I received my undergraduate degree from a small, liberal arts college in Siloam Springs, Arkansas where drinking, smoking and even dancing were forbidden. Those were the rules, and everyone knew what they were. You signed a paper when you enrolled acknowledging you knew these rules. But in truth, the rules were only enforced in the most egregious cases. If you were halfway smart, you wouldn’t get caught.

In my youthful arrogance, my parting words in my final column for the school paper read, “And finally, I never got caught.” Looking back, I didn’t get caught because I was smart – but simply because the rules were not enforced as strictly as we perceived them to be.

For the past several years, we’ve been living in an environment where Google was much like my undergraduate school. Sure, we all knew the rules. We knew that some people got caught and penalized or kicked out of the index.

google-penalty-squareI’ve been doing SEO since before Google was around, and I can honestly say that while I have actually seen real penalties – most of what was thought to be penalty was an over-reacting client that had poorly executed a bad strategy.

The rules were there,  but they just weren’t enforced uniformly. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that it is a huge job to truly enforce the rules. But, that’s another column.

The fact is, today Google is more aggressively enforcing its own rules. And, many SEOs are jumping on a disturbing bandwagon that enables them to channel their inner-Batman and justify vigilante justice in the name of making a better community. This, I believe, is misguided. That’s, again, a topic for another time. Yet, it is relevant to the topic at hand.

As we saw in the iAquire case, Google isn’t just penalizing sites that do bad things. Now, it’s penalizing the agencies and consultants it feels are responsible for promoting the behavior.

This sets a very dangerous stage for many SEOs, who, in the name of giving their client what they want, are putting all of their other clients and themselves at risk of Google’s wrath. It also opens up an entire realm of possibilities for unethical competition or even disgruntled employees and clients. At least until Google initiates a link disavowing tool – and if/when that happens, the entire game will change. But again, another column.

What’s An SEO Agency To Do?

So, the question is: How do you protect yourself? What do you do if a client is demanding that you purchase paid links, or they are going to hit the door?

The answer, as often is the case, is another question. Is it worth my company’s reputation to cave into my clients demands should the worst-case scenario happen?

Gone are the days when you could say, “Well, my client is too big to get penalized by Google for buying links.”

No one is immune anymore – I don’t care if you are working with the biggest player in the field, with more relevant content than anyone else. You can be affected. If you are building links in a “grey hat” way (and your clients don’t know about it) you are putting yourself, and maybe all your other clients, at risk. And, they need to know that.

Woah … now there’s a dilemma. If you buy paid links for a client that wants them, and not for another, are you putting all of your clients at risk? I don’t know. There is no precedent for that. But, with the vigilante justice going down, who’s to say that a rogue ex-employee won’t go all kindergarten on you and tattle-tale to Matt Cutts? Complete with a list of all clients. That should send shivers down your spine.

In the past, I’ve counseled clients against buying links except in certain verticals where it was almost impossible to get traction without doing so. But, I’ve also gone so far as to say, “If you do buy links, you must acknowledge the risks.” As in, a signed piece of paper created by a lawyer that says you know what can happen. I don’t want to get thrown under the bus as an agency when the client gets busted. Plus, it’s the right thing to do from a business ethics standpoint.

What about now? Thankfully for me, I haven’t bought any links in a long time. None of my clients are at risk or I wouldn’t be writing this column. To answer the question, there is no way to be completely safe except to be completely above board. That’s why we have invested so much in quality content writers and designers.

But, even as recently as three weeks ago, I was asked if we would buy links for a client. My answer was to refer the request somewhere else.

But that begs another quandry – if the client wants to buy links, without me knowing, am I putting my other clients at risk? That opens up a whole new can of worms. Do I need to perform link audits before taking new business meetings? Can I publicly work with a client to help them clean something up that I didn’t create, if Google might ban my agency from the SERPs? Or worse yet, ban my other clients because they work with me?

Just Say No To Risky Clients

In this day and age, you need to know who you are as an agency or consultant. And, your clients need to know as well. Are you willing to push the boundaries of the Google TOS? Maybe there is a need for agencies like that. Especially smaller agencies just getting started. That extra feather in your cap may help you win some business. And trust me, I know when you are just getting started it’s really hard to say no to a client, even if you are saying no in the client’s best interest.

For me, I can’t imagine telling my clients that they might be at risk because of the tactics used on another campaign. That won’t fly. So you won’t find me breaking the rules right now for any client. And luckily, I’m to the point where I can (and often do) say no to clients. It’s still unpleasant, but I’ve learned it’s a necessity.

