Practical Ecommerce

SEO Professionals Can Harm an Ecommerce Business

Like Bon Jovi’s song, “You Give Love a Bad Name,” some search engine optimization companies give that profession a bad reputation. Practical eCommerce recently fielded a question from a reader wondering why his site was being penalized for work his SEO company had done on his behalf. It doesn’t seem fair, he complained. He’s right, it doesn’t seem fair when you’ve trusted a company to improve your site’s organic search performance and instead the company makes it worse. Shouldn’t the SEO company be punished instead of the hapless site owner? It just doesn’t work that way, whether it seems fair or not.

Anyone can call himself or herself an SEO professional, just like anyone can call himself or herself a web designer, a landscaper, a chef or any number of other professions. Skill and knowledge levels vary greatly in any industry, as does the professionals’ interest in providing a fair service for a fair price.

Is the company ethical, does it strive to provide the best service possible for every client, or is it just out to make a quick buck? For ecommerce merchants looking to retain an SEO professional, here’s how to tell the difference.

Demonstrated Results for Real Clients

The best way to tell an accomplished SEO from some guy in his mom’s basement is to ask for real examples of SEO success with real clients. No true professional is going to reveal his client’s private data; that would be a breach of confidence and likely a violation of a nondisclosure agreement. But there are ways of communicating success without divulging specific traffic or financial information. This could include the following accomplishments.

  • “Created a program to increase backlinks to a critical page by 300 percent in one week’s time, resulting in a 20 percent increase in organic search traffic over one month.”
  • “Increased organic search visits to the client’s most profitable category page by 53 percent over six months.”
  • “Improved organic search conversion rate on product pages from 2.3 percent to 4.5 percent.”

Conversely, some examples might sound impressive but could be low-quality tactics in disguise. Here are potential samples.

  • “Built 500 links to the client’s site.”
  • “Increased top 3 rankings by 400 percent.”
  • “Optimized meta keywords across the entire site.”

The difference between these two sets of examples is that the first set demonstrates measurable impact to the client’s bottom line. SEO professionals, after all, are supposed to sell product, not feel happy about hours spent on the project.

The second set of examples, by contrast, speaks to numbers but not numbers that matter. The agency built 500 links? But from where and to where? Are we talking comment spam and SEO directories? Were the links from relevant sites that have any link popularity to pass on to the sites they link to? And that’s just the first example. Ask the agency to tie their actions back to traffic, orders and revenue increases. If it can’t or won’t for even a single client, I’d be reluctant to hire them.

Industry Reputation

Search marketing is a relatively small and well-networked industry. Ask around to see if your peers who know SEO have heard of the agency you’re considering, or the person who will be working on your account. Search on Google for the agency and your primary contact there. Ask questions on your social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. Chances are someone will have heard something about the agency in question, or can perhaps point you to someone who has.

Another telltale sign of positive standing in the industry is whether anyone from the company has been published in an industry publication online or in print. If the agency has its own company blog, that’s a good sign as well, but it doesn’t count as being published in an industry publication. Read the recent blog posts. Are they well written, understandable, consistent with what you know to be industry standards? If you can’t locate articles or blog posts from the personnel at the agency, ask which publications or other sources they read to stay current on SEO industry trends — and then check those publications out. If they don’t reference, at the very least, Search Engine Land, SEOmoz, or Google’s Webmaster Central Blog, then it’s possible they’re not as familiar with current SEO standards and the state of the industry as they claim.


Many think that because organic search is “free” traffic that SEO shouldn’t cost much. But like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Seasoned SEO professionals command larger salaries. In order to pay those salaries, agencies need to charge higher rates. Lower agency rates mean that the staff is most likely inexperienced and more likely to recommend or perform tactics that are questionable or outdated. This isn’t 100 percent true; I was mortified to discover that a new client had paid its last SEO consultant $10,000 for a two-page Word document of rough recommendations. And I have heard of clients that were lucky enough to discover a great SEO professional who was just starting, and who charged very little comparatively. However, by and large, price, experience and quality of recommendations go hand in hand.

When discussing pricing, request a sample or description of the deliverables that you’ll be paying for. Does the firm plan to merely offer suggestions by phone or to deliver, say, an 80-page PowerPoint audit containing data, analysis, recommendations and priorities? Will the firm present it in person, over the phone, or just by email? Is it a one-time project or an ongoing relationship to work with you through the inevitable challenges that come up during implementation? Be sure to get this information in writing.

Manage Your SEO Agency

After you choose an agency, no matter how comfortable you feel with them, you must manage their actions. After all, your site’s organic search performance and sales are on the line. Make sure you follow the agency’s recommendations and ask its staff to explain until you’re sure you understand not just what is proposed but why. If the SEO agency will be acting on your company’s behalf — reaching out to bloggers, building links, creating or optimizing content — check its plans before it gets started and check its work afterwards. It’s not that you don’t trust the agency. It’s that the stakes are too high to let go of the reins.

Watch your organic search traffic and revenue trends in your web analytics tools for signs that the SEO program is having a positive or negative effect. Talk about the data with your agency and ask questions about what it means and what actions need to be taken based on the data.


