In celebration of Halloween, we decided it would be a little fun to make you jump in your seat while we pull away the curtain from all the wonderful tactics that SEO companies use when they are promising you "#1 results in Google" or other outlandish, ghoulish results.
Below is a list of 10 different tactics used by “black-hat” or just poor companies that may work for a short while, but in the end, all you’ll be left with is a ghost of a website. Also, for most of these, I will not be linking examples of websites or the tactics because too often the sites are loaded with spam advertising and malware. I want to scare you, not infect your computer with viruses.
When a SEO company calls you and promises to submit your site to hundreds of local and international directories, what they’re really saying is that they’ll be adding a link to your site onto hundreds of carbon-copied websites that offer no value to the customer. These sites are built for the sole purpose of generating links to and from them, in order to quickly pass rank to the targeted website (yours). This tactic used to work, but Google has made it pretty clear (as seen by this video by Google’s Matt Cutts) that they don’t care for these sites and will actively penalize this tactic. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some quality directories that are still respected like Yelp (ethics aside), Thumbtack, Foursquare and others, but these all require verification and are highly scrutinized. The kinds of directories that you get from poor SEO companies are all useless for the customer and not managed.
This little tactic used to be quite popular and, if you run a blog or other website that allows commenting, you’re very familiar with it. This is when someone comments on your website and links to their targeted site with either the link on their username (which is often a keyword they’re trying to boost), or in the body of the comment. The most obvious examples of these are when you get a comment like “Nike X2 Shoes best price in US click here www.someweirdwebaddress.com” and the like. Usually something about shoes, jewelry or Viagra. But Google has also made it clear that these will lead to a penalty, so people are getting sneakier with their comments. You’ll see a commenter try to participate in the conversation, but the comment is shallow and they always include a link to their site. Something along the lines of “Wow, great post, very insightful. I agree and it perfectly fits the theme of my site at www.spammysitehere.com. Thanks!” Pretty useless and often leads to a penalty for the website receiving the links.
This one is particularly scary, and downright malicious, and there are a few ways to go about it. Website injection, in the case of SEO, is when somebody finds a way to inject code into your website and generate links on an as-needed basis to the sites they are trying to rank. Your website is clean and fairly-well ranked, so they leech off that. Another way some people have gone about it is by building a template say, for WordPress, and offered it for free – an easy way to consistently build links without any active effort. Make sure to always keep your website security updated, and only use templates from trusted providers.
Another way is to hack into the admin or find vulnerabilities on websites that allow the link builder to comment or make pages on your website, linking to the site they are looking to rank. And don’t think that this tactic is limited to just obscure websites that don’t matter, I recently came across an example hosted on a .gov website for a major US city. The problem, when your website is linked on these, is that the site will eventually be found and blacklisted and again since these sites tend to get abused, and your website will be penalized. A .gov link is tempting, but not worth it in the long-run.
A PBN (private blog network) is a closed-circuit group of websites that are interlinked and built to help each other rank. In the “old days,” it was just a gathering of websites that had a large amount of content relevant to a subject and a few outgoing links to partner sites that had their own topics. Now, a PBN is usually centered around one topic in order for each site to have a lot of relevance for the topic, and eventually all pointing that relevance to the site they want to rank. So, thirty websites with unique content about dentistry, all pointing to Orin Scrivello’s Dentistry (man I love that musical) to give it a ton of rank. Sounds great, except Google has pushed very hard recently to actively penalize these sorts of sites as well. Again, stay away from someone using this tactic, as you’ll get caught eventually and a manual action is too costly.
This one crawls right under my skin because it’s a pretty sleazy tactic that takes advantage of business owners who don’t know better. This tactic is when the SEO company asks you to build a page on your website linking to other websites (or worse, does it without your permission – NEVER give a SEO company full access to your website unless they’re your trusted web developer as well). Basically, they are adding your website to their PBN without your permission. They’ll sugarcoat the idea of the page saying that relevant external links give you more authority and Google likes it when websites link out to other great sites, blah blah blah. It’s all a lie. They’re using you to help rank other clients and yes, you can guarantee that you’ll get hit eventually. I’ve seen clients who were completely unaware they even had a /links directory on their website, and had no idea why their website ranking was dropping. No bueno.
