SEO rip-offs: Ombudsman calls for ACCC action over dodgy consultants

Small business ombudsman Kate Carnell is calling on businesses to come forward with their SEO horror stories in a bid to convince the competition watchdog to examine dodgy conduct in the industry.

Carnell says consultants are giving small businesses a raw deal, over-promising and under-delivering, prompting dozens of business owners to complain they’ve been ripped off.

“We’ve seen SEO companies almost taking ownership of websites at the beginning of contracts, then permanently closing them when the contract is over,” Carnell tells SmartCompany.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) has become a vital part of doing business online, enabling small businesses to better market their products through platforms such as Google.

It’s an inexact science involving using various keywords, phrases, hyperlinks and other methods to convince search engines a particular website or page is valuable.

But a lack of regulation in the industry has allowed fraudsters to flourish, creating a minefield of dodgy practitioners who business owners claim are being intentionally deceptive.

“There are so many sharks that take people’s money and don’t get them any results,” Tiffany Jade Benn, director of online retailer Home Decor, tells SmartCompany.

Benn was burned by a dodgy contractor when she started her business, sending through hundreds of dollars in fees for promises of better exposure and more traffic.

“When I started out I wasn’t an expert … there’s a lot of people going around saying they will sort out your SEO, but nothing actually happens.”

“Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s quite easy for people to work for you and do absolutely nothing.”

The ACCC received about 100 complaints about SEO-related businesses in 2018, but Carnell believes many businesses aren’t reporting dodgy work because it’s so prevalent in the industry.

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“It’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem,” she says.

“SEO used to give little guys an opportunity to compete because it was — if you were willing to do it well — a way to be seen.

“But now it’s so confused and difficult — the bigger guys are taking over and the small players are paying money for nothing.

“It’s not just little cowboy companies, even some of the bigger firms, the methodologies they’re using for SEO are questionable,” Carnell says.

The ombudsman is urging business owners to come forward so she can present the ACCC with a big enough body of evidence to force their hand.

“We can almost put it to the ACCC with a bow on it.”

In a statement, the ACCC said its digital platforms inquiry is looking at the advertising technology industry broadly but is not focusing on SEO.

“Examples of issues raised include allegations about false representations and misleading and deceptive conduct, and wrongly accepting payments,” the spokesperson said.

The ombudsman is also aware of unfair contracts circulating through the industry preying on small-business owners with unreasonable clauses.

Nathalie Reiter, founder of the Efficiency Hub, a business which educates entrepreneurs on do-it-yourself marketing, says an industry crackdown is needed.

“SEO is one of those areas people are just afraid of,” she tells SmartCompany.

“It’s a problem we’ve been seeing in the last two years in the e-commerce industry specifically.

“It’s just too easy to go out and call yourself a marketing expert, or an expert. There’s no real proof for that stuff anymore.”

Reiter says figuring out SEO isn’t actually that complicated, and that business owners who know the basics will be able to spot dodgy operators.

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SEO companies frequently use aggressive tactics to market their services, enlisting bots to spam business owners with emails claiming to have identified optimisation opportunities with their websites.

When contacted, they go to lengths to profess their integrity.

“I would like to make you sure that we never do any unethical work for any website to get ranked on top,” one email sent by an SEO salesperson based overseas reads.

Adam Jacobs, a marketing consultant turned talent agency boss, describes the industry as a “pretty murky place”.

He describes SEO firms which hire a couple of optimisation experts and dozens of salespeople to aggressively pursue business owners.

“Some of the biggest operators in the country have horrific reputations,” he tells SmartCompany.

“If you put the money in you should get the results, but a lot of people don’t really know what they’re buying.”

Jacobs has previously undertaken pro-bono audit work for businesses who were victims of SEO rip-offs.

He says he regularly probed poor quality work which was of little benefit from an SEO perspective but cost thousands of dollars.

“We found businesses who paid tens of thousands of dollars but had no work done,” he says.

Have you been ripped off by an SEO company? Let the author know at [email protected]

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