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Don’t Be a Victim of “Dirty Little Secrets of Search”

by Jennifer Beever on February 14, 2011

Black or White HatOuch! Your search engine optimization (SEO) company, maybe despite claiming that their  tactics are above board (white hat tactics), tricked the system with black hat tactics that go against search engine guidelines. Maybe you didn’t know that you should ask the question, “What kind of tactics are you using to optimize my web site for  search engines?”

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know About SEO

As executives (whether we’re CEOs or Chief Marketing Officers/CMOs), when it comes to technology, we often don’t know what we don’t know. We may not be marketing technologists experienced in search engine marketing or optimization (SEO/SEM). Even if we are experienced, we’d like to believe that when our SEO vendor says they use best practices, they really do. Even if we’re asking the right questions, what if they don’t do what they say?

Black Hat Tactics Have Been Around for Years

I heard firsthand about black hat SEO tactics in 2002, at Confab, the conference for consultants by consultants. I attended a  presentation in which a consultant told his SEO horror story. He hired a company to optimize his site. The company used tricks to improve performance. His site was summarily de-listed by Google. His site had been coming up high in the results and generating potential client leads. De-listing was a disaster after all he had invested in SEO. He had to create a new site with a new URL and start all over again.

More than ten years later public company JC Penney is having their search results “manually adjusted” (not de-listed!)  by Google for use of black hat practices by their SEO vendor. The story broke with a New York Times article, “Dirty Little Secrets of Search.” Doug Pierce (Doug Unplugged blog author) wrote an excellent analysis of the SEO vendor’s use of black hat tactics (“spammy”  links, doorway pages, and keyword stuffing) in The Data and Details Behind “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search.”

How Could They? Their Site Said They Wouldn’t

Two days after the NY Times article appeared, I visited the web site of the search engine optimization company hired by JC Penney. From their Recently Asked Question page titled, “SearchDex Best Practices,” I clicked on a link to read, “SearchDex Response to Google Guidelines.” On this page on their web site they wrote the following:

“Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a web site that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, ‘Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?’
Only site original content is made accessible; tricks are not possible nor approved.”

“Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or ‘bad neighborhoods’ on the web as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
SearchDex does not support link scheme architectures”

Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
Sites which employ these techniques are not eligible for the SearchDex license. Indexed pages do not contain hidden text or hidden links.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But apparently what they said on their web site was not what they did. Actions speak louder than words.

My Solution? Do a SEO Audit

We have no control over the honesty or integrity of our vendors, so let’s focus on what we can do. If you’ve engaged an SEO company to work on your web site, you need to either learn how to audit their work at a detail level or hire a third-party expert to do a SEO audit for you. Find out exactly what tactics your vendor is using to get your site performing high on search engine results. Then, compare those tactics against search engine guidelines like Google’s or Yahoo’s. If there are any questionable tactics being used, remove them. Focus instead on creating tons of strategic, relevant content to attract and engage your prospects and customers.

Your next action as a CEO or CMO? May I suggest one? Do an SEO audit. Now.

Photos on Flickr – Black hat: Attribution Some rights reserved by dariuszka; White hat: Attribution Some rights reserved by A. Germain

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