SEO rip-offs: Ombudsman calls for ACCC action over dodgy consultants

Small claims

Australian small business and family enterprise ombudsman Kate Carnell.

Small business ombudsman Kate Carnell is calling on businesses to come forward with their SEO horror stories in a bid to convince the competition watchdog to examine dodgy conduct in the industry.

Carnell says consultants are giving small businesses a raw deal, over-promising and under-delivering, prompting dozens of business owners to complain they’ve been ripped off.

“We’ve seen SEO companies almost taking ownership of websites at the beginning of contracts, then permanently closing them when the contract is over,” Carnell tells SmartCompany.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) has become a vital part of doing business online, enabling small businesses to better market their products through platforms such as Google.

It’s an inexact science involving using various keywords, phrases, hyperlinks and other methods to convince search engines a particular website or page is valuable.

But a lack of regulation in the industry has allowed fraudsters to flourish, creating a minefield of dodgy practitioners who business owners claim are being intentionally deceptive.

“There are so many sharks that take people’s money and don’t get them any results,” Tiffany Jade Benn, director of online retailer HART Home Decor, tells SmartCompany.

Benn was burned by a dodgy contractor when she started her business, sending through hundreds of dollars in fees for promises of better exposure and more traffic.

“When I started out I wasn’t an expert … there’s a lot of people going around saying they will sort out your SEO, but nothing actually happens.”

“Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s quite easy for people to work for you and do absolutely nothing.”

The ACCC received about 100 complaints about SEO-related businesses in 2018, but Carnell believes many businesses aren’t reporting dodgy work because it’s so prevalent in the industry.

“It’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem,” she says.

“SEO used to give little guys an opportunity to compete because it was — if you were willing to do it well — a way to be seen.

“But now it’s so confused and difficult — the bigger guys are taking over and the small players are paying money for nothing.

“It’s not just little cowboy companies, even some of the bigger firms, the methodologies they’re using for SEO are questionable,” Carnell says.

The ombudsman is urging business owners to come forward so she can present the ACCC with a big enough body of evidence to force their hand.

“We can almost put it to the ACCC with a bow on it.”

In a statement, the ACCC said its digital platforms inquiry is looking at the advertising technology industry broadly but is not focusing on SEO.

“Examples of issues raised include allegations about false representations and misleading and deceptive conduct, and wrongly accepting payments,” the spokesperson said.

The ombudsman is also aware of unfair contracts circulating through the industry preying on small-business owners with unreasonable clauses.

Nathalie Reiter, founder of the Efficiency Hub, a business which educates entrepreneurs on do-it-yourself marketing, says an industry crackdown is needed.

“SEO is one of those areas people are just afraid of,” she tells SmartCompany.

“It’s a problem we’ve been seeing in the last two years in the e-commerce industry specifically.

“It’s just too easy to go out and call yourself a marketing expert, or an expert. There’s no real proof for that stuff anymore.”

Reiter says figuring out SEO isn’t actually that complicated, and that business owners who know the basics will be able to spot dodgy operators.

SEO companies frequently use aggressive tactics to market their services, enlisting bots to spam business owners with emails claiming to have identified optimisation opportunities with their websites.

When contacted, they go to lengths to profess their integrity.

“I would like to make you sure that we never do any unethical work for any website to get ranked on top,” one email sent by an SEO salesperson based overseas reads.

Adam Jacobs, a marketing consultant turned talent agency boss, describes the industry as a “pretty murky place”.

He describes SEO firms which hire a couple of optimisation experts and dozens of salespeople to aggressively pursue business owners.

“Some of the biggest operators in the country have horrific reputations,” he tells SmartCompany.

“If you put the money in you should get the results, but a lot of people don’t really know what they’re buying.”

Jacobs has previously undertaken pro-bono audit work for businesses who were victims of SEO rip-offs.

He says he regularly probed poor quality work which was of little benefit from an SEO perspective but cost thousands of dollars.

“We found businesses who paid tens of thousands of dollars but had no work done,” he says.

Have you been ripped off by an SEO company? Let the author know at

NOW READ: Half of small businesses don’t have a business website and only a quarter use SEO: Report

NOW READ: What’s popular in SEO?


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Michael Woodhouse
3 years ago

SEO is 90% smoke and mirrors, a fact I’ve been telling clients for over 10 years. Google ranks a site well when the site contains good information that answers the search query. Google ranks a site higher if that information is unique and new. The quality of the information matters more than all the other SEO tricks put together. So the sensible thing is to use your money to build a good, information-rich website, rather than spending on SEO to trick Google into thinking you have a good, information-rich website. Because Google is getting better and better at assessing content and detecting (and discounting) SEO. If you really want to burn some money spend it on adwords: at least you’ll get clicks.

