The SEO industry, unfortunately, has a relatively negative reputation. Ass-hat SEOs, an awesome term coined by Kristine Schachinger on Search Engine Watch, refers to those SEO providers that aren't SEOs at all, but they make money using our techniques while making the rest of us look bad. White hat SEO providers follow the guidelines of the search engines and black hat SEOs typically look for the loopholes (not necessarily making them evil, but its a riskier approach in my opinion). Both approaches have camps of devoted practitioners that swear by their tactics and both approaches can be incredibly successful when managed by someone who knows what they are doing. (For the record I'm in the white hat camp but that's me). But ass-hat SEOs are those that use tactics against the search engines terms of services that are known to create penalties and do not inform your client. If you are not good at black hat, but endanger your clients even when they know the risks, you're an asshat!
Its the ass-hat SEOs out there that have given the rest of us a bad reputation; they burn site owners with their approach and train our potential clients to believe that all SEO providers are out to scam them and play Russian roulette with their websites. We as real SEO providers need to educate would-be clients how to avoid these ass-hat SEOs and this is the best piece of advice I can offer site owners:
The best SEO firms (or consultants) will practice what they preach.
1. Does a prospective SEO partner have a presence in the search engines?
In case you didn't know, SEO is a highly competitive keyword and there are a few big SEO sites and agencies that tend to dominate the SERPs for it. For instance, my company has been in business for over 7 years and I know were still a long way from cracking the top ten for SEO. But a good SEO firm understands that there are more keywords out there than just SEO that they could effectively compete for and they do. This is the same approach they should take for your site as well. Your small business IT services company in New Mexico is probably never going to unseat IBM for a keyword like IT services in completely neutral SERPs (meaning no personalization factors are at play) no matter how much you want to. But that doesn't mean you cant build a search presence for yourself using other long tail and localized keywords with the help of a good SEO provider. If you cant find a prospective SEO provider in the SERPs without doing a lot of digging you might want to approach with caution. They could just be a new firm and still do a great job, or they could be an ass-hat that set up shop two weeks ago because someone told them that offering SEO services is a great way to make money fast.
2. Does a prospective SEO partner have a real social media presence?
They might not have 1000s of followers and fans but lets hope the few they do have are real people! Ass-hat SEO tends to believe in the more followers, more better attitude and will create or buy fake profiles to increase their numbers. Lets be honest, 100 robots aren't even worth 1 real social follower. Your prospective SEO firm doesn't need to have thousands of fans and hundreds of shares on every piece of content they create but they should have some kind of social media presence. Even a small group of loyal fans, follower and blog readers can have a positive impact on your SEO over time. Social and SEO get more and more intertwined every day and a good SEO firm takes advantage of every opportunity they're presented with, including social signals.
3. Does a prospective SEO partner offer advice that is consistent with other reputable sources?
There are hundreds of SEO blogs out there and, thanks to the glory of the Internet, anyone can say pretty much whatever they want about anything and call it a day. In my opinion, a good SEO firm is going to be offering the same kind of advice in their blog and on their site that many of the industry leaders also say. Not to say that there is only one right way of doing SEO but if you read a dozen blog posts on sites like Search Engine Watch and Marketing Land (and even this blog!) that say one thing and a prospective SEO partner says something else chances are the other dozen sites aren't the ones in the wrong. Ass-hat SEOs, like Kristine said in her article, are the ones that don't really know what they are doing and unfortunately its your website that is on the line. Why put your business in the hands of someone that isn't going to do right by you?
There are probably hundreds of full-service SEO agencies and consultants out there and, contrary to what it may look like at times, most of us aren't looking to make a quick buck. Id be the majority of us actually care about your clients (crazy at that sounds!) and want to help you succeed as much as you want to. But those few ass-hat SEOs out there make it that much harder for the rest of us to. Don't let an ass-hat SEO ruin your website and look for an SEO firm that practices what they preach for their own business!