Episode 96: Avoiding SEO scams

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What's in this episode?

In this episode, you will hear Mark Williams-Cook reviewing an SEO audit and call he received suggesting that needed toxic link removal and should host hidden content to link to other websites.

This episode is intended to show that these low-quality SEO scams are persistent in the industry and businesses should be careful in vetting both the companies and data agencies are providing.

Show notes

Sitebulb's Structured Data Change History Timeline


MC: Welcome to episode 96 of the Search With Candour podcast recorded on Friday the 29th of January 2021. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and, today, I'm going to have an episode for you that's about SEO scams. That means those cold approaches you get from SEO freelancers or agencies that might not be what they seem. I had one of these this week, someone very persistent wanted to talk to me about the SEO of AlsoAsked. In this episode you'll hear some excerpts from an actual Zoom call I had with them and we'll do a little bit of dissection about what they were telling me that I need to do to get the site to rank.

Before we get into that before we kick off this episode of Search With Candour, I want to tell you that it's kindly sponsored by our friends at Sitebulb. If you haven't heard of Sitebulb, it is a truly excellent piece of auditing software for your SEO. It's available on Windows and Mac; they have a special offer for Search With Candour listeners, if you go to, you can get a 60-day free trial, no credit card required, so there's absolutely no excuse not to give it a go.

Sitebulb's got loads of great things about it. One of my favourite things is, in my opinion, it's the best tool, at the moment, on the market, for looking at your structured data of your site. You can do a full crawl of your website, get a breakdown of where your structured data is, what's broken, what's not, and the other thing I've mentioned sitebob a lot for is, it's a really great tool and they're really great in terms of their website, as well, for providing information and context about the issues they're highlighting. I was on the 20 Minute Marketing podcast this week and we actually were talking about Sitebulb as a tool for people new in SEO, for this reason. Something they've just launched now on their website, which is absolutely brilliant, is this structured data change history timeline. For them to be able to build a tool that looks at your structured data, they need to be right bang up to date with all of the changes and additions Google is making to structured data. They've put this brilliant timeline on their website, I'll put a link in the show notes at Now you can go sign up and you can get alerts from Sitebulb when the structured data changes. When there's an update, maybe there's a new type of structured data that's being supported by Google, or requirements are changing, which does happen, you can get an alert, which is absolutely fantastic. Check them out, they’re at /swc.

Before we kick off, I think I just want to give a little bit of background to this episode. This episode actually wasn't planned, I didn't go out there and try and find SEO scammers or anything like that. What brought this about, was earlier on this week, I had a cold email from an SEO agency that said they had completed an audit of, and there were really interesting and important SEO issues that I need to tackle if I wanted to rank the site. Now, of course, I've worked in SEO a long time, I run an SEO agency so it is highly unlikely this is going to be of interest to me. I replied to their email, and I replied to their email from my @withcandour address, so you can see that I'm from an agency that does SEO. The signature in the email I replied to them with has my job title - Digital Marketing Director - and I just very clearly told them I'm not interested in the audit, and I can guarantee them it's not going to have anything of interest in there for me.

Sometimes with these emails I like to just shut them down nice and quickly, you've probably all had them, when you ignore them or you mark them as spam, you still get those follow-ups of “oh, hey, I don't know if you've got time to read my email”, so sometimes I just reply and say I'm not interested. Now, their response to this was to just send me the audit, and then try and push me into booking a time with them to discuss the audit. I had a look at the audit and, as you can imagine, it wasn't great, in my opinion. I thought okay, well actually, I've got half an hour free on Friday morning, so I'll take the call and I'll let them talk me through what's in the audit, because there was a lot of things in there that I could quite clearly see were a waste of time. I just wanted to ask them some questions about it, I didn't want to argue with them about what's worth doing or not, I just wanted to hear what their explanation of, as to why I should be doing these things. Again, when you listen to this call, you'll see I haven't, at any point, lied about who I am, I haven't tried to correct them, and I haven't feigned that I don't know something. All I've done is just ask them questions about the report they've given me and some of the answers you'll hear, to be honest, are quite shocking.

The reason I'm doing this episode, and this is something I've always done so, for those that are local to the East Anglia-Norwich area, you might know, before Covid, we had the SearchNorwich event that I organise, and the reason we ran this event was, I wanted especially smaller businesses who couldn't maybe afford to just engage with a normal SEO agency, I wanted to provide them with an environment where they could learn the basics of SEO without this sales pressure of someone trying to sell them something and convince them that there's something wrong. I thought it will make, especially locally, the industry healthier if we can give these businesses some education, because then they will make smarter decisions and we're not doing this from a business point of view because my view is, if businesses make better decisions about who they hire, they're more likely to hire a respectable agency, which I'd like to think that we are. So there's a few reasons for doing this and, of course, it's always great just to meet new SEO people and have these conversations.

