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No. 119
August 31st, 2008

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Why Snake Oil SEO Still Sells

Photo Credit: Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery by GreatBeyond

Hidden in the middle of Will Scott’s excellent piece on Yelp last month was the following insight, which certainly rings true in my experience with small business owners (emphasis mine):

For me it all leads back to a central frustration I feel from small businesses: they understood the Yellow Pages. You pay more, you get a bigger ad, you get more calls. How hard is that?

As skeptical as I am of the print Yellow Pages, Will is absolutely spot-on with that comment. It is an incredibly easy-to-understand business, and has been around long enough where pretty much everyone understands how it works.

Search engine optimization, even for the rare small business owner who has heard of it, is much more complicated and is inherently somewhat opaque.

Differences between the Yellow Pages and SEO

Part of the problem is that search engines have only been around for 8-10 years, and so they’re relatively new, but consider just some of the other differences:

YellowPages: Instant gratification. Your ROI is directly correlated to how many calls you receive in a given year.
SEO: Delayed gratification. You may not see ANY ROI for several months, and you won’t fully know the ROI for a particular SEO campaign for several years.

YellowPages: one-time investment. You pay money, and you get an ad. Once that book goes out of circulation, your ad is gone.
SEO: permanent investment. (see ROI)

YellowPages: Clear positioning process. The guys who are paying the most, and who have been in the book the longest get top billing.
SEO: Confusing positioning process. Some people think websites pay Google for top rankings. Some people think placement is completely random. Some people think Google is immune to influence.

Making SEO More Like the Yellow Pages

In some respects the goal of snake oil salesmen and women might be considered admirable: they’re trying to boil down SEO into essential, easy-to-understand components. It’s just unfortunate that those components like

  • Search Engine Submission
  • Sitemap Generation
  • Meta Tags
  • Keyword Density
  • Ranking Reports

aren’t particularly useful to gain higher rankings or increase relevant traffic!

And even pay-per-click, whose concept is to be sure MUCH easier to understand than SEO, is often not an option for small businesses because of the costs involved with setting up a campaign and the inability to compete with national competitors’ advertising budgets.

More productive SEO techniques like link building, site architecture, and social media campaigns aren’t easily-defined deliverables. Even Title Tags aren’t immediately easy to understand because the average internet user / small business owner doesn’t even know where to find them.

Why Snake Oil Still Sells

Complicated topics almost never have a simple solution (look no further than our current energy crisis and John McCain’s Drill Here, Drill Now “strategy,” not that Obama’s is much better).

But in an age of soundbites and headlines, everyone is strapped for time and looks for something easy to latch onto. Snake oil SEOs have taken a page from the politicians’ books. They’re successful because they’ve realized this trend and have capitalized on it with a scalable, drastically over-simplified “product” and combined it with aggressive “marketing outreach.”

  • I’d like to add some of the unknowns with regard to Yellow Pages.
    1. In any metro area there may be more than one print publications. We utilized 2 competing print publishers, and a Spanish version. We weren’t sure which books (investments) supplied the leads.
    2. Multiple publications per metro region. I think the main publication we were in 16 regions ultimately. Which ones worked or didn’t work. We would have had to tie every YP call to a region–it would have been a lot of work–which we never bothered to do.
    3. Categorization. We placed ads in a couple of categories. Which ones worked. We never knew. I suppose if we ran different phone numbers for different categories, or ads we would have tracked this better. We didn’t.

    YP isn’t as cut and dried as you make it out.

    Meanwhile with search you know exactly which phrases work. You can determine which phrases don’t work.

    There are pros and cons to everything.


  • So, I’m not the only one who is working on the holiday πŸ™‚

    I think you’re right, David. If you can make SEO seem like a simple ‘formula’, it all seems very comfortable. Even if it’s wrong.

    A couple of weeks ago, I got a phone call from a local marketing company, insisting that they had discovered a magic formula for guaranteed domination of the first page of Google for any subject. I replied as politely as I could that I felt selling people on the idea of a guaranteed magic formula was not a good idea. I explained my job to the fellow, adding that I would never personally attempt to create those kinds of expectations in a client, and reminding him that only Google controls Google. I’m afraid I slowly took some of the air out of the guy’s tires, but I could just imagine how his sales pitch would have struck the average business owner. Oh, boy! The top 10 spots in Google all mine!

