How to Avoid Dodgy Link Building – What to Ask an SEO Agency Before You Hire Them

If there’s one thing that bothers me about cheap and nasty SEO – it’s destructive link building.

By this I’m referring to the types of links that can really damage your website. When this happens, its not just a case of “cleaning up a few links” and everything’s going to be peachy. It can often mean, having to kill your website off completely and start over.

That’s right – If the damage is bad enough, it can be completely irreversible.

Which means, if you’ve invested a great deal of time, effort and money towards your site, its game over.

This can be especially damaging if your brand is affected.


Because most businesses have invested money towards uniforms, vehicle signage, stationary, business cards and so on, and typically that branding carries the web address, or of course, the business name.

So when you tell someone they’ve got to “dump the domain name”, and “burn the website” – and start over because it’s been smashed with a Google penalty, there’s usually tears.

A lot of tears.

An example of bad link building

Something else I should mention is that as an SEO professional, it’s much more costly to take on a client that has bad links, because instead of getting right into someones campaign and just getting shit done – I’m sitting here for the first 3 or 4 months cleaning up someone else’s crap.

This is exactly why I say “Cheap SEO is like flying to Thailand‎ for a $200 nose job. Sure, you might save some money, but you’ll walk out of there looking like Gonzo. Then you’ll not only have the expense of a dodgy nose job, but now the additional expense of having to pay someone to fix it.”

Be smart

But look, you can be smart about this.

When you call, be sure to ask the right questions, and look out for what I call “red flags”.

If any of this crap is mentioned over the phone, hang up and yell out loud “John just saved me thousands of dollars. Thank you John!”

The call

Okay, so picture it. You’ve decided you want SEO. You want all the traffic and the SEO things that make you feel all warm and fuzzy when you go to bed at night.

And let’s face it, who wouldn’t, right?

Effective SEO can mean all the difference between your phone and email inbox lighting up with sales and customer enquiries, or you sitting there all day, waiting for something to happen.

So you pick up the phone and you’ve found yourself neck deep in some sleazy sales call.

What do you do?

No you don’t shoot the hostage, you ask them the following question…

“Can you tell me what types of links you’ll be building as part of your offpage optimisation process?”

Read that again. Go on. Seriously, read it. Write it down. Stick it on the fridge.

Asking this question is absolutely vital.

Because it will immediately weed out any bullshit.

Chances are they may be somewhat prepared for it. Infact, at a guess I’d say they’ll definitely be prepared for it, and they’ll have some “smoke and mirrors” type response that they’ll give you in an effort to –

  • Confuse you with technical jargon
  • Sound really important and smart
  • Fool you into believing that they really know what they’re doing
  • Make it sound like they actually give a shit

If they give you any of this crap, and you’re sitting there thinking “I really have no idea what he just said, but it sounds good….” then bingo – it worked, and you’re about to be suckered.

Just like their other 500 clients that called before you.

5 red flags that should have you slamming down the phone

So before you hand over your credit card details, here’s 5 key lines that they’ll try and spin you.

Remember, if you hear any of these, yell out “F*ck you!” and hang up the phone.

Then call me.

We can laugh about it and I’ll send you a bottle of wine and a scratchie.

But only if you sign up.

1. Proprietary bullshit

“Sorry but the method we use is proprietary, and we’re unable to share that information with you.”

Okay, firstly if they say we don’t share that information with our clients or what we do is proprietary and therefore we don’t disclose that type of information, then slam the phone down. Anything like this is absolute nonsense and should be avoided at all costs.

There should be nothing secretive about the link building process at all. If an agency is telling you that they don’t show the links that they build, then they’re obviously doing something they shouldn’t be and it should be avoided.

If they carry on and tell you it’s important that they don’t otherwise it will give away “trade secrets”, or you’ll “take that information and give it to competitors”, then tell them to go jump.

Its total BS.

Call me. There’s wine remember.

2. Proprietary software

“We use proprietary software that we’ve developed inhouse”


What a joke. I’ve actually been told this. It’s beyond ridiculous. Again, this is absolute nonsense and chances are if they are using any form of “software” it’s “click and forget” type rubbish where they’re entering in a URL, a set of parameters, clicking a button and playing table tennis in the lunch room while that software is blasting links all over the place.

Again, avoid. This is garbage.

Don’t forget to abuse them before you hang up the phone.

It will make you feel better, trust me.

3. Private blog network

“We have our own private blog network”

Point three, another red flag to look out for. “We have our own network of blogs”. This is essentially known as a private blog network. If they say they have a network of their own websites that they build links from, then you’re just moments away from signing up with a total churn and burn agency that cares about as much for you and your business, as your competitor does.

