Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is critical to small-business growth. It’s how well your website ranks when customers search your industry. Good SEO is the result of art and science, but few business owners truly understand the process. That misunderstanding has spawned an entire industry of SEO tricksters flooding the market with offers, threats and empty promises of silver-bullet solutions.

Unsolicited emails often claim to have discovered fatal flaws deep inside your site and only their special-sauce coding will transform your rankings. I get these pitches daily, and I know well that nothing was discovered and they have no legitimate solution.

Other vendors sell high-value backlinks. These are links to your site from credible third-party sites, such as Buzzfeed. Search engines like Google recognize legitimate links as validation that your site is important and connected, which can increase your rankings.

But few, if any legitimate links are for sale. Google identifies these sites as “link farms,” which sell access for SEO value. In some cases, SEO providers have hacked into high-value sites in order to sell illegal access to them. When unsuspecting businesses link back from these sites, it’s the digital equivalent of receiving stolen property. Google is well aware of these tactics, too.

Companies in India, China and the Philippines once maintained armies of freelance PC users who sat at home, dutifully clicking away at their clients’ sites from around the globe, each for a tiny fee. The sudden bursts of web traffic drew attention from the search engines and raised rankings.

But the search engines eventually figured out the games. They’ve advanced their algorithms and now know what’s real and what’s not. Not only did Google stop rewarding the gamesters, it started penalizing them and those associated with them.

Last year, Google caught JCPenney trying to cheat SEO through manipulative practices. The search engine deliberately dropped Penney’s site below page 5 on all key search terms until the retailer cleaned up its act, according to Forbes. In the search world, page 5 is a deserted island.

Search penalties can come in many forms. Page 5 is a high price, but Google might resist allowing your site to rise naturally if it senses manipulation.

Many SEO firms now link their clients’ sites to dozens of so-called list sites. These are sites that do little more than list companies in certain industries, often for a fee. Joining these lists might produce short-term results, but Google and the others increasingly see through that strategy, leaving participants vulnerable.

Google, Bing and Yahoo, which comprise the vast majority of search traffic, all began penalizing sites attempting workarounds. Through highly advanced algorithms, Google in particular understands language, nuance, word choice, relationships and viewer engagement. It knows English, as well as dozens of other languages, better than most native speakers do. It understands what’s real and what’s not. It knows who is reading your content and if those people truly fit your profile. Google understands these differences in ways most people can’t comprehend.

Long-lasting, effective SEO takes time and hard work. It’s slow. There are no shortcuts. What Google and other search engines prefer is authentic, original and credible content that engages real people who are relevant to your organization. It is no different than building a brand. It takes time and energy.

A law firm, for instance, might establish backlinks from its local bar association, legal journals and media stories about legal issues. These activities legitimately raise the firm’s rankings. That same firm, however, linked to 20 sites in Bangladesh that peddle cell-phone cases and soccer jerseys, tell Google a different story.

The growing need for new and relevant content has created another new SEO industry: SEO bloggers. These are writers, often inexperienced, who draft stories solely to raise rankings. Each week, they create generic copy packed with key search terms about your industry. One company recently developed software that generates SEO articles without human intervention, based only on search terms. It’s just a matter of time before Google renders that business obsolete.

SEO bloggers can provide some value, but generic SEO copy does little to build a brand, and eventually Google will rein in that practice, too. SEO writers typically don’t know or care about your unique message or your company’s value proposition. They fill space and populate search terms to appease the Google gods.

New content, whether articles, videos, photos or social posts, should speak to your audience in ways that engage prospects and represent the company’s unique attributes. Interestingly, Google is figuring this out, too. Content created merely for SEO is now subject to ranking penalties.

Content should appeal to your audience on multiple levels. It needs to be interesting, relevant and informative. Audiences must engage. Google not only knows if people engage, it knows if those people are important to your industry.

A butcher shop that ranks well among vegetarians is pointless. Google knows prospective customers based on individual search history, online behavior and myriad other factors derived from big data collected on everyone.

Because SEO has become such a complex and sophisticated endeavor, it should always be part of a larger marketing effort. Branded content should be created organically and then repurposed through a number of channels, such as email, social media, traditional media and web content. The SEO tail should never wag the marketing dog.

If someone tells you your site has fatal flaws, ask them what they know about your business and what you’re trying to accomplish. If they know only analytics, there is likely a problem.