This post is by Mike Morgan, Founder and Director of High Profile Enterprises. Mike is also Content Director for TrinityP3 and has been collaborating with TrinityP3 on a Content Marketing, SEO and Social Media strategy since early 2011. 

If you spend any time trying to keep up with the constantly shifting search landscape you will have heard about some of the game-changing updates Google has rolled out in the past couple of years. The really big changes have been in the form of black and white animals – the Panda update and, more recently, the Penguin update.

Both of these updates have one goal – to eliminate low quality sites from the higher reaches of the SERPs (search engine results pages) – low quality sites that have used manipulative techniques to effectively hack their way into the top positions for targeted keywords.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of these “hacks” has led to SEO developing a somewhat tarnished reputation. It has been far easier for some SEOs to use what is known as “black hat” than it is to follow the search engine guidelines and to build authority and reputation by creating valuable, newsworthy content and by building a large engaged network on multiple social media platforms.

The upshot of all of this is that there are agencies who are prepared to take shortcuts and are prepared to risk client reputations in order to generate fast results. I have personally audited sites where large search marketing agencies have been responsible for link building and I have been deeply concerned with what I have found.

Think of this post as a guideline for discussions with your agency. Any SEO strategy should be clearly articulated by your supplier and I recommend ending your relationship if your agency is not forthcoming with how they are proposing to build your website authority.

The risks are now too great.

If you were to receive an un-natural link profile warning from Google you can be sure that fixing this is going to cost a lot of money and will often take months to repair. If you receive an algorithmic penalty from Google’s Penguin then this is even more dangerous. Not only do you have to work through a complex and time consuming process, but you will also have to wait for the next Penguin update (only 2 in the past 12 months) before you have any hope of recovering lost ground.

And in most cases sites that have been hit with a penalty and who have gone through the disavow tool process do not seem to regain previous traffic levels.

In our SEO consulting business I am seeing the ill-effect of shady SEO techniques more and more. We are often approached because of under-performing sites or due to noticeable drops in search engine visitor numbers – particularly Google organic. The audits show that in most of these cases the website link profile is where the problem lies and can be mapped to Penguin 1.0 and even more clearly to Penguin 2.0.

I recommend you get a full summary of all techniques your agency is using and use this list to ensure they are not using any high risk strategies.

Mass directory submissions

As recently as a couple of years ago you were able to get higher page positions by outsourcing directory submissions to a low cost agency. These agencies would submit your site to thousands of poor quality SEO directories which serve no purpose other than to supply a link. There are no actual human users of these sites and they usually offer pretty poor user experience and are jammed full of thousands of dubious listings. Google identified this hack fairly early on and have now banned the majority of these sites from their index.

If you have a large number of these (and yes, I still get emails offering this service and I’m sure you do too) then you will have seen your traffic figures drop over the last year.

This is a difficult one to correct. You have to set up a Google Drive spreadsheet and individually contact every low quality directory. Most will either ignore your outreach or will attempt to extort a fee for link removal from you. You have to document at least two attempts with several weeks after each one allowed for a response. Then you have to use Google’s Disavow Tool which is not an easy process. Then you wait… and hope.

Article spinning

I am surprised by the number of web marketers who openly promote or recommend article spinning software. Article spinning is where you replace words with synonyms using brackets and pipes to change the content and make it unique. It looks a bit like this:

The {quick|fast|speedy|rapid|lightning fast} brown fox…

The software selects a different word randomly from within the brackets so the first version might be “the fast brown fox”, the next one “the speedy brown fox” and so on. If you spin most words in a piece of content with synonyms you end up with a new post each time that is almost unique. Then your agency will submit each spun article to multiple low quality article directories to gain back-links.

The problem is that these articles almost always make no sense at all and are an embarrassing representation of your brand online. Google has de-indexed most of the low quality directories or given them zero PageRank and has also hit the larger ones with a Panda update penalty so the links you will receive from these directories will have a negative effect on your site.

These are as difficult to clean up as the directory links outlined above.

