Search Engine Optimization

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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Is Your Website Optimized for Google Instant Previews?

Posted on January 27, 2011. Filed under: Search Engine Optimization, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

How many times have you clicked on a link in your Google search results only to find that webpage didn’t have the information or the item you wanted?

These things happen.

No matter how good the search engine, it’s not a mind reader. Only you know exactly what’s most relevant for your particular purposes.

Goggle Instant Previews helps boost the relevance of click-throughs

It would be nice to only click-through to webpages that meet your needs, and apparently Google thinks so, too. That’s why it rolled out Instant Previews, which gives you a sneak peek of your search results.

You’ve likely seen the preview tool; it’s a magnifying glass that appears next to title links in Google search results. Click on the magnifying glass, and presto, you get a graphical representation of that webpage while you’re still viewing search results. With some webpages the preview may also highlight text items relating to your search terms. Between the visual sneak peek and those text highlights, you can quickly compare all your search results to help determine which ones are best for you.

Here’s an example of results for the search query “best restaurants in Philadelphia” where I’ve highlighted the Instant Previews icon:

If you click on the magnifying glass next to the link for Le Bec Fin, you see the homepage to its website, with an announcement about the menu, plus a quote from a food critic.

FYI, Google decides if text appears in a preview. In this case, it’s a kudo from a food writer, which makes for a nice plug that can influence your decision on whether or not to visit this fancy French eatery. Right away, you have a positive impression.

Now, suppose you want to preview the other sites. Well, then your results vary. Take a look at what comes up when you preview Morimoto:

Not much to go by there. That’s because the site is built with Flash, which Instant Previews does not currently support. It doesn’t read Java applets or Silverlight, either.

Any areas Instant Previews can’t read on a website appear blank. If it can’t read any of your site, it looks like Morimoto’s. Then you’ll miss out on any potential benefit that comes from Instant Previews. And you may even forfeit business to an enterprise with a website that renders properly in preview.

Think about it: If you have several choices, and you’re deciding which to pick based solely on what you can glean from the web, and one choice instantly offers a better presentation, don’t you think you might favor the place that gives you the most confidence from the start?

Give your website an Instant Previews check-up

Google claims Instant Previews will “match your query with an index of the entire web, identify the relevant parts of each webpage, stitch them together and serve the resulting preview completely customized to your search—usually in under one-tenth of a second.”

That’s darn fast. Any website takes longer than one-tenth of a second to load. Once you get into the habit of previewing, you’re likely to keep at it. I use previews a lot, and I am surely not alone in this regard.

Which means, if you have a website, you need to pay attention to how it renders in Google Instant Previews. And not just the homepage, but all of the pages, because people can enter your site in any number of ways when coming through a search engine.

In fact, check it right now. See if there are any problems. If so, you should consider making changes to your site’s code so that it can play well with previews. Anything that diminishes your search result can hurt your click-through rate.

Can Instant Previews affect your site’s search rank?

I first found out about the potential for problems with Google Instant Previews from an article by my Twitter pal, internet marketing and SEO consultant, Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe). In his post, Google Instant Previews — Great Functionality or a Signal Back to the Mothership, Glenn suggests that Google might even use previews for its own purposes. He writes:

“It’s hard to ignore the fact that instant previews can send a powerful signal back to Google about the relevancy of the search results. For example, if a page is ranking near the top of the search results, but really shouldn’t (because it’s spammy, the page owner gamed Google’s algorithm to get there, etc.), then Google could start to identify these pages via monitoring low click-through rate via instant previews. For example, imagine a page with 175K impressions in organic search, with 3500 instant preview triggers, but no click-through. That very well could raise a red flag to Google.”

If Google does wind up utilizing Instant Previews as yet another way to determine relevance for certain keywords, that’s just one more reason to be sure your site is up to preview snuff.

More information on Google Instant Previews

For website owners:

Google has a FAQ about instant previews that can help you understand how it works and how you can adjust your website so that it renders properly in preview mode.

For the general web user:

Google provides a good explanation of instant previews, including a short video, on its official blog.

Have you used Google Instant Previews? Has it changed the way you search the web? Please share your thoughts and  comments.

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Can Bad Word Of Mouth Boost Your SEO?

Posted on November 29, 2010. Filed under: Search Engine Optimization | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Pitcher of lemonade with lemonsDo complaints registered online against your company actually boost your business’ search engine rank?

One retailer, who goes out of his way to rankle customers, swears this is true.