All the above shouldn’t scare you away from actively building quality links through natural, organic means and quality PR. After all, Google’s basis is built on the idea that links determine how important and authoritative a website is. But even with 100% perfect links, you need to be careful not to over-optimize them. A poor SEO company might sell you on their services and give you a limited number of keywords that they’ll rank you for and thus they’ll use those keywords as the anchor text in a link. (Side note: a good SEO company won’t limit your keywords. They may track up to a certain number that they feel are relevant, but they won’t charge you on a per-keyword basis. That’s ridiculous.) The anchor text is the visible text that is shown on a link, and Google uses this to determine what the link is all about. The problem is, if every single link to your website uses the text “Transylvania Medical Services” then Google’s Penguin will get a little suspicious and begin to realize that your links are unnaturally geared to optimize that keyword. Nobody knows the exact balance of optimized and non-optimized links, but once it hits, your links get devalued and you’ll find yourself penalized.
We recently wrote about content spinning in our blog so we won’t dwell too long, but this is when the content of a page is re-worked by flipping words around and using synonyms, and publishing it as new content. The SEO company will copy the content from a competitor, spin it (often using a program) and then post it on your website as new content. That, or they’ll increase the content on your website using this tactic with your own pages. Either way, this is a poor tactic since it adds nothing of real value to your website and doesn’t serve your customers. On top of that, you’ll typically end up with content that is poorly written and, in the worst case, completely wrong. Google is actively working to combat this with its Panda algorithm, so it’s not worth the risk just to try to squeeze a little bit more juice out of that topical lemon. If you’re not adding value to your customers and readers, don’t do it.
Keyword stuffing is exactly what it sounds like. Shoving as many keywords onto a page and content as possible. You see this all the time with websites that have titles like “Costume Shop in Anchorage | Anchorage Costumes | Halloween Costumes Alaska” – I mean really… did we need that kind of descriptive title? Then, throughout the whole page, you have subtitles and content that has these keywords littered throughout, and often in unnatural ways. The text reads poorly and, you guessed it, Google is actively searching for and penalizing this as well. Sometimes it’s easy to do and not realize – heck, I am sure I have certain landing pages on this website that have some unnatural instances of keywords in my efforts to optimize the pages. Again, if you’re not adding value to your customers, don’t do this.
You ever wonder why you always see those fake looking posts on Facebook or Twitter that seemingly have nothing to do with anything? Those are either people trying to get you to click a link to infect your computer with malware, or a SEO professional trying to drive social signals to a targeted website to add relevance (don’t tell those SEO companies that social signals really don’t do anything). You see, a lot of SEO tools out there track things like Tweets and Facebook mentions, so the the person trying to rank a site follows the formula they have in front of them: get X amount of tweets and Y amount of FB likes, and you’ll increase rank by Z%. If they’re a little more savvy, they know that it doesn’t help rank, but it drives people to the site and hopefully generates interaction. The problem is, these social media posts almost never add anything of value and are never talked about.
The other instance of social media spam is when you see a company’s Facebook friends list or Twitter followers and they’re in the thousands! Awesome… until you realize that almost all of the followers of an Arkansas Country Restaurant have names like Sanjay and Deepak. Something is fishy, and I don’t mean the catfish fry special on Fridays. They’re effectively trying to create a social version of a PBN to generate likes and shares, and it doesn’t really add value to your website. Even worse, it can scare real customers or fans away from your social media accounts as they are keen to the fact that you’re not really in charge of your accounts and there is nothing of value to be gained by following you.
There are some big-time, seemingly normal reputation companies that offer reputation management services in the form of monitoring and online reviews. I won’t name names, but if you own a small business, I can guarantee you’ve heard from a couple of these by now. They offer services that help you “increase good reviews” and clear up bad ones. They’ll ask for any written reviews or testimonials you have from clients and work to address bad reviews online – which is fine and I encourage you to do in my post about Yelp. But here’s the downside: they charge you a good deal of money to do something you can do quickly on your own. On top of that, they end up posting fake reviews which can actively harm you in the long-run. It is tempting to look at your Google+ page and see 100 five-star reviews, but you can bet that before long, Google will catch on and those reviews will disappear. I also suspect that Yelp flags account using these tactics and penalizes them, but I only have anecdotal evidence for it. And, if we go by history, you might find yourself with a penalty when they update their algorithm to combat this. It’s not worth it – encourage customers to leave honest reviews, but don’t manipulate them.
When you’re looking to hire a SEO company, or researching online on doing your own optimization, keep in mind these tactics and avoid them. It may be really tempting to make a deal with the devil and see a quick boost in your search ranking, but you can bet that you’ll get caught sooner or later. When that happens, recovering from a penalty can be costly and some websites can never recover. So stay away from these tactics! I’ll leave you with, arguably, the best scene in a horror movie of all time – enjoy!