Find out the subtle, sneaky or downright stupid tricks that could get your website blacklisted from Google and Bing.
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When a company first takes the plunge into search engine optimization, it can be tempting to take shortcuts to get to the top of the rankings. You read about a trick that takes advantage of a loophole in the search engine algorithms. You see a competitor who’s using a sneaky tactic — and it’s working. An agency calls you up and promises search engine success that sounds too good to be true.
But there’s a cost. Search engines such as Google and Bing have guidelines to preserve the integrity of their results. Violate those and you risk losing your rankings — or being removed from the search engine indices altogether. The best way to ensure long-term success is to build a high-quality site that solves the problems of your target audience or customer.
Below are questionable techniques that will catch up with you and jeopardize your rankings.
A link from one site to another can be a signal to search engines that a page has value (the site providing the link is recommending your page to its visitors). Also, how someone describes the page being linked is a signal. If I link to your site with the text “best burgers in town,” chances are your site is about burgers. Good ones!
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Because links are so valuable, some site owners find ways of getting them (and specifying the text they want linked) that are considered manipulation.
Note that this is entirely different from advertising links, which are perfectly fine. Advertising is not intended to manipulate PageRank and typically is noted as “sponsored.”
Buying and selling links
You’ve likely stumbled on paid link networks — abandoned sites with no traffic at all, filled with seemingly random links. Though similar to advertising networks, these sites exist just to sell links.
J.C. Penney was recently penalized by Google for buying links on these paid networks. Thousands of links from abandoned sites all over the Web pointed to pages on jcpenney.com with text such as “comforter sets” and “dresses,” boosting the J.C. Penney website significantly in search engine rankings.
On the other side of this system are sites that sell links for their PageRank value, rather than selling them as advertising. Forbes.com was recently penalized by Google for such a tactic, so beware.
This technique can take many forms. You might get an e-mail from a site owner who says if you link to his site, he’ll link to yours. Or, you might participate in a link network where instead of two-way reciprocal links from one site to another, all the sites in the network get links and give links to each other.
Does this sound harmless? Perhaps, but the issue is that the sites involved in these link schemes are attempting to artificially inflate their PageRank rather than relying on organic recommendations and links.
Bartering for links
The best way to attract links to your site is to have valuable content and then raise awareness via techniques like traditional marketing and social media. The links your site gets this way are freely given: Someone sees your site, likes it and links to it.
Attempts to get links in exchange for something are considered manipulation. In the examples above, sites provided money or links in exchange for more links. But there are many other methods for artificially increasing inbound links.
For instance, consider Overstock.com, which was recently dinged by Google for providing discounts to college students and faculty in exchange for having .edu sites linked back to specific pages on overstock.com.
Any incentive to link is considered payment. If you offer incentives because you want the exposure and traffic, make sure the link is noted as advertising.
Hiding text and keyword stuffing
A key component that search engines look at to know what a page is about and how they should rank it is the text on the page. Some site owners want to show up for all kinds of search results, so they hide text on the page. This can take many forms, including:
- Text that’s the same color as the background or too small for visitors to see
- Text that’s displayed off the page using negative CSS
- Paragraphs of text in a “read more” link not intended for visitors to click on
- Text that renders on the page only when a search engine bot accesses the page and not when a visitor does (also known as “cloaking”)
- Using the alt attribute of an image to place large chunks of text that don’t represent the image
Several years ago, bmw.de was temporarily banned from Google for hiding text on its home page. But despite high-profile penalties such as this, some sites continue to resort to these tactics.
Avoiding search engine risks
If you read about a search engine optimization (SEO) technique that doesn’t seem to be about good site architecture or user experience, and instead is about exploiting loopholes in the system, it’s likely the technique isn’t part of a sound long-term strategy.
If you use an SEO firm, make sure you know everything it’s doing on behalf of your site and that it isn’t taking shortcuts in order to claim “success.” Success that takes a little longer but is based on solid SEO fundamentals and audience engagement will pay dividends in the long run.