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SEO Companies and Conflicts of Interest
Almost hired them...

 5:47 am on Mar 18, 2010 (gmt 0)

After almost hiring a company to help with traffic generation to a site, it came to my attention that they were, in fact, a competitor that is operating sites on relevant topics.

This caught me off guard, at first, but, then I started thinking: how would one know/claim to be proficient in SEO unless they owned a relevant site in the first place?

I've reached a point where I am wondering if the hiring of an SEO company could easily wind up being a competitor in disguise. It took a while before the SEO company was ultimately determined to be in direct competition. I could release/expose their name, but have chosen not to...for several reasons (including the TOS on WebmasterWorld).

Should I eliminate SEO firms from consideration in the future? I enjoy the research that I perform in order to help other people, yet trying to figure out who to trust with regard to increased traffic...I don't enjoy that aspect very much...



 11:08 am on Mar 18, 2010 (gmt 0)

State your terms and reach agreement. Then require them to sign a contract with a " no conflict of interest clause" .

Sometime it can be to your advantage to have an SEO that knows your industry , but at least this way you have a framework to rely on and therefore trust.


 11:41 am on Mar 18, 2010 (gmt 0)

IMO, as long as the company is giving you traffic or rankings as per contract what is the harm?

Although just ensure that you change your login credentials like FTP, WMT details, and others before terminating their services :)


 11:55 am on Mar 18, 2010 (gmt 0)

I think you're going too far with this issue. You have a contract, if they stick to it what could be the problem? In the end, they do their job, they get paid, both of you are happy, where's the catch? :)


 2:28 pm on Mar 18, 2010 (gmt 0)

I sure wouldn't use a competitor as an SEO.

Why would they use their best skills and knowledge on your site when they could use them on their own site.

A really good SEO firm probably has enough potential customers that they can choose just one from each industry or niche and not have to worry about conflict of interest issues, let alone compete with their customers.

I doubt Pepsi and Coke use the same ad agency at the same time.


 3:16 pm on Mar 18, 2010 (gmt 0)

I wouldn't eliminate them from you plans. An SEO firm can be a blessing, but like many areas, you have to do your due diligence.

I am surprised that firm would consider taking you on as a client with that type of conflict of interest. It's not uncommon to find firms that specialize in certain areas and may have multiple clients in that area (real estate is a good example). To me that's acceptable if it's made known to the client, but to actually be running their own site and taking on a client in that same market is very different.

I just recently had one of my suppliers call us asking our pricing for our services (we do both SEO and run some of our own ecommerce sites as well). He knew this obviously, but I still had to tell him I couldn't work with him for that very reason.

There are plenty of other firms out there.


 9:41 pm on Mar 18, 2010 (gmt 0)

That is the oldest trick of all, show the rankings of the other site 'u did' and wait for the new client to agree to want to be #2


 10:51 pm on Mar 18, 2010 (gmt 0)

I've done occassional SEO in my industry for direct competitors, in the past. But they knew upfront what was going down, and they trusted me to do the job right.

The advantage - if they're straight up - is that they should know the industry cold. And typically there's enough business for everyone.

I've also been selling website widgets to my direct competitors for years. I quit doing that in February this year - and my competitors are struggling to find a suitable replacement. They're not happy.

My take is this.
1)If they were upfront, there may be some advantages i.e. industry knowledge.
2) If they weren't upfront, drop everything and run.
3) why are they in your industry and doing seo? They need to pick one. in my case, I eventually decided that I need to 'be' the competitor and I've dropped everything to focus on my own SEO for my business, with the intention of dominating my niche. Be careful you're not funding a monster (not that that's what happened in my case, but the similarities are there).


 6:40 am on Mar 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

Thank you for all of your replies. I really appreciate them and the perspective that they've given me going forward. I've latched onto wheel's #2 suggestion with this particular company (and a few other ones). I have browsed through many SEO company websites on my journey to lighten my workload.

How can one know for sure if any of them aren't operating a site/performing SEO on a site that competes with one that you own? It took several weeks to determine that the SEO company that was almost hired was in reality: a competitor.

I've also come to realize that the local offers that I've received are not viable/genuine: "We do SEO, too!". At the same time, I do understand the fact that larger SEO companies might not/won't/shouldn't want to reveal clients that they represent.

I'm starting to think that continuing on a DIY path might the best way going forward (even though that doesn't put me in the very best of moods).


 2:08 pm on Mar 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

larger SEO companies might not/won't/shouldn't want to reveal clients that they represent.

This always mystifies me.

How many ad agencies working in the print/tv/radio markets keep their client list a secret.

They don't.

The brag about who they represent. They often publish press releases when they sign a new client.

So why would a SEO want to keep their client list secret?


 6:27 am on Mar 20, 2010 (gmt 0)

ken_b - From what I've been told, through researching SEO companies (large and small/local and worldwide), I've concluded that disclosing a client list opens them up to reverse engineering the methods that they use to rank clients higher in the SERP's (even though a higher ranking might not be deserved). Many of the SEO companies seem to fall into the category of "we've found a loophole". That wasn't really what I wanted or expected when I started looking again for an SEO company (especially when there is a conflict of interest involved).