Right now, SEO agencies and consultants could be on a slippery slope. I realize that some of the scenarios in this piece may seem a bit far fetched – but are they?

Until a few weeks ago, I never thought Google would penalize an agency for what they did on behalf of a client. I was wrong. Every day, I realize this is Google’s world. I just live in it.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO

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About The Author: is CEO and Founder of WrightIMC has spent his career helping businesses of all sizes be profitable on the Web. Wright is a search marketing geek and also has extensive experience in online crisis communication and brand reputation strategy. Wright has twice served as President of the Dallas/Ft. Worth Search Marketing Association, and is a sought after speaker at industry events, including SMX, Search Engine Strategies, Pubcon and others. Find him on Twitter @tonynwright.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.axzmdesign.com/ Austin Marketing

    Great post Tony, thanks for sharing this!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tory77 Tory Smith

    Good stuff Tony.  I agree that nowadays SEO agencies must do their homework before taking on new clients (e.g. JC Penny).  I’m sure there are former gray/black hat clients who are “born again” and now want to walk the straight and narrow, and expect a new agency to wipe away sins from the past (apologies for all the religious analogies!) – but doing so comes with risk. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/MarkWelchMktg Mark Welch

    I wish I could believe in karma, but frankly I’ve been doing online marketing for 15 years and every year the pool of competitors seems to get dirtier and dirtier, making it impossible for me to compete. 

    My refusal to send buy links (or send UCE/spam, etc.)  – nor to work for people who do so — has cost me thousands of prospective clients over the past 15 years. 

    I might feel slightly vindicated if Google “paid me back” by punishing some of those competing consultants and agencies, but they’ll never punish the majority of offenders who are “careful,” so Google’s responses are “too little, too late” for my business.

    And I really don’t blame the clients; it’s hard for them to understand the issues and figure out who to trust, and the unethical folks usually have nice presentations and answers to every question.

    And honestly most of the folks working for the agencies engaging in this behavior (buying links, etc.) honestly believe that it’s necessary to stay in business. They don’t believe that it’s ethical, but they believe that it’s necessary (since “everybody else is doing it,” or just because there’s a payroll or mortgage to pay) and they often work hard to avoid getting caught, and many of them don’t get caught (though most of the schemes they use rely on activities which Google later devalues).

  • http://www.geekpoweredstudios.com Guillermo Ortiz

    You are 100% correct about living in Google’s world. I feel very bad for business owners that I meet with as they are just incredibly overwhelmed by SEO in general. SEO’s taking up the mantle are entering a brave new world for sure. Great post.

  • webprotech

    Thanks for expressing your views so clearly. 

    It is very important to be very emphatic about your company’s SEO practices , policies and their execution. Many clients after reading a few articles on SEO blogs think that they know SEO inside out and they start interfering in the execution of the SEO campaign and sometimes make it an ego issue if you do not listen to them.

    Its not only about links there can be many issues which can lead to the SEO company to be under scrutiny for no fault of theirs. For example, if the client after reading a few blogs and forums starts making changes in the alt text, titles etc.on his own especially if he has a little knowledge of HTML too. I am always doubtful of such clients as half knowledge can be very dangerous.

    Hence we make the client sign a contract wherein he agrees that they will not make on-page changes and updations without mutual agreement.

    The reputation of the SEO industry is at stake  because of two main reasons:False promises by people who want to make a fast buck by calling them SEOs
    Very high expectations of website ownersIf you see both are inter-connected if SEOs give realistic perspective about the whole SEO process then the expectations of the website owners would also be realistic. On the other hand if the website owners do not have false notions about the SEO results and they do not put pressure for quick results then the  SEOs can work with their creative freedom.
    Being a solopreneur I have many times refused taking up projects if the client’s attitude was found doubtful or if I thought that they had any unrealistic expectations. I remember I was asked in one of my interviews as to why do  we pick and choose clients that we work with?  

    This post give an apt reply. 
     

  • cory josue

    Hi Tony!

    Thanks for the insight. As a junior SEO writer for a small SEO company (www.digitalmoz.com), we are more focused on getting profits to keep the business afloat. We want to have as many clients as possible. We sometimes overlook the background of our clients because in our minds, more clients=more money. This article is different from other articles I’ve read about SEO. Most of the articles I’ve read is about the updates, link building, etc. and never an angle like this. This is like another side of the coin and as newbie in the field, its nice to know that sometimes, its better be outside looking in.

