A compelling digital strategy aligns customer experiences, business execution, and the right technology as the market and your competition constantly evolve. Our Digital Essentials highlight the most compelling aspects of all three to help you react and respond to this ongoing evolution.
I know you’ve heard of this little thing called SEO – search engine optimization – and you know you should be doing it for your website, but you might be wondering: where do I start? There are so many things you could be doing to optimize your site but you don’t know how the strategies actually work, how to implement them correctly or which is of highest priority. Plus, the Google algorithm changes to frequently it’s hard to keep up! What worked just two years ago might not even work today.
In this situation, you may want to hire an SEO agency to help improve your site’s search engine rankings. SEO is their forte, their expertise. They live and breathe SEO and know all the important aspects of how to optimize your site. Although there are a lot of excellent SEO agencies out there that can do great things for your site, there are unfortunately a good number of agencies out there that are not so great. These agencies focus more on manipulating the Google algorithm and improving rankings in the short term as opposed to focusing on long-term success. They figure out one strategy that has worked with other sites and then exploit that tactic hoping to project their site to the number one spot. These abusive SEO tactics have created the need for the industry term black hat SEO.
Google wants to give its users the best results possible. It wants to answer user’s questions quickly and easily. To do that, it uses an algorithm to determine which sites are most relevant and useful for the user. As Google grows, evolves, and learns more about user intent, it changes its algorithm to improve the results. This means that since Google doesn’t want low quality sites using abusive SEO strategies to rank, it will alter its algorithm to prevent them from being able to do so. It means that whatever black hat SEO strategies work for you today, might no longer work a few months from now.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
Even worse than algorithm changes that affect your rankings are manual actions. In the most severe cases of black hat tactics, Google will take manual action against your site with a penalty that prevents you from ranking at all. You won’t rank for anything in search engine results – sometimes not even for your own brand name – which will abolish any traffic you were getting from your organic listing.
Once you have a manual action against your site, it is extremely difficult to have it removed. A lot of work needs to be done to prove that you have stopped your black hat ways and promise to be a law-abiding website from now on. You have to earn Google’s trust again before it will remove the penalty. Then, even after the penalty is removed, it’s still a long road to recovering first page rankings again and regain steady traffic. Don’t waste your precious time, effort and money on tactics that are only going to work for you in the short term, when there is potential for you to lose a majority of your traffic with a penalty. It’s not worth it.
When choosing an SEO agency, you want to be very careful to choose one that stays away from these abusive SEO tactics and sticks to those that create value, benefit users and help you to rank based off of your site’s quality instead of manipulation.
Black Hat SEO Strategies
Black hat SEO is the term used to describe those SEO strategies and tactics used to cheat the system and abuse the search engine algorithm with the ultimate goal of improving a site’s search rankings as quickly as possible. (Legit SEO tactics are often referred to as “white hat” and anything in the middle is referred to as “gray hat.”) Search engine optimizers spend their time studying the Google algorithm and learning about the most important factors to rank well. When they are able to hone in on one factor that seems most important, they will focus solely on that aspect and optimize their site based on that one factor alone – overly optimizing their site to get as much “credit” for that ranking factor as they possibly can.
What ends up happening is the site’s content becomes more geared towards the search engine spiders than to the visitors. Sometimes it even makes the user experience worse off, frustrating your visitors. It has created a lot of online spam – unnecessary copy, links, social accounts, etc. – that exist solely for the search engines. Black hat SEO makes the internet messier, misleading and overall annoying.
As Google catches on to the strategies some websites are using to abuse the algorithm, it updates the algorithm to prevent these sites from being successful. This is why it’s important to remember that your site is there for the users, not the search engines. So if you’re making any updates, think about who you’re doing it for. If you’re cluttering up your site with content and links that are solely for the search engines without providing any benefit to the user, you are at risk of your site being hit for black hat SEO tactics.
Here are a few known black hat SEO strategies that no longer benefit your site’s ranking ability (so don’t try them):
RANKING FACTOR: BACKLINKS
Old Theory: Get as many links to lead back to your site as possible, from wherever you can get them. The more links you have, the better your site ranks. Since Google sees links as votes, we want as many votes as possible.
Unnatural Link Building: Link building is the process of trying to get other websites to link to your website. These links are usually good signals to Google about the authority, trust and relevancy of your site. Link building strategies can be done in a positive way by providing value to users, but unfortunately many people focus solely on acquiring the link instead of improving the user’s experience. This is when the strategies become black hat. These links are deemed “unnatural” because they were not placed there to provide anything useful to the user or improve navigation. They are simply there for search engine credit.
Low Quality Link Building: Many people are still stuck in the mindset that link building means getting as many links as possible to point back to your site. But we must all remember that Google cares much more about you having quality links over quantity. 10 links from high authority, quality websites are much better for your profile than 100 links from low-quality websites.