 1:06 pm on Mar 20, 2010 (gmt 0)

Also, if you get large enough,and Matt Cutts has a scroll through your client list......not good. While general ranking techniques may not be secret, specific applications probably are.


 6:23 am on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

Releasing a client list can expose a company to both reverse engineering and reverse reference. I have even caught a glimpse of companies openly emailing for that information, so that they could it as their own references for potential clients.

By knowing more about the nature of the campaigns company X has executed, they can then try and take credit for the work.

I think overall in my experience, for the most part, it is best when SEO companies are required to sign an NDA and non compete.

A good SEO doesn't need to "know" the industry to begin learning about the industry. Which is essentially what happens when any new campaign starts in a new genre anyway.

I would eliminate companies that are actively working on any campaigns considered 'too close for comfort' in the same respective genre as well.


 6:46 am on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

Outsource the research, if need be, but do your own work, in house. Avoid the conflict of interest if at all possible. And NEVER have a competitor do your SEO. They will be all too tempted to make sure you come in at #5.


 11:18 am on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

"Conflict of Interest" [abanet.org] rules from the Model Rules of Professional Conduct for U.S. attorneys.

Note (b)(4): "each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing."


 11:51 am on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

I would second this :-

Then require them to sign a contract with a " no conflict of interest clause" .

There are many good talented individuals and SEO companies out there. the only reason I would do it myself was if it involved a lot of sensitive information which I cannot trust sharing with a third party.


 12:12 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

I would try to find a provider that is not a competitor.

The only caveat to this is when you can both gain from having a better relationship between each other.


 2:23 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

my question is how could you get so far along the process and not realise they were a competitor? If it comes to doing due diligence that is a fairly easy thing to work out early in the process.

As for elimination of everyone that could be of potential conflict you would never be able to partner or engage a large agency or a consultant who has been doing this a while.

Most agencies and consultants have worked with and have many existing relationships in place, if they are ethical its not an issue. It seems more of a non-issue and the whole focus purely on traffic is bound to get you into trouble...

A large number of seo agencies use their existing network of links to get you that traffic so be careful as once you break your relationship or stop paying say goodbye to your traffic.

Stop chasing traffic and scrapping the bottom of the barrel for suppliers who have conflicts of interest, spend a little more and get someone of standards and quality!


 3:21 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

As an agency SEO, I would strongly recommend against hiring on a firm that has a conflict of interest. First, they should have disclosed the conflict upfront, without necessarily specifying who they may be working for, or what sites they might own. Second, how would you ever know for sure they weren't giving their best work to their own sites? Third, when contract ends, it'd probably be easy for them to undo some amount of the work, at least where external links are concerned.

Firms I work for would not take on a conflict of interest, or would disclose if they had a competitor client operating in the same or closely overlapping market.

One very strong advantage of going with someone *not* operating in the same market is that they could bring a variety of other techniques into play, while still examining your competitor's techniques and immitating the effective ones. This could give you the best of both worlds, as opposed to using overly incestuous tactics.

Just in terms of link-building, having a wide variation of link sources is desirable -- it's even possible that the firm you're considering who work in your space already may be employing unethical link-building methods that could get you both banned, simultaneously. Just because they rank well today does not mean they will tomorrow.

ken_b, the idea that firms ought to disclose all clients is somewhat naive. A great many of my clients insist upon non-disclosure agreements so that their competitors will not know who they are working with. micklearn is also correct - disclosing client lists also can alert your competitors to study techniques you may be employing, and it gives Google more information than they need.

I think most top firms get permission or offer contractual discounts in order to disclose a select few clients for publicity purposes. It's rare and undesirable for an agency to disclose everyone they work with.


 3:46 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

ken_b, the idea that firms ought to disclose all clients is somewhat naive.

That's your opinion.

Disclosure adds credibility.


 6:36 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

Depends upon who is operating your account and if they have a direct interest.

A couple managers getting paychecks from the competing site who also do your SEO is different then a large professional organization where an employee who gets paid regardless is handling your site.

Should be a top firm to prevent conflicts of interest. I would not do it with anyone else.

Have had bad experiences with selecting SEO's online who I thought I fully researched. Later to Google Map it and see a residential house, figured out the same three people were answering the phone and email links on the site did not work. I think they were all working in the garage there.

Found them on a SEO review site that looked legit, but apparently they are a pay for placement and ranking rather then unbiased after research further.

Also, experience hiring a top firm who basically charged full price for doing simple repetitve link tasks that you could hire someone of *** to do and save a fortune.

[edited by: MrHard at 7:00 pm (utc) on Mar 22, 2010]


 6:40 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

Should I eliminate SEO firms from consideration in the future?

Choose to learn SEO yourself or choose to employ SEO firms until you find a winner. The middle ground is where the mix gets tricky.


 7:09 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

Something else to consider is not if they are a competitor but if they represent a competitor.

Of course there is room for more than 1 company in the top 3 results so to say they can't get you both there is not true but how much of the work you are paying them to do for you are they transferring over to your competitor?

They only need to do keyword research once, same with all the other things that need investigating.

