5 ways to tell if SEO will be a waste of your money

SEO is sold as the holy grail of digital marketing, but be warned, it’s easy to get scammed by vanity metrics that won’t make a difference to your bottomline. Before you spend a single dollar on SEO, read this guide.

It’s easy to see why SEO sounds like the magic wand of digital marketing. Just have a look at the stats from industry leaders: 

  • 93% of all experiences online start with a search engine. 
  • 75% of people never scroll past Page 1 of search engines. 

With this in mind, surely the race to Page 1 makes sense.  

After all, higher ranking = more traffic to your website = more conversions = more revenue, right? 

These stats definitely seem to indicate that is the case: 

  • 40% of revenue is captured by organic traffic
  • 14.6% of leads through SEO result in a sale. That’s compared to the measly 1.7% conversion rate of outbound leads such as direct mail.

If SEO is so great, why do so many businesses tell us it didn’t work for them? 

As an SEO agency in Singapore, we’ve met our fair share of local businesses who have tried SEO, got burnt and suffer from PTSD to this day. And it’s understandable, especially if you’ve invested all that money and these scenarios happened: 

  • Your website finally ranks on Page 1 but you never saw a significant growth in organic traffic. 
  • You’ve seen an improvement in all the key metrics (backlinks, organic traffic, bounce rates …) but it made no impact on the number/quality of leads you got.
  • You didn’t see any results whatsoever. 

These scenarios are more common than most businesses realise. SEO has always been shrouded in technical jargon making it hard for the layman to make well-informed decisions on which SEO agency to work with. 

Throw in the fact that SEO is a long game that can take up to months to see results, there is the real risk of spending all that money only to realise a year later that it amounted to nothing. 

But it’s not that SEO can’t drive real business results. It can.

And if it’s done by the right people for the right types of businesses, it can make a serious impact on business growth.

This is especially if you are a business that relies on your website to collect leads and drive revenue. 

You just have to wisen up and be able to sniff out the scam artists and snake oil salesmen. So if you are considering SEO, read on and be sure to ask the agency you speak to these five questions. 

1. What metrics do you think are the most important to measure when it comes to SEO? 

What you want to hear: “There are many metrics that matter but they all ultimately have to drive leads and sales.” 

The scam artist’s answer: One particular metric (eg: number of back-links, lower bounce rates, increase in rankings) 

The metrics listed above are important for SEO, for sure. And yes, Google does not hold all metrics in equal regard. But focusing on just one aspect of SEO is not going to cut it. 

For example, Google’s latest Page Experience update that is set to be completed in May 2021 will combine Core Web Vitals with existing signals (mobile-friendly update, page speed update …) to provide a holistic picture of the quality of UX on a web page. 

Here’s what the latest Google algorithm update means in normal English: 

Websites that have a lousy user experience, in particular on mobile, will fall out of Google’s favour. This update is a big shift in SEO. When the update is completed in May 2021, many websites will see their page rankings drop. 

With this update, there has been a lot of talk about the need to improve page-speeds. It is important (and has been for years, to be honest).

And it makes perfect sense — the faster your website loads, the better the overall user experience. 

But significantly improving that one aspect will not magically improve your page rankings. At the end of the day, Google is a search engine — its main goal as a service provider is to provide the best user experience. 

What qualifies as “best” in Google’s books is defined by many, many factors that are constantly evolving — whether Google can crawl and make sense of your website easily, whether the content on your website answers the search query well, whether strong and authoritative websites (also known as websites with high DA scores) have referenced your content (backlinks), whether the user experience on your website is  … to name a few. 

That’s why there is no one metric that matters over the rest when it comes to effective SEO — it is a holistic strategy.

But ultimately, what is the one metric that truly matters to any business? More leads/sales. 

More organic traffic/time spent on-site/page 1 rankings/[insert any one SEO metric here] means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t drive more leads or sales. 

That’s why you need to find an SEO agency who cares for your bottomline, and is able to come up with a strategy that will drive business results. 

Even if that strategy does not involve SEO. 

For example, it is a common complaint that SEO efforts have resulted in more organic traffic to the website but it’s not equating to more conversions. A lot of the time, it’s an issue that the website isn’t built for conversions.

In this case, a legit SEO agency will turn away your business and recommend you work with a web developer to fix the issues on your website before investing any money on SEO. 

2. How do you choose the keywords to target? 

What you want to hear: “We consider a few factors including relevance, keywords that imply purchase intent, traffic volumes and how competitive the keywords are.” 

The scam artist’s answer: “We can rank for anything you want” or “We target keywords with the most amount of traffic” 

Yes, you can rank for any keyword you want. But should you?

For SEO agencies that claim they can rank for anything you want, they’re not telling a lie. With deep enough pockets, you can rank for any keyword.. 

But the question is: Is this the best spend of your marketing dollars? 

Sure, a certain phrase might receive an immense amount of traffic but if it is also an insanely competitive keyword and you are up against big players with bigger budgets, you’re setting yourself up for a very long and expensive bidding war. 

A good SEO agency would advise you that if the keyword you are after is too competitive, it is not worth the investment it will take to rank. 

More organic traffic = more sales, right? WRONG.

For SEO agencies who focus solely on keywords with the highest traffic volumes, they miss the point of SEO. It is not about driving hordes of people to your website for the sake of it — it is about driving people with purchase intent to your website. 

Why? Because the ultimate goal of SEO is to drive sales leads and conversions. 

