What good is a site if no one can find it? That’s one of the basic premises behind search engine optimization, or as it is commonly called, SEO. Websites that rank higher in search engine results pages get far more hits than those sites buried several pages back. So ever since the dawn of search engines, clever webmasters have been tinkering away at finding the best ways to get their sites ranked higher, and in turn increase its traffic and visibility. It’s a race to the top, and as in any kind of competition there are things you can do to boost your chances of “winning”. Some, however, are more dangerous than others.
There are some very basic things that everyone should do to their sites to optimize them to at least a bare minimum level. That would include such things as making sure you have meta tags for descriptions and keywords, different title tags for each page of your site, and alt tags for all images on your site. A sitemap will help spiders effectively crawl your site and better ensure that all pages are indexed properly, and a robots.txt file will help keep spiders out of places that you don’t want them going. Various redirects, such as 301 and 302 redirects, will help people and bots find moved or renamed pages on your site. These are amongst some of the most basic things that you can do to your site to begin optimizing it, and all of them are pretty safe and harmless.
As you begin to move onto more advanced SEO topics, you will undoubtedly uncover some techniques that sound like a good idea, but are really just dumb. Some of these techniques may be tempting to try, but are they worth it? What is the risk involved, and how easily will they get you banned from the likes of Google? What SEO techniques should you avoid?
Hidden Text is a huge no-no. You as a human might not be able to see the white text on a white background, but you can bet that the bots can and you will get penalized for it. Think about it: bots are automated and they cannot “see” a page as we humans would, therefore they are reliant upon the source code of your site. Text that is the same color as the background sets off alarm bells. It’s not a clever way to stuff your site with extra keywords. It’s also something that you really want to watch out for. A site with less than adequate security can easily be exploited and injected with tons of spammy hidden text, so it’s a good thing to regularly check your logs and source code to be on the lookout for these things. Google doesn’t care if someone else did it to you – all they know is that it’s there, it’s bad, and you will punished for your ignorance.
This is a hotly debated topic. Is it or is it not alright to boost your rankings by purchasing links on high authority, high traffic, and high PageRank sites? Personally I think it’s alright. Google believes otherwise, and unofficial Google spokesman Matt Cutts has made an issue of it.
Putting aside the question of whether it is right or wrong, if it is something you choose to do, the stupidest thing that you could do would be to purchase a ton of links with the exact same anchor text. Did you just get 100 new links that all have the anchor text “blackhat fish”? If you did, shame on you. You just committed one of the cardinal sins of effective link buying.
If you’re going to go about buying links to your site, the key is to make it look as natural as possible, otherwise Google may slap you with a penalty. If you’re buying links purely for their link juice and not just for marketing and to get your name out, you want to make sure that none of these words appear near your newly purchased link: “sponsors”, “advertising”, “supporters”, and other similar words that might suggest your link was bought. This is why contextual linking within blog posts and articles has become so popular – it’s easy to sneak in a link, and if you throw in another link or two to some authority sites, it looks even more natural.
Instead of purchasing 100 “blackhat fish” links, why not try to mix it up a bit? Get a few “blackhat seo fish”, a few “blackhat fish”, and maybe even a couple “black-hat fish” or “black hat fish seo” links? Get the idea? Using similar anchor texts is alright, but using the SAME anchor texts will get you caught.
Never, ever buy a ton of links with the same text, and a lot of new links at all once might also raise some flags, so try to spread your efforts out over a period of time. Be patient, be smart, and don’t be stupid.
Cloaking is the practice of showing different content to the spiders that crawl your site than you show to your actual human users. Search engines don’t like it one bit, and no matter whether your intentions were pure or deceptive, they won’t care – you will be slapped with a penalty when they find out. You may even get banned and de-indexed, which really just defeats the purpose of doing SEO in the first place.
Duplicate content is another big no-no. Search engines only want to index original content, not the same thing 50 times. When duplicate content is detected, only one of them is likely to be indexed, and the others will probably end up in the dreaded supplemental index. These duplicate pages won’t rank.