Thing is though – they’ll often push it as a positive. They’ll say something like, “We have our own network that way we control the links. You won’t be penalized if anything goes bad. We can take the links down. That way there’s no risk”.


They’ll talk this crap up as being a positive but in fact private blog networks go completely against Google’s quality guidelines.

Hang up the phone and call me.

We can laugh about it.

4. Cheap outsourcing

This one can be difficult to pick, but I wanted to mention it anyway.

Cheap outsourcing.

Of course, most service providers won’t admit to this but many do it. Be sure to ask anyway. If you’re paying $150, $200 an hour and they’re outsourcing to the Philippines, chances are they’ll be paying someone $2 a month to sit at the other end and build useless links.

They might use something like this on you –

  • “We have a dedicated team working overseas that handle this for us”
  • “We have 50 staff inhouse that do this” (when they’re actually not there)
  • “We have a team but would prefer to keep that information to ourselves”

Again, it can be hard to pick, but ask. You don’t want to be working with someone that just flicks the work over to someone else in another country that doesn’t give a shit.

5. SEO blog posts and other meaningless crap

Okay, point five – outdated link building methods.

A lot of this stuff worked 10 years ago, but not now.

Seriously, I shake my head when I see this stuff listed on agency websites.

You’ll see “SEO packages” listed and they’ll include things like –

  • SEO “optimized” articles
  • Article re-spinning or rewriting
  • Blog commenting
  • Social bookmarking
  • Web 2.0 properties

Then they’ll go on to make all sorts of wonderful claims, about how they use intelligent link building strategies etc.

Seriously, if they mention anything remotely like this, – run like hell. Any of this sort of nonsense is just low quality rubbish and it’s not going to help you in any way.

So what should you look for?

Okay so I’ve covered some of the crap, now let’s take a look at some better responses.

Here are a few suggestions as to what any reputable SEO agency or consultant, SHOULD be doing.

Reverse engineering

“We reverse engineer your competitors to identify high quality links we can potentially replicate”

This method involves firstly identifying your competitors, then figuring out where they’re getting their links from (good links that is) and working towards replicating those links. Again, there’s no point in copying crap, so you’ll want to focus on sites that are doing well, figuring out why, and working towards replicating their links (where possible)

If they do this, don’t hang up.


“We perform high quality outreach”

There’s outreach and there’s outreach. You’ll want to work with a company or freelancer that does MEANINGFUL outreach. Sending a thousand emails a day and asking for links is pretty stupid. Quality outreach should involve pre qualifying the site owner as a good fit, and reaching out to either post content, or trade links, or help each other in some way that is mutually beneficial.

If they do this, they’re probably okay, so long as they do it properly.

Search query operators

“We use search query operators to identify opportunities”

Any reputable SEO that really knows what he or she is doing should have a good understanding of performing what is known as “search query operators”. These can be a great way to find link building opportunities. If you’re not sure what search query operators are, check this article here.

Ask them to give you some examples on the call.

Content/Content syndication

“We help you create and promote high quality content”

Whilst content isn’t exactly “link building” as such, it does relate, because its great content that gets links. It should be noted here that your SEO agency or freelancer should be working closely with you to create what I call 10x content that is, to put it blunty, “f*cking brilliant”. No one wants to read boring crap, nor are they likely to link to it.

Ask them to show you some of their work. Trust me, there’s “content” and there’s “content”.

Link reclamation

“We identify broken links, and work towards fixing them”

Link reclamation is a process that involves reclaiming lost or broken links. This means that over time (as the web isn’t static) pages change, websites are upgraded, and often links end up pointing to dead pages. This results in lost link equity and over time can result in a less than desirable outcome. Again any reputable SEO firm should be doing this to ensure that you’re not wasting link equity, and all that “link juice” is flowing directly to your site.

If they do this, definitely don’t hang up.


“We turn mentions into links”

Mentions are exactly that – mentions. Where site owners may have either mentioned you, your website or referenced an article or piece of content that you may have created, but did not actually link to you. The process is simple. You reach out to those site owners and ask them to turn those mentions into links. This is a great way to quickly and easily pick up quality links.

Pretty impressive if they actually care enough to do this. Don’t hang up.


“We ensure all of your business information on the web is correct and up to date”

This is what I refer to as “foundational link building”. Where you go about listing your site within high quality business directories such as Yellow Pages, True local, hot frog and so forth.

Make sure they actually care enough to do this part right. Good sign if they do it though.


So there you go. Before you pick up the phone, have some idea of what to ask in terms of link building before you hand over your credit card details and get stuck with a shitty SEO company for the next 12 months.

If you’ve got anything to add, including complaints about how much I swear, or anything else that I may have missed or overlooked, then you’re welcome to post a comment below.

I respond to everything, so let’s hear it.


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