In the end, hiring an agency and managing its performance is very subjective, despite the presence of objective data and SEO best practices. Listen to your instincts, and if that fails consult with Google Webmaster Central forums or friends who know more about SEO than you do and ask their advice about the tactics your agency is recommending or the answers it gives to your questions. It’s better to nip a bad agency decision in the bud quickly than to ride it out and see if it improves. By that time, the damage could be done and you’ll be left holding the bill and the broom to clean it up.

Jill Kocher Brown

Jill Kocher Brown

Bio   •   RSS Feed


Sign up for our email newsletter

  1. Cindy522 May 4, 2012 Reply

    It is amazing what a poor grasp of SEO some of the people/firms have. I’m sure we are all getting emails and phone calls stating "Your site is not on the first 2 pages for –"girls nightgowns"–, when that phrase is not something any of our pages are actually about.

  2. Louis Camassa May 4, 2012 Reply

    I would only hire "SEO Professionals" that are performance based. The basis should be tied to your top line goals (increase sales, leads, etc…), not ranking, since search engine ranking changes per computer, location, browser, account history, etc…

    If you can find a "SEO Professional" who offers this kind of program, you’ll usually be in safe hands, as your success is their success, literally!

  3. Andrew Youderian May 4, 2012 Reply

    Good post on an important topic! You have the be REALLY careful when outsourcing your SEO work. We made the mistake a few years ago of hiring a SEO firm to promote a newly launched e-Commerce site, and weren’t as pro-active as we should have been about how they were building links. Fast forward to the recent Google Penguin update. Due to some questionable practices and over-optimization, our rankings for this site took a serious hit, losing about 70% of organic traffic.

    Bottom line: Make sure you hire reputable SEOs with a good long-term track record. Even then, be sure you’re looking under-the-hood to make sure they’re doing work that won’t come back to haunt you in the future.

  4. Luis Hernandez Jr May 8, 2012 Reply

    Maybe the time has come for a professional association that will provide ranking and/or certification of SEO competency and authority.

  5. Christopher Rose May 8, 2012 Reply

    Whilst agreeing with this article and the comments in general, there are notable exceptions to these "rules".

    Whilst the goal of SEO, like any marketing, is to drive increased business to a client site, I don’t agree that it is necessarily appropriate or useful to look at just "traffic, orders and revenue increases", great though they are.

    In reality, all an SEO can do is improve the rankings for the keyword terms being targeted, which SHOULD result in more "traffic, orders and revenue increases" but that is not necessarily the case nor actually within the control of the SEO team.

    Lower rates don’t mean that an agency is less experienced at all. In my experience all the large SEO companies are charging grotesquely inflated prices for their services. Charging less and delivering a more focussed service from a less bloated agency structure for a lower price is simply the nature of a competitive business.

    It can be much easier and more convenient for many a business to pay flat monthly fees as that makes it much easier to plan for cash flow management.

    I find a key metric when looking at any service provider is are they being open and responsive to my questions or baffling me with jargon? Does the company educate and inform me or try to keep me at a distance? Am I dealing with the people who will actually do the work?

    Some time ago I had the misfortune to work with an agency that prides itself on offering "pay on results" SEO; unfortunately, they were gaming the system and essentially stealing from their own clients, including driving one to bankruptcy.

    It is obviously important to keep up to date and I like to think I and my team do, but looking at networking can also be quite misleading. Not all of us play the networking game because we are actually quite busy doing the work.
    Personally I don’t have the time or see the point in trying to write articles that can be better delivered by the professional writers at sites such as SEL, SEW and others. I prefer to spend my time keeping up to date on what these industry watchers are writing.

    I sympathise with those who have seen their sites hit by changes in Google’s algorithm updates but it is not always the case that such hits are inevitably caused by poor SEO practices.

    The recent updates have caused what appear to be hopefully temporary changes in traffic volumes even on sites that have never done SEO, so it doesn’t follow that any drops in traffic are the result of poor SEO.

    It is also important to keep in mind that ultimately any site that is focussing on the needs of the search engines rather than their target audience is making a fundamental error that can only work against them. A laser sharp focus on responsively meeting customer needs is always going to be the best SEO.

  6. David Pavlicko May 8, 2012 Reply

    I agree with Louis, to an extent. Anyone performing SEO for your site needs to have a deep understanding of your business and your goals before they begin doing any work. Simply optimizing your page titles, adding keywords to your content and generating a large number of backlinks just won’t cut it anymore.

    However, you’ll be hard pressed to find many SEO companies that will work solely on a ‘performance based’ agreement. Should you expect them to increase the # of leads / sales you get? Absolutely. Are you willing to setup call tracking and sharing your call logs and revenue statements with the SEO so they can make sure you’re not holding anything back?

    This post does make an excellent point – stay on top of whatever SEO agency you use. Hold them accountable and ask for proof of their work – this shouldn’t be an issue with any reputable company.

    Conversely, if you enter into an agreement with an SEO stating that you’ll be responsible for things like providing updated content or providing access to the web host so they can rewrite urls, etc. , make sure you do it in a timely manner when asked.

    If it sounds too good to be true, it certainly is. Always get referrals, and never, ever, ever – respond to an email solicitation. No reputable SEO would ever send out a generic email like Cindy mentioned.

  7. David Burdon May 29, 2012 Reply

    There’s variability in search engine optimisation as in every other business activity. Sometimes the shortfall in performance may be dua to the SEO agency on other occasions it may well be becuase the clients website or marketing strategy has problems that cannot be overcome from the SEO angle.