Think about it: People are doing searches on Google for ALL types of reasons. Good keyword strategy is all about getting into the headspace of your potential customers and determining which keywords have high commercial intent. 

Let us illustrate the point.

Say you work for a family law firm and your SEO agency has prepared a keyword list for you that includes the two search phrases below. 

“Singapore divorce law” 

“Divorce lawyer Singapore” 

For the sake of this example, let’s assume “Singapore divorce law” has a higher monthly search volume than “Divorce lawyer Singapore”. Which keyword do you think is going to drive more leads or sales?  

It’s safe to assume that people searching for “Divorce lawyer Singapore” are in the market looking for one, while people searching “Singapore divorce law” are looking for information around the topic.

The latter group might eventually decide they need your services after doing their research but they’re definitely not as close to becoming a lead on your website as the people who are searching “Divorce lawyer Singapore.” 

That’s why SEO keyword strategy needs to take into consideration purchase intent so that you drive people who are closer to converting to your website. 

3. What parts of SEO do you outsource?

You want to hear: An honest answer that can be backed up by evidence. For example, if the SEO agency outsources certain parts to other providers, they should be upfront and able to prove the providers’ credibility. If the agency claims to do everything in-house, they should be able to demonstrate end-to-end processes or in-house manpower. 

The scam artist’s answer: Any of the two answers above, without presenting any evidence. 

As with any partner you work with, you want your SEO agency to be transparent with you. 

There is nothing wrong with outsourcing parts of SEO to providers — it is common practice in the industry to reduce costs. And if the providers the agency works with are qualified, there’s little to worry about. 

However, there is one outsourced job that you should pay close attention to. It is one of the most commonly outsourced parts of SEO, and it is also where one of the biggest SEO messes happen. 

  • Link-building — Blasting out a ton of back-links in a short amount of time, spamming blogs or creating links that have no relevance to your business are some of the common practices of ill-qualified vendors. 

Be very careful — these practices are a fast-track to getting penalised by Google, and eventually, you’ll have to spend more money to get another SEO agency to clean up the mess. 

 4. What’s your link-building strategy? 

You want to hear: “We focus on building quality links between websites that add value to the user’s reading experience.”

The scam artist’s answer: Focuses on the sheer number of backlinks they can build in a short amount of time

We cannot emphasise enough how important good link-building practices are to your website’s SEO health.

On the flip side, how detrimental it is to your website’s ranking if it is done using tactics that try to game the system. The last thing you want is for your website to get penalised by Google. 

When talking to an SEO agency, these are the good practices you should be looking for: 

  • Links that are relevant to your industry, niche and target audience  
  • A focus on building links to websites with high domain authority (a website’s domain authority is a search engine ranking score. The higher the score, the more Google views the website as an authoritative source of information)
  • The emphasis on links to real websites — once again, trying to game Google’s algorithm is futile and puts you at risk of being penalised
  • Link-building that happens naturally over time 

5. How long will it take to see results?

You want to hear: “It depends on how competitive your industry is but as a general guideline, it can be anything from three to six months.” 

The scam artist’s answer: Any “instant” results 

“Three to six months” to see results is not the answer most businesses want to hear but it is the truth, so you should go into it eyes wide open. 

Think about it: there are limited spots on Page 1. To get on Page 1, means having to “push” someone else’s website off that list. 

For the purpose of demonstrating why “pushing” a website off Page 1 takes time, let’s narrow it down to just one component of SEO — building of backlinks. 

If you are new to the SEO game, especially in a competitive market, your competitors have had a head-start.

Catching up takes time — the SEO agency has to map out your keyword strategy, build out quality and relevant content on your website, and secure those backlinks to real websites with high domain authority. Once again, remembering that backlinks must be accrued naturally over time to prevent getting penalised by Google. 

Even when that’s all done, it’s not like Google is at your beck and call. You can submit a request to Google to re-index your website but according to Google itself, that can take anything from a few days to a few weeks. 

Bear in mind that we’re only talking about one component of SEO strategy right now.

When you include all the other optimisations that are required to drive results (on-site technical fixes, website user experience, content creation … to name a few), you start getting an idea of why there are no quick fixes to SEO. 

However, because SEO is a long game, it can reap long-term wins. But that also also means long-term investment.

So before you spend any money on an SEO agency, arm yourself with information so you can ask the right questions, sniff out the BS, and make well-informed decisions for your business.

Arm your team with SEO knowledge with a free 60-minute training session worth $1,125

This course is conducted by our in-house SEO consultants and is designed to up-skill your marketing team and help you make more well-informed decisions when it comes to SEO. 



In this session, you will learn: 

  • The basics of SEO — what is it, and why is it important?
  • SEO strategy — the four key components that have to work together to boost your site’s ranking
  • How to measure and track the success of your SEO efforts

PLUS, you will also get: 

  • An SEO technical audit of your website worth $600
  • A personalised consultation on how to improve your SEO efforts, regardless of whether you’re currently doing it in-house or working with an agency

If you’d like to sign up for the free training session, please fill up this questionnaire here so that we can tailor the curriculum to your team’s needs. 

After you have submitted the form, we’ll be in touch to schedule a time for your training session. 

Joey Wang

Joey Wang

Joey is captain of Appiloque's spaceship. He spends his time charting the company's future and spearheading innovation projects that make business sense. Occasionally, he gets mistaken for a computer since he doesn't need a calculator and overheats when running too many processes.

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