When it comes to disclosure I agree that it should be done and it can be done without revealing a client name.

If you wanted SEO in Maid services and you went to a company, they should tell you if they have a client they are already doing placement for in that industry. No privacy issues there at all.

I use this example because this happened to me 3 months ago for a cleaning service. Before meeting with the new client I contacted my original client and told them I had a meeting with a competitor and asked if they had a problem with that. They said no. Then at the meeting with the new client the first thing I told them was that I did this work for their competitor as well. They were fine with it, but I think me telling them made them feel like they could trust me. I even said to them that I wouldn't reuse work I did for them for anyone else and vise versa.

They had me to some really basic restructuring of their HTML and they did the content based on NEW research I did for them.

Both are happy and both know they can trust me, and that is more important then retaining 1 client.

[edited by: Demaestro at 7:11 pm (utc) on Mar 22, 2010]


 7:10 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

In working on your site, they would quickly get a feel for your traffic levels, and amount of business you are doing. Nice information for them to have. They'd now know how much of a competitor you actually are.


 9:07 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

ken_b, my point is/was that for most top SEO agencies, full disclosure is absolutely not possible, due to nondisclosure clauses required by many clients. The idea that these companies should break their contractual agreements in order to satisfy one's curiosity is not at all realistic.

Further, it's simply inadvisable. For instance, I've had past clients who insisted upon doing some things that are directly against Google's guidelines, despite my strongly-worded advice otherwise. If Google knows all of my clients, is it not possible that they might choose to penalize all of my clients due to something bone-headed that one of them does, based on a false assumption that I could be the cause of black-hat behavior? Oh, absolutely.

Just for comparison's sake, IBM does business with a great many companies, but likely only discloses a choice few. It's not necessary for them to disclose every single last company they do business with in order for someone to assess whether they're credible/trustworthy or not. In a like manner, many top SEO firms rely upon publicizing only a choice few clients, or they rely upon word-of-mouth endorsements. It's not necessary to disclose everything in order to make a reputation assessment.

An SEO agency that publicizes every single client for whom they do work is an SEO agency that does not use very sophisticated methodologies, most likely.

Simple due diligence in choosing a company should work well in many cases. Who is behind the company? I wouldn't choose a firm that doesn't list out the names of some of its top personnel. What are the reputations of the personnel at the firm? Who have they worked for previously? Who has endorsed them? What do they say in their blog posts, and do others quote them? Do they speak consistently at recognized industry conferences? Etc.


 9:38 pm on Mar 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

Silvery, you don't have to give up a client list to let a potential client that there is a conflict of interest for you in taking their work.


 8:47 am on Mar 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

I can honestly say that I have been overwhelmed by all of the replies and I appreciate the time and thought that were put towards the matter at hand: what should *I* do next...?

Trying to find a reputable/affordable SEO firm in 2010 is very different than it was in 2001.

I hope this makes sense...I've used two kinds of mustard for most of my life, yellow and spicy...a few weeks ago, I came to realize that, in reality, there are actually over 500 kinds of mustard out there. I was blown away by the choices presented to me. (Seriously, go search around for a bit in the world of mustards, when you have a chance, and let me what you picked as the best tasting option. And, no, my site has nothing to do with mustard.)

My point is that it seems almost impossible to decide on the best SEO company (or mustard)in this day and age with so many options and without spending a lot of money before a winner is determined...

There are so many SEO agencies out there, large and small, all of them offering "the solution" that I "need".

The "trust factor" is what is killing me. I've come to the conclusion that I can't ever know for sure if any of them are competing with me on sites they may own and/or performing SEO on competing sites. I've decided that I'm going to keep things in-house for now.

Again, I really appreciate all of the replies, you've all given me a lot of important things to consider in the future.


 9:05 am on Mar 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

if you give up your client list you also risk your own clients being nagged by your competitors by those annoying please try us emails we are iso90001 qualified...

the other point is you might be doing different tasks for each client, so there is no overlap of information, but both clients benefit from your learnings...


 7:05 pm on Mar 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

I have a supplementary anecdote to tell: I have worked for an internet company in their SEO department; the company has specialised in a certain industry and had a regional focus. Even though they did not operate websites on their own (despite of me suggesting right that for reasons that have been brought up in this thread), many potential customers were hesitant to hire the company BECAUSE of its experience in their industry. Doing SEO for a website is a business in which a lot of sensitive information is revealed; you might not want to give access to your best traffic sources, keywords, link partners to somebody who also works for your competitor.

A particular problem of the company was the high fluctuation among its staff: 25 members, about one who cancelled per month on average, which I followed over the course of 2 years (freelancers not counted). That is a lot of inside knowledge evaporating away - and maybe condensing with somebody who will take advantage of it to your harm.


 9:12 pm on Mar 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

It also works both ways,

You can sign up for an SEO, see what they are doing monthly, and then cancel and do the work yourself, which is pretty doable if you have the time. This wont keep you up on the latest trends however. You will probably also find that they don't reveal their true secrets so easily, but rather keep those for themselves and just do things you already know how to do.

This 31 message thread spans 2 pages: 31 ( [1] 2 > >
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