A few days ago we decided to do some research to judge the potential take-up on a course we're offering to small business. Now we know that small business owners don't have much time, but we also know they don't have much money so we think have an answer. However, our research pointed to some SEO companies offering VERY cheap SEO. Given everything that's gone on with Google lately, can they actually still be doing this? I was sent a link…

The link I had been sent advertised quarterly SEO work for less than forty quid, including VAT. Wow.

Their website said that they only practice “White Hat SEO” by getting links from forums, directories, blogs etc. and that they can do this at such a low price because they have developed a lot of automated tools.

Double and maybe triple wow!

I did their keyword check to get an idea of how long it would take to “have an effect” on a hugely competitive market where the top ten is dominated by big players with budgets into the tens of thousands. It reckoned 6-12 months.

Let's break down each bit of this so we can understand the big problem here, because it really is a big problem.

What are they aiming to do?

They will first do an analysis of your page to tell you whether there's anything wrong with the structure of it. They'll also check your meta tags etc. to ensure they're all OK. Fine so far.

Then their monthly work is based on getting you links to your site. If you're new to the whole SEO lark then you might not know, but links are like a ‘vote' to your site. They tell Google that your site is worth looking at and if it's worth looking at then it's probably worth ranking well. The more links you have then sometimes the better your site will rank, well, that's how it used to be. Now it's more about the quality of the links and Google has been cracking down on how people get links lately. Essentially, if you're getting links just to rank your site then Google has you in their sights and if they think you're trying to game the system, you'll end up being penalised in some way or maybe even kicked out of their index altogether.

They can be pretty brutal.

So there are ‘naughty' ways of getting links and ‘OK' ways of getting them. The problem is, the ‘OK' ways are simply to write good content and hope people read it and eventually link to it or promote it some way. If you go out there building links for the sake of it then you're flirting with the “black hatters” and you might end up kicked out the Google club, left to wander around the desolate plains of non-indexdom where nobody visits other than Bing and Yahoo.

With this in mind, let's take a look at some of these link building tactics that are being advertised.

Forum Links

Forums used to be where every self respecting geek would hang out in the good old days of the Internet and they're still incredibly popular today. If you type a subject and the word “forum” into Google (try “transformer collectors forum”), you're bound to find a ton of places where people log in and chat to others all the time. To some extent you could argue that forums are the original social networks and some people still prefer them to Facebook and Twitter.

They used to be quite good for links, too. Many forums have been around for years and this means they are “aged” and have probably gained a lot of respect from search engines. They also have a lot of very fluid content that's being added to all the time. For content and sharing, they're superb and search engines love them. So how do they work for link building?

Well when you sign up to a forum you have to create a “profile” which is where you tell people about yourself and importantly put a link to your website. We want links, there's a link, excellent!

However, when it was found that forums have this power the spammers stepped in and someone developed some software called “XRumer” (other spam tools are available) which will seek out thousands of forums and create profiles automatically on them. In those profiles it will add links to websites and a few years ago this will have helped your SEO efforts. But not now.

Here's what one of Google's own staffers says about forums:

Just to be absolutely clear, if you are dropping links to your site in other people's forums in the hope of gaming search engines, then that's considered web-spam and can be taking into account by both our algorithms and our manual web-spam teams. It doesn't matter how much “PR” the other site has, it doesn't matter if it's a .gov forum — what you're doing would be considered web-spam by us.

Seems pretty clear-cut to me. So does this mean forums are no good any more? Or could they still actually be valuable for links?

Well yes, if you take part in a particular forum regularly and you're an active participant in conversations then you'll get some good juice from it because you'll be interacting with people. That's a good thing. If, however, you have 500 links from loads of different forums then no. In fact, it might get your site slapped with a penalty from Google.

To do it properly you need to spend probably 2-5 hours a week on it. Let's say 10 hours a month assuming we have a fairly healthy obsession with collecting Optimus Prime figures.

Hang on a minute though, this company said it can get forums links and it does them automatically, sounds a bit dodgy to me…

Let's move on, quickly.

Guest Blogging

Guest Blogging is the practice of finding a web site that has a blog that you're interested in and which might actually allow you to write for them. You then write them some content which they will then publish and give you a link back to your site. HURRAHH!! A LINK!!

OK, calm down, fine and in many cases it's a great way to get a link but again we have the spammers who will try to break every rule to game the system. We suddenly found lots of people offering up their blogs to people who want to write for them because they thought it helped them, too. But people would post articles about car polish on websites dealing with dog grooming and suddenly there's a problem. It seems that people were simply using guest blogging as a way of getting links and Google doesn't like that.

In January 2014, Matt Cutts (he's the head of web-spam at Google by the way) said this:

Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.

Well that kinda ends that game then, doesn't it?

Well not quite. He goes on to say that there is such a thing as good guest blogging and that they're specifically after the poor quality and spammy stuff that people try to whack on every blogging site ever. If you can write decent copy that people will interact with then you're OK. Phew!

It takes probably an hour to write a good bit of blog content if you're a decent writer so let's say two hours a month to get a couple posted, ignoring the fact you need to research good sites, obviously.


Seriously? This was posted by Kurtis Bohrnstedt back in 2012 so we can expect things to have moved on by now.

Now directories are still pretty popular, granted, but remember we're talking about some automated tools here so it's not going to be clever enough to know whether a directory is good or not. Yes there are some cracking sites out there that will give you a link but again, it's going to take time to research. For example, has the site just been set up to simply scrape data from other directories? Are they industry specific? Is there a decent company behind them?

It's going to take a few hours a week to get a couple of decent links, so let's say 8 a month to do the job properly.

Let's tot this up then…

If we were to do this properly then we'd be writing two blogs a month (ideally more, but let's be kind) and then spending ten hours a month on forums. That's just for one bit of the service and in the hope the social media bit of it is mostly automated (which is OK, don't worry about that). Let's just add two hours a month for social management if we assume we're dead good at it. For directories we reckon 8 hours a month minimum.

So in a quarter, we'd be spending 66 hours on our SEO to do it properly to get some benefit from it. They're advertising a service at under 40 quid, so that's less about 60p an hour. Bargain! Hang on…

Could you run a business at 60p an hour? Of course you couldn't!!!

How does this stack up?

I honestly don't know. Seriously, I can't see how it can be done so cheaply, even with automated tools so they're obviously doing a lot of “set-and-forget” work and letting the tools do the work. That should surely set off some alarm bells for anyone who has even the slightest understanding of how digital marketing works and even if they don't, how can you expect to compete with big companies on such a paltry budget?

Even at their 12 month estimate, that'd £160 to compete with companies currently spending thousands!

Real marketing takes real effort

Marketing is like everything in life – it takes effort if you want to compete. You can't get your accounts done for 60p an hour and expect them to be done correctly so you shouldn't expect your marketing to be done for the same price. However, there's a problem here because digital marketing, content marketing and SEO are still “dark arts” to many people.

To a lot of business owners, getting to the top of Google is a matter of technical knowledge, a knowledge that they believe is held on to by a select few of pale-faced nerds who spend all day in darkened, air-conditioned computer rooms manipulating Google at their will. So, they think that they can pay the lowest prices and still get good service.

Unfortunately, it's not and you shouldn't be hoodwinked into thinking it is.

Would you like to know more about it so you can understand the processes? Good! Our free guide will give you the information you need to do it yourself so if you eventually decide to hire a company to do it for you, you'll know how much effort you should be paying for and hopefully, avoid the scams!