Paul Murphy
Paul Murphy
3 years ago

Totally disagree. I provide SEO and Adwords and good content is important but it’s only 50% on average of what’s needed. If your the only one of a business category in a small town then yes your right but if you have competition then there’s only ten positions on page one and many business have plenty of competition vying for top spot.

Anwaar Khan
Anwaar Khan
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Murphy

Yes I agree, Google ads are way more expensive than getting results organically through SEO.With advert , you might have to bid more at your desired position in google if there are plenty of bidders (competition)for your keyword that you intend to rank.
Although google is getting smarter than before yet SEO is still cheapest method to rank.

3 years ago

Obviously you haven’t done SEO for competitive niches. Backlinks are still one of the most important factors when it comes to rankings. Let’s see if you can compete only using “good content” against high traffic insurance keywords.

Storewall Australia
3 years ago

This is a big can of worms and a huge problem for small business. I have had companies call me and offer to list me on Yellow Pages for $50/mth. A basic YP listing is free.
With so much pressure to grow online, it’s easy to get tricked. The challenge however is finding companies that can actually help you and are legitimate.

Joseph de Souza
3 years ago

The small businesses fall prey easily to spam emails. The thing is a lot of small businesses never bother to check the credentials.

What has the company/freelancer written about SEO? Are they active in SEO communites ? What results have they obtained earlier? Any Case studies? Do they rank themselves? .

Genuine freelance consultants (or companies) never bother to spam as they have a lot of work at hand and are in high demand.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am one of the top ranked freelance SEO Consultants, have over 225 thousand answer views on Quora, also active in a leading SEO Community.

Ankit Sureka
3 years ago

The article only proves that SEO is an elusive concept to these people who are supposedly heading business bureaus. SEO is a relatively new service and it’s yet to be included in formal education curriculum. Till the time it is organised, there will be misinformation and levels of service will be highly volatile. Having said that, SEO is not snake oil. It is a scientific process which helps businesses gain tremendous visibility at much lesser costs. Think of a hoarding on a busy road, or a newspaper full page ad, it will burn a hole in your pocket.
So instead of jumping to conclusions about seo or digital marketing, pls do your research about how to give your business a tremendous boost by learning them yourself or hiring the right agency to help you succeed in your business goals.

3 years ago

There is a saying – “you get monkeys for peanuts”.

Most of the businesses these days expect magic and hire cheap services. So I would appreciate if you could consider points like

How did they choose Seo consultants?
What was agreed intially?
Budgets ?


3 years ago

When I hear stuff like this it really bothers me as a SEO consultant because most of the
time this was entirely preventable. It’s usually due to one or more of
these situations:

* Expectation erosion – realistic expectations were not addressed or not delivered

* Communication breakdown – great communication at the beginning but
then silence and/or the progress reports they sent us were not useful

* Promises broken – it was not explicitly clear what is and is not
promised, or too many surprises, or you find you are dealing with

* Performance fail – “we seemed to know more about what was happening with our rankings than the SEO company”

* More money, less results – our rankings have plateaued but the bill keeps coming

Tony Skinner
Tony Skinner
3 years ago

Simply ask for a real reference account of a current client. Then call them and ask if they are happy. Be realistic on both sides. Also buy Australian.

Janet Camilleri
3 years ago

I’m a sole trader providing SEO services, and I work hard to boost my clients’ performance in the search engines. I’ve heard many horror stories! One of the most common is companies promising to do SEM (Google Ads) AND SEO but when I dig deeper I find they’ve only done Google Ads (cash cow), and nothing to help the organic search results. Dare I say it, but depending on the industry, a good SEO should pretty much do themselves out of a job after a few years!

And this is also why I offer a free 10 page guide on my website: “What Every Business Owner Should Know About SEO”.

Dana Flannery
Dana Flannery
3 years ago

I am so so happy about this. There are so many shonky SEO companies out there. We really need the ACCC to clean up our industry. I get really tired of jobs that are nothing but undoing terrible SEO work that the client paid far too much for!

Emilia De Sousa
Emilia De Sousa
1 year ago

I am a sole trader cleaner, was trying todo google AdWords, no runnings ads, but google still took from my account nearly $1 000. I tried get help, but they are not helping. Its too much money for me but they be little me by ignore me. Where can i complain about google? Is there an Australian department outside google?or even in google ?

John Romaine
John Romaine
1 year ago

The problem is SEO agencies are selling rankings and business owners are buying them. Agencies that know what they’re doing are focusing on revenue, not rankings.

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