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Lessons from brands that were spanked by Google

Lessons from brands that were spanked by Google Ramsay Crooks

The historic headlines exposing gray- or black-hat SEO practices have led many to reevaluate their own practices and partners to make sure there are not any skeletons in their closets. These horror stories remind us of two things: SEO is an extremely valuable digital marketing tactic, and search engines don't take kindly to those who attempt to work around their guidelines.

Tales about J.C. Penney and Overstock.com demonstrate that formidable brands are willing to push the SEO envelope to gain rankings. With only a finite number of rankings, there will never be a lull in competition for top spots. Marketers are then left developing strategies that will build a solid SEO foundation with few shortcuts, so their rankings will climb and plateau at the top.

Since it's best to learn from the mistakes of other marketers than to learn these lessons on our own, let's take a look at what we can glean from past black-hat scandals.

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"Low quality" content won't get you too far
Google's Farmer (aka Panda) update affected sites that would not be considered spam by many SEOs. Sites like EzineArticles.com and WiseGeek.com are two examples of sites that were penalized by the update. Essentially deemed content farms or "of low quality," these sites were penalized for aggregating content that allegedly serves more to increase keyword relevance and rankings, or provide a platform for link embedding, than to help users.

Additionally, many e-commerce sites were also penalized for hosting large amounts of duplicate content and lack of unique, "valuable" content. This is a tough pill to swallow for many e-commerce providers since creating unique product content around thousands of product SKUs is a sizable undertaking. But in the long run, this effort will pay dividends, as valuable content overviews, reviews, and other unique content can help increase trust of and conversion from product detail pages. The new content focus will also create better pages for external sources to link to.

The Farmer update reminds us that content is paramount for a successful SEO campaign -- but it must serve a purpose beyond simply being fresh or marginally unique. The engines are looking to reward authority content on quality sites that provide a unique value within the SERPs. Marketers looking to enhance their SEO campaigns -- without black-hat tactics -- should take the Farmer update as a sign that search engines are looking beyond the sheer volume of pages or keywords on a site. Sites can and should create content that relates to targeted search queries, but this content strategy should not just be the mass accumulation of mediocre content for ranking's sake. Since content is still a critical factor in determining relevance, the bottom line is to be relevant in creative ways that are anything but mediocre -- especially from a user's perspective.

BMW thought it could outsmart search engines by cloaking keyword-heavy content behind user-friendly pages. It recognized the importance of keyword- and content-rich pages, but it did not want to sacrifice functionality and aesthetics. Unfortunately, Google doesn't like being served different content than users. This tactic is looked down upon to protect users from being served pages that are topically irrelevant to a given search term but show up in the results because the search engines have been tricked into thinking a page is much different than what the user sees when he or she arrives.

For this tactic, BMW's German website was de-indexed until it ditched the cloaking and Google approved a request for re-inclusion. This incident illuminates several things that SEOs can take back to their organizations. The most important is that tactics employed solely to manipulate organic rankings, that disregard the core element of providing value to the user, can result in penalties. De-indexation is a severe penalty, and it's one that BMW will never want to navigate through again.

A second lesson here is that there is a balance between site usability and search engine optimization. While SEOs might want to target every keyword under the sun, SEOs are better off defining a niche and excelling in a narrow space. Even if one manipulates better rankings through heavy content and keyword stuffing, these sites quickly become sloppy and difficult for users to navigate. A focused approach on a reasonably sized list of core terms and modifiers promotes a better user experience and more scalable SEO campaigns. At the point when key rankings are achieved, additional terms can be targeted to expand the campaign in a natural way that broadens a site's topical relevance and still provides value to users. While this practice might require a bit more patience, it encourages the development of great content and builds a strong foundation from which social signals and link equity can be brought in and subsequently distributed through the site as it expands.

One of the more recent SEO incidents with J.C. Penney illuminates how some brands are not highly informed about how their rankings are being achieved. J.C. Penney was accumulating low-relevance links at an extremely rapid pace, and the retail giant did not seem to question where the links were coming from because they were working. Its website enjoyed strong rankings, and when the site was exposed for buying thousands of irrelevant links, J.C. Penney claimed it was not aware of the questionable tactics. Whether it was or not, it is important to remember that marketers must keep a vigilant eye on their SEO rankings, links, search engine visibility, and the means by which these are achieved.