Business owner provokes customer complaints, on purpose

An article in the New York Times, penned by David Segal and titled “A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web,” reports that the owner of an online designer eyeglass purveyor is using the unconventional tactic of inciting bad word of mouth to increase his search engine rank.

This merchant is downright gleeful when disgruntled customers complain about his company on the web. He even gloated about it online, where he boldly proclaimed, “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”

Exploiting a SEO loophole

I’ll refrain from printing the name of the business owner, or the company — why play into his hand? The guy practically encourages customers to kvetch about his shoddy service on consumer advocacy and consumer review sites. He told the Times reporter, “I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”

One factor that’s known to affect search engine rank is how many times your name is mentioned and linked to on the web. More mentions and more links, especially from sites that a search engine views as reputable, means you get more points in the SEO-meter. The bigger a reputable site is, all the better. Plenty of mentions about your business on a busy well-regarded consumer site garner lots of referral points from a search engine.

It does not seem to matter if the mentions are positive or negative.

Does Google factor in sentiment analysis?

Thumbs  Up and Thumbs DownThe Times reporter contacted the 800-pound search engine gorilla — Google — to ask if negative sentiment adversely affects its ranking system. Google doesn’t like to give away too many clues about how its algorithm works, and this instance proved no exception.

The reporter then contacted Danny Sullivan, who oversees the most excellent web site, Search Engine Land. Sullivan said he doesn’t think Google employs sentiment analysis, and he reckons that’s a good thing. Even so, Sullivan said he believes Google can do a better job of integrating consumer reviews of e-commerce sites, much like it already does with local business search results.

Until that happens this mischievous retailer benefits from angry customers venting their frustrations online.

Page one or bust

The notion of using negative sentiment to your advantage isn’t new. We’ve got that old saw: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Celebrities are often accused of doing bad things just to get their name in the press. The tactic may not always work as planned, but many times their stars do rise.

The art and science of search engines being able to serve up the most relevant results in the optimum order is improving, but in the scheme of things, it’s still got a ways to go. When researching topics, many is the time I wind up finding the most pertinent link on the second and third page results.

The vast majority of searchers don’t go beyond page one. If you can game the search engines your search rank rises, even if your lofty position is based on consumer complaints.

The situation may be outrageous, but apparently not egregious enough to get a business penalized by Goggle’s algorithm. FYI, Google does claim to punish your site if it catches you engaging in certain unscrupulous black-hat search engine tactics.

Turning lemons into lemonade

Meantime, that Times’ article that hardly paints a positive picture of the eyeglass enterprise? Well, the story mentions the owner’s name and that of his company numerous times. It includes lots of relevant keywords. That means more links and mentions from a leading reputable news source.

Talk about squeezing out search engine juice.

– Deni Kasrel

Should search engines factor in negative sentiment? Is this guy just playing by the rules? What do YOU think?

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Maximize Your SEO: Grab It By The Long Tail

Posted on February 22, 2010. Filed under: Best practices, Search Engine Optimization | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

If you’re hip to search engine optimization (SEO) then you know the importance keywords play in the process.

You think about things like keyword density – a ratio representing total number of words on a page divided by the number of times a given keyword (a word or phrase someone types into a search box) appears on that same page.

You want to strike a balance between strategically including keywords enough times that search engines see your page as relevant to the term you want to rank for, while keeping in mind the content needs to be useful and enjoyable to the reader.

Along with website text, it’s important to include keywords in page titles, navigational links, meta tags, meta description tags and ALT image tags.

This is basic SEO.

Length of the average search query is getting longer

One thing even those who know SEO can fail to take into account is the need to incorporate terms of three, four or even eight words. Then you’re really capitalizing on how people search online.

A survey by Hitwise shows there’s a nice amount action to be had with longer keyword phrases.

Longer queries bring more targeted results

Based on my own experience this is surely so. I use longer search queries because they tend to bring up more relevant results. This makes sense, of course – I’m giving the search engine more specific details about what I’m looking for.

Also, if I look at the statistics for this blog, The Communications Strategist, I see a fair amount of traffic comes from queries of between four and six words.

Bottom line: If you want to maximize SEO take advantage of the multiple keyword factor.

This is what’s known as catching the long tail — meaning you’re going for precise phrases, sometimes referred to as problem/solution specific keywords, that individually make up a small volume of search activity, yet when added together generate a sizable chunk of web traffic.

For example, if someone is interested in business financing, a short tail search term could be “business loan” while on the long tail there’s something like, “how to get a small business loan with bad credit.” It’s a more targeted type of search.