On a similar note, doorway pages are also a very bad idea. These are pages designed specifically to draw search engine traffic to your site. How do you spot one? In general, if you can’t get to the page by following the site’s navigation, then it’s likely a doorway page. These pages serve no useful purpose than than attracting the attention of search engine users who will click the result, go to the site, and find that what they’re looking for is not on the page.
This was a popular technique in the early days of the web, and it’s not really effective today. The whole “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” thing doesn’t go over very well. It looks contrived, and it’s not natural. Link building should appear as natural as possible. Two-way link exchanges won’t get you banned, but it won’t help you any either. If you’re going to trade links, at least try to make sure it’s a three way thing. Never link to the same site that just linked to you. Instead, link to them from another site you own if you wish to return the favor.
On-page SEO is undoubtedly important, and some argue that on-page keywords have far more weight than those you stuff in your keyword meta tag. However, stuffing your site with an excessive number of keywords isn’t good, and delicate balance should be maintained. Sure, you want to rank for a specific keyword and the more times you use it on the page, the more likely you’ll rank for it. Just don’t go overboard. Try to keep your writing natural and use the keywords as you feel suitable. Using them too many times will make your site look spammy, which doesn’t sit well with either your actual human visitors or the spiders that crawl your site. It’s not likely to get you banned, but may in fact hurt your TrustRank, which is like your credibility and reputation with the automated bots.
Just say no to link farms. Link farms are sites whose only purpose is to artificially inflate link popularity through link exchanges. Google knows who they are, and if they’re not on their list yet, you can bet they will be soon. They’re considered “bad neighborhoods”, and will hurt your rankings. You may likely be penalized, and your site can even get banned for participating in these schemes. Avoid the problems, and don’t give into the temptation. An endorsement from a bad site is much more harmful than no endorsement at all.
Case Studies and Real-Life Examples
I can preach all day about bad SEO techniques and what could happen if you try them, but that might not be enough to convince everyone. So what better a way to show you the dangers of bad SEO than to share some real-life examples? Below are some example sites who’ve been bad, either in the present or in the past, that have felt the wrath of Big G.
The V7N SEO Blog:
These guys were recently slapped around by Google in a big way. Best known for its large webmaster forum, V7n also has a popular SEO blog which happens to have been hacked several months ago. Long after the problem was believed to have been resolved, Google banned them for some shady SEO.
Spammy text phrases were hidden all over in the V7n SEO blog, which in turn triggered Google’s spam bot detectors and got them banned from the index. This is the perfect example of how inadequate security on your site can lead to exploitation by a third-party, and consequently get you kicked out of Google. V7N admins claim that they were contacted by Google who said they would be temporarily removed from the index, not banned, but I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on this one. Whatever the truth is, if V7N fixes the issues, begs for mercy, and files a reinclusion request, Google will likely let them back in. How long that will take though remains to be seen.
Think the big guys are immune to the effects of bad SEO? Think again! In 2006 Google infamously kicked the German BMW site (bmw.de) out of their index after they were caught using doorway pages. Tsk, tsk! This incident made international headlines, and BMW was quick to remove the offending pages, which were apparently live for a whole two years before being caught.
So what happened to bmw.de when they were served with the “Google Death Penalty”? Their PageRank tanked to an abysmal zero, and they no longer ranked at the top of the SERPS for their most important keywords. Ouch!
Other Low-Down, Dirty SEO Tactics
I have intentionally left out some other SEO tactics that many would consider shady or “blackhat SEO“. Some of these if not done properly can really hurt your site’s rankings and get you banned if you’re caught, while others you can use to effectively sabotage your competitors to move your own site up in the ranks. I will cover these another day in another post, in the very near future. Whether you think its morally wrong or not to engage in these tactics, it still exists, and these are techniques you should be aware of if at least to know when they’re being used on you.