Over the years, SEO has been the victim of an unjust number of negative connotations. In the early days, it was possible to use deceptive practices to artificially gain rankings in organic search engines, so some groups immediately assumed that all SEO strategies were complicit with these deceptive tactics. Even today, there are circles with misconceptions about what SEO is, and ignorance of the fact that just as there are effective and ineffective SEO practices, there are also legitimate and illegitimate ones.
I came across an article on Search Engine Land about an "illegitimate" SEO agent recently sentenced to 37 months in prison that resurfaced these persistent misconceptions. A casual observer with limited SEO knowledge or experience might happen across this headline and pair the idea of SEO with illegal, deceptive practices, or at the very least be skeptical of any agency or employee offering SEO services of their own. Accordingly, I'd like to clear up some of these misconceptions and provide clear, concise illustrations of exactly what constitutes "legitimate" and "illegitimate" SEO.
The Legal Definition
The case in question is pretty clear-cut. The accused party engaged in an SEO contract with a company, then extorted money from the company by threatening to associate it with a scam. This qualifies as extortion, and actually has little to do with SEO directly.
The details of the case acknowledge that there are both legitimate and illegitimate SEO practices, identifying the former as "standard practices" such as optimizing HTML code of websites to increase the likelihood of being found on search engines, and the latter as "deceptive tactics" that include hidden text on websites, fake websites, or fraudulent reviews.
The Practical Definition
For the most part, the legal definition captures the essence of legitimate SEO and illegitimate SEO, but to a casual outside observer, these terms may not mean much, and even if they do, it might be hard to tell who is practicing strategies on either side of the spectrum.
Experience and Structure
There aren't any obvious clues to the legitimacy of an SEO practitioner until you start digging into their regular practices. Good SEOs and bad SEOs are everywhere, often claiming the same experiences and offering the same structures. There are good and bad freelancers, good and bad agencies, good and bad newcomers, and good and bad 'gurus.' You won't find much help by looking at external factors.
You can start to tell the legitimacy of a provider based on their initial intentions. Look closely at their target goals. A legitimate SEO provider will offer things like "increasing visibility in search engines over time," or "building traffic," all with grounded expectations. An illegitimate provider will focus on overly numerical points, or results that seem too good to be true, like "ten number-one rankings in your first month," or "fifteen new links every day." Obviously, SEOs who work by threatening honest businesses with negative online visibility are extortionists with an intention only on deceiving--but you won't have to worry much about these.
In terms of strategy, legitimate SEOs are all about long-term results, building a reputation, and keeping both users and search engines happy. Good strategies to look for here are ongoing quality content, on-site optimization, social media marketing, off-site guest posting, and link building (if it's done with quality in mind). Bad strategies to look for here are keyword stuffing, content churning, link schemes (and similar bad link building strategies), and any practices that the provider refuses to define or describe.
Illegitimate SEO Red Flags
If you need a handy checklist to determine whether your SEO provider (or candidate) is legitimate, pay close attention to these telltale red flags:
As you can see, there are legitimate and illegitimate SEO practices. They can be engaged in knowingly or unknowingly, by agencies or individuals, but universally, illegitimate SEO practices are going to burn you. It pays to know the difference, so no matter how heavily you favor your SEO strategy or how you choose to pursue it, keep your priorities on identifying red flags early and maintaining white hat practices for your domain.