keep an eye out for the 5 following signs to spot an SEO imposter:

  • Short history: Agencies that have been in business for less than two years could be a red flag. Yes, maybe you’re getting a fantastic deal by going with the SEO equivalent of Michael Jordan in his rookie year . . . but you may also be the guinea pig for someone’s side-business experiment. If you really get good vibes from such an agency, make sure you talk to references and see examples of their work before moving forward.
  • Missing information: No contact information on their website, lack of yellowpage/Google local listings and no social media are all signs you may be dealing with an imposter. These outlets allow for social proof through reviews and number of fans. If they are non-existent, so might be the business.
  • Poor design or SEO: Anyone who offers to help with your SEO better have spotless SEO themselves. Lazy site design is another sign that a website was thrown together with the intent of taking advantage of ecommerce websites seeking quick, inexpensive help.
  • Cold calls: Blindly calling potential clients may be an indication that an agency values quantity over quality. Be especially critical of agencies who reach out to you without a formal introduction.
  • Inexperienced employees: Get business cards and look up the SEO experts themselves on LinkedIn to make sure they’ve done this before — preferably many times. A small number of junior employees at an agency is quite common, but if a so-called “SEO expert” was selling can openers door-to-door two months ago, you may want to run in the other direction.

2. Performance Guarantees

Organic search is governed by proprietary search engine algorithms that are vaguely understood by the outside world — and that’s being generous. Smart SEOs are optimistic about the possibility but always frame the conversation within a lens of uncertainty. When agencies offer up specific performance guarantees, it’s a big red flag. These include:

  • Ranking: Simply put, there’s no way to guarantee rankings. A site can be perfectly optimized for important terms, and an agency could forecast that it *may* eventually rank in the top half of Google SERPs for money keywords. But, ensuring #1 rankings is overconfidence at its worst.
  • Exact number of new links: When an agency guarantees a specific number of links, it means one of two things: 1. They are lying; 2. Even worse – they have paid links lined up. These can do irreparable harm to a website’s search engine performance and are one of the surest signs that you should run — not walk — away from an agency.
  • Visits: Like rankings, directional forecasts are entirely different than boasting specific visit volume. If an agency can accurately predict that, I need to talk to them!
  • Conversions: It’s one thing to say that optimizations should lead to more sales, but to guarantee specific numbers is an outright lie.

An SEO Agency’s role is to identify opportunities and optimizations that increase qualified traffic to your online store. Be sure your consultant explains their strategy and why they’re confident it will be an effective one. Instead of performance guarantees, set benchmarks for success: how much revenue should organic search be generating in 3, 6, 9 months? Keep in mind — SEO is a long-term game. Look for examples of comparable work that show a firm’s experience in driving visitors who convert.

3. The Unknown Foreign Agency

SEO is a worldwide practice, and experts with amazing depth of knowledge reside in all corners of the globe. Differing exchange rates and going market prices can make overseas agencies a great deal, and I know of many companies who’ve had fantastic experiences with SEO professionals from Europe, Asia, and South America. But be warned: the ever-present need for SEO services has inevitably led to the presence of dishonest people who prey on North American companies eager for a good deal. SEO is no different than anything else — you get what you pay for.

Established foreign agencies are often not much more affordable than domestic offerings because they pay for top talent who can do an exceptional job optimizing an ecommerce website. Cheaper options tend to employ folks with little or no SEO experience, which can be a huge waste of time and money on your part. Be extra cautious when considering a foreign agency and be sure to talk to references and ask the right questions. With a bit of extra homework, you could land a great deal on a fantastic agency.

4. The SEO Switcheroo

The oldest agency trick in the book — regardless of what’s being offered — is the one to be most wary of. All agencies want to turn prospects into clients by putting their best foot forward, but some resort to bait-and-switch tactics in order to accomplish this. When a highly-regarded or experienced SEO expert is being cited as proof of an agency’s proficiency, make sure to clarify who will actually be doing the work. Yes, it’s a good sign when an agency employs industry veterans, but it may not do you a world of good if they never interface with your account.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s perfectly fine to have junior or mid-level specialists work on your account in some capacity. Everyone has to start somewhere, and a lot of hands-on SEO work doesn’t require years and years of experience to do a great job on. Great leaders know when to delegate, and senior optimization wizards are no different. Like any contract, transparency is key: know what to expect, and be sure to get face time with the account lead on a regular basis. If you’re sold on a rock star, don’t sign a deal until you know the work will match the expectation.

Conclusion: Use Your Best Judgment

Choosing an SEO agency is ultimately no different than hiring a plumber to mend leaky pipes, or finding a construction firm to remodel your kitchen. The vast array of choices will always include some subpar options — and even flat-out swindlers. As always, knowledge is power. Use these pointers in your vendor review process and make sure you feel good about the agency who can ultimately make or break your online store. Take your time selecting an agency and don’t be afraid to consult your network if something doesn’t sound right.