Beware the Sellers of Paid Search Snake Oil

by on January 28, 2010

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I have been assisting a friend of mine with her digital marketing needs. She’s a therapist and in the process of having a website developed for her practice. She knows she needs to have a presence online. She understands that she needs a website that is user friendly, follows SEO best practices and can be easily found through keyword search queries on Google, Yahoo and Bing. Even knowing all that, she is self-admittedly generally uncomfortable around all things technology related, online or off. And given the sorry state of most therapists’ websites (and I looked at many), this lack of tech savvy is something she shares with many in her field.

So, last week my friend shared with me a letter, in PDF format, that she’d received via email from Shady SEM* (Shady) a company offering paid search services. She told me that the letter was a follow-up to a cold call from the company. The letter states that Shady would guarantee my friend a top spot in paid search advertising on Google and Yahoo. It goes on to say that set-up in Google will cost my friend a mere $50 unlike the $79.95 the “competition” charges. Google’s name in rainbow colors is sprinkled throughout the text. Nowhere does the letter mention cost of media. Not a word about cost per click or strategy or keyword research or anything substantial. Just the guarantee of a top placement, the promise of adjustments (management?) if necessary, and a $50 fee.

My friend actually asked me whether the letter was from Google, seeing that Google’s logo was in the heading. Don’t laugh. Your mom would probably ask the same question. Mine would. Really. Like I suspected, my friend was nearly misled into thinking that the $50 would buy her a high-ranking ad on Google. She was only nearly misled because we had talked about paid search and the associated costs, and so she thought the offer sounded too good to be true. But had she not known me, she admitted that she probably would have gone for it.

It is obvious to me that Shady is deliberately targeting non-tech-savvy verticals, fishing for naïve business owners who want to advertise their services or products on Google, know that a high placement is desirable, but the process of getting there is a mystery to them. When they bite, what happens next? Yes, we all know that it’s possible to pay one’s way to the top, but at what price? And how come Shady is not upfront about those costs? I wonder, how does Shady handle it when the unsuspecting business owner gets that invoice from Google? I can imagine a telephone call to Shady answered with “Oh, we’re sorry, obviously media cost is extra… Really, you didn’t know? Oh… No, we’re not charging that fee, Google charges that fee…”

At this very minute I’m wondering how many business owners like my friend may have been duped by Shady, and how many companies like Shady are out there. Hundreds? Thousands? And why should I (we) even worry about this? After all, it’s all buyer beware out there, no matter what the good or service is, right? So why should we all, as online marketers, be concerned about a few (I hope) bad apples among us? Well, to me it’s obvious. Unscrupulous and unethical members of our community (yes, sadly, they will be viewed as members of OUR community) damage our collective reputation. A business owner burned by Shady or a similar outfit is likely to have negative feelings about digital marketers in general and malign us all as a result. So WE get a bad name because of THEM.

So what should we as an industry, as a community of online marketing professionals do to address this? Form our own Better Business Bureau? Report companies like Shady to the existing BBB? Should we blog about them openly instead of covertly, legal repercussions be damned? Should we create a “Black List” or a Digital Marketing Code of Ethics we can all publicize and sign on to? Or should we just educate the public as much as possible about what we do, making sure that business owners like my friend become informed consumers? What do you think I should do right now? What would you do?

P.S. When I searched for Shady on Google, they don’t show up. Go figure…

*Not their real name, but it should be.

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