    You’ve just got to shake your head at stuff like this, and keep working on your own, simplest explanation of what it takes to succeed on the web. I feel like I’m always getting better at this, the more clients I serve. And there IS a feeling of victory in knowing your clients are being educated correctly about search engines. You are arming them against both being duped and business failure.

    Cool post.

  • Hi again, David.

    I kept thinking about your post after reading it, and decided to write something for you. Here it is: a recipe for simple SEO cake πŸ™‚


  • Excellent post and position on why the Snake Oil SEOs remain prominent.

    I recently had a conversation with someone who is paying $$ on a quarterly basis to get their website “submitted” into the search engines. In one year, the only input they have received from their “SEO firm” is to modify 1 set of TITLE tags and to reduce their keywords to 16. OUCH! Also, a firm in my area is selling SEO services as a package and advertising services “better than the Yellow Pages!” Their template sites contain no text – 100% sliced graphics. The 24-month package deal has a discounted rate of $200/month for SEO. Actually, they are doing PPC to get the rankings, and the poor consumers (medical professionals) don’t know better.

    There is a grassroots effort to initiate a voluntary SEO Code of Ethics. The goal is to have some uniform guidelines for SEOs to use as an educational tool for the unknowing public and a guide to demonstrate our promise of quality service. The effort is not new, but we’re trying to build upon previous endeavors to create a code by which we can be proud to say we are SEOs and disassociate with the snake-oil salesmen. If you’re interested, the group is here:

    Thanks for representing high-quality SEO for our industry. Many of us appreciate your work.


  • JamesWindrow

    I’m going to take exception with something you wrote:

    * Sitemap Generation
    * Meta Tags (I will assume you meant meta description)
    * Keyword Density

    aren’t particularly useful to gain higher rankings or increase relevant traffic!

    While certainly these alone are typically not enough to gain great SERP results, especially for very competitive phrases/terms, their absence can result in significant reductions in results. They are part the foundation that must be laid prior to beginning advanced techniques.

    Small companies typically do not have the budget to immediately launch comprehensive SEO strategies. What’s worse, most of these companies lack even the fundamentals (such as unique page titles). As a consultant to these clients I typically have two options. 1) Work within the budget they can afford and begin by laying the foundation and then introducing more advanced techniques as money and time allows or 2) tell them unless they spend gobs of cash they are screwed.

    I absolutely understand the need for great SEO consultants to differentiate their services from less experienced consultants but this article completely overlooks the realities of small business and assumes an all or nothing approach must be instituted to have any legitimate results.

    For less competitive terms/phrases I’ve seen some major and near immediate results from something as basic as unique title tags, meta descriptions, minor copywriting changes, and the implementation of sitemaps. Sure, this is only the beginning but in some cases (and budgets) its enough.

  • Thanks for all of the comments, guys!

    @Dave Oremland – You’re probably right that the YP’s are more complicated than I let on, but I’d argue that they’re still far easier to understand than search for most SMB’s. Even if you didn’t know which books or placements were working for you, you understood the process behind them. With search, it’s the opposite…you understand where you need to be but not how to get there.

    @Miriam – I wasn’t really working on the holiday–I just set this up to post a couple days after I’d written it. πŸ™‚ Thanks for leaving the link to your followup!

    @Dana – I was one of those that raised my hand at the SEOmoz Seminar during the Q&A on ethics and accreditation. I think that folks who work for larger companies probably don’t problem as clearly as the ones who talk to smaller businesses on a daily basis. The ethics/accreditation label isn’t for the SEO’s, it’s for the business owner to have some confidence in whom he/she is hiring.

    @James – If only the snake oil types even MENTIONED meta descriptions! Sadly the ones whose emails I get forwarded typically peddle the out-of-date keywords tag. The value of the description tag would take too much effort to explain :).

    I’ve taken on clients before with budgets of less than $1000. That’s $1000 total, not monthly. I’d agree that there are definitely basics that you can perform to help folks out with this kind of budget. But the point of this post is that there is no templated magic formula that will work like the kind most SEO sales types are selling, or worse, guaranteeing.

  • @David Mihm Looks like we both raised our hands for the same reason, even if we were in the minority. I understand that certification could be misused and is not needed by the big guys. Some standards are really needed for the small SEOs but more importantly for the people.