  • http://twitter.com/mediaburst Gary Bury

    Re this: “So, the question is: How do you protect yourself? What do you do if a client is demanding that you purchase paid links, or they are going to hit the door?”
    My experience as a client of 3 different highly regarded agencies was they it was the agency encouraging the purchase of paid links.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I am right there with you Tony! When I first started out in the SEO industry I had to take every client that came along, no matter how small or terrible of a client they were, just so I could make it to the next day. But there comes a day when you don’t have to take those projects on anymore, and I’m not willing to risk what I’ve built up over the years for one client that wants me to walk a risky path. No matter how much that one client is paying you, I’ve yet to find one that is really worth it.

  • http://twitter.com/cryptblade cryptblade

    I’ve sold SEO services, worked for agencies “boutique” and large, and work in-house.

    The agency world, the client-services world, is sycophantic and fleeting. You must chase after clients, often who do NOT know what they want or need or even worse, think they know more than you. Not only that, you constantly need to add clients to the pipeline just to make ends meet, and you chase after diminishing margins.

    Having seen all spectrum of the SEO world, I hold many SEO agencies in low regard. The nature of the business and the people in the business, tells me many SEOs deserve this retribution from Google.

    Look at the nature of the business: Revenue and diminishing margins.

    Most search agencies like having SEO because it’s almost all pure profit. You don’t have to make any media buys and pay other vendors. It also makes more sense for agencies to deal with advertising placement/bidding than SEO because it’s perpetual income. You can prove your worth with quantifiable numbers and ask for more budget progressively to justify getting paid more.

    SEO is different – if you do things right, it should keep growing. There should be no more one-time charges. The only thing left is “maintenance” which you can’t charge a premium for because the amount of work is far less during maintenance than the initial stage.

    The alternative is to keep proposing new SEO initiatives. But that’s kind of like your car dealer, selling you a $20K car 1 year ago and now saying, “now that you’ve enjoyed your new car, how about picking up one for the mrs. and the teens?” 

    After a while, it’s no longer a honeymoon and is a chore. Result: diminishing margins (and a divorce)

    Another factor in diminishing margins is the nature of the business: staffing, client-service, implementation.

    Large SEO agencies – the type owned by agency holding companies and work with big name companies – usually don’t implement SEO recommendations. Large agencies provide SEO recommendations and then work with their clients’ own website vendors or internal teams. It becomes a game of chasing down stakeholders, etc. Result: no or little implementation, lack of results, diminishing returns, agency gets fired.

    Small agencies usually work with small businesses and can have more leverage to get into the website and make changes. But only if the small agency has tech people. There are many SEO agencies full of sales people and “consultants” who have never even touched HTML. They outsource anything tech to 3rd parties. Again, diminishing margins and returns. 

    But here is also the danger – if the small agency doesn’t have the right talent in place to do the implementations or to guide the 3rd parties to implement properly, then they are responsible.

    And – they most definitely should be held liable.

    Most SEO agencies out there DON’T do it right. I can name several “SEO” companies on TopSEOs that are full of crap. They are full of SEO idiots who treat SEO services like a feature rather than a service.

    Many SEOs are nothing but sales people who read Search Engine Land, SEW, SEOMoz, and then talk talk talk. They’ve never implemented any of the things they talk about. I know people from some agencies who talk about things like Mobile SEO for instance, and have NOT implemented any of the best practices or even had good quantifiable case to prove their points – yet they are “experts” in the matter.

    Many other SEOs are basically tech people. Tech people are problem-solvers. They like a routine a set way to do things. That is a good thing, but the problem is when they get out of their lane and start dwelling in marketing and business – where their mindset is completely off base.

    The SEO agency world is a broken business and full of people who saw SEO as a goldmine. The TRUE SEOs are the hybrid marketers-tech minds who love marketing and technology. They service clients knowing what they would want if they were the client. They learn the game from Google and learn to be ahead of that, learn to be strategic for their clients, and learn to be the kind of geeks that Google likes.

    Anyone that doesn’t fall in that deserves to be swallowed up by Google’s tightening snares.

    I say the SEOs crying over this are the ones who are guilty of faulty SEO in the first place.

    Disclose yourselves or risk the wrath.

  • http://twitter.com/tonynwright Tony N. Wright

    Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/tonynwright Tony N. Wright

    I am waiting for the Penguin Messiah to come and wash away everyone’s link buying sins.

  • http://twitter.com/tonynwright Tony N. Wright

    Regarding  your last paragraph – I agree that’s how it has always been, but I suspect that is changing pretty rapidly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=585190197 Kelly Watt

    Tony, thanks for the great post. I agree we need to be more diligent with our customers and its scary how we can be held accountable now. cryptblade, a rather honest look at the SEO industry. I agree, there are so many agencies offering the world and delivering nothing.

