Fear of a Black Hat

Ever wonder whether your Web site should take advantage of those offers to “get thousands of links for $39 a month!” and “move up in Google rankings—guaranteed!”? Before you go ahead and mail the check, better think about what you may be risking. Questionable search engine optimization tactics can get you banished from Google and Yahoo!—and that can cost you dearly in lost sales.

A recent story in the Wall Street Journal detailed the pitfalls for Web merchants who signed with a search engine optimization (SEO) firm without exercising due diligence about its tactics. The firm allegedly used optimization techniques that broke the rules laid down by the big search engines to ensure the relevance of their services. As a result, many of its clients found that their Web sites were bounced from Google, Yahoo! or both.

The apparent moral of the story is that Web operators must be careful about the outside firms they hire to optimize their sites to get indexed more and earn better natural rankings from the search engines. The search engines are watching, and if they detect any behavior they don’t like, it’s the merchants who will bear the brunt of the punishment.

Web optimization has a something of a checkered reputation. On the one hand, when it’s done well, it can make the Web a more efficient place to do business or conduct research. But optimization can also degenerate into a collection of black ops and programming tricks aimed solely at duping search engines into giving a Web page a higher ranking in results—and thus more visibility with searchers—than it deserves.

Many SEO experts themselves dislike the terminology, but merchants and advertisers should know that search optimizers commonly shake out into “black hats” and “white hats” according to their willingness to bend, or even break, the search engines’ rules for acceptable Web optimization.

Jim Hedger, an SEO expert with StepForth Search Engine Placement, admits he’s one of those practitioners who find the black hat/ white hat metaphor simplistic and distasteful. But he also doesn’t hesitate to say that optimizers who repeatedly use gambits to try to get around the search engines’ best practices create great difficulties for his firm and all the other SEO agencies that make up the white-hat ranks.

“I know a lot of people who’ve been in this business since the dawn of the commercial Internet,” he says. “We all follow the search engine guidelines to the letter. We provide a marketing service and improve accessibility to Web sites for both search engine spiders and humans. And I think the search engines actually like ethical SEO firms, because we help make better Web sites.

“But the scammers who’ve gotten into the game make it hard for the rest of us to do good business. Because of them, we’re all suspected of being dishonest, and most of us are not. We’re just Webmasters with a good eye for detail.”

SearchLine asked Hedger for a short list of some of the questionable SEO tactics that marketers should be leery of finding in their agency’s trick bag:

* “Doorway” pages or leader pages. These are pages that are packed with keywords, in order to throw the widest net possible and get picked up by as many search queries as possible. The more a doorway page shows up in results, the more it gets clicked, and thus the more popular it seems. But the keywords usually have next to nothing to do with the content of the Web site, and that irks the search engines, all of whom believe that their livelihood is serving up the most relevant results to their users.

A Web site may have hundreds of pages’ worth of these doorways, many of them in fact almost duplicates, just tweaked slightly to offer different densities of keywords. The idea is to take a shotgun approach: One of these pages will stick and show up in the search engine Web page index. Searchers who click on these useless pages may then get redirected to an actual index page or sometimes to a sales page; sometimes the doorway page itself contains a call to action intended to convert to a sale. “It’s a terrible approach,” Hedger says. “Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and Ask Jeeves all know to look out for this. You might not get caught right away, but as clients of a couple of major SEO-firm flameouts have found in recent years, you will get penalized eventually. It’s a dodgy tactic, no matter how elegantly it’s done, and it’s to be avoided.”

* Excessive and irrelevant linking campaigns. Search bots scout the Web by looking at incoming links, following them from the Web page and recording where they go and what kind of information is contained on that page. Again, Google and Yahoo! are on the lookout for irrelevant links intended not to lead visitors to useful content but simply to make the page look more popular and authoritative, thus raising its position in a natural search.

Some optimizers will construct massive networks of these irrelevant links, often using their other SEO clients’ Web sites to try to get the maximum lift for all their accounts. But the practice of trading links has been around almost as long as the Web, and informal or cooperative “link exchanges” have also offered to raise a site’s search prominence simply by adding a daisy-chain of links, most of which are questionably relevant to its content.

Again, the major search engines are aware of the practice and are either acting to eliminate it now or likely to do so. “Google is taking the lead in promoting link relevancy,” Hedger says. “They’ve had two recent [rankings] updates in the last three or four months that have been entirely focused on link evaluations.”

Google in particular looks at the content on the linked Web pages and assesses whether they fit contextually. If they do—such as an auto-parts dealer linking to spec sheets on the Web site of a brake-pad manufacturer–that can count as a point in your favor and contribute to a higher natural search rank; you’re providing your visitors with content that can help them or will interest them. But if that same auto parts dealer links to the Web site for a buddy’s burger joint across town—well, that’s a nice thing to do for a friend, but the search engines may consider it detrimental because it’s irrelevant.

Hedger advises steering clear of both link exchanges and links created by SEO firms simply to game the engines. Concentrate on finding and building links to content that your visitors will really use.

* Cold-calling SEO firms. Hedger says unsolicited sales calls from an SEO firm can be considered a sign that the agency may not be above using some questionable tactics in its work. “If a firm has to cold-call you, there’s a reason customers are staying away from them,” he says. “I don’t know of any company that prides itself on being an ethical SEO firm that actually hires employees to cold-call clients. Most of the successful ones are so busy that they’re turning potential clients away or referring them to other firms.”

Hedger suggests that if you are solicited out of the blue by an SEO firm, ask for testimonials from past or long-term clients. While some optimization clients will inevitably not want their names used as references, most reputable firms will have a list of five or ten satisfied customers who can give a feel for how the agency works. And make time to run down those clients. As an advertiser, you’re going to be spending anywhere from $1500 and $10,000 on your Web optimization. $1500 is easily worth 15 minutes on the phone to check an SEO agency’s bona fides.

Another tip from Hedger is to do a search on Google for the term “(SEO firm name) scam”. If any unfavorable information comes up, confront the agency with it. If their explanation isn’t satisfactory, find another agency.

Advertiser pages for all the major search engines include outlines of best optimization practices. But so far, the SEO industry has not been able to settle on its own set of professional guidelines, and that standards vacuum has created a range of possible answers to the ethical questions raised in Web optimization.

“There’s a real debate within the SEO community as to whether we owe the search engines any allegiance or even have to listen to their rules,” Hedger says. “Many of the older hands strongly believe that it’s wisest to work cooperatively with the search engines, since they own the real estate we work on. But others say that the search engines are commercial businesses that get their content from the open Web without permission or compensation, and that the SEO field therefore doesn’t owe them anything.”

That’s grounds for a fine philosophical debate. But it also carries a dollars-and-cents cost for marketers who find their Web pages dropped from search results pages for infractions against Yahoo! and Google SEO rules. Marketers shopping for an SEO firm probably want to make sure which side of that line their prospective agency is on before they sign a contract.

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