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3 Red flags to identify unsavory SEO agencies

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), like every industry, has less than reputable companies – “snake oil” salesman.

Many business owners are aware that SEO is important to their company, but they might not fully understand why or how. This provides illegitimate businesses selling “SEO” an opportunity to profit from their lack of understanding.

There are specific red flags to spot these companies, even if you’re not familiar with the technicalities or nuances of SEO. These red flags include:

  1. Little to no transparency
  2. Fantastic guarantees
  3. Underpriced services

Unscrupulous SEO agencies do exist, but if you keep an eye out for these red flags you can quickly weed out these types of companies.

Little to No Transparency

You should look for a lack of transparency when evaluating an SEO agency – this is a major red flag.

Any SEO agency worth its salt should provide you with regular reports and updates on your campaign. Make sure to ask any prospective agency what types of reports you will receive, and push for them to provide you with an example.

Also, look for testimonials and reach out to other companies that you know have used this service. Ask them about how the agency reported results. Were they easy to reach? Did they clearly explain their process? Of course, you should also take this time to ask about the results the company was able to provide.

You’re entitled to this information, and if an SEO agency isn’t transparent, it’s likely they’re not following best practices and possibly even putting your site and business in jeopardy.

Fantastic Guarantees

Typically when an SEO agency makes claims that seem too good to be true, they are.

If you see an SEO agency guarantee “#1 Ranking for All Your Keywords – GUARANTEED,” run the other direction. The reality is nobody knows exactly how Google’s search algorithm works.

Google provides guidelines, and SEOs worth hiring will have a deep understanding of best practices, common issues, ranking factors, and where Google’s headed. But, anyone who guarantees rankings overnight is lying, and someone you should avoid.

The same goes for link building. Any agency or company touting anything similar to “1K High-Quality Backlinks to Your Site Per Month” is best avoided. Not only is that an absurd amount of links for one month (which could make Google suspicious), link building is more about quality over quantity, and real and worthwhile links involve human interaction – you demonstrate value to a webmaster, and they consciously decide to link to your site. It’s impossible to guarantee an amount of links when you’re not in control of the websites the links are coming from.

Be wary of fantastic guarantees as they typically indicate a less than savory business.

Underpriced Services

The saying “you get what you pay for” is extremely true within SEO. Similar to outlandish guarantees, grossly underpriced services should be another warning sign.

I am in no way saying you should disregard pricing. You should always do your research and shop for competitive prices when looking for any service. But this means you need to compare prices between agencies that are offering the same services, and if one company’s prices are extremely different it could be red flag.

For instance, anyone who is offering “300 backlinks for $30” is likely using spammy, automated tactics that you should avoid. It’s similar to the blatant spam accounts you see on social media that offer one thousand “real” followers for five dollars.

There may be some minor discrepancies in pricing between legitimate SEO agencies, but the differences won’t be extreme. Real SEO work costs money, and anyone who’s offering SEO services that are remarkably lower than the competition is most likely not offering genuine work.


Unfortunately there are “snake oil” salesmen in nearly every industry, and SEO is no exception. However, there are red flags which will help you identify illegitimate businesses when hiring an SEO agency. By identifying these common red flags you can avoid hiring an unsavory SEO company that could be detrimental to your business.

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  1. Avatar Martin Smith

    Andrew, this is the best post I’ve found simplifying the practices that are common to shady SEO companies. I’ve been sitting here for a minute or two wanting to leave a value added comment with a 4th thing to look out for, but none that I could think of were as universal as what you’ve already put down. Props to you!

  2. Andrew Dennis Andrew Dennis

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks so much for these kind words! I imagine it would be possible to get a little more granular and list some specific things to look out for, but I was hoping to give a broad overview for people to work from. I’m happy to hear you agreed with my points, and thanks again for stopping by. I appreciate the props!

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