This is the reason why I wanted to highlight this call in this episode, because it maybe will show you the kind of questions you need to ask, and I can give you some context as to the type of answers you'll likely get, and where they might be leading you astray. We'll dive right in; the call I had was 30 minutes, I've clipped out a lot of that just because a lot of it, to be honest, was just boring fluff. The other thing I want to make clear is, I'm not gonna out who this person was, I'm not gonna out who the company is, because I don't think it's worth it. The key thing I want people to take away from this is, you need to have your guard up with these kinds of approaches. It serves no purpose outing who they are, because there will always be another person trying to do this. Let's listen to the call.

SP: Great, what we'll do is, we'll go through I'll open the floor up to you and and you can ask any questions about about the report, we can go through that and what I'll do is, I'll explain how we work, how we can help you and then, at the end of it, you can decide what you want to do and we'll take it from there. Does that sound fair enough?

MC: Sure, yeah, sounds fair.

SP: Awesome. I've got your report up here. Tell me, what are your main questions and concerns and we'll work through them bit by bit.

MC: Well the summary says, I don't know who wrote this report, it says “in my opinion, the biggest issue with is its Domain Authority score of DA0. This essentially means you have no authority and will not have much luck ranking for competitive keywords.” Is this Domain Authority something Google uses to rank websites?

SP: That's right, yes.

MC: We're not off to a best start here already. Here's the definition of Domain Authority by Moz, who are the people that made it. “Domain Authority is a search engine ranking score developed by Moz that predicts how likely a website is to rank on search engine result pages (SERPs). A Domain Authority score ranges from 1 to 100 with higher scores corresponding to a greater ability to rank. Domain Authority is calculated by evaluating multiple factors, including linking route domains and the number of total links into a single DA score. This score can be used when comparing websites or tracking the ‘ranking strength’ of a website over time. Domain Authority…” and this is in bold “ not a metric used by Google in determining search rankings and has no effect on the search engine result pages.”

Most SEOs will know that Domain Authority is helpful as a metric, when you're doing SEO campaigns, but it's certainly not used by Google. Maybe though, he's just simplifying it and he's got a clear explanation now of what DA is for us.

SP: The easiest way to explain it, Domain Authority describes its relevance, okay, for a specific subject area or particular industry. It's basically, this relevance has a direct impact on its ranking by the search engines.

MC: The simplest way to explain it probably would have just been to read the definition from Moz, but we're not nitpicking here because he's reaffirmed this fact that DA is something that directly impacts Google. It’s absolutely not, and that's an important distinction, because this is what the sell is being made on, or at least part of it, that we have this DA0. Here's where we really go off-piece though, and kind of get lost in the definition.

SP: Trying to actually assess the Domain Authority through various automated analysis, different analytical algorithms.

MC: I think he got a little bit lost here, which is fine, but now he goes back into the pitch about what he can do to help us fix this problem of low Domain Authority.

SP: Much of what we do is directed at building up the authority with Google, and it's just to show that this particular site, your site, is an authority in their field. Usually it's when you have a website that's fairly new; how long has your website been running now?

MC: Since November 2019.

SP: Right. Have you put much, because I was looking at your website, but have you done much in terms of producing content, social media, that type of thing, or has it been sat around? Just so I've got a bit of a background with it.

MC: Well there's no content on the site, it's just a tool.

SP: I don't mean just on-site but any other social media, I didn't know whether you actively promoted it, that’s what I'm saying.

MC: I've put about it on Twitter quite a lot.

SP: Okay, so I think that's what's going on, is that it's, usually, when you've got either a brand new site, or a site that has been left predominantly to its own devices, so if you don't have any content, if you aren't actively creating content for a blog, creating various what we call backlinks through social media, linking to other sites, that's what leads it to have a very low authority score.

MC: I actually thought we were getting somewhere here, because we did start talking about things like content and, yeah, it's completely fair enough point that we need to be producing content and pages if we want them to rank. Again, we've gone to really shaky ground when we start talking about Domain Authority and ranking being influenced by us linking to other websites or getting links from social media. It doesn't really work like that but fully understand this probably isn't maybe a technical person we're speaking to, so we can forgive that. But it does get better…

SP: I don't know, I'm just looking at the report.

