Searching for an SEO agency should be easy, right? Just type “SEO agency” and your location into Google and hire whoever pops up first.

Not quite.

Unfortunately, at the top of the list you’re more likely to find agencies that prefer keyword stuffing and other questionable SEO tactics to healthy, customer-centric SEO strategies. These “black hat” SEO agencies rank well and will promise to do the same for you, but their tactics expose your business to significant risks.

The Risks of Black Hat SEO

Before we delve too deeply into how you should choose your SEO agency, let’s talk about why you don’t want to employ the fly-by-night SEO company. For starters, if and when the search engines catch you, you’re going to be in hot water. Your site will lose its ranking and may even be delisted completely. Ouch.

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The other reason to avoid black hat SEO agencies is customer experience. Unethical SEO practices write checks your website can’t cash. When you make a promise to a potential customer, only to break it when they land on the site and realize you don’t actually have the content they need, you’ve reduced the customer’s trust in your brand and created a negative experience. In this way, black hat SEO actually works against your company’s best interests.

How do you weed out the black hats and find a reputable SEO agency? There are a few things to look for, and a few things to look out for, too.

Questions You Should Ask About Every SEO Agency

What do customers say about them?

Ask business colleagues or your social network on LinkedIn for recommendations. If you’re interested in a particular agency, ask them if they share customer testimonials or case studies. Happy customers are excellent referral sources. You can also look to SEO company lists from trusted industry experts, like this one from Moz.

Be wary of “Top SEO” directory sites. Many of these are pay-to-play and will have the exact spamdexing offenders you’re trying to avoid.

What do they want to know about you?

Before they deploy a single SEO tactic, a good agency will want to know your objectives for search. Are you trying to drive awareness or sales, or both? Who are your customers? An SEO strategy, like any effective marketing strategy, balances business objectives with customer expectations.

If the agency says they have a “secret sauce” or “one size fits all” approach to SEO, keep looking.

What are they promising?

You want an SEO partner, not a magic solution. Search engine optimization strategy touches content, customer experience, owned, paid and earned media and even web design. It requires audits, customer research, discovery sessions and regular reporting. Give bonus points to agencies that promise conversation and partnership, not first-page results.

If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably black hat SEO. Search engine optimization is a process, not a product. If an agency boasts they can put you at the top of Google overnight, it’s a good bet they’re either scamming you or the search engines.

SEO is a complex and competitive tactic in modern digital marketing, and that trend will continue as search engines algorithms become more savvy and refined. If you’re looking to boost your rankings, improve your content and create a better customer experience, be sure to search for above-board agencies that know as much about ethics and customer trust as they do about PageRank.

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