Thursday, June 04, 2009

Black Hat SEO You Might Be Using That Can Lower Your Ranking

Sometimes people vanish out of the Google index and don't know why. Usually, they come to an search engine optimization (SEO) company like ours when they want to find out. Over the past few years, we have discovered several common inadvertent (or advertant "worked at the time) "black hat" techniques that tripped people up in the search engines.

What is "black hat SEO? For the uninitiated, "black hat" refers to practices that are designed to get rankings in the search engines by using unapproved or unethical methods. The usual goal of this type of optimization is to get high rankings for popular search terms, then monetize the traffic that comes in, regardless of the site's relevance. In the early days of search engines, it was common for webmasters to trick people by placing irrelevant sites into search engine results. Many of the sites presented had adult themes which were not requested by the user. Part of Google's early credibility came from the fact that it presented results that were relevant and screened for such content.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some obvious black hat techniques:

Doorway pages. This one is an oldie but a goodie. Every once in awhile we still see a series of small dots at the bottom of a page that are linked to little pages with keyword stuffed content. These little pages forward back to landing pages on your site. This technique has been out of favor for several years.

Keyword stuffing. Also a classic. Once upon a time, people would repeat the name "Britney Spears" several thousand times at the bottom of a website. (As a testament to the popularity of Ms. Spears, she is still a top search term 10 years later.) People also repeat the same keywords in content to the extent that it is obviously meant for search engines.

Auto-generated content. There are quite a few programs that will scramble or "spin" content from scraped sources or sample paragraphs. This "spun" content then gets placed on hundreds of web pages. There is no substitute for original content. Search engines do not want to waste bandwidth indexing bad sites, so they have an incentive to remove your site from the index if you have a series of sentences with no logical grammatical flow.

Cloaking. Does your website present different content to a search engine than you present to a viewer? If so, you may be guilty of cloaking. Search engines consider this to be a "trick" so you can get penalized if you get caught. It is possible to get tripped up in this penalty if you are making adjustments for browser usability, so be careful.

Hidden text. There are different ways of hiding text. One is to use coding tricks to make the text visible to the search engine but completely invisible on the page. This can be done with "noscript" or "noframes" tags, CSS, and other source code machinations that make the text infinitely tiny or "miles away" from the page content. Alternatively, you can make the text color the same color as the background. Search engines are good at detecting this, even if the colors are not exact. Honest site owners can get filtered for hidden text if their content is too close to the color of the background.

Here are some SEO practices that can get you in trouble:

Link Exchanges (or reciprocation). If you have had a website for any amount of time, you probably get poorly written link exchange emails. There is no point in answering them, as they are automated. This is a practice that went from white hat to grey hat to black hat. It probably won't get you banned, but you won't get any value from the links, which is just as bad when you're buying them.


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