SEO red flags: five signs you might be getting ripped off

I’ve been talking to a lot of small businesses lately about their SEO.  Many of them are paying – typically – hundreds of dollars a month but aren’t clear on what they’re getting for it.  I’ve also taken a look at some of their websites with an SEO eye, and I’m honestly quite horrified at how little some agencies are doing for their money.  There are a number of SEO red flags that I can spot with just a few minutes’ casual investigation, and which customers could spot for themselves if they knew how.  That says to me that these SEOs are really not doing what they’re paid for, and are relying on their customers’ inexperience to get away with it.

I don’t like seeing local businesses getting ripped off.  It makes me cranky.

So, if you’re a business who’s paying for SEO but not sure what you’re getting for it, here’s a short checklist of absolute basic SEO services that any reputable contractor should be handling.  If your SEO isn’t doing this for you, I suggest you ditch them and get a better one.

questions to ask about your SEO service

SEO Red Flag #1. No analytics

Your SEO should have set up Google Analytics and Google Search Console (if you didn’t already have them) and given you access to it. They may have also given you access to another reporting platform, but Analytics and Search Console are fundamental and you must have them.

You should be able to easily see (preferably via a dashboard or regularly emailed report):

  • how much traffic your website is getting overall
  • how much traffic is coming from search engines
  • which pages are the most popular (overall and for search)
  • what search terms are sending people to your site
  • BONUS POINTS: how many visitors actually became customers or sales leads (aka “conversion goals”)

Check this: Use GA Checker to see if Google Analytics is installed on your site.  If you see lots of green ticks (preferably under “Universal Analytics”), that means it’s installed.  If not, you should really be worried – this should have been their first step.

Next, go to Google Analytics and log in with your usual Google account. You should be able to see traffic reports for your website. Also try logging in to Google Search Console with your Google account and see if your domain’s listed there. If you click on “Search Analytics” you should see information on who’s visiting your site from search. If you can’t login and access these, ask your SEO to set that up for you.

SEO Red Flag #2. Thin content

Your site needs to have content – text, images, video, but especially text – to help Google understand what it’s about and make sure it ranks well for relevant keywords.  In 2011 Google made a change, known as Panda, which penalised sites that had “thin content” (i.e. insufficent original content on each page). Panda also penalised content that was duplicated from another site or generated by robots. Ever since then, it’s been vital to have good, solid content on your site if you want to rank.

Just how much content help you’ll get from your SEO will depend on your contract, but if you have any pages that are mostly pictures, or only have a few words on them, you should at least have been told that this needs improvement.

Some examples of content that your SEO might recommend you add:

  • Detailed descriptions of the products or services you provide
  • Descriptions or captions for photos
  • Testimonials from happy customers
  • Portfolio, case studies, or other descriptions of work you’ve done
  • Professional bios of the business owner or key staff
  • A blog (though this is an ongoing commitment, and not always the first thing you should go for)

Check this: Try this thin content checker on your website. No matter how small your business, you should have at least a few pages with 500+ words according to that tool’s count.

content creation for SEO

SEO Red Flag #3. Unnecessary pages

I have seen a few websites lately where the designer left literally hundreds of dud pages lying around: sample blog posts, fake product pages and portfolios, even a “team” page listing non-existent people. Although these pages weren’t linked and no ordinary visitor would see them, they were included in the sitemap that’s submitted to search engines.

These rubbish content pages might count as “thin” or “duplicate” content, leading to the sort of penalties described above. Even in the best case scenario, they’ll just confuse Google as to what your website is about, and dilute what ranking you might have had for your real pages.

Any SEO should spot this immediately and clean them up promptly for you.

Check this: Google for and see how many pages come up. Scroll through the results and see if there’s anything you don’t recognise.  If there are rubbish pages there, they could be impacting your ranking.

SEO Red Flag #4. No image optimisation

One task your SEO should be doing early on in your contract is to set “alt text” for every image on your website.  This alt text is read by Google to understand what the images on your website are about.  It’s an opportunity to include more textual content (including relevant keywords) on your page, and it’s quite simple to do. However, I’ve often seen small businesses whose SEO contractors haven’t done this.

Check this: Use a tool like this image check to check your homepage and a few other key pages on your site. You should expect to see the alt text for each image being a) unique, and b) relevant to the keywords you want to rank for.

For instance, if there’s a photo of the business owner, the alt text might say, “John Smith has 20 years experience as a plumber in the Ballarat area”, or perhaps just “John Smith, Ballarat plumber”.  It should definitely not be blank, or say anything like “IMG_1234.JPG”, “background” or “logo”.

SEO Red Flag #5. No directory listings

If you’re a local business, like a restaurant or yoga studio, you want to be found when people search for “Ballarat restaurant” or “yoga studio near me”.  Your SEO has probably promised that you will show up in the “local three-pack” – the three business listings that appear under the map for Google searches like this – and has worked with you to set up Google My Business.

You should know that Google My Business is the absolute, bare minimum for local SEO.  You should also be listed in reputable online directories such as Yelp, Zomato (for restaurants), HIPages (for home services), TripAdvisor (for tourism businesses), etc. You should also be listed with your local chamber of commerce and any other relevant professional organisations.

Local SEO for tourism businesses

Conversely you should not be paying to be listed in any directory that the SEO agency themselves operate. These are often perceived as dodgy and a bit spammy by Google and might cause you more harm than good.

Check this: is your business listed under appropriate categories in Yelp? Because that’s probably the second most obvious place you should be listed, and if you’re not there, your local SEO is not worth what you’re paying for it.

What next?

If you passed all these tests, congratulations! That means your SEO is covering the basics you’d hope to get for a small business website.

On the other hand, if you’ve raised two or more of these SEO red flags, I honestly think you should be worried.  Get in touch with your SEO agency and ask them to clarify whether these services are included, and if not why not?  If you don’t understand the answers, that’s also a sign that something is amiss. A lot of SEOs seem to want to befuddle you with jargon and bombast. You shouldn’t have to feel like that.

Obviously I’d like to say that Flax Digital’s SEO services are better than that, and if you want to get in touch to talk about what we can do for you, that would be great.  But shop around, too, and also consider simply not paying for SEO unless you can find someone who will clearly demonstrate that you’ll get your money’s worth. No SEO at all is better than throwing your money to an agency who does nothing for it.


Alex is the owner of Flax Digital, a website consulting agency based in Ballarat, Australia. Alex has over 20 years' experience developing websites and digital strategy for businesses and non-profits in Australia and internationally.

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