    The “guarantee” emails raise false hopes, strip many pocketbooks and raise questions about how we do business. The components you mentioned above do help small businesses with little budget, but the recipe (referring to Miriam’s SEO Recipe) is not complete without research, a plan and a content strategy with link building. The snake oil SEOs are selling the Yellow Pages approach, which, yes, do serve a certain target market and do make some difference for those with limited budgets.

    The following was posted by a friend on Twitter. It’s too much fun to not share and fits with this post. “Top Things to Do with Your Useless Yellow Pages”:

  • I work in SEO sales for a company – and do sales for my own web design/SEO boutique. I have found that unless the person you are dealing with understands technology, websites, and online marketing at a high level, you can’t explain SEO or sell SEO beyond a simple “this is what you need, this is where you are lacking, and this is how – generally – we’re going to fix this for you. ” Anything else flies over their heads. This is particularly tough when the sale is being done over the phone with no in-person contact. I have found that if I get too in-depth with information – even though it’s right – I end up losing the sale. Some just take that information and think they can do their own SEO – even though I only gave them, maybe, about 10% of what they need. The others are totally over their heads and decide it’s too much for them to handle and walk away. The best SEO sales are the ones that connect with the customer and talks only at their level. The problem, though, is that the particular clientele you are talking about here – comparing SEO with Yellowbook – are too small and small time. They are most likely not a strong candidate for business or for expanding their business. The US is full of too many sit-at-home entrepreneur wannabes. They watch Trump or read some book and think they can be their own boss. But there’s a difference between an entrepreneur and someone who wants a side-hustle. To me, those are the ones that really get “taken”. And in many instances, they deserve it because their real gauge of SEO is “who’s cheapest” instead of who’s the best at my price range.

  • Playing the devils advocate, it is only when an industry ( any industry ) is about to go big that the snake oil guys get interested.

    Years ago I worked for CISCO laying down the backbone of the infrastructure. It was amazing watching the snake oil guys getting involved there when they could smell a buck, same here, same in any Industry, even things like “green businesses”- bottom line – “glass half full” is that the snake oil guys are only here because there is explosive growth imminent, which is good news for everyone, providers, practioners and customers alike.

  • Soup of Following magical ingredients will surely get ranks, lot of hard work required though

    β€’ Error free website (validated by
    β€’ Sitemap (XML Auto Updating)
    β€’ robot.txt
    β€’ Directory submission (related & High page rank directories only)
    β€’ Article submission (related & High page rank article sites only)
    β€’ Link exchange from higher pagerank websites
    β€’ Links from social networking & bookmarking site
    β€’ Search engine friendly urls,
    β€’ Title Tags
    β€’ Meta Keywords
    β€’ H1 tags
    β€’ Unique content (no copy paste)
    β€’ Load of content
    β€’ Reverse dns
    β€’ Blog on the site (to ping technocrati)
    β€’ Website age
    β€’ Blog on the site (to ping technocrati)

    If i missed any please do add up πŸ™‚


  • There is one more fundamental difference between YP and SEO: usually when someone calls from the YP, if you have the product or provide the service and you sound polite and confident, you have the sale most of the time. Not so with SEO.

    I would like to branch out here a bit, as we speak about SOS, and ask one basic questions:
    does anyone know how many result pages are explored by the average surfer before the first click or before giving up?

    Now let’s say the answer to the previous question is 4 to 7 x 100 entries (max) per page gives 400 to 700 listings. How do you sell than SEO services to a company with 50,000 competitors in one country only? This is where the bull… comes into play.

  • David, you make some excellent points, but, even the YellowPages can’t sell SEO or their online listings. Look at the number of listings in the book, then see how many anted up for the online ad. Even in Canada where the YP listing page is in the top 5 for many money queries they can’t sell their ads. So there is a lot we can learn from them… the bottom line is the purchaser doesn’t feel empowered/enlightened enough to purchase. So… snakeoil ruins the chance for that ever happening. Until the public knows they can trust the “vendor”, like a doctor or lawyer, reputation (or lack thereof) will always stand between Search marketers and consumer trust.

  • This was an interesting read. I like the parallels you have drawn against the Yellow pages and SEO strategies and when explained in this way are not always that far removed. I was particularly interested in your comments around some peoples conception that large institutions with large budgets are able to purchase their way to the top of Google listings. Clearly, Google are always looking to remain impartial with their results and have in the past defended the allegation that they accept monies to promote certain sites. I wonder how many people out there actually think this? Would be a good topic to take a poll on, I would suggest?