Risky SEO Techniques

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Search engine optimization can be compared to investing in the stock market. Wall Street investors make decisions every day based on a risk-versus-reward principle. Similarly, most competent financial advisors recommend a diversified investment portfolio to minimize risk. Should trouble arise, not all will be lost, and if all goes well, a sizeable nest egg will be waiting down the road for the investor.

To craft a strong and safe SEO campaign, similar insight and understanding, this time into how search engines react to changes made to a website, is needed. Lately, a number of businesses and websites have been reprimanded for using SEO techniques that go a bit too far (at least in the eyes of the search engines). The resulting punishment from search engines ranges from a temporary delisting, such as the three-day hiatus from Google search results that BMW Deutschland (BMW.de) experienced in February 2006, all the way to a full and permanent banishment.

What type of SEO investing are you doing? Are you doing a good job of minimizing risk to your online properties? Here are some high-risk optimization techniques that have been used in the past and why you should avoid them:

Keyword Stuffing

An age-old technique that is still common today is keyword stuffing. Here, webmasters or marketers insert hundreds or even thousands of words and phrases, typically at the very bottom of a page, in order to inflate its keyword count. Other, more subtle, forms include ALT tag and Metatag stuffing. Keyword stuffing is an elementary tactic that rarely produces gains and is an indication of an uneducated or inexperienced search marketer.

Hidden or Invisible Text

Often used in conjunction with keyword stuffing, this technique involves using fonts and styles to make text (usually keywords) blend in with the background color or to become invisible on the page altogether. Some webmasters even include large blocks of text enclosed in HTML comment tags, which causes browsers to ignore the keywords when rendering the page. While not immediately evident, a quick glance at the HTML source is all it takes to spot this trick.

Cloaking

In addition to making enemy Romulan and Klingon birds of prey invisible to the Starship Enterprise, this controversial, high-risk technique is used to display special content to specific users or search engines. By using a server-side scripting language like ASP or PHP, webmasters can check a visitor’s IP address or user-agent in order to programmatically display certain elements or even a different page to them. Some deceptive SEO consultants use this technique exclusively to detect search engine spiders, and then serve up an alternate, more optimized page than other visitors would see. The goal is to secure a search results ranking that the true content of the page does not warrant.

Redirects

Redirects have long been a bone of contention between search engines and SEO consultants. There is no question that some form of redirecting visitors is necessary. The large majority of page redirects on the Internet are completely benign, used simply to forward users to a new location for a website or to the appropriate content. Some redirects, however, are executed to immediately forward a user to an off-topic page or, in many cases, to objectionable or adult material. These redirects are typically accomplished using Javascript, a scripting language that most browsers automatically execute, but is ignored by search engine spiders. By only redirecting human visitors and not search engine spiders, website owners can use an existing page with good rankings to force users to view a new, unrelated web page. This is a particularly risky technique which search engines have little tolerance for. If you are discovered using improper redirects, you can expect to get burned.

Doorway Pages

Doorway pages are web pages created for the sole purpose of ranking for a specific term or phrase in search engines. These pages are not typically part of the main navigation, but are used as a gateway to lead visitors deeper into the site. While they may seem relatively harmless on the surface,  doorway pages are often created by automated scripts or software packages that do nothing more than replace a few phrases inside of a generic template. With the right tools, hundreds or even thousands of doorway pages can be created with little effort. Search engines argue that they dilute the relevance of the Internet by adding artificial content that would not otherwise be included.

Artificial Link Building

Incoming links, or backlinks, are now examined extensively in the algorithms of all major search engines. By evaluating links, search engines are able to use popularity and contextual clues to better refine search results. Not unexpectedly, some aggressive search marketers have begun to use artificial methods to build and acquire links. Blog spamming is one of the most notable and flagrant examples of this tactic used today. We’ve all seen comments to a blog entry that ask readers to check out a new article (with a link conveniently provided) on this subject, or simply leave a link to be crawled. Other high-risk methods include excessive cross-linking, hidden links and free-for-all “link farms”. If you are caught using any of these linking strategies, you’ll likely experience a penalty of some sort from major search engines.

Search optimization techniques are often classed as being either “white hat” or “black hat”. Quite simply, “white hat” procedures are means that are generally acceptable practices designed to improve your ranking with search engines (such as increasing the relevancy of your content), while examples of “black hat” practices include the techniques we’ve discussed here, as well as anything that violates a search engine’s terms of service.

If your SEO consultant or firm is using one or more high-risk techniques, call them on it and ask for an explanation. Using “black hat” procedures can and will eventually result in reprimands from search engines, which may range from a virtual “slap on the wrist” all the way to your website no longer being listed. Despite this, some continue to practice and recommend “black hat” tactics. If you can’t afford the risk involved, and want a no-risk approach, you may need to reconsider your choice of SEO vendor. For many businesses, their domain name and online brand reputation are worth far more than any potential SEO gain from risky activities.

It is the job of any SEO consultant or firm to find the right balance between risk and reward for each individual client. In many cases, the proper strategy is the equivalent of a safe and conservative mutual fund. True, the online equivalent of SEO may not result in a 50 percent gain in ROI this quarter, but year after year of using this type of strategy can deliver consistently pleasing returns.

About the Author

Tyson Kirksey is Lead SEO Specialist and Analytics Director for Zunch Communications, Inc. (www.zunch.com), a world-leading search engine optimization, website design and Microsoft Certified application development company. Kirksey consults with international businesses and smaller "mom-and-pop" organizations to strengthen their online presence with optimization strategies that yield measurable results.

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