Public SEO debacles are waiting to happen everywhere.
In recent years there have been some big brands facing embarrassing, high-visibility smack downs from Google for engaging in various types of frowned-upon SEO practices. This is not new. There have been big brands getting publicly shamed for bad practices since there has been SEO.
What is new is that search engine optimization is no longer just black and white (hat). In the “old days” the line between white hat and black hat tactics was much more clear. Now the line between what is right and wrong is often nebulous and obscure and still changing and SEOs and search agencies who think they are employing white hat practices are actually commonly not. SEO is fundamentally a practice born out of manipulating search results. As this industry goes through a bumpy, pubertal metamorphosis from its conspiratorial adolescence into the world of the internet-unknown (think “SEO is dead” hype of 2010), the many of the core practices have dissipated into two primary areas of rampant bad practices:
- SEOs and are developers learning from the wealth of misconstrued or outdated information and using it in their practices.
- SEOs and SEO agencies employing tactics that go against Google guidelines because they are difficult for search engines to detect and they still often work.
When I worked at Yahoo!, Yahoo! Autos was called out publicly for dirty SEO practices. It turned out it was because a developer at Yahoo! unknowingly thought that the outdated SEO tactic was an acceptable practice. In a more recent public flub, the SEO agency that JCPenney hired was building links – a common tactic of the vast majority of current SEOs and agencies, despite search engines warning against the practice. These public floggings are happening in much more abundance than we see, especially with the latest Google updates. And sadly, in most cases, the brand hiring these SEOs and firms has no idea they are plastering unacceptable search optimization tactics across their entire site, setting themselves up for huge traffic losses sometimes even resulting in laying off employees and shutting the doors.
How to stay out of hot water
In this wildly misunderstood “black magic” industry where even the SEO “experts” are often not properly knowledgeable, the higher level managers and executives at a company are oftentimes only left with the option to trust that whoever they hire knows what they’re doing.
So how does a site that provides quality content relevant to targeted audiences, doing everything by the book (as far as they know), make sure they stay off the pages of The New York Times for bad SEO practices?
- Know snake oil when you see it: Arm yourself with the ability to recognize the signs of an SEO snake oil salesman. They’re out there in droves.
- Go natural. A product needs to valuable enough to their audiences to generate links naturally. Make sure your SEO or SEO firm is not buying links or manipulating links to your site from other sites in any way that doesn’t encourage natural linking.
- Educate everyone: Make sure anyone touching any content (editors, designers, producers), code (developers) and links (developers, designers, biz dev, marketing) are up-to-date with the latest (as in this month’s) search optimization practices. Send them to conferences and training, bring in consultants to train staff and leave best practices, promote trusted publishing resources.
- Transcend the SEO norm. Always think about how to create content for your audiences, not create content for search engines. What will make your audiences want to visit your site, come back to it, share it, link to it, etc? Don’t create content just to have it as a landing page from search if there’s no value in it for your audiences.
- Steer clear of bad optimization tactics. You should optimize content and code so that it is contextually targeted and indexable for search engines, not manipulate it for search engines. Use your head as to what seems like proper optimization vs. tactics implemented just for search engines, and make sure to hold your SEO accountable to following Google’s webmaster guidelines. Even write it in the contract.
- Get recommendations. SEOmoz has a very tightly scrubbed list of recommended SEO companies and a great community in their Q&A forums where you can feel free to ask around about what type of company to hire, and/or if you have any questions about specific tactics your SEOs are using.
When you’re still not sure, you can hire experts in the field (like us) who have longstanding, trustworthy reputations to help you find, interview and validate qualified candidates. It’s always worth your while to keep yourself and your company off the front pages of the news rags for SEO trickery and out of the presentation slides at marketing conferences on how not to do SEO.