One size does not fit all

Then too, you need to take into account where your audience is located. Apparently, Americans are wordier with search terms than people in Canada or the U.K. Take a look at this chart, also from Hitwise:

So fine-tune your keyword strategy to suit your target audience. Keep in mind global differences. With certain locales on this good earth the more particular the better, while for other places less is more.

– Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think? Do your online search habits reinforce the research cited in this post? Have you used longer keywords as part of an SEO program? Please share your stories. Comments welcome.

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Real-Time And The Search For Relevance

Posted on December 10, 2009. Filed under: Commentary, Search Engine Optimization | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

If you’ve used Google this week, you may have noticed a “Latest results” section where content is delivered in a dynamic stream. These are real-time updates pulled from various sources, including social media and news sites.

There’s a scroll bar — you can move it up or down to see more items, and if you click the “Latest results” header link, or click “Latest” in the left-hand search options menu, you’ll get a full page of up-to-the-minute results.

The new real-time feature is in response to growing public desire for instant up-to-the minute information; and by the popularity of Twitter, in particular. There’s even a joke going around that if you haven’t heard about something on Twitter, then it hasn’t happened yet.

Google is following the trend.

Millions of changes a day

Earlier this week Google’s blog featured a post titled Relevance meets the real-time web, which explains the how and why of its entry into real-time search.

The company touts its accomplishment, which we are told, is:

“based on more than a dozen new search technologies that enable us to monitor more than a billion documents and process hundreds of millions of real-time changes each day.”

Sounds like a heck of a lot processing, but then, Google’s business is based on crunching billions of bits of information on a regular basis — as of June of this year its engine was estimated to receive 304 million searches per day.

Of course, the results returned for those searches were based on a lag-time between when a piece of information first hits the web and when it gets indexed.  If you searched for a specific term on one day, and then a week later, the results were often similar.

As of December 7, with real-time search, Google tells us:

“Now, immediately after conducting a search, you can see live updates from people on popular sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, as well as headlines from news and blog posts published just seconds before. When they are relevant, we’ll rank these latest results to show the freshest information right on the search results page.”

What defines relevancy?

The algorithm for Google’s search engine is tip-top secret (sort of), not to mention constantly changing. However, it is commonly understood that if others think you are worthy — say by linking to your website, or your link in search results gets lots of clicks/traffic — this can help raise your rank in the search engine results page. And yes, there’s more to it and that I am way over-simplifying, still, the gist is that indicators of quality and/or popularity matter.

With real-time flow of information it’s challenging to ascertain what’s deemed good quality. Sure you’ve got retweets, tags, bookmarks and social news sites that can infer a degree of popularity (which is not the same as quality, to be sure). There’s also authority of domain to go by. Regardless, the concept of relevance is harder to pin down when messages are pumping out at a furious pace.

For  instance,  a search for “obama” on the day President Barack Obama personally received the Nobel Peace Prize, you get real-time results like this:

Whatever the result, it moves by fast. If one item offends, or is of little interest, count to three and something new comes into view.

It’s an intriguing way to measure the popular zeitgeist.

And if nothing else, Google’s real-time search results prove that what’s news can merely mean what’s new, and what’s relevant is all relative.

– Deni Kasrel

What are your thoughts on real-time search? Does it really improve the search experience? Comments welcome.

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Three Fast Growing Trends You Need To Pay Attention To

Posted on September 2, 2009. Filed under: Search Engine Optimization, Social Media, Trends | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Future Street Sign - image by bigstock photoI enjoy listening to people postulate what will be the next big thing. These conversations make me feel like I’m in that scene from The Graduate where Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin Braddock he has just one word to say to him: “plastics.”

So what’s the word of today that’s got a great future?

Social media comes to mind (yeah, I know, that’s two words). But it’s really one of many trends that have broad implications for business and communications.

Here are three more to pay attention to:

Real-time web

This is so new there’s no agreement on a proper definition. It concerns the creation, search and conveyance of information in real time to enable instant interaction. Twitter is an example of the real-time web; which similar to instant messaging transmits back and forth almost asynchronously, only with Twitter the stream is made public.

Real-time web impacts the search industry. All major search engines employ indexing and there’s some lag time till information gets recorded and ranked. Meanwhile, Twitter offers real-time search. Analytics firms are venturing into the real-time realm to deliver instantaneous monitoring and metrics.

