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“You are now in stage 4 of our linkbuilding program,” our SEO consultant proudly emailed us.

“Great, what does that mean?” I replied.

“We can’t tell you, I am afraid, it’s a trade secret,” the reply came back. ‘But it’s good!”

That’s about all our SEO company ever did tell us in four months ‘work’. They also sent us one piece of text to put on our front page which looked like it had been written by a foreign language student who had just failed his beginners exam in English (but who was, according to the firm, a UK English language graduate) .

When we asked us, the end of the four months, what else the company had done, we were told that the company’s writers would have added articles to our site but hadn’t had time.

Meanwhile, our ranking was two places lower than when we had started with the company.

We have now fired the company, but unfortunately they are still taking hundreds of pounds a month out of our account – due, I believe, to gross incompetence rather than a deliberate attempt to defraud us.

Why and how we outsourced

I had previously handled all the SEO myself, conducting interviews and commissioning/reviewing research that attracted natural links, but as our company got busier and demands on our time increased, I wanted to reduce the workload without taking on extra staff.

Rather than sending our work to a cheap agency abroad, we deliberately looked for a company based in the UK using UK staff.

The company I found was ranked very high for its keywords, and as the sales person smoothly pointed out:

“The fact we can rank number one for the keywords xxx and xxx. shows that we know what we are doing.”

The sales person pointed us to a very impressive list of reviews, and we contacted one of the reviewers who confirmed her review was genuine.

Lessons to be learned

1. While the reviews we were pointed to were off-site I now suspect customers had been encouraged by company to leave the reviews on that specific review site.

Tip: If a company points you towards a specific review page, make sure you do a general web search for other reviews.

2. I spoke to one of the people who had left a review. She said they were quite good but expensive. She also focused on their design work, not on their SEO.

Tip: Make sure you contact several people, not just one. Also bear in mind the principle of consistency – when people have committed themselves to saying something positive about a company or service, they are often reluctant to contradict themselves – even if, in reality, they have reservations.

3. I should have spoken to the company in more depth about their SEO methods.

Tip: Don’t accept a company telling you their methods are “trade secrets.” An SEO company has the ability to destroy your business. Knowing how your SEO is going to work for you should be a condition of doing business with them.

4. The best SEO companies are actively out there promoting their business by writing about how they work. After reading the link spiel I have a very clear of how Debra Mastaler works. While the most visible SEOs are going to cost a lot more, you should be in safe and competent hands.

Tip: If you can afford to, hire SEOs whose writing you admire and respect.

5. We really, really should have spent some time analysing websites the company said they had worked on.

Tip: If you have any SEO knowledge, analyse a couple of sites the SEO company have been working on for a long time. Look for evidence of quality links, preferably built through quality content creation – and watch out for evidence of thousands of spam links.

It could have been worse…

In fact it could have been much worse. The service didn’t do us much good but it didn’t do us much harm either. From replies which came by accident to us, it seems that the company’s primary method of link-building was requesting links by email from topic-related sites.

From looking at competitors’ sites in our niche, it’s seems that many outsourced SEO companies are placing a ton of links on spam blogs. I’ve seen this time and time again, and it does seem to work – in the short term at least.

However, I have also seen those sites disappear from the front page. One of our main competitors whose SEO tactics included stealing our content and putting links on hundreds of one page blogs temporarily ranked above us – but now languishes on page 7.

So, if you are thinking of outsourcing your SEO business, be careful. You may imagine dominating the lofty heights of the SERPS, but you might just be condemned to the very deepest depth of SERPS hell.

James Dunworth is the IT and marketing director of ECigaretteDirect, the UK retailer of the electronic cigarette.

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