MC: Yeah that sort of confused me because then, later in the report, it said, you mentioned backlinks there, that I have 8,000 backlinks.

SP: Wow. Did you ever pay at any point? Did you pay for the mass backlinks?

MC: No.

SP: That's interesting.

MC: I just really love here that he sounds so confused that a site might be able to get 8,000 backlinks without paying for them.

SP: Because, in that case, it means that those backlinks are what we call toxic.

MC: It doesn't.

SP: It's got a toxicity report on it and what, in layman's terms, what that means is, the sites that you're linked with are not trustworthy, so they've either got issues on their back end or they're not being updated.

MC: Again we've really strayed quite far from the truth here. Now he's telling me that sites that are toxic are toxic because of things like they haven't been updating their content, which is obviously complete rubbish. I've cut a little bit out here now because he goes on about this quite a lot. I thought I'd ask him, because we've got some great links to AlsoAsked from people like Yoast, Ahrefs, SEMrush, Search Engine Land, so I thought I'd see if he's heard of these sites and see why there might be this toxic linking problem.

SP: Technically, the Domain Authority score, it can go from anywhere from zero up to a hundred but, ideally, we're aiming to be somewhere in the DA30 to 50. Any anything above 50 is very good, so I don't think you've got to be up 90 or 100, it's getting above 50 in itself, is very difficult to achieve but, at that point, it means that Google will then start to rank the keywords that you want to rank for basically.

MC: What confused me there, have you heard of Yoast?

SP: Um, yeah.

MC: And have you heard of Ahrefs and SEMrush and Moz? All of them link to us. Are they all toxic?

SP: No, I mean those are obviously well-known sites, so those, it's very unlikely that the toxicity will be coming from those links. However, it could be coming from the seven odd thousand other links.

MC: I haven't actually done any link building for AlsoAsked. I've been really lucky because certain people in the industry have seen it, shared it, it's been mentioned in talks. I'm quite aware of the backlink profile, I think it's pretty good, there's certainly nothing in there that I would worry about, or worry about toxicity. So this whole case that we've been talking about, to be honest, is just complete air, there's no toxic link problem to fix, it doesn't matter that the site is DA0. Interestingly, in their report, they give me the Ahrefs metrics that say that the domain rating is really good but, for some reason, he's chosen to focus on this DA0 from Moz, which is obviously just out of date. We'll leave that section there, because there's some other interesting things that they bring up in their audit that I think are worth listening to.

MC: I think I understand that so, basically, the Domain Authority zero stops me ranking, the links I've got at the moment aren't good enough, so I need to look at that.

SP: Yeah.

MC: Okay and yeah, just the other things, so it says a low text to HTML ratio in the report is one of the main things. What should that be, that ratio?

SP: Yeah so first thing I will say, I'm not a tech lead on this.

MC: This would be a really great time to say you don't know. Or, you could just double down and make something up.

SP: But what I can say is that that is related to a lot of the backend issues. Again, you have to separate, because SEO it comes in two forms; you've got what we call on-page SEO, so that is what people would see, that's your articles, that's your content, I know you don't obviously have a blog or anything about that at the moment, but that's what people can see. Then you've also got the backend search engine optimisation which is effectively your text to HTML ratio. That needs to be as close to 50/50 as you can have it. Now if you're heavy on one end or the other, obviously HTML is essentially a code that communicates between websites, and a website and Google, is how it's, yeah, it's all code, and there's obviously a disparity there, in terms of how much code and how much text there is as well, there’s issues there.

MC: I guess I feel a bit sorry for him because it's obvious he's got quite lost here. It doesn't even make any sense why a text to HTML ratio would want to be 50/50. When people did used to say this kind of thing, they would normally say “hey, you want a high ratio of text and a low amount of code, because then there's more stuff for Google to see and it's faster”. Of course, none of that actually turns out to be true. Here's a quote from John Mueller about this because he got asked this question directly, is there anything to do in terms of ranking with text to code ratio? His answer was “no” so, quite clearly, we've got the answer out there at the gate. “No, we don't use anything like text to code when it comes to Google Search. We especially pick up the visible content on the page and we use that. Some pages have a lot more HTML, some pages have a lot less HTML, that's more a matter of your design preferences, how you set things up on your site.” It's not making a difference, this ratio, there's no optimal ratio here, and this is one of the main things that was highlighted in the audit that we need to fix to rank well in Google.

MC: That's stopping me from ranking? That needs to be nearer 50%, that text to HTML ratio?

SP: Yeah, that's something that needs to be sorted there.

MC: On the plus side though, when we talked about the on-site stuff, even though we didn't use Yoast we did a good job. Well, not terrible.

