It wasn't until I started reading the emails that I received in response to that article that I began to realise that many other people also appeared to have been on the receiving end of similarly unethical behaviour.
One person who contacted me at that time was Mark Reeves from Glasses 4 Less. Mark had a website that had been built for him by a company that I shall refer to as company A. Company A, it turned out, actually owned (or were part of the same group of companies as) company B, the company that I had written about.
Company A build websites, provide hosting and domain name registration. Company B runs an online directory which charges people for real (and as it later transpired, sometimes imaginary) listings in their directory.
Company A had charged Mark a lump sum to build him a website as well as making monthly charges for hosting and advertising. Nothing wrong with that, apart from two minor points: one, the hosting fee was grossly over-inflated; and two, the advert he was paying for didn't actually exist.
Having had a difficult time with company A whilst they were building his website Mark decided that it would be a good idea to make sure that his domain name was actually registered in his name, just in case he wanted to transfer the domain to another provider or transfer the hosting of his site to another company.
It turned out that company A had claimed ownership of the domain and that, even though Mark had paid for it when it had been registered, he was now being told that he would have to buy the domain from company A if he wanted it to be in his name. Their charge for this was approx. £170.
Although Mark was none too happy at having to pay this amount, at least it meant that he had control of the domain – or at least that's what he thought, until he received another invoice less than a year later for another £170 to renew the domain. Astounded at the price they were charging for a domain name renewal I advised Mark to transfer his domain to another provider. It was then that we discovered his domain name was still registered to company A.
Eventually company A gave up control of the domain but not before they had made the process as drawn-out and complicated as they could and not before they had made yet another charge, this time for administration.
Some people may see no problem with charging £170 for something that costs £9, but personally I think it's outrageous.
Now I don't know whether there are more rip-off merchants selling Internet services than there are in other walks of life but it does appear that there a lot of crooks online, not least in the field of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).
One company I heard about had charged a client for generating incoming links and all they had done was create some new pages on the client's website and then filled them with links to gambling sites and Viagra sellers. Even if the client had been getting some reciprocal links out of the deal, they wouldn't have improved his search engine rankings and it wouldn't have looked good that overnight his site had spawned hundreds of outgoing links to suspect websites.
Another company charged a client for SEO work and all they did was build a load of new pages on his site that contained keywords for products that the client didn't even sell (thus breaking the number one rule of the SEO professional: get to know your client and understand what he or she is looking to promote).
The activities of another rogue trader came to light when the man in question emailed me asking for advice. I looked at his website and I could see that halfway down the page – it was one of those pages about a mile long with lots of text highlighted in yellow (I think you know the kind of site I'm talking about) – there was a picture of this guy standing next to an expensive car with a short biography next to it. In the biography it said that this guy was an SEO Expert of some 8 years standing who specialised in securing top ten search engine rankings for his clients. And this guy had approached me asking for help because his site was failing in the search engines! Then when I started to converse with him by email he said that he had to be wary because there were so many scammers out there! Too right there are.
SEO can be a difficult area in which to find trust. Firstly, as an SEO professional I know that there is no way I can guarantee a number one ranking in Google – nobody can. What I can do is do my best for my clients and use all of the knowledge that I have. But people often want guarantees and assurances because they are so wary of being ripped off.
Another problem with SEO is that many people don't understand the subject and wouldn't understand the mechanics of SEO if you explained it to them. This can leave people not knowing whether someone is genuine and knows what they are talking about or whether they are being fed a load of old BS.
On the other side of the coin I have to be on the look out for people trying to get something for nothing. If you know how to build a website and you can engage me in a conversation about SEO techniques then you stand a good chance of being able to get information for free that you can then use to go off and do the SEO work for yourself – in which case you won't need to employ me.
But if someone comes to me and asks me what they will get for their money I have to tell them something because they need to have confidence in me and know that I am not going to rip them off. So it's a difficult area to trade in. There are a lot of charlatans about and it can be difficult to find trust on either side.
The big question is: how do we know if we can trust someone who offers to do SEO work for us?
In many ways the same principles that would apply elsewhere also apply here. Did they approach you or did you contact them? Can they show any examples of their work? Do they have any testimonials from satisfied clients? Ask if you can speak to one of their clients to find out if they were happy with the work that was done. Are they making any wild claims or grand promises?
I still don't believe in bad-mouthing and naming companies that engage in unethical behaviour, but I do believe that people should be made aware of some of the bad practices they could be exposed to.