Comment spam

If you run a blog you will have grown to really hate this one. How many badly written, nonsensical, spammy comments do we have to endure in order to keep communication channels with our real audiences open on our published content? This is a major time-waster and much of it is due to the scatter-shot approach of comment spam SEO.

The concept is simple – blast out hundreds of thousands of junk comments knowing that you will hit a low percentage of sites that do not moderate comments and auto-approve everything. This is another lazy and frustrating hack which actually does not bring any benefit.

The blogs that auto-approve will usually have thousands of approved comments linking out to every nasty site imaginable so your site is judged by the poor neighbourhoods you hang out in. Add to this the fact that most sites on the web set comments by default to “no follow” which means there is no PageRank passed on to the linked to site.

So a complete waste of time as well as a penalty invitation. And comment spam is easily identified by Google and penalised, there is no doubt about that.

Paid links and advertorials

Not paying for links is just common sense.

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines state very clearly that paying for or selling links that pass PageRank is contrary to their terms and conditions. It is unlikely (I would hope) that an agency would sell links from your website so let’s look at buying links.

We all see the ads in our internet travels – “PR7 and PR8 links – only $49 for a limited time”… yeah right!

These ads appear on… yes, you guessed right – Google! And of course Google would be completely unaware of who is selling and who is buying these links. I don’t think so.

Simple rule – do not ever pay for a link. If your agency presents a budget for paying for links you should be concerned.

Advertorials are a little more difficult to understand because with traditional offline media  it is standard practice to pay for a piece in a newspaper or magazine – that is just the way things work. It looks like an editorial and you gain the appearance of endorsement from a respected media source. Quite often it is not particularly transparent that this is paid content.

This all gets a little interesting when we are working in the world of search. The guidelines are clear around paid links so advertorials fall into this category. If you pay for advertorials with the goal of gaining links and therefore higher authority for your website then you are in breach.

The only way you can use advertorials is to bring human visitors to your site. You cannot gain any SEO advantage from these links and this is something I come across often. Even the news organisations seem to be unaware they are breaking the rules. Many of them market these advertorials as valuable for SEO.

Google decided to make an example of a particularly aggressive advertorial campaign by Interflora in the UK. Interflora was banned from Google because they had paid for hundreds of advertorials in media across Great Britain.

The interesting aspect was that not only was Google prepared to severely punish a large brand around one of their most lucrative times of the year but Google went one step further. They immediately dropped the mostly high PageRank of every news site that ran the advertorials to a frightening “zero”. Their website traffic would have fallen off the proverbial cliff and their advertising revenue would have crashed.

If you ever pay for a published news piece you must insist that any links have the rel=”nofollow” attribute. This tells search engine robots that the links are not to pass PageRank and that they are paid advertising for human use only.

Blog networks

This was another easy win for poor quality SEO agencies.

Blog networks are where hundreds of fake blogs are set up and spun content or low quality content is published across the networks to give the appearance of value. In fact the content on these sites usually consists of junk or scraped/stolen content. Then each post will have links to client sites usually involving keyword specific anchor text - often completely out of context with the rest of the post.

Many of these networks charge monthly fees based on how many posts can be published across a specific number of blogs. So, this falls into the paid links area again and also falls into the “link schemes” section on banned practices.

In some cases I have seen SEO companies set up their own networks. At $20 per anum for each domain name plus hosting this starts to rack up if you have created 1000 sites so this tactic is usually only used by fairly big agencies.

Google first started de-indexing blog networks and penalising participants in March 2012 and they have been on a seek and destroy mission ever since. I covered the initial fallout in this post about the effect on New Zealand business here.

Since this time Google have been identifying and manually penalising all who are involved in these link schemes. What is particularly worrying is that I still see major agencies talking about this as being a viable strategy on their services pages.

Forum signatures

Why would your business contribute threads to a hacker, affiliate marketing or tech based forum? Does it make sense that your site should have hundreds of links coming from unrelated sites like these?