Let’s use an analogy. You go to the supermarket to buy bananas for yourself to eat throughout the week. You know you typically eat about five in a week so you get ready to buy five bananas. However, you then find out that the grocery store is having a sale in which you can buy 50 older bananas for the same price. What a deal! The bananas are still yellow and look delicious so why not?
But is it really a deal? Bananas are perishable. If they’re already yellow, you only have a few days to eat them before they get brown. If you only eat five in a week, you won’t be able to eat all 50 of them before they go bad. Even if you try eating twice as many per week, you’ll still be eating brown bananas before too long. And brown bananas are gross.
The point I’m trying to make here again is quality vs quantity. More is not always better. Obtaining 50 new links to your site from low-quality sites is just like getting 50 bananas that are only edible for a few days – there was no point to getting them in the first place. You have not benefited from the banana sale as much as you thought you would.
Don’t waste your precious time obtaining a bunch of low-quality links. Your time is better spent on the few websites that will give you real authority in return.
Comment spam: To try to get more links pointing back to their site, people will visit other websites that have comment sections and leave a comment with a link included. The comment may not even have anything to do with the post – which is why it has turned into a spammy practice. Once again, all these “fake” comments have created spam all over the internet and Google is not happy about it. Commenting on a bunch of websites with links will no longer work. In fact, many sites review their comments and no longer allow comments to be posted if there is a link included for this very reason.
Paying for links: Sometimes websites will reach out and pay other websites to link back to their own. This is a big problem because these links are usually extremely low in quality and provide no value to users. The linking website is just out to make money, not benefit the user or website they’re linking to. Google has started going after the sites selling these links and is penalizing them for doing so – which means all those links you just paid for are going to disappear or no longer pass authority.
Highly Repetitive Exact Match Anchor Text: If a large majority of your backlink anchor text all contains the same keyword phrase, it seems highly likely that this was planned. Google doesn’t want you to go out there and force a bunch of links with the exact same keywords pointing back to your site. It wants the links to happen naturally, which means the anchor text is going to vary. High volumes of exact match anchor text is a pretty strong signal that your links aren’t natural.
Guest Blogging Spam: Guest blogging for the purpose of providing good information to readers or trying to get in front of a new audience is great. However, there are definitely some important things you should not do when guest blogging. First, mass blogging for the purpose of links is a huge red flag to Google. Sending out the same post to multiple sites, or sending out a large number of low-quality unique posts to a large number of sites all at once, is guest blogging spam. Google has already announced that they are going after sites that are using these strategies.
When including links within the post, you should be selective. Only include links when they are useful and beneficial to the reader. Do not think that you can write one post and then spin it into 5 or 10 different posts by changing a few things around. It reduces the quality of your work and makes it less unique.
New Theory: Although Google does view links like votes for your site, not all links are created equal. There are many other factors that come into play. Don’t build links just for the sake of getting links. If you use low-quality strategies that don’t provide value, Google will eventually figure out a way to alter the algorithm and prevent you from ranking – which means you’re wasting your time trying to obtain links that won’t pass any link authority. Google only wants high quality sites to rank and it uses links to determine quality. If it sees that all your links were obtained using sketchy tactics, it will ignore them and cease to give you any credit for them, thus pulling down your ability to rank. Stick to creating content that people will naturally want to link to so that Google will never have a reason to penalize you.
RANKING FACTOR: LOCAL RELEVANCE
Google+ Local Pages
Google+ is the only social media platform that has been proven to directly affect a website’s search rankings. Creating a Google+ account linked to your business and developing a substantial following can improve your rankings. More specifically, maintaining Google+ local pages for your physical store/office locations will also help improve local search rankings.
The black hat strategy related to Google+ is to create local pages for locations that don’t actually relate to your business. If customers are not going to need that address for anything, do not create the page. For example, your business is located in Chicago and you have one employee who works remotely from Indianapolis so you create another Google+ page for your business with an Indianapolis location. This obviously makes no logical sense, so don’t do it.
Separate Landing Pages for Different Locations
This tactic involves duplicating an informational page on your site for each location of your business so that the titles, headers and copy can directly refer to the specific location being searched on. The theory here is that when people search on your business/industry in location-specific queries (ie. SEO agencies in Milwaukee) your company looks more relevant because you have web page directly targeted towards people looking for that business/industry in that location as opposed to a page that lists all your locations together. Unfortunately making all these separate landing pages is just creating necessary duplicate content, which is why Google wants to prevent you from continuing to do it.
RANKING FACTOR: RELEVANT KEYWORDS ON THE PAGE
Old Theory: The keywords used throughout your site are clues as to what each page is about. The more times a keyword phrase appears on your site, the more relevant your site is to that search. The more keywords, the better – no matter how useful that content actually is. The following strategies have been utilized to increase relevant keyword usage on websites to appear more relevant to search queries.
