We see a lot of pre-packaged, so-called "standardized" online marketing packages for SEO. They should be avoided at all costs. Not only can these waste time and money -- it can actually hurt your website in the long run.

If you are thinking about working with a SEO company, they should be transparent, have a clear track record, offer customized planning and pricing and long-term planning.

1. Pre-packaged or bundled SEO solutions. Pre-packaged SEO is not a viable solution to grow your business in this day and age. In the late '90s and early part of the millennium, it was possible to “blast” links pointing your website to hundreds or even thousands of websites and see long-lasting results. Some SEO agencies will still offer this practice as part of their pre-packaged solutions, but be weary of the problems that can come from it:

  • Leads aren't qualified: Not all website traffic is the same. Pre-packaged SEO eliminates the all-important experimentation aspect that separates the professionals from the rookies. It is critical for an SEO agency to outline and continuously tweak the online-marketing strategy to increase website visitors into sales.
  • Temporary results: If links to your website are also being blasted to other websites, you may see results -- but these are only temporary. After a while, Google’s algorithm will catch on to your website’s “unnatural link building” and penalize your website search-engine rankings back to ground zero.
  • Blacklisted website: If you are part of a long-term pre-packaged SEO solution, there’s a great chance that Google will blacklist your website so that it doesn’t even show up in search when people type in related keyword.

Prior to doing business with any SEO agency, ask if they have provided SEO solutions in your market, but most importantly, if they have examples or references they can give you. They should be happy to provide them, along with a process for how to reach your specific goals under specific timelines.

Related: Why Cheap, Outsourced SEO Will Cost You in the Long Run

2. Manual submission services. Submission services are geared toward publishing your website out to search engines, directories, article networks and the like. With the intertwining of SEO and social-media signals (Facebook likes/shares, Tweets, etc.), it is critical that your SEO service provides sound business and market strategies, high-quality content and attract links from other people -- as opposed to link-spamming practices. Adding a blog and building authority is a good option. Think strategically about this, do the research and add the tactics into a plan.

3. Guaranteed first-page rankings. When it comes to guaranteed rankings, it is usually a scam. Why? Even if they are able to guarantee the results to your company, what happens when a competitor wants the same keyword? Who receives priority? Does it turn into a bidding war? What if you lose the bid? Will the SEO company delete your links after their program is over?

Guaranteed rankings are not something that should ever be promised. The best way to achieve first-page rankings is to do a technical audit on your site. This is something you can take on yourself (or you can have the SEO company audit for you) with the use of Google Keyword Planner or SEM Rush. These online tools will help you research the highest performing pages in web analytics to see where you can improve. Start simple and make sure that you review:

  • on-page factors (tags, keywords, internal links, site structure)
  • possible existing duplicate content
  • possible competing pages for the same keyword(s)
  • your external link profile, and your competitors

4. Insider knowledge claims. There are many companies who claim to know someone at Google or to have insider information about the formula. Many employees at Google do not know all the exact details of the algorithm, so it would be impossible for someone on the outside to know. The only insider knowledge for a great SEO professional is based on ongoing experimentation.

To learn more about the knowledge and skill of the agency or SEO professional you’re interested in working with, ask for case studies, check out some of their previous work, ask for referrals and call them up. Remember, case studies and hands-on experience is what makes an SEO agency great. Asking them for a light audit is another great way to get a feel for their skill level.

5. Paid advertising sales. The sales pitch sounds amazing. You sign up and tell your friends about the incredible offer, “first-page rankings in hours,” only to quickly learn that they were not offering SEO services, but rather paid advertising services. They claim that it affects organic rankings (it does not).

Related: Avoid This Big Mistake When Optimizing Your Site for Search

Avoid confusion and be very clear on what the offer is, what you’ll receive, and the expectations on both sides. Make sure to ask about the natural search-results process. I advise you to walk away from firms like these. They are trying to create a package that is hard to refuse. Their sales teams only care about commissions and don’t offer anything for your SEO.

6. Too much focus on “technical SEO.” Services from questionable companies often include the importance of technical aspects of SEO. These companies will offer to have your meta tags fixed, add H1 tags and update your sitemap. They claim that by fixing all the technical issues you’ll get quick rankings and traffic.

Beware! An experienced SEO firm will outline issues and plans for both technical and strategic reasons. A real partner for search-engine results must include customized, strategic plans that work for your business and market. They should work closely with you to understand your business, sales, conversion strategies, content strategies, website tracking and page effectiveness, PR, marketing and overall growth plans.

Good firms become an essential partner in not only providing guidance, but planning, executing and reporting with your team. This covers all the technical details as well as working to reach your online company objectives.

Check the reputation of the company. Generic advice would be to go to Google and type in “Company Name + Scam.” This is no longer the case as many companies have dedicated online reputation-management efforts.

The best way to check the reputation of the company is to ask about specific past clients and to actually review the work yourself, and if you can contact referrals. You should determine the next course of action based on the results of these conversations.

Ask the tough questions. One of the worst things you can do is to deal with an SEO agency that simply “spins” low-quality content and puts it on your website. Be sure to ask about the content creation process.

  • Is the content 100 percent original? What is the process of content creation?
  • What are your ranking methods? Does the company use a "white hat" approach or does it use "black"?

When you’re ready to enter a new working relationship, be sure to understand that achieving first-page rankings with long-term results will take time. Your new SEO partner will need your help along the way and this will require you to provide information and feedback. The responsibility for success lies largely with you.

Related: Foster Organic Traffic in a Crowded Internet With These 6 Steps