Crowdsourcing

A type of distributed collaboration that calls upon the collective wisdom of crowds. A company takes something that’s normally performed in-house, or by a third-party provider, and instead asks the public to do it.

Problems are announced in the form of an open call. Participants often create online communities, or crowds, to work on potential solutions. What’s interesting  is that those who successfully offer input need not be experts — they just need an idea that works. Non-technical individuals can solve computer engineering problems and an absolute amateur may have the best concept for your next product innovation.

Crowdsourcing can be cost efficient: Fees may or may not be paid for services rendered — prizes and recognition could be the only compensation — and even if they are, they’re usually well below the expense required to do the same thing in-house. Businesses also benefit by receiving ideas from many sources rather than from just within the organization. Jeff Howe is credited with coining the term for a 2006 article in Wired.

Latent semantic indexing

I wrote a post about latent semantic indexing in early August. The techy terminology relates to how search engines index and subsequently rank web pages.

LSI is important to understand for search engine optimization purposes.

Keywords are currently king with SEO, but they may need to share the throne with LSI, which is a way of scanning a page that takes into account both keywords and related terms.  For example, a web page about lighting fixtures might also logically include the words lamp, chandelier, dimmer, fluorescent and bulb.

The idea is for the search engine to take a holistic view of content and analyze it in a way that reflects real human thought rather than simply zero in how many times a particular keyword appears. One aim of LSI is to reduce faulty results that occur when searches are conducted for words with multiple meanings.

While search engine companies keep their special sauce (algorithms) close to the vest, word is that Microsoft’s Bing heavily relies on LSI.

For those who create web content, the takeaway here is that besides prominently featuring pertinent keywords, a web page must also include alternative and related terminology. Beyond creative writing skills a thesaurus comes in handy here.

– Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think of these fast growing trends that we need to pay attention to? What’s missing? Comments welcome.

Related posts:

Improve SEO Content Strategy By Thinking Beyond Keywords

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Improve SEO Content Strategy By Thinking Beyond Keywords

Posted on August 4, 2009. Filed under: Search Engine Optimization | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Keeping current with best practices for search engine optimization can feel like chasing a moving target. Search engines constantly adjust their algorithms with the goal of increasing the relevancy of search results as well as to thwart those who try to trick the system.

Keywords—words or phrases that describe the content of your site—remain a critical aspect of a successful SEO program. Your keyword list should comprise all the different word choices a person might use to find your product or service through a search engine. But keywords are not the be all end all.

The drum beat is growing for latent semantic indexing (LSI)
Lately a buzz is building over latent semantic indexing. A geek term if ever there was one, LSI is not new, but it’s becoming a bigger part of the SEO chatter.

You can explain LSI in complex terms—see the wikipedia entry— or Latent Semantic Indexing.com offers a simpler explanation:

“LSI, is a way for search engines to view and rank web pages in a more natural, or human, manner. Behind the scenes the LSI algorithms analyze pages not only for keywords, but also for synonyms and other related words which might be expected to be present.  For example, a web page about barbecues, when analyzed with LSI, should logically also contain such related words as “grill”, “patio”, “sauce”, “recipe”, “charcoal” and/or “smokers”.  In general, while we do not know the exact mathematical formula used for LSI, we do know that its real function is to determine if the content of a site is of value to the visitor or not.”

It’s the totality of the content that matters. For sure the search engine is scanning for keywords. But on top of that it’s looking for words and phrases with parallel meaning or contextural relevance (that’s what the semantic part refers to, which is defined as “of, pertaining to, or arising from the different meanings of words or other symbols”). With LSI a search engine is aiming to index in a way that mimics the response of an actual person. Think about it; when you read something and the same ol’ words keep appearing again and again, it tends to lose its relevance. It’s like, “Enough already, can’t you think of something else to say?”

Go beyond keywords
Admittedly, there’s debate as to whether or not search engines are capable of implementing sophisticated LSI. Still, there appears to be agreement that some level of LSI is currently being utilized.

Which means rather than duplicating a word or expression, it’s better to sprinkle in synonyms, complementary phrases and affiliated terminology. Yes, keywords are still vitally important for search engine positioning purposes and you should feature them prominently. But you must also think beyond keywords to offer a richer source of information.

This may take more creativity on your part but there is a payoff. Approaching web content in this way not only helps with your search engine ranking, it makes for more interesting copy. Interested readers stay on your site longer and are more likely to pay attention to what it is you have to say and to sell.

-Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think of this post? Comments welcome.

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