This is especially true when evaluating the value of your back-link profile. By most accounts, the quality, relevance, and authority of links pointing to your domain is still a dominant indicator of your site's general authority on topics, which is usually rewarded with high rankings. However, search engine algorithms are not blind to black-hat tactics of farming links from networks or bulk-buying links from irrelevant sites with an overemphasis on commercially viable keywords. J.C. Penney had frivolous links from random pages across the internet, and while it took a while for it to assess a penalty, Google eventually took action. This was a shock to most SEOs, as the ill-advised link buying had been going on for at least two holiday seasons.

Your back-link profile should reflect naturally acquired links that relate to your industry and the content that populates your website. Links should provide value to users on other websites, and if you are working with a provider to build links, it's important that you retain a provider that is as transparent as possible about the links it's facilitating and the criteria by which it qualifies your potential linking partners.

Overstock.com was also recently penalized for questionable link-building tactics. In this case, the retail site was trading discounts for premium link placements on .edu domains. Google viewed this as an infringement of its standards even though Overstock was not technically paying for link placements. It was, however, asking for links and providing recompense for their placement in a very public and overt manner.

Looking at the link placements that Overstock was dinged for, it becomes apparent that the company had another problem beyond its public bartering for links; the sheer number of links it acquired from a limited number of domains -- and a single top-level domain (TLD) -- was unnaturally high. A high volume of links from a handful of domains isn't necessarily a problem; plenty of examples of site-wide links exist. And it's also known that links from .edu domains are considered very authoritative. But it's also understood that domain variance is critical when actively building a back-link profile. If you prefer to avoid sabotage from competitors and manual scrutiny or potential penalties from search engines, it's important to limit high-volume acquisition of links from one particular place (i.e., a specific domain, IP, or -- in this case -- a TLD that doesn't commonly link to retail sites).

The tactics Overstock used to acquire links were construed to be against Google's guidelines, but SEOs can appreciate the importance of domain and anchor text variance for back-link profiles. Overkill of certain keywords or linked pages does not make much SEO sense from the perspective of naturally building relevance and authority. Revenue-driving pages and keywords should still be given priority, but healthy anchor text and URL variance will help ensure your SEO practices mirror natural link acquisition behavior.

Variance can also apply to a balance between long-tail and short-tail keyword targeting. As we saw with the Mayday update last year, Google made it harder for less-relevant websites to employ a strategy geared to rank only for long-tail keywords. This largely affected websites that were targeting obscure, long-tail queries as a primary means of driving traffic. This led to sites with irrelevant content and the creation of pages (or entire sections) that garnered very few links from external sources. However, targeting longer-tail keywords can be successful for marketers who cannot hope to rank for top category phrases. It's important that a strategy incorporates a well-rounded mix of long- and short-tail terms. In this way, marketers can make quicker inroads with longer queries while slowly inching up dominance for shorter-tail keywords.

In general, the recent black-hat SEO mishaps prove that search engine optimization is not a one-time task. It takes constant and strategic implementation that adapts to the hundreds of annual algorithm updates and the competition. SEOs need to keep tabs on the wide spectrum of ranking factors and do their best to keep up. However, this should never be at the sacrifice of the user experience or hinder the ability of searchers to get to desired content. Search engine optimization plans should stem from creating a crawlable structure and quality content.

If you want to see your brand name in SERPs -- but not in unflattering headlines -- make sure your SEO is well thought out and doesn't rely on questionable tactics (or any single tactic, for that matter). The true value of SEO is realized when brands can help users find and interact with quality, relevant content.

Ramsay Crooks is SEO director at Geary Interactive.

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As Geary LSF's EVP of Product, Ramsay is responsible for the product team's output from Geary LSF.  He thrives working on the dynamic and changing puzzle of people, business, technology, and performance that defines the landscape of digital...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2011, May 18

Even with the warning signs and repercussions clearly laid out, plenty of SEO spammers will still try to game the system. A lot of black hat practitioners think they can get away with it for good, but sooner or later it catches up to you in the end. It isn't worth the long term damage!