Professional SEO: What’s Real and What’s Simply Fly-by-Night

SEO Firm with Hats

Having worked as a professional search engine optimizer, I know a thing or two about what real SEO work is and what separates professionals from the fly-by-night outsourcers.

Fly-by-night?  You know the type: like late-night infomercials, they claim they can get you a #1 placing – “guaranteed!”

Why is the difference between a professional SEO and an amateur so crucial?  Because the quality of SEO you purchase will have a direct impact on your online presence.  Your marketing isn’t something that you just leave to chance, it’s something that needs to be held accountable.

Over the years, I’ve noticed some common differences between the professionals and the hopeless amateurs.  Here are some comparisons between a professional SEO…and the SEO you buy like fake Rolex watches in the “back alleys” of the Internet:

Fly-by-Night Salesman

Above: You wouldn't buy a watch off of this guy. So why let him handle your SEO?


Fly-by-nighters: Offering zero analytics is a clear sign that you’re buying the fake Rolex.  For one reason, there’s no accountability that an SEO can offer you if they aren’t measuring your results, but consider this:  how can they develop and customize their strategies if they aren’t measuring your results?

Analytics means one thing:  customization.  Is your SEO strategy tailored to your site?  Is the SEO “professional” looking at your analytics and making recommendations based off of it?  If not, you might be the beneficiary of a cookie-cutter strategy that has very little effect on anything you do.

In fact, without quality analytics, the chances that you’re spamming people improve by 50%.  Improve by 50%?  I don’t have the analytics to back that up.  Make sure the SEO you work with does.

Professional SEOs:Professional SEOs start with analytics as the foundation to everything they do – if you’re not measuring it, it’s almost like it didn’t happen.  This is especially true if you’re spending money online towards pay-per-click advertising.  If you have no idea what kind of money is going where, you’re probably not working with a professional SEO.


Fly-by-nighters: What’s the hallmark of the late-night TV infomercials.  Well, they have a few: “call now and receive an extra gold pendant free!”  “But wait, there’s more!”  But there’s another signature phrase we’ll use that has more relevance here:  “Guaranteed!”

A guarantee is great – and often necessary – if you’re buying something that can break down.  But one sign of a fly-by-night SEO is the guarantee that you’ll accomplish X or Y.  SEO is too hard to predict, too reliant on highly variable algorithms, and too day-to-day to actually make a guarantee worth anything.  In this specific field, a guarantee can actually be a sign of shoddy service.

Professional SEOs: Any professional SEO with experience knows that while there are certain principles that guide the whole search engine world, that doesn’t mean you can guarantee specific results.  To do so wouldn’t only be a bad idea, it would fill the client or employer with all of the wrong kinds of expectations.

To know what to expect from your SEO, look at their actual experience.  Are you referred by someone who already had a great experience with your SEO, or do you trust in the “promise” of success?

Return-on-Investment (ROI)

Fly-by-nighters: “ROI?  You want ROI?  We’re doing SEO for you here; we don’t know how much money we’re helping you make!  That’s your problem, after all!”

Now, while search engine optimization can be a tricky thing to gauge – especially in terms of ROI – you want at least a professional who understands that.  If you’re sinking money into SEO, you should have some idea that not only is the service intangibly helping your web presence, but is also tangibly bringing in clients or customers you otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Professional SEOs: Professional SEOs respect your money and know it’s their duty to turn it into more money.  This is true with PPC campaigns especially, but what about search engine optimization at an organic level?

The professional SEO should be able to set metrics that track the work they’re doing; it doesn’t have to only be monetary metrics.  Are they giving your newsletter more subscribers?  Are they sending more customers your way?  Are they tapping markets you haven’t even thought of?  Sometimes, while you can’t put a price tag on these things, it helps to be aware of their inherent value.

Bottom line:  professional SEOs concentrate on giving you value for your buck, not cutting your cookie.


Fly-by-nighters: A report from an amateur SEO might look something like this:

  • Visitors:  1,103
  • Inbound links:  143
  • PageRank:  4

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, nothing, except you have to explain to me what the relevance of those numbers are.  A professional SEO will have an answer to “what am I paying you for?”  The amateur SEO, not so much.

Reporting is different from analytics:  reporting is about what the SEO does with the analytics.

Sure, they can provide basic analytics (see above).  But does your SEO tell you the relevance of these numbers, and does your SEO tell you that you’re not getting enough bang for your buck?  An amateur SEO thinks it’s his/her job to plug in some formulas and print out a report.

Professional SEOs: Professional SEOs know that the report isn’t the product, it’s the starting point.  They use reports to ask the right questions. So you have 1000 visitors in a month, so what?  How many of them converted?  What was their conversion value?  With the money we spent to acquire those visitors, what was the ROI?  What are our strengths?  What are our weaknesses?  You get the point.

You’ll immediately recognize a fly-by-nighter from a professional SEO based on their treatment of reporting.  If you simply receive a report every month, that’s not enough.  You need an SEO that reports and recommends.

And you also don’t need to see trivial statistics, like which states drove the highest amount of traffic last month (here’s a hint:  your local state, plus California and New York, are good guesses).  You need reporting about money, and you need reporting about conversions.  On the Internet, you might have a web presence, but unless that presence is converting for your business, it’s all just another stat.

Dan Kenitz

Dan Kenitz is a former professional Search Engine Optimization specialist and current freelance writer, commentator, and all-around entrepreneur.


  1. Jeff

    I do agree with the post.
    A SEO should be always customer oriented.
    Great post!

  2. I strongly agree with the author and want to say more – professional SEOs can improve your site and save time, but when you have bad SEOs you have risk of damage to your site and reputation.

  3. zzhenson

    some one really decided to put their thinking cap… great going.. sure i will return for an new update…

  4. Stanman

    Great article.

  5. Hi
    thanks for your site it help me a lot in SEO.

  6. MrBeGood

    Ok post. I mean it’s good but only cause it feels like its new information. But in the end this can all be boiled down to consumer common scenes. In the age of 2010 if you are searching for SEO in google you should know enough about making online purchases to know you have to first do your homework on the company. If you can’t find a good track record including un edited customer reviews….don’t buy.

    SEO seems to be a topic everyone likes to tell you they understand. But in reality it appears that SEO is a very inside thing. The people that really know it and understand the “secrets” keep them that way to keep their competition down. They understand we are all turning to the net as a new source of income and trust me they don’t want you to have it.

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