Archive for February, 2011

The Risk of Black Hat SEO (And How to Avoid It)

Posted on February 15, 2011. Filed under: Search Engine Optimization | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Photo of a criminal in a dark coatSnagging the top spot in search engine results is the ultimate aim of search engine optimization. If you hire a company to handle your SEO, you want them to do their best to get you there.

You would not expect that company to use unethical tactics to boost your search rank.

But if they did, and you secured the number one search result, would you care?

You should, because if Google catches you using black hat SEO — tricks that skirt the search engine’s guidelines—they’ll knock you off your high perch. You could be in for a steep fall, to include being removed from search index results, altogether.

The dark side of search engine optimization

A recent incident of SEO gone bad made for an intriguing story in the Sunday New York Times, where an article called The Dirty Little Secrets of Search revealed how the retailer J. C. Penney engaged in shady SEO. Or rather, a company J.C. Penny hired engaged in unscrupulous SEO.

This SEO outfit’s tactics led to J.C. Penney.com netting the number one organic search result for a host of search queries, including popular terms (“dresses,” “furniture”) as well as many others that lie on the long tail of search (“grommet top curtains”).

The primary black hat tactic used was to buy inbound links for JCPenney.com. An inbound link is a link on another website that points back to your site.

Not all inbound links are created equal

Inbound links can make a big difference in your Google search rank, because Google reads links from relevant sites that go to your site as a kind of endorsement. The more links leading from other sites to yours, the more points you get. If a linking site is perceived as a relevant authority on a given subject matter, then you get extra credit. For example, if you have a blog about investing, and the Wall Street Journal website links to yours, you get bonus points.

The SEO company hired by J.C. Penney hatched a scheme that garnered thousands of inbound links from websites that have no plausible reason to connect to the retailer — they paid low-end spammy sites to post links to JCPenney.com.

See no evil?

photo of baby with hands over eyesPenney’s reportedly fired those SEO shysters; after the New York Times contacted Google about their investigation that uncovered the scam, and, shortly thereafter, JCPenney.com’s organic search rank plummeted.

There’s been speculation as to whether Google knew about this link scheme but chose to let it slide, because Penney’s pours lots of money into its paid search program. Google swears paid search does not affect organic search results.

Meanwhile, J.C. Penney says it had no knowledge of the black hat scheme conducted on its behalf.  Not sure I buy that, but if it is true, then shame on the management for not having better oversight of their SEO efforts. The spectacular scope of all those number one search results should have raised a red flag.

Tips to avoid getting burned by black hat SEO

If you’re planning to outsource SEO efforts, here are tips to help ensure you don’t fall prey to nefarious operators:

1. Steer clear of anyone who guarantees the #1 spot on Google

While good SEO can get you a top rank, it can’t be guaranteed. Some companies go so far as to claim they have an “inside deal” with Google that can secure you special priority ranking. There is no such thing. If you hear this boast, give that business the boot.

2. Avoid companies that engage in link-buying schemes

This is what got J.C. Penney in hot water. Link buying is unethical. It may raise your rank in the short run, but once you’re found out, you suffer the consequences.

3. Beware of companies that offer to create fake “doorways” to your site

Certain black hat SEOers like to create lots of single page websites stuffed with relevant keywords and inbound links to your site. Because these pages exist solely to steer traffic to your website they offer no real value to web users. Expect a harsh penalty if Google sniffs out your dubious game.

4. Find out what information the company is willing to disclose

Prior to hiring an SEO provider, find out what information they’ll share. Will they tell you exactly what strategies they intend to employ? What keywords are they going to optimize for? What reporting statistics will they provide? Will they help you interpret the data?

SEO is not an undercover operation, and whomever you choose must be willing to divulge specifics about tactics and how they plan to measure success.

5. Don’t look the other way if you suspect shady business

If your SEO results seem too good to be true, they probably are. If you believe the firm you hired is using black hat tactics, show them the door, report them to The FTC, and take steps to correct any deceptive practices. Don’t just let it be.

As noted in Google’s search engine optimization webmaster tools, “Ultimately, you are responsible for the actions of any companies you hire”.

So what do YOU think? Have you ever come across anyone who deals in crooked SEO? Please share your stories.

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