Keyword stuffing: This strategy involves stuffing keywords into the on-page copy as much as possible to trick the search engines into thinking the site is more relevant to searches for that keyword. The theory is that the more times a keyword appears on the page, the more relevant your site would appear to be. The problem with this is that the on-page content would be less user friendly and less useful. People would write nonsense just to add more keywords to the page. For example, would this paragraph be of any use to you if you were shopping for a Disney princess Halloween costume?
Are you looking for Disney princess Halloween costumes for your Halloween festivities this year? We have a wide selection of Disney princess Halloween costumes for you to choose from. Our Disney princess Halloween costumes include all of your favorite princesses: Cinderella Halloween costumes, Jasmine Halloween costumes, Sleeping Beauty Halloween costumes, Little Mermaid Halloween costumes and much more! Shop Disney princess Halloween costumes at our store and leave happy. Also be sure to check out our discount Disney princess Halloween costumes if you’re looking for a deal. Lots of Disney princess Halloween costumes are now on sale.
Not very useful and it’s annoying to read.
On this subject, there is also one other note I would like to make. When you do have content with natural keywords sprinkled through the copy, there is no need to bold these phrases, increase their font size, or repeatedly link them to other pages of the site. In the past, Google would deem larger, bolder keywords as more significant because that usually meant that they were (think titles and headers). But of course, once this was figured out, people abused it and started bolding and increasing font size all through their basic paragraphs. Does this sentence look okay to you? It doesn’t look natural, professional or appealing to your readers so why do it? This tactic isn’t necessarily black hat but it no longer helps your SEO strategy and it just makes your site look cluttered and messy. Don’t chase your readers away with this.
Cloaking: This strategy involves adding extra copy to your site targeting specific keywords and hiding it by making the text the same color as the background. By making it the same color as the background, it’s possible to get more keywords and content onto the page without having to worry about the quality of the content because no one would be reading it. Typically this content would be overly stuffed with important keywords and would provide no value. Because this strategy adds no value to the user and simply creates junk on the page, search engines have learned to detect this and understand that it’s junk. It no longer helps you rank and in fact may instead work against you since search engines don’t want to rank junk.
New Theory: Your content should be natural and informative. Using the same exact keyword phrase over and over is a signal that you’re stuffing your content instead of speaking naturally. Using variations of a main keyword phrase is more likely to sound natural. Write your content with the user in mind, not the search engines. Areas like your metadata and URL string should be optimized to be clear on the topic without being stuffed.
RANKING FACTOR: SOCIAL CUES
Old Theory: Social cues prove that people like you and are interested in your updates. The more followers and interactions you have, the higher you’ll rank.
Fake Social Profiles: In order to increase social media followers, people will create fake social profiles and follow their company’s page. Spending the time to create all of these profiles may increase your apparent number of followers but since we know none of these people are potential customers/visitors, you’re bogging down your true follower list. When you share something, it only displays in the newsfeed of a small percentage of your followers until it gets significant interaction and gets shared to more of your list. Therefore, your real followers may not see as much of your content because it keeps getting shown to the fake people instead. This tactic doesn’t really do anything substantial for you. Social media only helps your SEO strategy when it’s used as a content sharing platform. It should be a way to share new site content and increase traffic. Simply creating social profiles that ‘like’ your stuff won’t do anything worth your time.
You also shouldn’t buy social media followers because many of these profiles are fake as well. They are paid to follow you, not interact with you, which means they will just prevent your real users from being able to see and interact with your updates. Don’t bog down your followers with a bunch of fake ones because you could end up with the problems mentioned in this video.
New Theory: Social cues may have a small impact on your site’s ranking ability as far as increasing traffic and interaction with your site, but it doesn’t directly correlate with the number of followers you have. You should work to develop a true following and utilize social media as a content sharing platform so people can learn more about your business and what you have to offer.
Optimizing your website should be about making it the best possible website it can be. Create something that users love and want to visit. When users like your site, they are more likely to spend more time one it, interact with it and share it, which also helps your site’s rankings in Google. By abusing the search algorithm, you’re usually creating spam and hindering the user’s experience rather than making it better.
Whether it’s you or an agency coming up with your SEO strategy, make sure the goal is long-term success. If you are doing something for the sole purpose of SEO and it’s not providing any real value, you shouldn’t be doing it. It may be working for you today, but be aware that Google’s algorithm changes all the time to combat black hat SEO strategies. Someday it won’t work anymore and algorithm punishments are extremely hard to bounce back from.
Google has all the power. If they don’t want you doing something, they will figure out how to prevent it from working. Knowing that, why would you want to put yourself at risk of losing position and traffic because of your black hat tactics? Stay true to your brand and your readers. Don’t risk long-term success for short-term gains.