    For those SEO who are complaining, if you have been doing black hat, its really on you. For clients and consumers, there should be an independent industry standard in place so clients know who to tern too. Cryptblade, I agree sites like TOPSEO do not help the industry and primary interest is advertising dollars.

    The problem for SEO and business is the same – there is no real independent governing body to determine quality outside of the search engines. Compared to other industries this is strange.

    You would not go to a dentist who hasn’t went to school to acquire a dental degree and you still check Rate My Doctor before you call them. Likewise, an inexperienced SEO often has your business life support in their hands. This is a scary proposition for many business owners and interesting how the risk is now been placed back on the SEO Agency.

  • http://twitter.com/tonynwright Tony N. Wright

    I really recommend you go and watch Rhea Drysdale on SEOmoz’s Whiteboard Friday today. http://www.seomoz.org/blog/the-difference-between-vendors-and-consultants-whiteboard-friday

    I haven’t seen our firm as an SEO agency for a long time. We inform our client’s business decisions. We have helped create pricing strategies, product enhancements, hiring decisions and so much more. We view our clients as partners and we consistently overreach the narrow scope of our duties as defined by procurement. And last year we retained 97% of our clients.  

    We live by our philosophy that Results Give Knowledge. Every strategy or campaign we do, regardless of it’s success, educates on what we should do next. If a client tries to pigeon hole us into a specific set of tactics, they usually aren’t a good fit. We definitely view the world through an SEO lens, but what many define as SEO is a small percentage of what we actually do. Most of the agencies that I see succeeding are of a similar mindset.

  • http://twitter.com/tonynwright Tony N. Wright

    The need for self-governance and accountability in the SEO world has never been greater. The problem is that no one can agree who or what should do that. Right now, it’s being done by Google. And in my mind, they are the last folks that should be policing the SEO industry.

  • VasquezNadine

    my buddy’s step-mother makes $62 hourly on the internet. She has been out of a job for 6 months but last month her check was $20978 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more here 

    ⇛⇛⇛⇛► (Click On My Name For Link)

  • http://www.irishwonder.com IrishWonder

    Paid links are just one part of the issue with violating Google’s policies. Remember the bit about checking your rankings using automated tools? – how many of you check your/your clients’ rankings manually? And that is just one little example people usually don’t consider. If Google gets to the point of punishing for EVERY violation of its webmaster guidelines, they will find something to punish each and every one of us just because SEO is about manipulating search results, whether or not you want to acknoledge it and whatever fancy words you come up with to describe your activities. Your clients pay you for getting the traffic, in the SEO perspective of things traffic = rankings. I personally have hardly ever dealt with paid links, but therr are industries whee many claim it is impossible to rank without them (though that is something I could argue, and have managed to prove on a couple of occasions the opposite). However, if somebody thinks paid links work best for them I have no problem with it, and as long as the client knows what you’re doing and the risks involved it’s between the client and the agency/service provider. It’s not really about paid links, however, it’s about smart setup and being professional. iAcquire was a really bad example as, doing what they were doing, they made a bit too many mistakes, and their setup was amateurish. If I had to set up an operation like that I’d make damn sure that no blogger or anybody else could dig anything up – it can be done.

    As for exposing your agency and other clients to extra risks because of one client, or even more so running the ridk just because of trying to fix what was previously done, I think that’s a bit of an overestimate and we’re entering the panic mode here. Again, if you’re afraid of unwanted exposure it is possible to set things up in a manner that reduces the risks.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com/ George Michie

    Great piece, Tony.  Philosophical alignment between clients and their agency is hugely important.  The only bit I’d add to this is the notion that a client isn’t a company, it’s the individuals you work with in that company.  Often turnover at the client’s place can radically change the degree of alignment and cause consternation.

  • http://lazycash1.com/ Makemoneyonline.com

    my friend’s mother-in-law makes $85 every hour on the computer. She has been out of a job for 6 months but last month her paycheck was $19177 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more her

    ⇛⇛⇛⇛► (Click Over My Name For Link)

  • http://twitter.com/IMSpot1 IMSpot

    Thank you this is wonderful article. Appreciate

  • http://www.facebook.com/jwhere John Kent Williams

    All
    links are paid for in one way or another. The only non-paid links are perhaps
    links on social blogs. Google should simply toss links out as a measure of a
    sites veracity.

  • http://twitter.com/Intellectsolve Intellectsolve

    I think before start any seo work every seo agency should investigate couple of parameters, so that will really help them to understand the current position of client’s site as well as their requirement to make it clear it is meet the google guideline.

 

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