This article was inspired by a recent post in a photography group to which I belong. The member had just received a call “from Google” and they were being offered a guaranteed ranking on the first page of Google for just $99 per month. She wanted to know if this was a scam, or if that’s something she should do for her SEO. While it might seem obvious that this was a scam, these kind of questions are frequent, and sometimes the proposal sounds just legitimate enough to be worth a try – especially if you’re a photographer who has been struggling with SEO and not really sure what to do next.

There ARE legitimate SEO firms out there, often described in the industry as “White Hat” SEOs, which is to say that they follow the best practices put forth by engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. White Hat SEOs focus on the user experience of search (which is what search engines like anyway). They use tactics that improve your search performance while maintaining the integrity of your website, and as a result, your business.

This post, however, focuses on tactics that are used by “Black Hat” SEOs, the ones who usually offer services for a too-good-to-be-true price or guarantee a certain ranking on search results pages. Knowing the difference between the two is important, if only because Black Hat tactics can get your site banned from search engines altogether, or make it incredibly expensive and time consuming to recover from.

Black Hat SEO Red Flag #1: Guaranteed On Page One of Google

Any agency that guarantees placement at the top of a search engine results pages (SERPs), is one to steer clear of. Reputable agencies know that guaranteeing placement is impossible. Instead, they’ll be the first to tell you that they can’t guarantee a spot. Why? For one, SEO is a constantly evolving medium. It’s impossible to say what changes Google might make to its algorithm in the next month, few months, or year. Search engines don’t usually give out all the details of the change. Instead, good SEOs know that whatever changes are made usually improve the searcher’s user experience, and use tactics they know align with those values, regardless of what changes are made.

For another, your competitors are also deploying their own SEO tactics and strategies. SEO isn’t something you just do once and then assume your photography business is covered. Like any kind of marketing, it’s an ongoing process that needs your attention.

Black Hat SEO Red Flag #2: Link Manipulation

It’s common knowledge that high-quality links leading back to your website are helpful when it comes to SEO. There is a fine line, however, between natural link building and link manipulation. Search engine algorithms are extraordinarily sophisticated and can detect natural links (links that make sense) and unnatural links – links that are there to manipulate PageRank and the SERPs.

Some of the common link manipulation schemes you should avoid are:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank (sometimes referred to as “do-follow links”). This could be as simple as someone offering you cash to include a link to their site that isn’t an ad, or making a trade, like free product, in exchange for links.
  • “Link to me and I’ll link to you.” Sometimes this happens naturally when you’re part of a community. But I’m not talking about those. I’m referring to those that happen purely for the purpose of cross-linking. So if you’re a wedding photographer who wants to refer newborn photography or portraits to other photographers by placing links in your blog posts from time-to-time or in a resources page on your site – you’ll be fine. It’s when you start amassing dozens and hundreds that you raise the flags.
  • Automatically generated links are the kind of links you see in comments or on forums. They’re clearly spam, and they’re often automated. Unfortunately, they’re also used by Black Hats as a way to “show” that they built links on a number of sites. Often this means that they auto-generated hundreds of spammy comments on sites that have no value. Ew.

You can read more about link schemes in this article from Google.

Black Hat SEO Red Flag #3 – They Don’t teach you anything

Good SEO companies will take care to ensure that you understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Reputable firms want to demonstrate their value to their clients (you), and want you to clearly understand what they bring to the relationship. When you understand their value, and can see the value for yourself, it helps that relationship grow. If they’re doing great work, you keep them around longer.

Many SEO agencies will have case studies for work they’ve done with previous clients, and they will be happy to answer your specific questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or for references. Reputable firms will not hesitate to provide answers or more information.

Black Hat SEO Red Flag #4 – Keyword Stuffing

One of the biggest misconceptions I see in photography groups is the overemphasis of keywords and SEO. Yes, keywords are important, but they aren’t the whole of SEO, nor should they be treated as such. Search engines are much smarter than they were in the late-90s. Searching used to be rigid, where the pages returned to the searcher had all of the keywords the searcher typed. But now they use concepts like “latent semantic indexing.”  To perhaps oversimplify it, this means that search engines take into account more than just the keywords – they’re contextual, too.

For example, if I’m a wedding photographer in Atlanta, Google and other search engines are going to expect to see wedding-related terms and perhaps some Atlanta-related terms on the site. They don’t need to be next to one another to make sense for search. They have context.  As I write, I’m thinking about one example I saw on the website shared by a group member. He’s a wedding photographer in Florida, I think, and while his website was beautiful, the copy was difficult to read because it was so clearly written for a search engine.

Bad: Jane Smith is an Atlanta, Georgia wedding photographer. As an Atlanta wedding photographer, Jane Smith ensures that your once-in-a-lifetime wedding lives on in your images for years to come. Though she is based in Atlanta, wedding photographer Jane also specializes in Savannah wedding photography, Athens wedding photography, and Asheville wedding photography.

This isn’t the most wonderful copy, I know, but here is how you would convey the same message without the keyword stuffing that is so obnoxious to read:

Better: Jane Smith is an Atlanta-based wedding photographer who serves all areas of Atlanta, Athens, Savannah, and Asheville, North Carolina. Jane understands that your wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime event that will live on in your professional images for years to come. . .

Google understands that Atlanta, Athens, and Savannah are all in Georgia. Google also can read “wedding” and “event” and “images” alongside “wedding photographer” and understands that this page is about a wedding photographer in Atlanta, Georgia who also serves other areas in Georgia. Write for your reader, and you’ll see that search engines will understand it just as well.

Black Hat SEO Red Flag #5 – Invisible Text

This isn’t as common as it used to be (or so I hope), but this is when people take keyword stuffing, mentioned above, and place keywords on pages or in the footers of websites and actually change their color so they blend into the website. Other ways they make text invisible is by making the font size zero, using CSS to make the text appear off screen, or they’ll put a link in by attaching it to a period, so it’s difficult to detect.

The user doesn’t see anything, but the search engines DO.

All-in-all, the best ways to avoid SEO scams are to follow your instincts, ask a lot of questions, and research the firm to make sure they are legitimate. If an offer is too good to be true, it probably is. As well, make sure you have a statement of work (contract) that thoroughly defines the scope of their work for you, so both sides are managing expectations and outcomes.

Finally, one of the best ways to protect yourself is to get a little bit of education. The following resources are all well known and trusted within the industry:

Moz – One of the best of the best. Moz has one of the best libraries of SEO information out there, for beginners and veterans alike. They’ve been around for more than a decade and are the industry gold standard for information and education.

Search Engine Land – This site, published by Third Door Media, is another industry leader for all news SEO and search marketing. More than just SEO, Search Engine Land also reports on SEM, PPC, social media marketing, mobile search, local search, and much more.


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