The risks and rewards for finding the right search engine optimization (SEO) company are high. The right SEO partner can increase your brand awareness and make it easier for customers to find you online. The wrong SEO company can cause you to drop in rankings and eat through your marketing budget.

How can you be sure you’re hiring the right SEO vendor? Here are four indicators an SEO company is on the up and up.

  1. The SEO vendor won’t guarantee you a spot on the first page of Google, and they talk about increasing your rankings taking months, if not years.

SEO is complicated because there are things you can control and things you can’t.

Search engines are secretive about their algorithms, but we know there are 200+ variables that go into page rankings. What’s more, a site can rank differently on desktops versus mobile devices.

The internet is an dynamic space where millions of companies fight for attention. Yes, you can optimize your website and use keyword-rich copy, but your competitors may be doing the same.

At the end of the day, an SEO vendor cannot control your position in a search result. And, it can take months of testing to find the right formula for your company and your market. Good practitioners know this and set expectations accordingly.

  1. They don’t guarantee backlinks or recommend using misspelled words.

Disreputable SEO companies often use “black hat” strategies to gain a short-term boost in rankings.

One such tactic involves registering your site with “free,” low-quality sites or ones in an irrelevant industry, which may give you a short-term bump but could hurt you in the long run.

Another black-hat tactic is to add misspelled words to your site because those misspellings are popular search terms. Misspellings make your site and company appear unprofessional.

Good backlinks come from offering useful content on your site, which requires time and hard work. When others find value in your information, they’ll link to your site from theirs.

Seasoned SEO professionals know the right way to get links and won’t recommend any strategies that could cast your business in bad light.

  1. They spend lots of time getting to know your company. 

If a potential SEO vendor says they can run a few keyword reports and don’t need to meet with your company’s leaders or key employees, beware. A good SEO partner needs time to analyze your company’s offerings, your customers and your competition. What’s more, they’ll need to conduct A/B testing to find what works in your environment.

  1. They aren’t the cheapest, or most expensive, SEO company.

An SEO company that charges the most isn’t necessarily the best. They might be. Or, they may be better suited to a larger company with more complex needs.

Also avoid the bare-bones SEO company. These vendors often use illegal techniques to get short-term results.

Think it’s not a big deal to try and game the system? Once your company gets caught (and you will get caught), search engines penalize you by removing you entirely from search results. Black-balled sites may also be barred from sending marketing emails. Getting off such lists can take weeks, if not months, and costs even more money.

Look for a mid-priced company with experience in your industry or with companies your size. Ask for references and check them.

Copley Broer is CEO of RadPad, a marketplace for renters and landlords to find apartments, sign leases, and pay rent, and LandlordStation, an online solutions provider for small and mid-sized landlords and property managers. He is a thought leader in the use of technology in real estate.