SEO works in mysterious ways to most business owners, which is why the SEO industry is thriving. It is also why unethical SEO businesses are thriving. SEO is extremely complex, so much so that it keeps very experienced practitioners on their toes. Google’s algorithms and Facebook’s predictive AI are not constants that can be relied on time after time. Moreover, judging whether your SEO is performing as promised is complicated. Many businesses only find out they are not ranking highly when their business results decline. A decline in business is not what companies pay SEO service providers to achieve.

Most businesses are approached regularly by SEO companies by email warning of problems in their rankings and promising to achieve spectacular results. Many are approached over and over again by the same SEO companies. This is red flag #1. Ethical SEO companies don’t have to send spam email.

There is a simple way to find out if an SEO company is ethical, is competent, will meet your needs and can achieve your goals. It’s by asking just five questions. The answers that hallmark an ethical company might be surprising. Pay attention to the red flags below:

Question 1: Can you guarantee that my website will rank #1?

The answer,Absolutely!” is a red flag.

The question is impossible to answer. Organic search positions are determined by Google and only Google knows the answer. A reputable SEO company will not promise specific rankings. Instead, you should receive a realistic idea of the kind of results you can expect and when to expect them. The answer should include an explanation of the factors that can affect your position most. These will be competitors, keyword competition, the location of each searcher, searchers’ search history and algorithm changes.

Question 2: How many backlinks can we expect per month?

The answer, “Thousands!” is a red flag. So is “hundreds”. So is any specific number.

A reputable SEO company will give you an estimate of how many links it can provide based on your budget. It will also explain what a quality link is, what gaining a link involves and the type of links it plans on building for you. Bad links can land you in trouble with Google and Google has a long memory. The best SEO company will name some high quality opportunities for your business and industry.

Question 3: Will you take me through some case studies and allow me to speak to the client involved?

The answer, “We can only provide case studies,” is a red flag. Case studies are easy to manipulate.

A reputable SEO company can afford to be open, honest and transparent. That includes having past and present clients endorse its worth.

Question 4: Can you give me a break down of the specific SEO tasks? What exactly will you do for me?

The answers, “It’s too complex,”, “We don’t reveal our strategies,” or “We don’t give away our intellectual property,” are red flags.

If a company can’t tell you exactly what your SEO strategy will entail to achieve your goals, from allocated hours to resources used; if it can’t explain that, and why, your strategy might evolve over time; if it can’t provide a detailed breakdown of what it will do for your money, don’t give that company your money.

Question 5: How are you going to prove that the campaign is successful?

The answer, “You will know when it happens,” (or similar), is a red flag.

The SEO company should be able to report monthly on what it has done and provide an analysis of the results. It should explain how it will track your rankings, traffic and conversions. You should be given an initial benchmark report which outlines how your website is performing currently and sets out some KPIs towards which it will be working.

Keep your ear out for buzzwords. These tend to be used to obfuscate. If you don’t understand a word or a phrase, ask for clarification in simple English. If it doesn’t come clearly, red flag #7.

Avoid SEO companies that try to lock you into 12 month, 2, 3 or 5 year contracts. These long, lock-in contracts are a common tactic used by unethical, underperforming SEO companies. Red flag #8

If you sense that an SEO company is hiding anything. ANYTHING, however insignificant, red flag #9. It’s sure to be hiding things you need to know as well.

If the SEO company tells you don’t need to know how to assess your SEO, red flag #10. If it offers to provide you and your team with basic SEO education and analytics training so that you can, bonus points.

Harry Sanders is founder of SEO company, StudioHawk.