Top 5 Outlawed SEO Tactics

Global digital agencyPut that black hat away. Shady SEO tactics can get your site severely penalized by search engines. Punishments can range from losing organic traffic for a few days to losing it permanently.

For any business, its website is a business asset with value that accrues over time and should be treated as such. Here are five timeless “worst practices” to avoid:

1) Link buying – Attempting to make your site more authoritative by paying for links (see J.C. Penney). 

A major element of most search engines’ ranking algorithm (especially Google’s) is “link popularity.”  Simply put, link popularity is a measure of the authority, trustworthiness and number of links pointing to a domain. Authoritative and trustworthy websites (Forbes, The New York Times, PBS, etc.) are able to pass along a significant amount of their authority and trust if they link to a company’s website. Not surprisingly, these links tend to be very difficult to get. However, there are also cases where sheer “tonnage” of links suffice to boost rankings and organic search traffic.

Unfortunately, it’s very common for sites to try to cheat the system. Instead of creating a remarkable website, stellar services and content, unethical Web marketers try to buy their way to the top by purchasing links. There is no shortage of site owners who would link to a site for a fee. Buying links should be avoided at all costs. It is a violation of any search engine’s Terms of Service, and it can get a site banned from the index.

J.C. Penney famously got caught in 2011 for buying large amounts of links. The company was banned from Google’s index for 90 days. While losing a full fiscal quarter’s worth of profit from organic search traffic is certainly nothing to take lightly, that’s not the worst-case scenario. Plenty of sites without the brand clout of J.C. Penney have been banned for much longer periods of time for the same infraction.

If “building links” is a service that an agency or vendor offers to you, have them explain to you exactly how they’re building links, and how their methods are within the engines’ Terms of Service.

2) Cloaking – Serving different content to a search engine versus a human visitor. 

The term “cloaking” certainly sounds dark and mysterious, but the concept is relatively simple. It means that a Web server will deliver different content based on whether the request is coming from a search engine or a Web browser.

Some “black hat” Web marketers use cloaking for very nefarious purposes, serving pages that are radically different to engines and humans. Usually the cloaked version served to the search engines is very text heavy (which engines understand well) and often targets off-topic, popular phrases just for the traffic it might pull in. The version served to humans is typically a conversion-centric page with very little content, trying to lure some fraction of visitors to pull out their credit cards and spend some money.

Not all cloaking is done with malicious intent. A few years ago, I worked with a very large comparison-shopping site, helping the international versions of its sites generate more traffic. One of the interesting things I noticed immediately was that it was cloaking its own home pages! Instead of the version that humans saw with products, photos and marketing copy, the cloaked version was a simple list of links to most of the categories for which the sites had products.

When I brought this issue to light, it turned out that the engineer responsible had knowingly done this. He thought it would be more helpful to search engines to present a simple list of links to enable them to discover the content on the site. He didn’t even know that cloaking was against the rules and could get the sites banned!

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