SP: The actual the on-site health score isn't bad because you're at 91% there, which is probably down to the fact, I'm assuming you used, did you use Yoast initially, to set the basic SEO up with that? Did you use Yoast? Did you use anything like that?

MC: No I don't think I can have Yoast on my site. (pause) Is that right?

SP: I'm actually not sure whether it's purely for, I think you can use it for other, I'm sure you can use it for other, because what platform are you on?

MC: I don't think it's a platform, it just got built.

SP: Right, it's a custom built site?

MC: Yeah.

SP: Yeah, so whoever built it and set everything up, whoever coded it, hasn't done a terrible job with it. It's a fairly good score as far as the health score… Yeah, so, two times too short…

MC: I've cut the next bit of the call because we get into a conversation about him essentially trying to sell me this service to disavow toxic links which, again, this is something we definitely don't need. He gives a fair explanation of the disavow process, but the next bit of the call is, included in this audit, we had some keyword data about things we probably want to rank for. This was pretty wild because the key terms seem pretty random, to me. We had things like “www.ask”, as a keyword we might want to rank for, or just the word “ask” and the research I did showed completely different keyword volumes globally on these terms to what they've provided, as well. So we had a little conversation about this…

MC: You have a table in here as well about keywords and search volume, and I was a bit confused by that, because you listed words just like “ask” and are these things I should be ranking for?

SP: No, in short. Not necessarily. Some of them maybe. That's something we would need to work with you to determine that, but those keywords that you're seeing, those are the keywords that you are actually so they may or may not be keywords you want to rank for, that's just what we've picked up at the moment. It also gives you an idea as to the effectiveness of the leads and people that are in the traffic that is visiting your website. That's something we'd have to look at because, ideally, we want to have what we call ‘high intent’ keyword phrases being ranked for.

MC: That sounds pretty mad that the keyword/phrase people will also search for, you're saying that has 110,000 people a month search for that globally.

MC: This confused me a little bit; using Keywords Everywhere and their API, “people also search” for, as a search term globally, as far as I can see, gets about a thousand searches a month. So this seemed hugely out to me.

SP: Yeah, it could well be you know obviously each keyword is different. I'm looking at your “people also search for” yeah that is a high search volume but the problem is, there's no value in it.

MC: Actually we started getting dangerously near the truth here when we started talking about things like intent. I think if you've done any research you would have known that “people also search for” is actually probably something we would like to rank for because this shows that people are doing some kind of keyword research into things that Google is suggesting, which is what our tool does. I'll cut the next bit because, again, we had a little back and forward in that their search figures seem completely wrong and really this bit that's coming up is why I put this in the podcast, because it gets now absolutely wild, in terms of what they're suggesting we're doing. They're going to start suggesting things that will absolutely harm our SEO, absolutely damage our business, and actually benefit them. Wrapped up in all of this, we're going to be paying them for the privilege of this, and this comes when we start, later in the call, talking about link building and content for the site, and what they can do to help us build links.

MC: I just had two other questions quickly for you just on this. The backlinks you create, is that what you're describing there? You make content and get links on other site? Is that like guest posting, because I've been offered that before.

SP: In a sense, I'll try and be quick as long as I know you obviously want to shoot something cool but what we do is, we create content to create those backlinks, so obviously backlinks are when another website creates that link pointing back to your site so, ideally, in doing that the goal is to show Google that you're trusting, okay.

MC: This is fine, he's established that, yes, Google does use websites linking to us as a way of judging if we're trusted, that is correct. That's what, presumably, he's going to build his picture on now.

SP: What we do is, we create trustworthy backlinks, okay, we have a set of websites where we write general articles about your industry...

MC: Uh-oh, I think I see where this is going.

SP: ...ensuring that the same keywords that are on your site are actually appearing in the backlinks, to then further solidify you as an expert in your particular area. Now, in those articles, we then link to your website, essentially saying “see these guys for more information”. With these sites, we've got complete control with their authority ranking with Google…

MC: Do you though? That doesn't really sound like a thing.

SP: ...and in that particular way we can ensure that they won't turn into toxic backlinks.

MC: Are they sites you own then?

SP: Yeah, that's right yeah.

MC: Okay so, fair enough, it's a private blog network, a PBN. If he tells me that this is against Google's guidelines and it will put me at risk then I guess that could be okay, if i make that choice.

SP: ...and it's important to realize, as well, is that these articles that we're creating are not seen by any of your visitors.

MC: Uh, say what?

