Trust Your Gut
Like most things in business, you get a gut feeling for whether the things that your vendors are doing are legitimate and are being done right. You don’t need to be a technical expert, but you do need to know enough to know when you’re getting scammed. Here are some red flags to look for and how you can identify trouble before it gets too far down the line.
Lack of Transparency
The first red flag is lack of transparency. This takes many forms, such as when a vendor says that they’re creating content for you but they won’t show it to you. They may reference articles or blogs that they’ve created but won’t send you copies for review and approval. They may make changes to the actual content on your site but not offer you detail on what changes were made and when. Some will even claim that they’ve built links to your site without disclosing which sites they are on, saying that it’s part of their “proprietary process”.
Access to Accounts
Access to accounts is another dangerous red flag. If a vendor says that they’ve created accounts for you - especially Google AdWords accounts or other advertising accounts – but they won’t give you access to them, you should be worried. They may tell you that they are managing them under their “internal system” or as part of their “master account” and can’t give you access - don’t believe them. If you’re paying for third party ad services, you need access and control over those accounts; not just to monitor the money, but to retain the valuable intelligence from historical data in the account if you ever fire the vendor.
The third area of common abuse is reporting. There are reporting platforms which are specifically designed to allow vendors to create confusing reports that mask a lack of performance. SEO is an area where this is most often abused, and we often see vendors sending out reports that are either intentionally confusing or outright fabrications. The bottom line is that you are smart enough to understand any report that’s legitimate. Don’t be intimidated to ask questions and make them explain every part of the reporting to you… and if the explanation doesn’t make sense to you, there’s probably a reason.
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We had a client come to us and say: “I think my marketing company is doing a good job, but I’m just not seeing the sales increases I should be.” When we asked why he thought that, he showed us a report from the vendor showing that he had had 65 “conversions” on his paid search campaign last month, which the vendor said were completed sales from clients who had clicked through on paid ads. “But the number of sales on the site last month was only 43 in total,” he explained. “I just don’t know why things aren’t adding up; I mean, the numbers from Google can’t be wrong, can they?”
So we called the vendor and started asking direct questions about the “conversions” tracking they were doing and also asked for access to the AdWords account. It turned out that there were some “mistakes” which had been made with the tracking pixels and that the real conversion numbers were much lower. They couldn’t explain exactly what the mistakes were or why they had been reporting numbers which didn’t match up to the actual Google Analytics for months.
Needless to say, this vendor relationship was short-lived and we got the client into a relationship with a reputable company. He now understands his reports clearly and can match them up with real sales every month.
The bad apples
Like any market, this one has bad apples. Unlike other markets, they can be a lot harder to spot.
The fact is that there are a lot of churn-and-burn companies which spend all of their energy strategizing around how to sell, mislead and retain you with little or no focus on actual performance. The really bad ones actively engage in tactics and practices that can be harmful to your business in the long term.
Getting on the right side
The long-term strategy for your business online should be based on best practices and on alignment with the interests of the platforms upon which you are advertising. If you ask the right high-level questions, they will lead you to the right conclusions: “Does the strategy we’re pursuing benefit the end user?” “Does it make for a better experience for the person coming to the search engine or the website?” If you maintain focus on these questions, it’s easy to tell when someone is recommending something that might get you in trouble down the road.
Ethical companies attract ethical employees and will talk about things like alignment, best practices and guidelines. They don’t use words like gaming, tricking or masking and don’t suggest that you create junk content or engage in partnerships with affiliates which aren’t above board. They don’t make lofty promises and they don’t make guarantees about things they don’t control. Avoid the temptation of things that sound too good to be true; focus on the right questions and listen to your gut.