This is another classic link building shortcut. Add spammy comments to multiple conversations with signatures that feature multiple links to the sites the commenter is trying to gain SEO advantages for.

Well, Google’s algorithm is a bit smarter than that. And this falls into the un-natural link profile zone. Having a large amount of links from unrelated forums will hurt your website.

Again this is a Penguin target.

Boiler plate anchor text

This used to be an approved method to indicate to search engines what your pages were about. If you sold books, your website was about books and all of your anchor text said “books” then your page must be about books.

Unfortunately this opportunity was seized upon with such fervour that Google had to do something about it. Having large numbers of links with the same linking text signifies manipulative behaviour. Most people who would link naturally to a website would use your brand name or website address or even the classic “click here”.

So, suddenly the goalposts were shifted and anchor text became an important indicator of manipulative SEO behaviour rather than keyword relevance.

I have seen instances where agencies have targeted several specific keywords and have loaded all anchor text with them. What results is a lack of trust attributed to these keywords by Google and this usually means huge drops in average page positions in Webmaster Tools for the boiler plate (unnatural repetition) anchors – in some cases I have seen drops of more than 50 places from the upper reaches of page one in a very short time-span.

Again, this is a very difficult problem to rectify.

Keyword stuffing

Have you ever seen a social media share by a company you admire and have been surprised by how spammy the shared post looks? Did it seem like a whole bunch of keywords repeated with separating pipes?

Did it look like the title and the description were designed more for search engine robots than for humans?

This is a classic symptom of keyword stuffing. I constantly come across sites where page title tags are a mad race to get as many keywords in as possible and usually they end up substantially exceeding guidelines length which further renders these SEO attempts futile.

And meta descriptions usually suffer from the same misguided attempt to stuff as many keywords in as possible. This is a real missed opportunity as a meta description should be a 150 character opportunity to present your brand in the best possible light and to encourage click-through with a compelling call-to-action.

Quite often when you do get to the actual page content this is where things look really crazy. We have all visited sites where the same phrase is repeated in headings, in every paragraph of text and it gets to the stage where it is irritating.

If your agency talks about putting your keywords in H1, H2, H3, alt tags, titles, descriptions, tags, categories and talks about optimum keyword density or latent semantic indexing then you need to think seriously about your future relationship.

The only viable way to structure and create web content is to write for humans first, search engines second. It has to be interesting, compelling and it needs to speak to each visitor in a voice that is authentic, informative and warm.

Repeating keywords and associated phrases to follow a mathematical formula to fool search engine robots will result in a lack of trust from the most important stakeholders in this process – your customers or clients.

What should your agency be doing?

In its attempts to limit SERPs manipulation Google has also been very clear in what it requires from sites in order to allocate trust and authority which in turn lead to better search presence.

Technical compliance is a major requirement now and this includes Pageload speed, eliminating duplication, cutting down on 404 (page not found) errors, having good clean code on a site, ensuring you have reliable hosting and much more.

A high profile through PR brings healthy benefits in co-citation and also is a means of attracting natural, earned links. Frequent mentions and content published on trade or industry related sites is extremely valuable to an SEO strategy.

Published content has become the major factor in search authority.

Create, publish and promote content that is hugely valuable to your market. Be prepared to give away information that many would consider IP for free. This is how the whole inbound process works – you build trust, you become identified as a thought leader, you develop a large network of advocates who share your content, you become the go-to site for your particular industry.

And social media is growing in importance on a number of levels. It is an exceptionally powerful content promotion channel, it allows you to build relationships with a large number of potential clients/customers, it gives you the ability to demonstrate thought leadership, it gives you a forum to engage with influencers…

And the social signals generated are very useful to your overall search performance.

All of these strategies are about giving value.

They fall into the area of “link earning” not “link building”. If your agencies talk about building thousands of links and do not talk about the power of valuable content and social media relationships then you run the risk of being the next business to have to go through a hugely expensive and frustrating link cleaning process.

Are you prepared to take that risk?

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