SP: They're not authority pieces. If you had a blog, for example, those would be authority-based pieces. What we create is purely to create high quality backlinks focused on the keywords that we're looking to focus.

MC: The offering seems pretty clear now, right. He's explaining to me that it's not “authority content” it's just content they're gonna put on their websites to link to me, so they're gonna spin out crap content and give me links. It's really basic, low quality PBN stuff. Still hasn't warned me that this is against Google's Terms of Service but this is because things are about to do a 180, because I think he's probably decided I'm a bit of a mug now and the offering of them using their PBN to link to my site completely turns on its head. Get this.

SP: They would be put on your website, but they wouldn't be visible to your visitors.

MC: Did you catch that? In the space of 30 seconds, we've gone from them creating content and putting it on their own websites, their PBN, and linking to me to this content being hosted on my site, and it not even being visible to my visitors.

MC: Sorry, they're put on my website?

SP: Yeah. They would be put on your site, linking out to our websites.

MC: SEO for who here? We've now flipped to me linking to their websites even though, one minute ago, we said that other websites linking to us is what's going to help us rank.

SP: ...and also they would have a lot, they would have the keywords, all of the stuff that we do, they'd be in the heading, the keywords would be featured the right number of times…

MC: All these keywords and not a single user to see them. Maybe I've misunderstood, so let's just confirm what's on offer here.

MC: I may have got confused there. I thought you said you put the articles on your sites that linked to mine, or do I put, you said that…

SP: It's the other way around.

MC: Okay, so to rank in Google, you write the content that goes on my site, and it links to your sites, but the users don't see the articles on my site?

SP: Correct.

MC: I'm gonna leave the call recording there. We go on, actually, as part of the audit, they have suggested what they call “more aggressive second-tier link building”, which is essentially them building links to the links to my site. Again it means them building links to their own PBN sites to try and get my sites to rank. In summary, what we've had here is someone cold pitch us for SEO with a “free audit”, they've completely misled us about what Domain Authority is, its importance to getting our site to rank, and sold us a service to remove toxic links that, quite frankly in my opinion, do not exist. They then said we've got on-site technical issues that are stopping our site ranking, like our text to HTML ratio, which I think we can all agree doesn't even make sense. It's definitely not a thing, Google says it's definitely not a thing that we need to be looking at, and they want me to pay to fix that. Then, when it comes to to link building and keyword research, we almost got there with, at least, even if it was a PBN, if they told me the score, I could have made an informed decision as a website owner, whether I wanted that but, instead, we went from them trying to sell me PBN links, so that's links from sites they own, which breaks Google's Webmaster guidelines which means, if we get caught they will be devalued and all that money we spent on them would be wasted.

Somehow that got 180 to me hosting their, what they called “not authority content” on my site and somehow hiding that from users, so I'm guessing that they want to hide it from users and only show it to search engines, which would mean that we're cloaking, which again, that's a term where you're showing one thing to users and a different thing to search engines, so that's bad, that's something we can get penalized for. That's very overt bad behavior. But the links are going from our site to theirs so, actually, we're link building to them, our good site is linking to their, probably, from what it sounds like, quite bad PBN site, so we're vouching for them and we're going to be paying them for this. This, as you can see, this pitch is bonkers and I never at any stage of this initial conversation tried to hide the fact that I did SEO, I emailed them with my job title @withcandour as my email signature, they could see that, and they still lend in heavily to this pitch.

I just wanted to highlight to you this still goes on. With anything in business, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is, and there really isn't such a thing as a free lunch. This audit they sent me “for free” isn't an audit that's giving me any value, they're using this as a sales tool, these are being used as scare tactics. We've plucked data points, we've taken them totally out of context and, at times, whether through ignorance or doing on purpose, I can't tell, we've just said completely wrong things to try and get me to do SEO. This is why SEO can get a bad reputation, it's something I, other SEOs, other agencies really want to push against.

I would just implore you, if someone's having to cold email you about your SEO, or cold contact you in any way, they're probably not going to be a good person to do SEO with. Get recommendations from other people, loads of people are doing SEO, attend events, whether it's local meetups, well not at the moment, but webinars, whether they're local webinars from those local events, or whether they're bigger events like BrightonSEO, they're the kind of places you can meet the people that will help you, so buyer beware. This is what happens, this is what's going on, so please please please just be careful who you're speaking to about SEO.

That's the whole episode, I hope you enjoyed that call and we're going to be back in one week's time, which will be Monday the 8th of February for the next episode. If you enjoyed this one, of course, please subscribe, share it, do all that nice stuff and I really hope you have a lovely week.

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